Oberlin Financial Aid Must Cover Course-Specific Student Expenses

On its website, Oberlin College promises that it “meets 100 percent of demonstrated need for every student.” The College advertises the “expansive” nature of its academic program on its website and encourages students to “explore [their] interests and discover new ones.” However, many courses carry extra student costs for textbooks and other materials. 

Given the multitude of student expenses that are not covered by Oberlin’s financial aid awards, the institution needs to update its policy as a means of “making an Oberlin education accessible to students from all financial backgrounds.” The variation of these expenses across different areas of study potentially bars students with greater financial need from taking courses that demand more expensive materials. When these classes are required for certain majors, this effect is heightened. Without necessary support from the College, students may be discouraged from pursuing majors that require these courses, which is in direct contradiction to Oberlin’s ideal of academic exploration. 

One example is the cost of renting the IBM software SPSS Statistics, the latest version of which retails for somewhere between $50 and $100 for a 12-month subscription and, perhaps more pressingly, can be run only on certain — and generally fairly recent — Windows platforms and versions of macOS. Students with less expensive, older Mac computers that do not support the minimum operating system needed for the software are left with little choice but to either purchase a new, compatible computer or simply not take the courses for which the software is integral to the curriculum. Two courses involving this software are required for both Sociology and Psychology majors, presenting students pursuing these areas of study with a burden not faced by other students and threatening to discourage their pursuit altogether. 

As of now, little infrastructure exists to rectify this problem. ObieCares, a fund that purports to “provide financial assistance to currently enrolled, high financial need students” whose needs are otherwise unmet by their financial aid package, is limited in its resources and thus is unable to reach many students who need its services. In order to be eligible, students must demonstrate that they are experiencing financial hardship that the College either deems “unexpected” or an emergency. The College gives “accidents,” “illness and related medical expenses,” and the “death of a family member” as examples. 

These conditions are certainly dire and require institutional support; I do not disagree with prioritizing students facing them. Among the situations that the ObieCares lists as ineligible for financial assistance, though, are “expected tuition and fees,” a category that is inclusive, apparently, of such varying expenses as books, computers, and software required for different courses. I take issue with this categorization; with syllabi only available shortly before each term, and as student schedules are often still in flux during the first week of Add/Drop period, how can students be universally expected to know course-specific expenses ahead of time? The fact that students are often only made aware of these expenses in the weeks immediately preceding each semester only heightens the urgency with which they must receive this type of aid, as well as the fallout when it is not readily available to them. The fact that Oberlin seemingly expects its students — disproportionately those with greater financial need — to predict these expenses contrasts the inherent spontaneity of the exploration that the College encourages students to engage in. 

I recognize that resources do exist that are more broadly accessible to Oberlin students, inclusive of those who demonstrate need for them but do not qualify for such emergency support as provided by ObieCares. Mary Church Terrell Library, for example, has computers available for checkout to all students. However, these are almost exclusively loaned for short term use of four hours or for overnight loans, generally from 10 p.m. to 11 a.m. While a helpful service, repetitive short-term borrowing — especially given that all user data and documents are erased after the computer restarts or shuts down — is hardly sustainable for long term use.

In order to offer students the full breadth of the Oberlin education, Oberlin must offer more comprehensive support. If the College truly aims to meet “100 percent of demonstrated financial need,” as advertised on its website, the financial support that Oberlin provides must be inclusive of the expenses that required course materials demand, in addition to standard tuition and fees. 

I do, however, acknowledge the logistical challenge that this type of aid poses. Given the varying nature of these student expenses — and that my goal in this proposal is to level the playing field among students of differing financial situations and areas of interest rather than further unbalance it — I do not think that the allocation of a standard sum to cover these needs among all students is the solution. While laptops writ large and most required textbooks might reasonably be counted as universal and expectable expenses that the College presumably already accounts for in its assessment of tuition cost and financial need, more cutting-edge technology and outstandingly expensive course materials, such as SSPS or certain textbooks, should not. 

I propose that these resources be allocated from departmental budgets specifically to students taking the courses for which they are required, for the duration of, but no longer than, their enrollment in the course. By operating at a more localized institutional level, the College will better ensure that sufficient resources are provided, as department heads will have a better idea of the specific needs for the courses included in the curricula over which they preside. This measure will, therefore, also ensure that more funds than necessary are not distributed by branches of the College that lack this awareness. 

The additional proposed loans may require an expansion of certain departmental budgets, an act which I recognize would be no small feat but will, in my opinion, alleviate a burden on the part of Oberlin students far greater than whatever is incurred on the part of the College. Where these expanded funds might not be allocated, I would advocate that department heads prioritize the provision of necessary resources in the expenditures from their budgets and that they be granted greater discretion and mobility to do so. 

Regardless of this minutiae, these loans would be cost-effective for the College, as these purchases have potential to be used across many semesters by each new cohort of students taking the courses for which they are required and would be effective in providing students with greatly needed relief. Any such measure accounting for the current hole in Oberlin’s financial aid coverage will be instrumental in making the College a more accessible and equitable institution.