Are Students Workers or Nonworkers?

I’ve been saying for some time now that, if the Left is going to push for more student benefits, it needs to do so under a pro-welfare banner, something it has not really done. My piece in Dissent on this topic features my latest rehash of this point:

If we are actually going to push a free college agenda, it should not be under a restrictive students’ rights banner, but instead under a general pro-welfare banner. The goal of free college should not be to help students per se, but instead to bind them to a broader welfare benefit system. By presenting their tuition subsidies and living grants as indistinguishable from benefits for the disabled, the poor, the elderly, and so on, it may be possible to encourage wealthier students to support the welfare state and to undermine students’ future claims of entitlement to the high incomes that college graduates so often receive. After all, the college income premium would only be possible through the welfare benefits to which the rest of society—including those who never went to college—has contributed.

Lately I’ve been trying to think of pithier ways to make this point and I think I’ve finally hit upon one.

In leftists arguments for free college, you frequently see arguments that cast students as workers. They go to class. They read. They study. They exert themselves in ways that are productive, at least in some sense of that word. The upshot of this worker description is that college students are involved in unpaid labor and that student benefits are actually necessary to pay students for what they do.

In my view, this framing has it entirely backwards. If you are going to argue for student benefits, you should not do so on the grounds that students are workers, but rather on the grounds that students are nonworkers. That is, instead of rhetorically grouping them with the workforce and justifying their entitlement as quasi-paychecks, they should be grouped with other nonworkers receiving social benefits like the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed. The argument should be that all people whose life circumstances make it difficult or impossible to work should be receiving generous welfare benefits, including students.

The impulse to justify student benefits as earned benefits (either because students are virtuous people who are making something of themselves or because students are literally doing labor) is the one I find so problematic about the community of student benefit campaigners. This impulse and the rhetoric it generates does nothing to bind student benefits (and their recipients) to a broader welfare state agenda and thus seemingly fails to secure the welfare state “buy in” that is supposed to justify having regressive student benefits in the first place.