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Students Exploited To Sell Universities

November 7, 2006

Last weekend the Chicago Tribune published a story about campus tours by Patrice M. Jones, titled “The Campus ‘Closer.’” While outlining the importance of campus tour guides, the article focused the salesmanship of a DePaul undergraduate, senior Alexis Presseau. Presseau is the university’s star tour guide, helping bring prospective students into the school. Here are some excerpts from Jones’ essay:

– “You might call [Presseau] The Closer, the college student who has been there and done that and can help crystallize for prospective students all the good feelings that any university can muster.”
– “One doesn’t need a marketing survey to realize what a great campus tour by a great campus tour guide can mean. ‘It can make or break a student’s decision about which school to attend,’ said Todd Olson, assistant dean of admissions and outreach program director at Carleton College, a private liberal arts college in Northfield, [MN]. ‘We actually have some tour guides at Carleton who are real superstars, and we depend on them in the admissions process,’ Olson said. ‘I think the real keys are personality, honesty and connecting with prospective students and their parents on the tour.’ . . . Students like Presseau become the official face of their campuses, supplementing school-sampling activities such as talking with admissions officials, sitting in on classes or meeting professors.”
– “DePaul guides such as Presseau get $10 per one-hour tour. Manuel French, associate director of admissions, says he looks for student guides who are upperclassmen and have that ‘Rah, Rah, DePaul’ enthusiasm.”


Before I comment, it should be noted that Presseau said she likes her job, and receives excellent ratings and good feedback from visitors.

Even assuming that every single campus tour guide across the nation universally enjoys his or her job, universities who employ them are likely under-paying them. Under the “student accounts” page of DePaul’s website, they note that they’re a “not-for-profit corporation” (a legal term, I know, but still a paradox), so one might assume that students are being justly rewarded for the services they render. DePaul’s yearly tuition for one student is “$22,365.00.” So if Presseau, “the closer,” brings in five new students from one of her $10 per hour, one-hour tours, DePaul makes a guaranteed $111,825.00 – not including housing and other fees. I realize this is an optimistic estimate, so let’s assume 2.5 new students (2 to 3 per) and $55,912.50 for DePaul’s $10 spent. This accounts for mid-year drops and less effective tours.

Is this just, fair pay for tour guides? I don’t see how. Actually I’m pretty surprised that DePaul let this information out, so it probably came from Presseau or another guide interviewed. Shouldn’t Presseau and others like her at least qualify for sizeable tuition breaks, or even perhaps free tuition? Fat chance. These “not-for-profit corporations” are in it for the money: they’re looking to maximize income.

I’m really glad Ms. Jones’ story was published, but I’m irritated by the blatant exploitation of undergraduates. What Presseau ought to do is unionize her DePaul colleagues. My gut feeling is that DePaul and other schools seek young, naive students who know no better – or are at least unaware of the blatant discrepancy between their income at DePaul’s potential. It’s another case of a part-time worker pursuing the American dream and not feeling like his or her job is worth the effort of unionization. This is just a step along the way, so one is “willing” to be exploited. Yet is it fair?

I wonder how long universities have employed their students as guides? I wonder if any tour guides are work-study students, and therefore somewhat trapped in the situation (i.e. unable to ‘organize’)? I wonder how long universities have known of the “value” yet continued to take advantage of student naivete? I suspect that this has been going on since the 1960s, when students of the Baby Boom generation hit the system. – TL


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  1. TL–I never got into giving tours (I had a different on-campus job) but if I had, I might have been one of those rock star tour guides. I truly loved my university, and would have exuded that love. And getting paid $10 for that privilege (pretty good coin in 1994, say, when I could get a pitcher of Coors Light for $2.25 during happy hour) would have seemed a good deal. Would they have been exploiting me? I don't think so. I have willingly told and any everyone who would listen that I loved my undergraduate institution since then.

    I'm certainly in favor of some unionization, but I think you might be reaching in this case. $10/hour for easy work that requires little training is pretty good, especially when it is part time, flexible, and more or less at-will–something many students need to fit around their class schedule, etc. Could DePaul or other places pay more? Sure, but is their failure to do so “exploitation”? I think that's the wrong way to look at it.

    The more salient point is if these are work-study funded jobs. And if so, then we might begin to examine if that's an appropriate way to spend federal work-study money (to pimp one college over another) or if it really matters at the end of the day.


  2. CM: I certainly understand how one might reject my use of the phrase “exploited” on the grounds of connotation. Even Merriam-Webster online notes a certain connotation when they provide the following:

    “2 : to make use of meanly or unfairly for one's own advantage [exploiting migrant farm workers]” [Note: tracking OED's definition of the term is difficult.]

    I also understand how one would be loath to see Ms. Presseau – student at a swank Catholic University in Chicago's upper-class Lincoln Park neighborhood – as exploited.

    Nevertheless, in terms of denotation – strictly speaking – universities who “make use of” students' naivete “unfairly for [their] own advantage” are exploiting their students' ignorance and subservient position. I highlight it here because of the disparity in the university's gain per the student's labor. Now, if I were to use the term 'exploitation' with regard to student workers who tend the library desk on slow nights for $10 an hour, then you'd have me. In that case, the student could even be ripping off the university. Can you tell that I wish I would've had that job as an undergrad?!

    Anyway, I will admit to using the term exploit to draw the readers' eye, but I also do believe that superstar guides are not being justly rewarded for their labor – especially at a Catholic school. Catholic schools today, as you well know, pride themselves on their consciousness of social justice. Is DePaul doing Ms. Presseau justice? – TL

    PS: As you know, $2.25 won't get you a HALF-pint in most Lincoln Park bars.

    PSS: $10 an hour would've defintely been good for us in the early 1990s, but our tuition was nowhere near $22,365.00!


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