Simineri: Paying for Less-Than

by Nicole Simineri | 5/25/15 7:02pm

Internships are an invaluable part of the college experience and are critical in providing the experiential learning that the College so values. Many of these positions, however, are unpaid, and the costs of living, food and transportation can add up. Students on financial aid often face these additional expenses alongside the burden of expected leave-term earnings, presenting the choice between taking more loans to pursue a potentially invaluable internship or working long hours at a low-paying job — one that is often irrelevant to their future career interests.

As I discussed in my March 10 column “An Arm and a Leg,” financial aid is not the all-saving grace and privilege that many without it commonly believe. Rather, the College’s financial aid packages often include loans and work-study, both of which are automatically incorporated into the award packages of students with an annual family income of more than $100,000. A lesser known fact is that students on financial aid are obligated to contribute to their aid packages using earnings from their off-terms.

These leave-term earnings seem to receive minor attention on the Dartmouth admissions website or in brochures. The apparent reasoning of the financial aid office is that students should contribute to their education and therefore are expected to work during their off-terms, putting all subsequent earnings, and likely then some, toward tuition.

Yet Dartmouth students are exactly that — students. Without college degrees and little or no significant job experience, many of us will be unable to qualify for a job with decent pay or relevance to our interests. Pre-med students, for example, are unlikely to be paid to work at a hospital, and pre-law students will likewise be hard-pressed to find a paying position at a law firm. Paid opportunities in these fields, it seems, simply do not exist for current undergraduates. It appears that most readily available and paid positions available to undergraduate students are at fast-food chains or retail stores in urban areas. I imagine, though, that even these establishments are unlikely to hire Dartmouth students. After all, why would they hire out-of-town students for a mere 10 weeks when they can potentially hire local students for an entire semester?

When advertising to prospective students, the College emphasizes the opportunities for students to secure internships using its vast alumni network or to receive funding for the expenses of volunteering abroad. These opportunities certainly exist, but they are incompatible with current financial aid policies. When I mentioned the clear impact the leave-term earnings policy places on the ability of students to pursue such opportunities, the response of the financial aid officer gave me the impression that the College does not consider this to be its problem. These policies do not seem to hold internships and jobs as fundamental parts of the Dartmouth experience but, rather, as choices. In the financial aid handbook, the College acknowledges that few students are able to earn enough to cover leave-term earnings yet offers no remedy other than more loans. The takeaway is clear — this $4.5 billion institution offers a number of amazing opportunities, but only for students who can afford them.

Administrators say that students should go change the world. Yet at the same time, the College often forces students on financial aid to choose between working a low-paying job or incurring more debt to do a relevant and useful internship. Though College programs and departments may assist students in finding opportunities and funding for internships, funding awards cannot help cover leave-term earnings requirements. This expectation is yet another obstacle to success that students on financial aid face. As William Peters ’15 discussed in his May 15 column “Being Poor at Dartmouth,” it is tough for students on financial aid to get here, and it is even tougher for them to stay and have a full Dartmouth experience.

I focus on off-term earnings in this column because it is a policy that goes widely undiscussed. This is far from the only deficient policy — loans and work-study obligations are even more distressing. Off-term earnings are just a tiny window into how ludicrous, arbitrary and discriminatory financial aid packages are. Students can do great things — but the College needs to provide the financial resources for them to do so.