I Am a Low-Income Student in Favor of Dining Changes

Mia Bates, Contributing Writer

$500. That is what I owed the school for my entire first year at Oberlin. $500 and two weeks to pay it; otherwise, I could not enroll for my second year. I called my mom immediately and got a reply I had heard for 18 years: “I don’t know where the money is going to come from, lovey.”

My parents made $15,000 dollars that year. Our furnace broke during that particularly bad upstate New York winter, and for two weeks my parents and little brother lived in a below-freezing house. The food stamps were nice though — at least they were eating.

That is how my family’s life is. We have always lived paycheck to paycheck with sometimes months in between. I knew when I left for college that they would be unable to offer even the smallest monetary support.

What I was not expecting when I came to Oberlin was that people would not know what true poverty looks like. This is an Oberlin problem — we lack enough lowincome students to illustrate to the student body what being low-income looks like. The New York Times created a ranking of all the top colleges on the basis of low-income accessibility. Out of 179 schools in the U.S., we ranked 132. Ten percent of students here are Pell Grant students, meaning their familial income is $70,000 dollars or less. According to the U.S. census, the median income of this country is $57,000. If we properly represented this nation, over 50 percent of us would be Pell Grant students. Though it is naive to say we will ever perfectly represent the demographics of the country, a difference of over 40 percent is embarrassing.

Last week, the administration announced a series of changes to room and board, tuition and financial aid that many students have decried as unfair and unequitable. I want to offer my perspective as one of the few low-income students at Oberlin.

One of the changes requires first-year students to have 300 meals per semester. Many students have pointed out that the plan does not have flex points, but they have failed to mention that the meals can be used at DeCafé to buy groceries. After my first semester, I dropped my meal plan down as quickly as possible to save money. However, this meant I had to worry about where my meals would come from once they ran out for the week. I did not have a supply of snacks in my dorm room, nor could I afford to eat at The Feve. I couldn’t just ask my parents for money to cover food — if I didn’t have the money, then there was no money.

The College claims that need-based financial aid will adjust to the increasing meal costs. I can vouch that with every increase in costs from the College, my aid has increased accordingly so that I have the same coverage each year. It is enough to worry about school and money without having to worry about where your food will come from. If, as a first year, I had been forced to eat 300 meals in Campus Dining Services, would I have complained? Absolutely. But I also would have never gone without a meal.

The second big change is financial aid cuts for students in co-ops. This consists of a $1,000 per year loss for students who eat in co-ops and an additional $1,000 loss to live in one as well. In a recent email, Student Senate said that “the new policy significantly reduces the incentive for students to join [Oberlin Student Cooperative Association], makes the Oberlin experience more difficult for low-income students to afford and will likely reduce socio-economic and racial diversity in OSCA in the coming years.” I do not know the current socioeconomic makeup of OSCA, but I do know that I could not afford to join one, despite recent efforts to increase accessibility. According to the OSCA website, the organization has created a scholarship that covers $500 or $1,000 of the semester bill. This is all great but does nothing to help those of us who cannot afford even the $75 down payment to reserve a spot in a co-op. Being able to afford a coop is a privilege in itself.

The cuts to those in co-ops may not be fair, but they are not going to hurt the lowest of the low-income students. In fact, if what the College says is true and that money is going back into financial aid, these cuts might even help people like me. I know there are people in co-ops who will suffer from those cuts, but they will still be saving more money than eating in CDS, and redistributing that financial aid may help more people afford to go here.

I am at the mercy of the College. I have no back-up plan, no savings account to draw money from, no parents’ money to turn to. If my financial aid lessens at all, I will be gone. As it stands for people like me, the financial aid here is not good. If this is the College’s attempt to try to help us, then I have to stand behind it.

I know most of you will not agree with me and will still oppose the change, but I am asking for you to consider my perspective as an actual low-income student. The College is attempting to help low-income students, and low-income students are a minority here that tends to be silent or spoken for by people with a lot more financial security than we’ve ever experienced. The average Oberlin student cannot pay full price, but that does not make the average Oberlin student a low-income student. So ask yourself: Are you fighting this for me or are you fighting it for you and people like you? If you are, don’t use me as an excuse.