Every year the students of Vassar College move into their various dorms, TAs and THs, and make their spaces their own for the following year. For many, that includes washing their first load of clothing or linens. For first-year students, that means paying for laundry—and, for the first time, using the VCash system that Vassar endorses. At that moment, the love-hate relationship with Vassar laundry begins. Laundry is $1.60 for a wash and an additional $1.60 for drying. $3.20 per load of laundry adds up fast if you wash two loads a week; one clothing, the other linens. And what happens to the students who build up more laundry because of athletics, illnesses and club participation? Are they forced to eat the cost of good hygiene? What do students risk if they go longer between washes? According to Housing for Health, “Washing clothing and bedding helps to remove any bacteria, dirt, fleas, mites and other irritants. Washing of clothes and bedding can help reduce the incidence of infectious diseases, such as diarrhoeal disease, respiratory infections, scabies and other skin infections.” Additionally, most people should be changing their sheets weekly, and with limited storage space in the dorms, some students only have one pair of sheets, which means that they’ll have to wash those sheets weekly. In a season of sickness, not washing clothes or sheets to save money can be the difference between being in class on Monday and going to Health Service.
It costs less, of course, if you stuff the machine past capacity. That saved cost, though, leads to the possibility of clothing not getting clean, thus defeating the purpose of doing laundry. This strategy also gives the machines a beating, increasing the possibility of a breakdown before their time. The last thing students need is broken machines when they’re trying to be hygienic in the middle of the semester. Students may be less likely to overfill the machines if they don’t have to worry about the cost.
The cost of laundry also leads to class divides. Some students have access to free laundry through need-based options such as the VWash act passed by the VSA, which provides $33 a semester to students on financial aid. But the reality is that need-based doesn’t always see the big picture of a student’s financial situation. VWash is for students who qualify for work study at Vassar. That means that students have to work to access the program. A student shouldn’t have to work a job to access laundry funding. It also means that students who don’t qualify for work study don’t qualify for VWash. A student can come from a middle-class background with a family that is able to manage tuition payments and a meal plan, but laundry expenses become too much financially. If you don’t qualify for financial assistance, you could find yourself in a precarious situation. Students can start to realize how easy it is for finances to shift out of their control when looking at the pressure that education and living expenses can place on them and their families.
Charging for laundry may also make Vassar less competitive in terms of admission. This past summer, I worked with veterans who were interested in secondary education, and spent over a month at four different college campuses. It was an amazing opportunity to see how other schools operate, how they teach and how they recruit. We also got to experience firsthand how their students live, as we stayed in the dorms. Three dorms were without air conditioning, meaning sweaty days and a need to wash clothes frequently. Notably, every college I went to had free laundry. And before you ask, these were peer institutions and top schools with similar rankings to Vassar. I stayed at Princeton, Notre Dame, Williams and Amherst. Every single one of these schools offered free laundry services to students. How does that impact desirability? I have to wonder, are there students choosing other equally good schools because of something as simple as laundry? Probably. I know it would matter to me if I were living on campus. I would want to guarantee that I could wash my clothes whenever I wanted without having to worry about whether I had gotten paid yet and without having to weigh the cost of laundry against food, hygiene products or a new notebook.
Ultimately, the point is simple: When Vassar’s current contract is up with the laundry company, E&R, the College needs to take control of the laundry. Let students wash their clothes for free and watch the positive change that follows.
I am interested that you chose to compare Vassar laundry policies to those of Princeton, Notre Dame, Williams and Amherst because they are “top schools with similar rankings.” Perhaps an another comparison to consider would be between the financial aid support given to Vassar students and those attending those institutions. Vassar, in my opinion, clearly communicates its priorities and makes it financially possible for a diverse range of students to attend. That, in turn, results in differences in accommodations, food service and amenities. A listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast episode “Food Fight” offers the opportunity to consider the pitfalls of comparing the amenities of Vassar to other institutions.