As part of its financial aid program, Vassar College distributes Federal Work-Study (FWS) grants for low-income students to help manage the cost of higher education. As someone who received a work-study grant as part of my financial aid package, I assumed I would find a job—maybe not one I’d love, but I would have one. But one year later, I have yet to find a suitable work-study job, even though I meticulously followed the instructions the college provided. In talking to other first-years, I realized I wasn’t the only one. While the FWS program is designed so that students can relieve some of their education costs, Vassar’s execution of this program fails to make these funds accessible to the students who need them most.
Ideally, here’s how the job application process should work. In August, the Student Employment office (SEO) instructs students to apply for 10 to 15 positions on JobX—the website Vassar uses to manage work-study applications. Depending on their past experience or interests, students can apply to any available jobs that they want, from mail clerk to observatory assistant. They list their qualifications, upload their resumes and hope for the best. During orientation, students may get an offer or two, but by the time classes start, most students will have a job. Those who aren’t employed yet continue to apply, and will likely find a position in short order. This was was my impression going in.
Based on interviews conducted by The Miscellany News with other students, what seemed like a simple process was actually full of pitfalls. Going into orientation, an email from the SEO is the only information students receive about their job search. There were two information sessions about work-study during orientation, but the college did little to promote these sessions. From the tone and content of the email, students were led to believe that the process of finding a work-study job would be straightforward. Outside of these two hours, there was no other time during orientation dedicated to making sure that students found employment.
As orientation came to a close, it wasn’t surprising to find students in the dark about the status of their applications—still waiting to hear back. Once classes started, the situation became more dire: Not only were students transitioning from home to college life, but they were beginning to juggle papers and problem sets, trying new clubs, meeting new people and coming to terms with huge changes in all parts of their lives. By this point, those who were still unemployed had even less time to focus on finding a job. Many likely blamed themselves as they tried to figure out whether they had done something incorrectly or if they were just extremely unlucky. Guidance from the administration for unemployed students was nonexistent, as many students continued to wait in the coming weeks to see what happened with their applications, uncertain of what else to do.
Unfortunately, waiting only makes the situation worse. On Oct. 1, jobs become available to all students, regardless of whether they have a FWS grant or not. This policy seems to imply that if a student with a grant wants a job, they will have it by the end of their first month at Vassar, provided that the student follows the instructions given to them. This is clearly not the case, and this practice only further discourages students about the process, making their chances of getting a job even more slim.
Faced with more difficulties, many students look to the SEO for counsel, but their results often vary. In an email correspondence, Associate Director of Student Financial Services Audrey Zahor said that the SEO recommends students send follow-up emails with their applications to show interest to their employers. Students on work-study are not told to do this at any point during orientation or through email. The default information we are given assumes that we will find a job without much trouble and that employers will be just as diligent in the application process as students are. In fact, the Vassar JobX “Quick Start Guide” instructs students to wait for employers to respond to their applications, giving no mention of following up with employers individually (Vassar, “JobX Student User Guide”). Conflicting information is a major contributor to the stress and confusion inflicted on first-year students by the work-study application process.
This all raises the question: Why do so many students end up jobless? One of the most confusing aspects of the job application process is deciding where to apply. At first, it seems best to apply to jobs that fit your interests and qualifications, balanced with the volume of positions available for that job. However, many positions already have a person lined up from a previous year, making applying to the job nearly useless—the employer has already made their decision. First-year students don’t know this, leading many to apply for jobs for which they have no chance of being hired. So, instead of having a chance at the suggested 10 to 15 jobs, students could be wasting their time with several of those applications, leading to a lower chance at employment than they expected. Indicating in some way that a student is already being considered for a position would be helpful, and if this is too difficult, students should at least be told that this situation is a possibility in the application process.
In the same vein, employers do not properly update JobX to reflect the state of a job. As it turns out, employers often don’t reject applications even when it still appears that they can hire more employees. This leaves students in a state of limbo—they don’t know whether to move on or wait for a response. When this happens, a students sees that there are open positions for a job, but they are unaware that the employer doesn’t intend to hire anybody else. Again, this causes students to waste time applying for jobs that will not get them hired—but which appear the same as any other position. Employers need to be more engaged in updating their jobs to accurately reflect whether it is worth it to apply or not.
Even worse, the process treats first-years as if they have the same amount of information as returning students. First-year students are not guided through this application process like they are with so many other new aspects of life at Vassar. In this way, almost all of the responsibility is on students to apply for jobs, to follow up with employers and to piece together an understanding of the job application process. Student employment needs to be more proactive in finding jobs for students, as well as in informing them about the difficulties of the application process. Even if the SEO is already spread thin, if the office at least informed students about potential problems that could crop up while applying to jobs, perhaps students would be more able to help themselves along.
In order to solve this problem, first-years on financial aid need to be given special attention. Ideally, this would mean that if a student indicates that they want to get a job using their work-study grant, student employment would make sure that that student applies to positions they have a good chance of getting, and if their applications didn’t work out, the office would advise that student on where to turn next. It could keep track of which students are receiving work-study and their employment status.
This list could be used to check in, asking them to reach out to the office if they hadn’t found a job yet. A proactive and timely check-in could make the difference between a confused and dismayed student and one who feels welcomed, affirmed and supported by the Vassar administration. Even better, a special job application process which guides first-year students along, much like with the first pre-registration, could be included as a part of orientation. This would require either pushing forward the period in which only students on work-study can apply to jobs, or asking employers to start work a little bit earlier. Both of these are small sacrifices that could help first-year students on work-study have just as smooth of a transition as their peers.
If this would spread the financial aid office too thin, funding could be increased, but this would take time. In the meantime, increasing the information about job applications available to students is the least the administration could do. This would be a relatively small change—a few more emails and a program at orientation would suffice. The office already knows that students should follow up with their employers over email, and that students should contact them if they don’t get a response, but most first-years don’t know this. Additionally, the office likely knows how difficult the process can be, and that many first years end up jobless. Being transparent about the issues that can come up makes students more prepared when they encounter them, and allows them to reach out for help earlier. Financial Aid needs to seriously review the information it provides students and compare it with the reality they encounter.
I want to give the Financial Aid Office the benefit of the doubt: I am sure its employees are trying their best to provide students with a pleasant experience. Vassar as an institution does a fantastic job of being inclusive to students from a variety of economic backgrounds, and it is a leader among its peers in financial aid. However, the school has an obligation to address this problem before the Class of 2023 arrives on campus and suffers the same fate. If Vassar wants to live up to its ideals, students on work-study who want jobs need to have jobs.