Students, College at Odds Over Policy Change


Madeline Stocker, Kate Gill, News Editors

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was published in April 2014.

Since the campus learned of the proposed changes to Oberlin’s financial aid policy last week, students have organized, demonstrated and drafted a counter resolution, effectively intimidating administrators into postponing implementation of its policy until the fall of 2015. Students challenging the policy argue that it demonstrates the College’s lack of commitment to low income students and a disregard for OSCA’s financial viability. Moreover, the nature of the policy’s creation gave rise to concerns regarding the process by which College policies are amended and enacted.

Although the policy was posted on the College’s site, it was neither disclosed nor readily visible to currently enrolled students. Though Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Debra Chermonte and Director of Financial Aid Robert Reddy claim that they were “days away” from releasing the information to the student body when the change was first uncovered, organizers argue that the College’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to consult with students during the formulation of the policy is unacceptable.

While the College concedes that administrators failed to confer with students, it disagrees that the new policy is inconsistent with a commitment to low-income students. On the contrary, Chermonte and Reddy claim that, if implemented, the policy would redirect monetary resources to the financial aid packages of students with demonstrated need, rather than to all OSCA members without consideration of financial circumstance.

All administrators quoted in this article — with the exception of College President Marvin Krislov — refused to meet with Review reporters. Assistant of Financial Aid Lucas Brewer, Assistant Director of Financial Aid Cathy Belfiore, Associate Director of Financial Aid Amy Knowles, Director of Residential Education Adrian Bautista, Associate Director of Residential Education Rebecca Mosely, Director of Business Operations and Dining Services Michele Gross, Assistant Director of Students and Assistant Director of Residential Education Kourtney Arcaba, Assistant Director of Housing Administration Sean Lehlbach and General Counsel and Secretary Sandhya Subramanian all refused to comment on the record.

Policy Comparison:

Some of the changes to the financial aid policy include adjustments based on meal plan, off campus housing and participation in OSCA.

Before this year, the College did not adjust the financial aid package of students who lived or dined in OSCA — which has, traditionally, cost thou sands of dollars less than Campus Dining Services and Residential Services.

This past Sunday, College President Marvin Krislov sent an email to the student body, announcing his plan to delay the policy’s implementation by one year and consult with OSCA.

“We value OSCA and the community and values that it brings,” Krislov said in an interview with the Review. “The reason that we decided to delay any sort of change is because we want ed to work with OSCA and the community to make sure that the effects of this won’t have unintended negative consequences.”

Although this delay may allow students and administrators one year to collaborate, students are wary of placation.

“I think it’s a relief for a lot of people … but on the other hand, a lot of people — myself included — feel like this is an effort to placate us or quiet us down so we think we have all the time in the world,” said College junior and Fairchild Coop Dining Loose Ends Coordinator Evan Delano.

Student Response:

Galvanized by their anger, over 100 students gathered in front of the Cox Administration Building to protest the changes last Thursday afternoon. At the demonstration, student speakers voiced their fervent opposition and shared their somewhat scarce information with the crowd.

Students have continued to challenge the policy, disseminating information through Facebook and organizing events throughout the week. On Sunday evening, students assembled in the Cat in the Cream to discuss their course of action, which includes a petition and a resolution, endorsed by the Student Senate, to repeal the new policy.

The document, titled “Resolution for the Repeal of the Recent Changes to the Oberlin College Financial Aid Policy,” cites a list of student concerns regarding the new policy, alongside a set of solutions.

“Oberlin will permanently revoke the new financial aid policy,” the resolution states. The document also demands transparency and correspondence with the student body when future policy changes are under consideration.

“In order to create greater transparency, accountability and student participation at this school, we call for all proposed policy changes concerning financial aid or the cost of attending Oberlin to be presented to and voted upon by attending students. This entitles full democratic participation in all financial decisions which affect the student body, now and into the future.”

College junior and organizer Zach Crowell noted that the current versions are not final drafts.

“The first draft of the resolution and the petition were supposed to be general outlines of how students feel. The actual policies can be discussed and debated by a much larger section of this campus, even though more than a couple dozen people worked on this resolution and petition. This isn’t a policy paper. We’re just trying to lay out goals.”

The most recent demonstration occurred on Wednesday, when students gathered outside the General Faculty Council meeting to peacefully voice their opposition to the new policy. The Council is the only administrative body that maintains the power to override any decision issued by the senior administration.

The Upshot for OSCA:

Although students have expressed opposition to nearly every aspect of the modified policy, perhaps most viciously critiqued are the changes that impact OSCA members. While the policy changes remain veiled in ambiguity, students have extrapolated at least one potential effect — the possible collapse of OSCA.

