OSCA and College Discuss Future Partnership


Meg Parker

College junior Cat Robinson, College first-year Lily Lansdell, and College junior Katherine Carson baking late at night in the Pyle Co-op kitchen.

Oberlin College and the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association have begun the process of collaboratively discussing the terms of the financial relationship between the College and OSCA, which feeds 590 students and houses 180. These conversations were prompted by data revealed by the Academic and Administration Program Review steering committee, which identified that the College loses $1.9 million in annual revenue through its relationship with OSCA.

While AAPR leadership has emphasized the $1.9 million figure as a reason to reconsider the College’s relationship with OSCA, OSCA’s current and future leadership — including President Hannah Tobin-Bloch and incoming President Gio Donovan — argued that conclusions should not be drawn from that statistic alone.

“There are so many ways that this supposed loss of revenue for the College does not represent the non-financial services that OSCA provides to the College that are impossible to quantify, nor does it take into account how big of an admissions draw OSCA is for the College,” they wrote in an email to the Review. “We provide nearly a quarter of the school with benefits such as (but not limited to) problem- and conflict-resolution skills, experience working with Ohio Health Code, the responsibility of cooking and cleaning for yourself and your peers, accessible dining options for those with dietary restrictions, 35 student employment opportunities and nearly 300 leadership opportunities in individual co-ops each semester, not to mention a more financially accessible dining and housing option (even for those with undocumented need).”

Further, additional data identified by AAPR leadership in their “Summary of Work to Date” document, which was made public on March 29, indicates that OSCA has fewer low-income students, fewer international students, students with less financial need, and fewer people of color than Campus Dining Services and Residential Education.

While the document did not reveal specific figures, other campus offices have identified that, in 2018, 7.6 percent of students in OSCA housing identified as low-income, compared to 10 percent of students in non-OSCA housing. Additionally, during the same year, 5.6 percent of OSCA residents identified as first-generation college students, compared to 9.8 percent in non-OSCA housing.

OSCA officers countered that these figures may be misleading since the College only factored in documented need.

“OSCA provides lower bills regardless of their status of documented need,” the officers wrote in the statement. “Many OSCA members could not attend Oberlin College if not for the at-cost benefits of being a member of OSCA — a cooperative model the College has graciously supported for 60 years.”

Other students in OSCA agreed with this sentiment.

“Oberlin has 100 percent demonstrated need fulfillment,” College senior Charlie Thomson said. “So people with that demonstrated need get their dining plan, but the College is only considering demonstrated need. OSCA is a way for people in the middle, who don’t have the same demonstrated need, but who couldn’t fully afford to come here without OSCA.”

Conversations to address these issues and potential points of disagreement are already ongoing and will continue regularly between College and OSCA leadership throughout the 2019–2020 academic year.

“Our conversations so far have been open and collaborative, and [they] set the stage for a productive discussion going forward,” Vice President for Finance and Administration Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings wrote in an email to the Review. “In addition to participation at OSCA’s Rent Contract Forum, members of the AAPR steering committee have held two separate meetings with OSCA thus far to discuss the AAPR areas of recommendation. We are in the preliminary phases of discussion.”

In order to allow for more time to chart a viable long-term financial approach, the College is advocating for a one-year extension of the current rental agreement between itself and OSCA. Under the terms of that agreement, OSCA is assigned just over 70,000 square feet of space across seven College facilities.

“We want and have the time to undertake a thoughtful, collaborative conversation about how to achieve our mutual goals,” Vazquez-Skillings wrote. “The College is hopeful to finalize a one-year agreement this month.”

Some members of OSCA fear that this process will not adequately account for the intangible benefits OSCA provides to the campus community.

“My parents would not have allowed me to come here if I didn’t promise to be in OSCA every semester, for financial reasons,” College junior Lily Lu-Learner said. “OSCA also makes Oberlin a unique, cooperative place, where we can build community.”

OSCA leadership also pointed out that students are admitted to OSCA through a lottery process, meaning that documented financial need and other factors are not considered. This lottery process is part of what makes OSCA unique in the eyes of its members.

“This means that any Oberlin student has an equal chance of getting into OSCA via our lottery and waitlist systems,” they wrote. “Accordingly, OSCA mirrors Oberlin’s admission enrollment decisions. Financial considerations are not part of the membership enrollment process for OSCA as we do not have access to students’ financial aid information.”

However, due to the lottery system and the fact that OSCA has no control over which students it admits, some students with financial needs may not have the opportunity to eat or live in an OSCA-operated facility, creating potential financial hardship.

“I am kind of low in the lottery,” College sophomore Jonas Mondschein said. “I was thinking that I may have to take a semester off if I do not get in.”

For its part, the College recognizes that OSCA offers a valuable and unique part of the Oberlin experience, and administrators say there are no plans to discontinue the partnership between the College and OSCA.

“This area of recommendation [in the AAPR report] does not contemplate the College ending its relationship with OSCA,” Vasquez-Skillings wrote. “The steering committee recognizes the importance and contribution of OSCA to currently participating students and engaged alumni and believes it is beneficial for OSCA to remain part of the fabric of the College in a sustainable way.”