The cost of staying on campus during spring break has been reduced to $0 for students on full financial aid, as Assistant Director of Residential Life Kris Van Nostrand announced via email on Feb. 10. The reduction followed a Feb. 9 email detailing a cost of $45 per day, which would have scaled down with students’ financial aid to a minimum of $6.60 per day or $75 for the entire break.
Associate Dean of Residential Life and Wellness Luis Inoa accredited the prior cost increase mostly to the meal plan, which had historically not been included in spring break living expenses. “The significant jump in cost is due to the inclusion of a meal plan. Previous generations of students who have stayed over spring break experienced food insecurity. We wanted to eliminate that,” he noted.
The intention to limit food insecurity was agreed to in conjunction with the Break Advisory Group (BAG). Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana noted, “This is the context for the room and board plan that we have developed in consultation with the student organization BAG for all the breaks not part of the room and board plan (summer, winter, and spring breaks). This plan, based on student financial need, helps to offset a percentage of labor, food and housing costs.”
President Elizabeth Bradley said feedback from students is always encouraged on all fronts. She said, “As we worked to address the issues brought to our attention, we made the decision to waive [fees] for this spring break for students on full financial aid because the information on [fees] was delayed and did not give students as much time to plan ahead.”
Despite the intentions, several low-income students had reacted negatively to the prior cost increases. “My first reaction to the spring housing email was panic, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Being out of state and also on significant financial aid, I don’t have the means to go home over spring break,” said Kiran Rudra ’24, adding, “Low-income students were totally thrown under the bus.”
“I think we’re speaking for the majority of the [Working Student Coalition] when we say we were really taken aback when we learned break housing would cost almost $80 [for students on full financial aid],” added Noon Elmostafa of the Working Student Coalition (WSC), an organization which advocates on behalf of working-class and low-income students on campus.
After hearing of the cost increase, Rudra reached out to Van Nostrand and Bradley. In particular, he recalled feeling dismayed with Bradley’s response to his complaints in a written correspondence to The Miscellany News: “It was really disappointing to receive such a dismissive response from PB. Her tone was disrespectful. After I sent her an email explaining why $6.60-45/day is not affordable, she replied, ‘For those with much financial aid, the price is $6.60 per day. That seems affordable for housing….am I missing something?’”
When asked about the complaints from students, Bradley said concerns about fees were resolved in less than 24 hours. “My first email to the student was to try to be sure the student understood what [Residential Life] had sent to students, as the original [Residential Life] correspondence was somewhat ambiguous,” Bradley said, adding, “My email was brief, and I realize in retrospect the student felt the tone was not helpful.”
The administration attributed some of the backlash to the lack of a traditional spring break last year, when students were required to remain on campus for the entire term. “This institutional memory has faded during the last two years of the pandemic, where we kept the Residential Houses open as a safety precaution and to limit travel,” Alamo-Pastrana said, adding, “You may recall that last year we did not really have a traditional spring break given the shift to the academic calendar.”
Nevertheless, the administration took student feedback to heart in deciding to reduce the minimum amount. Alamo-Pastrana continued, “Student feedback is always valued and welcome. It helps us to do better and to better understand the needs of all of our students. In this case, I feel we could have done a better job in communicating these expectations to students in a clearer and more timely fashion, especially given the institutional memory gap I previously mentioned.”
But for some students, their response hasn’t been enough. Rudra expressed, “I feel like admin’s response was not adequate but it was as expected. Scaling the funds for financial aid was a great idea, but I’m still not sure why students should be paying at all, given students already pay so much for their room and board for the semester, and spring break falls in the middle.”
“The fact that low-income students were asked to pay anything at all to stay on campus, let alone [$75] (called ‘reasonable’ and ‘affordable’ by President Bradley), is nothing short of ridiculous considering that many of these students aren’t going home for break because they don’t have the means to do so in the midst of a pandemic,” expressed Elmostafa. In a collective written correspondence, the members of WSC stated, “Vassar made a promise of equity to its students in admission and in their time here. That’s a hefty promise to make, and they need to truly commit to fulfilling that.”
All of this is not to say the administration’s response has been unwelcome. “Do not get me wrong: I am glad that they removed the mandatory minimums and scaled it to reflect financial aid, but it is disappointing to keep in mind that this is a unique case and in the future it will likely be raised to what was originally placed for us,” continued Rudra.
Elmostafa said, “Considering their reactions to initial student concerns, you can say we were very surprised when admin changed their policy so quickly.” She added, “Although considering that there’s very little logic behind a mandatory minimum housing price while there’s no minimum to our incomes, admin’s reversal of policy made sense.”
Rudra said, “I feel like I am exhausted in saying this but it feels like [Vassar] as an institution really does not care about low-income students at all. They just slap the phrase ‘need-blind’ everywhere and think that it covers it…It is ridiculous and disparages students who are already at a disadvantage at Vassar. Students should feel like they belong at Vassar; they should not just be told that they do.”
Elmostafa noted that, while low-income students shouldn’t have to jump over hurdles like these for basic necessities, their experience has prepared them for these moments. She said, “Luckily for us, the nature of being low-income means being able to roll with the punches in adverse conditions.” Continuing with this idea, the members of WSC stated, “Still, we shouldn’t have to roll with punches only we receive because we come from low-income families. The [College] should extend every effort to aiding low-income students, which they fail to do now.”