This summer, students staying on campus will pay $25 per day for room and board, a 257 percent increase from last year’s cost of $7 per day for summer housing. While college administrators maintain that the decision to add a set meal plan addresses food insecurity at Vassar, some students and faculty members have disagreed with the mandatory nature of the meal plan. The Office of Residential Life first communicated the decision to students staying for the summer via email in early May, four weeks before students were expected to pay the new fee.
President Elizabeth Bradley explained, “We had become aware that there was food insecurity among some of our students on campus over the summer. This is a significant concern and so we worked on putting in place a meal plan to ensure all students have access to the nutrition they need. Our goal was to provide two meals a day.” Bradley emphasized that the price increase for summer housing this year is entirely due to the introduction of a meal plan that did not exist last year.
Vice President for Finance Bryan Swarthout elaborated, “This decision was not a result of a financial consideration …We calculated the cost of the meal plan and that is the price that we are charging.”
The policy change affects students participating in the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), the Ford Scholars Program or summer break jobs, as well as others with a summer housing assignment. For 2018, URSI is comprised of 53 students, and Ford Scholars includes 19 students. This represents a decrease from 63 students in URSI and 20 students in Ford Scholars in 2017. When URSI and Ford Scholars assignments were announced in March, the College had not yet informed students about the price increase.
URSI student researcher Jesse Lin ’20 stated, “I did not find out about the mandatory summer meal plan until sometime during the spring semester, when I overheard some faculty and students expressing their opinion in regards to this recent change. One faculty even advised students not to apply for URSI this year out of concern that students may not be able to fulfill their expected contribution after subtracting the room and board cost from the stipend.”
Director of URSI and Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Kennell reflected, “The faculty opposed this decision for a variety of reasons, but primarily because the cost of the meal plan goes well beyond what anyone would spend if they were cooking for themselves.” Taking into consideration the new meal plan, URSI plans to cut the number of summer barbeques but maintain weekly social programming for students. Kennell observed that students will have limited space to prepare their own food since summer housing this year has been moved from senior housing, which have private kitchens, to Main Building and Noyes House, which have communal kitchens.
Ford Scholar Josh Kim ’20 noted, “Kitchens at Noyes and Main are small, not spacious enough for everyone and have poor facilities and amenities for cooking.”
The decision also impacts students with summer break jobs, for which the Student Employment Office prioritizes international students and students with high financial need. As a result, the price increase in summer housing raises costs for students who do not have another place to stay for the summer or who finance their education partly through work-study. Raymond House Fellow Intern Ruth Demree said, “Many students will likely not have another choice, and [will] have to pay the amount. It really feels like Vassar is taking advantage of this fact to get more money.”
However, Bradley noted, “Recognizing [that] this would add to the cost for students, we also increased the wages for students.” Bradley reported that the URSI and Ford Scholars programs have raised the student research stipend from $380 per week to $420 per week. Similarly, the wage for summer break jobs has increased from $9.70 per hour to $11.25 per hour. Nonetheless, even with higher stipends and wages, the overall cost of the summer program has greatly increased for students.
Kennell added, “Because the meal plan will cover most of the food needs for our students, they shouldn’t have to use much of their research stipends for food costs. But they may struggle to pay for other things, especially if they also have a summer earnings requirement for their financial aid package.”
In terms of communication with students about these decisions, Bradley noted, “My advice to students is that when they have questions or concerns, that they come to the appropriate office and ask directly rather than rely on word of mouth, which may not always be accurate.”
Kim emphasized, “The school never notified the students [in advance] that the price was going up this year. We were able to learn about the price increase only after we opened the summer residence application. I don’t know what the school’s intention was, but it should have at least announced it way beforehand so that students [could] adjust their plans accordingly or express opinions about the new change in policy.” Since details about the summer meal plan have not been made available to students, Kim also expressed concerns that students did not know exactly what services they were paying for.
Over the summer, the Retreat and the All Campus Dining Center (ACDC) will alternate in providing the meal plan to students. The Retreat will remain open from May 29 to June 17 and from July 30 to August 10 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The ACDC will open from June 18 to July 29 and from August 14 to August 27 for breakfast 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Express will open beginning August 13.
The number of students on the summer meal plan is a fraction of those on the meal plan during the academic year. Nevertheless, Director of Dining Programs Maureen King specified, “The food options will be very similar to the academic year … The stations that will be open are: Home, Root, Brick, Grill and Farmer’s [Table], which will have the salad bar, deli and sweets. [Allergen-free] meals will be available upon request.” In terms of new additions to the dining service on campus, King said that the ACDC will also be offering espresso drinks for sale.
The college administration and students remain at odds about the underlying cost of healthy eating. Lin commented, “While I do understand a meal plan can save students from the trouble of grocery shopping and cooking, at the cost of $9 per meal it is simply not worth it. Speaking from experience, if you’re willing to live a slightly frugal lifestyle, $18 can easily last three-plus days.” Addressing the lack of choice offered to students by the administration, Lin concluded, “I believe students should have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to partake in a meal plan.”
Supporting student claims regarding the cost of meals, Kennell recalled, “As a graduate student, the pay was low and the area where I lived had a relatively high cost of living. But I made due by living frugally: having roommates and cooking meals together to share the cost of living.” About 10 URSI student researchers have opted out of the combined room and board meal plan to live off-campus this summer, compared to two URSI student researchers who chose to do so last summer.
Kennell continued, “Having about a fifth of our URSI students living off campus may change the social aspect of URSI, as there won’t be a generally shared housing experience for all participants. But the overall structure of URSI, which is primarily students working full-time with faculty and gathering together once per week for enrichment activities, is not changing.”
Bradley reflected, “The ability of our students to collaborate with our faculty on research is one of the opportunities that makes Vassar unique. Our students are able to work directly with faculty in a way that would only be accessible to graduate students at most institutions. We are proud of this aspect of Vassar.”
While many students expressed excitement about their summer research, others still felt that the increased cost—and lack of advance notice about the changes—does not benefit students. “I found out about this change earlier than most students, but that was still far after the deadline to apply for summer employment,” Demree commented. “The employment office reopened a limited application list in early May, but I was only staying on campus for part of the summer, which violates the contract and made me unable to apply. Some other low-income students found themselves in similar situations, unable to meet the requirement for student employment due to an off-campus internship or other obligation, and certainly not able to pay $25 a day out-of-pocket for even a month. This change was handled very poorly, and hurt a lot of students on this campus.”
For students with concerns that the summer housing cost presents a serious hardship, Bradley added, “We understand that this change may have been an unexpected one. If any student feels this is a challenge I would ask them to speak with the Dean of the College immediately, so that we can work with them to come to a resolution.”