Removing OSCA Options for Low-Income Students Exclusionary, Not Equitable

Rowan Bassman, Contributing Writer

If I were entering the Class of 2021, I would no longer be able to afford Oberlin College. It wouldn’t matter if the College met 100 percent of my demonstrated need. Without the money I’ve saved by living and dining in Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, I wouldn’t be able to afford to travel to and from Oberlin, adequately feed myself if I did somehow make it to campus or support my family with leftover funds if I somehow made it home.

It angers me that departing Vice President of Finances and Administration Mike Frandsen has the audacity to claim proposed financial changes will “improve equity challenges” in the same email in which he announces that tuition is rising to make total costs for first-year students well over $70,000 per year, including books and other expenses. But rising tuition isn’t what really hangs zero-family-contribution students like me out to dry. When the College closes off options for savings by making expensive room-and-board plans mandatory and reducing financial aid for students in OSCA, that’s what hurts low-income students most.

The proposed meal-plan system requires new students to spend their first four semesters on the most expensive meal plan, 300 meals per semester with no flex points for groceries, for $7,990 annually. 300 meals per semester comes out to approximately 3 meals a day for 14 weeks. This means that unless a student eats at a dining hall three times a day, every day, they’re wasting money. By my calculation it also comes out to $13.31 per meal — almost $40 per day.

It would literally be cheaper to eat brunch from The Feve for every single meal.

Even as the system stands, there is no option to be off of a meal plan at any point. Ostensibly, according to the Housing/Dining/Financial Aid Policy Changes FAQ emailed to students Wednesday afternoon, the motive for the meal plan lock-in is that “having students living and dining together fosters community.” But forcing students to pay exorbitant rates for mediocre food three times a day is not a healthy way to build a community.

The only escape from ResEd and Campus Dining Service’s predatory rates are OSCA and off-campus housing. OSCA membership is determined by lottery, as is seniors’ access to off-campus housing. This has profound implications on a number of levels. First, for students like me, who rely on OSCA and off-campus housing to afford Oberlin, our ability to continue attending each year depends on chance. I remember the lump of fear in my gut between my sophomore and junior year when I didn’t get into OSCA housing. Luckily, I got in off the waitlist before the school year began. If I hadn’t, I would have needed to take time off. Second, tensions can run high in OSCA between students who need the co-ops for financial survival and students who don’t.

My membership in OSCA is an agreement to work for the co-op; my savings are derived directly from that work. By reducing low-income students’ financial aid on the basis of this decision, the College literally devalues the work we do for our co-ops and threatens the purpose and daily functioning of the entire cooperative system.

What the College proposes for OSCAns — a $1,000 per year reduction in financial aid for students dining in OSCA and a $2,000 per year reduction for those who both live and dine in OSCA — results in a system of diminishing returns for low-income students. Perversely, students who are financially comfortable save more money through OSCA membership than low-income students do. In what world is this equitable? Perhaps Frandsen has confused a financier’s definition of equity — the value of an asset minus the value of all liabilities used on that asset — with a social justice definition of economic equity, focused on uplifting people disadvantaged by existing systems and dismantling those systems.

These policies make me feel like an asset on which too many liabilities have been used — devalued in the name of “equity.”

In 2014 and 2015, Defending Oberlin Financial Accessibility protested similar proposed changes — including tuition hikes and even more drastic cuts to financial aid for OSCA members — resulting in the administration “indefinitely postponing” aspects of these changes. I naïvely thought that this debate ended two years ago. We have expressed our fears to this administration again and again. Apparently, they just don’t care. It almost seems like what Frandsen refers to as efforts to “streamline costs and options” are designed to maroon those whose financial needs are outside the stream.

In fact, I’m convinced that’s the case. There’s a chilling logic behind it: The greater the number of low-income students attending Oberlin, the greater the financial stress for the College to maintain its illusion of meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need. The solution, in the College’s eyes, is to make it harder for low-income students to come here in the first place. But it looks bad if student retention plummets, which is why all students currently on campus are grandfathered into pre-existing rates for tuition, housing and board. These are gradual moves to make Oberlin’s student body wealthier.

Frandsen’s email mentions that “tuition, fees, room, and board for returning students will increase by 2.8% for next year,” but it’s also worth mentioning that the increase for incoming students is a good deal greater. At least in terms of room and board, $14,402 to $15,862 is not a 2.8 percent increase. It’s a 10.1 percent increase, from which OSCA membership will provide only limited respite. Is it obvious yet that the College wants as much money as it can possibly suck from its students?

Prospective students and their parents ought to be outraged.

I am full of bitter gratitude as I head toward graduation. I’m grateful to OSCA for $6,604 in annual savings when I lived there and $3,492 for board alone, now that I live off-campus. But if the College had allowed me to feed myself, I could have bought my own groceries on half that budget. And I really am grateful to the Office of Financial Aid for the grants and loans that have sustained both my education and my family’s well-being. But I’m afraid for future generations of students like me — afraid that there won’t be room for us at Oberlin. I’m angry that, in the eyes of the College, the value we bring to campus apparently doesn’t exceed what the College saves by cutting us.

Oberlin’s administration didn’t have a change of heart in the spring of 2014. They simply realized that the changes they wanted to make weren’t politically expedient. Oberlin’s student body, alumni, prospective students and parents now need to make it clear that changes designed to alienate marginalized students will never be acceptable. What we need is not another indefinite deferment of this plan for another generation of students to oppose, but an end to this absurdity and an administration that listens.

So farewell, Mike Frandsen. May the financial plan you leave as your legacy be as short-lived as it is shortsighted. We’ll make sure of it.