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A single tweet has launched a fiery debate over how Harvard University, one of the country’s wealthiest institutions, is using a federal subsidy -- taxpayer dollars that help low-income students get part-time jobs -- to pay for those students to clean dormitory rooms and toilets.

The online dispute has prompted questions whether Harvard, with its nearly $40 billion endowment, even deserves federal-work study dollars -- but also more generally, whether many institutions take advantage of the money by offering jobs that entail manual labor and not opportunities that are career focused.

Lawmakers have proposed changes to work-study funds, which cost the government a little less than $1 billion a year, funneling the money from institutions such as Harvard and other elites to colleges that serve more low-income populations.

Nearly two weeks ago, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University and a prominent academic on Twitter, posted a Hechinger Report article about students who take on debt at elite universities, highlighting an anecdote about a Harvard program called Dorm Crew:

“Low-income students at HARVARD working 20 hours a week in their first year of college cleaning goddamn dorms?? And we keep giving this wealthy place our public dollars why exactly?”

Dorm Crew, which was founded in 1951, works like this: Harvard students can be hired to clean dormitories for at least two hours every week, though even that minimum isn’t strictly enforced. The average time worked last semester, out of the 250 Dorm Crew employees, was 1.5 hours weekly. As part of a major cleaning prior to the fall semester, and during a spring cleanup, students might work 20 hours in a week. The job can be attractive for students because it pays the most out of any on campus at job, starting at $16.25 an hour, with flexible scheduling.

Goldrick-Rab said in an interview that, given her research into disenfranchised students, she wanted to raise a question about how wealthy universities such as Harvard benefit unnecessarily from federal work-study.

Why, she said in the interview, does the university, instead of using low-income students and paying them with federal money, not draw from its coffers to hire professional, unionized workers?

Answer: it’s cheaper not to, according to pundits.

And Harvard has put the students in a “challenging position,” Goldrick-Rab said, where they are made to feel grateful for the opportunity to earn a little cash and look ungrateful if they question it.

“That was not going to be given a voice,” Goldrick-Rab said. “As somebody who has become one of those people who is a defender of [the] impoverished and scholar of their struggles, it was time for somebody to say something.” (Goldrick-Rab was referring to how she had been referenced by The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

While she said some students vociferously defend the program -- and they did, both online and in interviews with Inside Higher Ed -- they do not understand that some of their peers aren’t entering it with much choice.

And, Goldrick-Rab said, there’s incentive for students to “stay in the club” and not publicly criticize a program that the university and its alumni support. Goldrick-Rab said an online commentator referred to this as a kind of “Stockholm syndrome.”

Harvard declined to comment.

Goldrick-Rab provided screenshots of online conversations she had with students whom she requested remain anonymous. One student called the program “coercive,” and another complained that Harvard made the Dorm Crew employees choose between earning money with the cleaning before the academic year and attending another, more fun pre-orientation program.

Other students involved with Dorm Crew, however, said Goldrick-Rab had mischaracterized the program, and said she demeaned some of the workers and Dorm Crew. In some tweets, Goldrick-Rab scornfully shared emails she had received from the program’s cheerleaders -- in one case, she publicly identified one worker and linked to his bio on the Dorm Crew website.

Charis Garman was one student who did not agree with Goldrick-Rab’s critiques. Garman, a sophomore, joined Dorm Crew her first year at Harvard and said “everyone was so friendly and encouraging” that she continued on with it, applying to be a captain within the program.

Garman pointed out that Goldrick-Rab had tweeted out a photo of a student lovingly hugging a vacuum cleaner with the caption “ooh they made her hug the cleaning supplies” -- when the image was part of a commentary by the student of how much she enjoyed Dorm Crew.

“I really like the option of having work crew in federal financial work-study,” Garman said, adding she receives significant financial aid. “It’s a much more physical job. Like, in high school, I worked at my family’s restaurant, and that was such a welcome change from sitting at school all day. It’s the same sort of thing with Dorm Crew -- there’s a real sense of accomplishment.”

Westley Cook, another Dorm Crew worker, said the job was “draining” but ultimately rewarding. He said other programs before the academic year cost students money, but instead this one paid him and enabled him to move on to campus early.

“There’s some validity in some students being financially hamstrung … but no one is forced to work Dorm Crew. There’s a number of different jobs available within Dorm Crew, too, and there are a lot of options for on-campus work,” Cook said. He added that the university could do more to improve the image of Dorm Crew, showing how it can help form relationships for students.

Rodney Agyare-May, another Dorm Crew worker and supporter, agreed that the program was beneficial, citing similar reasons to his classmates -- early introduction to campus, decent pay.

But he questioned why an institution as wealthy as Harvard was not paying for the program and instead relying on federal work-study. The benefits for poor students are sometimes not as helpful as they appear -- Agyare-May said that low-income students are given some of the university’s currency, Crimson Cash, over spring break, but that it only applied to certain campus coffee houses or bakeries, so students would be forced to eat pastries for every meal on the entire break.

“Harvard should devote resources to more low-income students,” Agyare-May said.

But the entire kerfuffle around Dorm Crew misses the bigger picture on federal work-study, said Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Poor Students (Harvard University Press).

In his book, which Goldrick-Rab liberally quoted on Twitter in the Dorm Crew debate, a passage references a cleaning program at an unnamed institution, similar to Dorm Crew. Jack interviewed a student who worked for this program, called Community Detail -- the student said cleaning people’s bathrooms was emotionally painful. His mother “was doing the same thing back home” and she “never wanted” him to do it when he was older.

Jack questioned in an interview why colleges in their federal-work study programs emphasize manual labor instead of opportunities to work with professors or something that could lead to an internship. Cleaning is not a derogatory task, but it is not as helpful as work that would service students’ careers, Jack said.

This is not something the federal government needs to fix, but if federal officials came in, he said, it would be like “using a machete when a scalpel is needed.”

“You cannot simply isolate Harvard when a significant number of schools hire students for manual labor while in college, and to me, it’s both analytically and professionally suspect if you don’t talk about it,” Jack said.

Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst with New America, said that Harvard should not have access to federal work-study dollars at all. Harvard should use its massive endowment to pay for all low-income students’ needs, she said, and better align part-time jobs to academics and possible career paths.

“But they need to use their own money,” Palmer said.

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