Following the Money: A Look into Field Work Term Grants

By Jorja Rose '18

followingthemoney.png

What brings Bennington students together more than stressing out about Field Work Term plans?  Fall term can feel like a panic of obsessing over your resume, waiting for potential employers to return phone calls and emails, and scrutinizing your bank account.  Grants from the school make previously impossible plans feasible for some students, but things don’t pan out for all grant applicants.  How can we better understand this process, and what needs to change to make Field Work Term a more equitable fixture in the Bennington education?

To answer these questions, I went straight to the source.  Faith McClellan, Director of Field Work Term and Career Development, sat down with me in her office Thursday afternoon to give her take on this year’s grant decisions, which the office released October 31.  

“We are acutely aware that financial stressors around Field Work Term are pressing and paramount,” she told me almost immediately after I entered her office.  We went on to discuss some preliminary statistics, as well as the process of getting and distributing grant money.  Each year, the Field Work Term office is given a lump sum by the college and left to work with it.  Decisions about who gets what are made on the basis of need, as determined by a grant committee composed of financial aid, faculty and staff, and McClellan herself.  Apart from need-based awards, merit-based ones are also available, which include the Public Action Grant, the Iftekhar Entrepreneurial Grant, and a new pilot fellowship in theater.  Applying for these merit-based awards requires an essay and faculty recommendation, whereas need-based ones do not.

This year, 31 percent of students applied for grants, and total requested dollars rose to $321,462 from $215,443 last year.  According to McClellan, the school anticipated this uptick in grant requests.  The college prepared by significantly increasing funding.  Last Field Work Term, the office awarded a total of $67,750; for this coming winter, that number jumped to $162,800.  

Still, a gap persists between what’s needed and what’s available.  Last year, the average award per student amounted to $538, with an average need gap of $1,129.  This year, students fared better.  The average award clocked in at $802, and the need gap is down to $790.  But coming up with cash like that still isn’t easy.  

In a survey I distributed through Bennington Facebook groups, the average reported award came in at $530.  Of 38 responses, only 34 were usable; of those 34, 16 designated themselves in the “high” need category, another 16 placed themselves in the “medium” need category, and the remaining two reported “low” need.  Those with medium need received, on average, $419 in grant money, fulfilling 38.4 percent of their total need.  In contrast, those with high need averaged $667 in grant money, fulfilling 48.8 percent of the requested amount.

My best guess for why the averages reported in the survey did not match those given by the Field Work Term Office is that dissatisfied students were more likely to respond (a common bias in voluntary, nonrandomized surveying).  

The comments I received pointed to specific issues students are experiencing.  Some expressed appreciation for the money received and the ways the Field Work Term Office was willing to work with them throughout the process.  One respondent was even able to negotiate more money than originally offered.  Others commented on frustrations with the process of getting grant money, saying results came “late and sporadically,” “the application deadline seemed very early,” and that the office was “not particularly motivated to work with me on the finance side of things.”  One respondent suggested that Alumni Relations take more responsibility for Field Work Term housing. 

A few respondents criticized the overall structure of Field Work Term.  One said, “The Field Work Term Office is keenly aware that they don't have near enough money and are trying very hard to fix things, but it is unconscionable and inconceivable to me that a mandatory program cannot provide the means by which to make internships accessible to any student regardless of financial need. It makes no sense to me. The financial inaccessibility of Field Work Term destroys a program that might otherwise have provided students with an incredible opportunity to explore an area of interest that any other time in life might not afford them.”

This comment points to the inherent inequity in the process of finding and affording Field Work Term.  When a mandatory program operates without the guarantee of funding, students without access to paying jobs or the money needed to support themselves in unpaid gigs are left at a serious disadvantage.  McClellan noted that many of the issues students face with regard to Field Work Term reflect a national problem with the low proportion of paid to unpaid internships.  

“My hope is that, over time, the resources of the college will allow for all students with demonstrated need to have optimal Field Work Term plans met,” McClellan told me.  “I’m optimistic and excited about the potential of the forthcoming Institutional Advancement campaign.  I’m also cognizant that the current level of stress around funding Field Work Term plans is palpable and important.”

As for students who are frantically searching for money and a job this winter, there is some good news: there are still 46 paid positions open on Worklink.