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College students say raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would be a game changer

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CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC fall interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Hannah Miao is a senior at Duke University studying public policy. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

Sade Andrews was one of more than 6 million Floridians who voted in favor of a historic ballot initiative that will gradually increase the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour. 

For the 19-year-old Tampa native and fast food worker at McDonald's, the vote was a personal one. 

In March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the country, Andrews' sister lost her job at amusement park Busch Gardens. Andrews had been taking time off from her studies at Hillsborough Community College to help her mother pay bills. Making $9.50 an hour, Andrews was now one of two primary breadwinners in her household, forcing her to postpone her return to school.

Sade Andrews
Source: The Fight for $15 and a Union

She joined a coalition called "Fight for $15 and a Union" that campaigned for Amendment 2, the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage.

The referendum passed with 60.8% of the vote, just over the 60% threshold required for approval.

The measure will increase the state's current $8.56 minimum wage to $10 next year. For every year after that, the pay floor will rise by $1 an hour until it hits $15 in 2026.

"With Amendment 2 being passed, this will really help me out," Andrews said. "I'll still be able to help my mom and be able to pay for my classes."

Andrews plans to resume her schooling in the next year or so and study communications or psychology.

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In Florida and across the country, college students say a $15 minimum wage could be a game changer for financing their education and managing the balance between work and school.

Florida is the eighth state to approve a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and the second-most populous to do so, joining a growing list of states and municipalities adopting the measure.

A 2019 bill from the U.S. House of Representatives called the Raise the Minimum Wage Act, which would lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, has a greater chance than ever before to become law, as President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to raise the rate to $15. 

The current federal pay floor has remained at $7.25 per hour for over a decade.

Close to 70% of all college students in the U.S. work, a 2018 Georgetown University study found. But a stagnant minimum wage and the skyrocketing cost of secondary education means that money doesn't go as far as it used to for most college students. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, a student working part time during the school year and full time during the summer at the minimum wage could pay for tuition and fees and most of the room and board cost at an average public four-year university, according to the Urban Institute. Now, the same amount of work at the minimum wage would cover only 57% college tuition and fees and 27% of room and board and other expenses.

Nina Schubert
Source: Nina Schubert

Nina Schubert is a 21-year-old student at Kent State University. Throughout college she's worked five different jobs to cover rent, car payments, paying back her mother for tuition and other spending. 

Most of Schubert's jobs have started around Ohio's minimum wage, which is currently set at $8.70 per hour. Even when she worked her way up to a manager position at retailer Aerie, she was paid just $10 an hour.

"I was working 30, 40 hours a week at my last two jobs. It was just really tough and I needed to work that much to afford what I needed and bills," Schubert said.

Finally this fall, Schubert received a $15-per-hour sales associate position at Best Buy. 

"There's a lot less stress for me knowing I'm making $15 an hour," Schubert said. "I can work 15 to 20 [hours a week] and I can still do my schoolwork. I can still have time for myself."

Schubert believes a $15 minimum wage should be implemented in Ohio. "People can't afford everyday life at $8.70 an hour," she said.

Samantha Morales
Source: Samantha Morales

Samantha Morales, 22, graduated from Duke University in May and is now pursuing a master's degree at Georgetown University. Throughout college, she juggled a variety of jobs, from the campus bookstore to a pediatrics lab to a teaching assistant position. The hourly rate hovered around $10 per hour for most of her roles, even those that required technical skills.

"The jobs I had didn't really pay enough, so I had to get multiple, which was definitely pretty stressful because being at Duke is hard enough already," Morales said. "It definitely did get really stressful when I did actually have a bill or something that I needed to pay."

As a Miami native, Morales was excited to see the passage of Amendment 2. 

"I feel like you only ever see the middle class or upper middle class that's in Miami, especially on TV or in movies, but there's so many people living below the poverty level throughout Miami and throughout Florida as a whole," Morales said. "I definitely think that raising the minimum wage would help a lot of people that are struggling with just making ends meet. It would help take some of that stress off."

Christina Pugliese
Source: Christina Pugliese

Christina Pugliese is a 20-year-old student at the University of Florida and the vice president of UF College Democrats. She said that most students she spoke to on campus were excited about Amendment 2, regardless of political affiliation.

"We're the ones that take a lot of these minimum wage jobs, especially in our own communities," Pugliese said. "I live in a college town and the minimum wage jobs here are taken by college students."

She hopes that the movement for a $15 minimum wage will also help students pursuing internships to set themselves up for success after graduation. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, interns who qualify as paid employees are entitled to earning the minimum wage.

A higher minimum wage could also help some college students enter the workforce. Sydney Harper, 20, is a junior at Vanderbilt University. She wanted to take a tutoring job off-campus this semester to help pay for extracurricular expenses, but without a car, working the $9-an-hour job didn't make sense financially.

"I'd have to Uber there and back, and the money spent on Ubers just didn't make the three hours working worth it," Harper said. 

Sydney Harper
Source: Sydney Harper

A $15 minimum wage would help college students and other workers who don't have cars. "I think if you can make more money, it can assist with transportation and other things," she said.

While the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans favor raising the federal minimum wage, some business owners say a higher pay floor could affect jobs. 

"[W]e are extremely worried about the job losses and business closures that will accompany this mandate," Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement regarding the passage of Amendment 2.

However, many economists and labor advocates say a $15 minimum wage could boost the economy by reducing poverty and putting more money into the pockets of Americans who will, in turn, spend more. They say women and people color, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, will especially benefit from a higher minimum wage.

"The benefits of the policy far outweigh the potential costs," Ben Zipperer, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group, told CNBC.

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