New term dates burden traveling low-income students

The above table compares one-way plane ticket prices between the week before Labor Day and Labor Day Weekend as well as prices during dates approaching Christmas. Courtesy of Kimberly Nguyen.

[Correction (Tuesday, Mar. 5): The original version of this article stated that the cost of a flight on Feb. 21 is $277. In fact, a flight on Dec. 21, not Feb. 21, costs $277.]

You may have noticed a slight shift in the start and end dates of the last fall semester. To be exact, last semester began and finished exactly one week later than in previous years. This one week bump has forced students who live farther away to book tickets to and from Vassar during two major travel holidays. As a result, many students faced an increased cost of travel in the form of more expensive plane ticket prices, which may pose significant financial challenges.

For example, at the start of the 2017/2018 academic year, classes began one week before Labor Day (Vassar College Catalogue, “Academic Calendar,” 2017/2018). Since move-in weekend for upperclassmen is always the weekend before the start of classes, move-in weekend that year was also one week before Labor Day. This year, however, students were expected to move in during Labor Day weekend instead, as the first day of classes was also pushed one week later to the Tuesday after Labor Day. Pushing the date forward also meant that the last day of final exams for fall semester was Dec. 21, a mere four days before Christmas. Therefore, if you had a final on the very last day, your flight would have had to be booked on Dec. 22 or, at the earliest, the evening of Dec. 21. Finding an available ticket three days before Christmas is already a nightmare, but finding an affordable ticket is even worse.

Labor Day Weekend and Christmas are two major travel holidays for Americans. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), 35 million Americans were projected to have traveled on Labor Day in 2018 (News 12 Long Island, “AAA: 35M Americans to travel for Labor Day weekend,” 08.21.2018). The AAA also estimated that 112.5 million Americans were projected to travel for Christmas 2018 (U.S. News & World Report, “112M Americans Expected to Travel for Christmas Season,” 12.19.2018). Being two of the busiest travel holidays of the year, prices for plane tickets during both of those times are more expensive than during non-peak travel times.

The cost of flights generally increase around the holidays, because airlines want to sell as many seats at the highest price possible. During the holidays, an increased number of people are trying to get home to loved ones and generally have time to do so. Not only does the demand for tickets increase, but travelers are also willing to pay more for a ticket. As a result, airlines increase their prices to take advantage of these prime selling conditions to bring in maximum revenue (Cheap Air, “Air Fares 101 Why do fares change all the time?” 04.19.2011).

I’ll use the next academic year as an example. As of Feb. 15, the lowest cost of a one-way ticket from my home in Omaha to New York the weekend before Labor Day weekend is $107. The lowest cost of a ticket during Labor Day weekend is $137. Similarly, a flight home for winter break also increases the closer you book to Christmas. In 2017/2018, the final exam period ended on Dec. 15. Next academic year, fall semester finals will end on Dec. 20. The cost of a flight on Dec. 16 from New York to Omaha as of Feb. 15 is $117, while a flight on Dec. 21 costs $277. This problem is not a one-time occurrence. According to the Vassar Academic Calendar, the same issue will occur next year as well. And if the College allows term dates that force students to purchase higher-priced tickets, this problem may become more frequent in the future.

The Vassar Financial Aid Office (FinAid) is unable to do anything about this issue as well. Last semester, I approached them to obtain additional aid for the cost of travel due to the semester dates, but they stated that they were unable to help, stating that the cost of travel is already budgeted in the financial aid award. However, while FinAid does figure travel into their calculation of your financial need, they did not account for this year’s increased cost of travel. The travel budget for my 2016/2017 aid award letter was the exact same as my travel budget for 2018/2019. If the College continues to burden students with increased cost of travel due to term dates, then they need to administer aid to those who cannot afford that extra expense.

The College is not unaware of the issue, either. In an email to the college on Sept. 13, 2018, Dean of Studies Ben Lotto even went so far as to bold “In particular, we will not reschedule any exams due to the increased cost of travel as we approach the holidays.” Apparently, the College is aware of the increased cost to students but is unwilling to do anything about it.

Vassar cannot change the term dates without accounting for the jump in travel costs. If the College decides to start and end the term during expensive travel dates, then FinAid must accommodate the higher cost of traveling in their award calculations. And if FinAid is unwilling to accommodate the increased cost of travel, the college needs to consider more accessible start and end dates.

2 Comments

    • In 2014/2015, final exams ended on the 19th, the following year on the 18th, the following on the 16th, and the following on the 15th. Even with the exams ending on the 19th, a ticket on 20th would still be generally cheaper than on the 22nd. Regardless, I think, in general, Vassar should try to end just slightly earlier to give low-income students a chance at being able to afford going home for the holidays!

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