Last semester, my boss sat me down and strongly cautioned me to keep an eye on my timecard, explaining that she had been forced to terminate two students for going over their work-study allotment. She said that Student Employment was cracking down and terminating student employees who go over their work-study allotment, even if only by a single dollar. Firing a student over such a small amount seems like an overreaction. Policies like these disproportionately hurt low-income students who rely on work-study wages to offset the indirect costs of attending college. But this policy is not the only one that deserves scrutiny.
Vassar’s continued refusal to pay state minimum wage has immensely threatened disadvantaged students. On Dec. 31, 2018, the minimum wage in New York—barring New York City, Long Island and Westchester County—increased from $10.40 to $11.10 (New York State Department of Labor, “Minimum Wage”).
In a previous article, I wrote about Vassar’s obligation to adjust its student wages when the New York Department of Labor raised the minimum wage to $10.40 in 2018 (The Miscellany News, “Vassar student wages fail to meet standards,” 02.14.2018). However, using a loophole in the minimum wage law that exempts non-profit educational institutions from paying students state minimum wage, Vassar continued to pay student workers at a rate of only $10 per hour (New State Department of Labor, “Division of Labor Standards Frequently Asked Questions”).
This is technically legal, but nevertheless exploitative. Even now, the administration continues to deny students the state minimum wage.
In addition, Student Employment caps the amount of workable hours for seniors to a maximum of 10 hours per week. Underclassmen encounter even lower caps. With roughly 13 weeks in a semester, excluding break, the total amount of money you can possibly earn if you manage to find a job by the first week only comes out to $1300, $200 short of the $1500 workstudy allotment.
The only way to close this gap is to work past your weekly cap, which will result in an angry email from Student Employment. What the Student Employment office doesn’t understand is that working past the weekly cap gives students more flexibility to take time off work later on, whether to attend office hours held during work time, to rest while ill, to attend a lecture or even to study for an upcoming test. But Student Employment’s policy doesn’t make allowances for these circumstances.
Even with generous financial aid packages, many low-income students often feel the sting of indirect college costs. On-campus jobs help support laundry money, printing money when your semester allotment runs out, textbooks, medicine for when that Vassar Plague hits and so much more.
With the high cost of attendance combined with low wages and weekly hour caps, it might make more financial sense to attend school half-time and work part-time to support yourself, even if that means taking longer to graduate. Off-campus jobs usually don’t fire you for working past ten hours, and with the state minimum wage increases, they’ll pay more than an on-campus job. However, Vassar enforces academic policies that make it difficult for students to even consider this option.
The most obvious obstacle preventing students from attending school half-time and working part-time is Vassar’s blatant refusal to actually define “half-time.” The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) does not regulate the number of credits/hours needed to constitute half-time, so it’s up to Vassar’s discretion. Therefore, since there is no such thing as half-time, the only enrollment options are full-time or part-time.
The reason why this matters is because the DoE only grants in-school deferments on student loans payments if you’re enrolled at least half-time at a Title IV school like Vassar. Part-time students are ineligible for in-school deferments. So even if the Committee on Leaves and Privileges grants you your part-time status to work during that free time, you might receive a bill for your student loan or use the six-month grace period you might have wanted to save for post-graduation. Additionally, you don’t get another grace period for your school loans after graduation if you use up yours before graduation.
Worst of all, Vassar knows the consequences of this policy, because the DoE requires all Title IV colleges to report the enrollment status of each student specifically for this purpose. Vassar is fully aware that its policy could hurt those who may not be able to afford enrolling full-time, yet it chooses to uphold the policy anyway.
Unfortunately, these regulations exist partly because Vassar is designed to attract a specific type of student: the type without any financial barriers who can matriculate full-time and graduate in four years. The Vassar Catalog upholds this mandate, stating, “[A]ll matriculated students are required to register full time (a minimum of 3.5 units) for eight semesters or until they complete the requirements for their degree” (Vassar College Catalogue, “Degree Requirements & Courses of Study”). Any deviations from full-time enrollment must be approved by the Committee on Leave and Privileges and can often carry unforeseen financial burdens. As Vassar continues to admit students need-blind, its policies must adapt to the needs of its changing student demographic.
It is simply not enough to hand a low-income student a generous financial package and consider the work done. The administration clearly needs policy changes to help support them during their time at Vassar and to meet 100 percent of their demonstrated need holistically, rather than just in one area.
Most importantly, these policy changes can begin with simple, commonsense improvements like paying students the state minimum wage and defining the number of credit hours for a half-time status.