Lack of opportunities in MHC’s student work study program causes financial strain

Photo by Dana Pan ’20 Student workers clean dishes in a dining hall on campus, a mandatory work-study job for first-year students. 

Photo by Dana Pan ’20

Student workers clean dishes in a dining hall on campus, a mandatory work-study job for first-year students. 

BY CHLOE JENSEN '20 

Despite what their financial aid packages may have indicated, many students on federal work study at Mount Holyoke College are rarely able to earn anywhere near their estimated work study funds. Misleading aid causes difficulties for lower-middle class students who struggle to afford our prestigious school.

When I enrolled at Mount Holyoke last spring, my financial aid package indicated that I would be making an estimated $2400 throughout the academic year. According to the Office of Financial Services, students on work study are expected to contribute between $1,500 and $3,000. Before the Massachusetts minimum wage rose to $11 an hour, that meant that students on work study needed to work between 5 to 10 hours a week, depending on their aid package. 

Despite what the Mount Holyoke College aid calculator claims, most students are unable to meet their estimated work study cost. This is especially true among first year students in the dining halls, who typically don’t get more than one 3 hour shift per week. At the beginning of every semester, work study students attend a meeting according to their dining hall location, and are assigned shifts on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that everyone lines up, signs up for one shift and then goes to the back of the line to sign up for other shifts. However, by the end of the first round of shift claiming, most of the shifts are gone, leaving many students with only a single shift. Although there are usually a few shifts left by the time students sign up for a second round, many of them are short lunch shifts that do not work with their schedules. 

Although Mount Holyoke has promised many students an opportunity to earn money in the dining halls, the shifts are simply non-existent, which means students cannot earn their annual work study estimate. Kalyndi Martin ’20, Abby Boak ’20 and Rachel Bostick ’20 say that they each could only manage to get one shift that fit with their schedule. While some students are able to sign up for an additional shift or two, such as Madi Gale ’20, many students are left with just one. With only one 3 hour shift, not even a student who is on the minimum amount of work study can earn enough money, let alone a student who needs to work ten hours a week. “The system does not work,” says Gale. She is right; Mount Holyoke should offer students enough permanent shifts to fit their work study quota.

In order for a student to earn their work study quota, Dining Services recommends that students take sub shifts as often as possible. Like permanent shifts, sub shifts are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis through email. While these shifts can certainly help students earn more money, they are offered on a one time basis. Many of the sub shifts are requested at the last minute, which makes it difficult for students working in dining to fit the shifts into their schedule. 

Because many work study students can only get a permanent shift or two, and an occasional sub shift, their expected earnings fall very short of their annual estimated work study quota. Even Gale, who was recently recognized for frequently subbing and for her hard work in the dining hall, has not worked enough to fulfill her estimated work study contribution.

Some students have voluntarily given up shifts in the dining hall to have time to do other work. Still, this brings up an important point: Work study students are expected to work more than their peers to make ends meet, and many express interest in focusing on classes and extracurricular opportunities instead. With so few dining hall shifts, it is difficult for students to fit work into their schedules, leaving them short of their expected earnings. During golf season, Gale says that she “does not have time to take sub shifts.” 

This is not to mention students who cannot work in the dining hall due to a disabilities, which is a topic that deserves its own separate article. For example, because I have an allergy to peanuts that causes anaphylaxis, I was exempted from dining hall work. Despite being unable to work in the dining hall for medical reasons, I was not provided with an adequate replacement for employment. While I did find two extra jobs working as an office assistant and with the America Reads program, there are many disabled students who qualify for work study and need the work study money who are ultimately unable to make ends meet, despite what their financial aid package stated. If Mount Holyoke truly cared about its students on work study, it would do everything in its power to ensure that working in the dining hall was accessible to those on work study with disabilities, or provide them with other jobs.

Students who qualify for work study use every dime of their checks to pay for their monthly tuition bills or any extra necessities. Every two weeks, my mother takes my work study money to pay my bill. Bostick says that she “saved every cent from the one shift [she] worked fall semester” to pay her spring semester bill. Martin and Gale used their work study money for travel costs, toiletries and necessary clothes. 

For most lower-middle class families, the difference between what a student earns with one or two shifts a week and the amount calculated according to their financial aid package is astounding. Let’s do the math: my roommate, Laura Perry ’20, was expected to make $2,400 a year to $1,200 a semester. She was only able to get one 3 hour dining shift last semester, which meant she earned $30 a week and $450 for the entire semester. This means she was $750 short of her aid estimate. $750 in a semester for a family that qualifies for a work study is a lot of money. I could pay for a round-trip plane ticket to Washington, the travel costs to the airport each way and all my toiletries for each semester with that amount of money. My roommate could buy all her books for the year and also pay for gas for the trip home to Cape Cod and still have money left over. In fact, if work study students made as much money as we were promised, many of us would spend money on fun things rather than just bills and necessities. 

Our families take a huge loss when we are not presented with enough shifts or opportunities to make money. If Mount Holyoke truly wants to include a diverse group of students within its gates, it needs to make campus jobs more accessible.

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