OSCA President Katherine Pardue, who met with Chermonte, Reddy and Vice President and Dean of Students Eric Estes, explained that “adjusted accordingly” means that every dollar a student saves by being in OSCA will be deducted from their financial aid package. The real implications of the phrase have not been finalized; yet without more information, students assume the worst.

Many have bleakly predicted that the new policy will erase all incentive to live in OSCA for students on financial aid. Although several administrators have framed this theory as extreme, many students, including Pardue, consider it a legitimate fear.

“If enrollment goes down, our membership goes down,” Pardue said. “So instead of being at 615 members, which we’re at right now, we’re going to be at 594. If we do not have 594 members at all times next year, then we have to pay for the vacancies. We do not have enough money to pay for not having 40, 50 people, much less 300 [fewer] people. We don’t have the money to do that.”

“If there [is] no longer any financial incentive to live in OSCA, our membership will go down,” Pardue said. “OSCA is a lot of work. Yes, there are people that would stay. Those are the people that don’t need to have jobs to go to this school. [But] if OSCA has to shut down, or if students can’t get money from OSCA, there are going to be students that can’t go here anymore. ”

According to Pardue, Reddy responded to this claim by acknowledging that OSCA requires a significant time commitment. During the meeting, Reddy offered to add $7.95 for every average co-op hour to OSCA members’ financial aid package. For most members, this wage would amount to approximately $32 a week, or $827 dollars a year.

For Pardue, such compensation is hardly fair.

“That’s stealing,” she said. “That’s what that is. It’s completely ridiculous, and a terrible idea. OSCA is the best- paid job on this campus for students; it’s $25 an hour if you work in a four- hour or five-hour co-op. For [Brown Bag Co-op] it’s $100 an hour. It’s great, and that’s why people join.”

Unanswered Questions:

A chief source of anger is the lack of transparency and the administration’s relative silence on the issue.

“I had been in meetings with people that helped make that decision over the past month, several meetings just to talk about OSCA things,” Pardue said. “There was ample opportunity for them to talk to us, and they did not.”

Students were not notified of the policy change, but rather discovered it on their own.

“The Financial Aid Office updated its website and other materials for prospective students in late 2013 to coincide with the time period in which applicants were finalizing their college applications for admission and financial aid,” Chermonte and Reddy said in an email to the Review. “A thorough communication to the campus community was in progress and days away from dissemination when the issue surfaced last week.”

Pardue said her meeting with Michele Gross, director of Business Operations and Dining Services, only served to convince her that the administrators themselves were confused about the policy.

“[Gross] did not know that it involved housing. She said she had been consulted by the administration … and was told that she should not tell us, and that all students should find

According to Pardue, certain members of the administration avoided her over the past week, and the meetings she did secure were unsatisfactory.

“[At a meeting] one of the admissions officers said, ‘I know this is uncomfortable for you,’ and [College third-year senior] John Bergen said, ‘I want to stop you right there. It’s not uncomfortable. This is people having to call their parents and saying, ‘Do you have any more money? No? OK, I have to go somewhere else now.’ That’s horrible. That’s not uncomfortable.’”

The new policy, in all its vagueness, has generated confusion as well as anger — given the ambiguity of “adjusted accordingly,” many students have formed their own hypotheses.

“It’s been a complicated research process because no one has all the information,” Delano noted. “There are little bits and pieces of the information coming from lots of different sources.”

“Presumably it was up [on the website] for an unknown period of time before people noticed it … the policy was put up sometime between February and this past Thursday … I haven’t talked to anyone who knows more specifically,” Delano said.

Many students have said that the new policy compromises Oberlin’s values and commitment to diversity, in particular to low-income students, students of color and mentally and physically disabled students, who are historically more likely to receive financial aid.

“Oberlin has prioritized admitting students of color and low-income students, but it has never prioritized those students being able to graduate from this [college],” College junior and organizer Neoma said.

“The new changes to financial aid are scary,” Neoma added. “And they’re scary because they are an escalation of a problem that Oberlin already has, and they’re also scary because it’s happening to me and my peers right now.”

Delano agreed. “Oberlin likes to call itself a progressive institution at the forefront of social change,” Delano explained. “But if it’s going to deny low-income students an education more than it ever has — increasing tuition and decreasing financial aid; it’s contrary to [Oberlin’s] image.”

Yet Chermonte and Reddy both disagreed, arguing that contrary to student belief, these issues were considered during the drafting process.

“The proposed change in process would treat all students equally when awarding financial aid by taking into consideration costs associated with their actual housing and dining choices,” Chermonte and Reddy said.

“Oberlin has — and will — continue to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need. The proposed change in process for developing a given student’s financial aid budget only refines the determination of a student’s level of need, based on actual costs. If implemented, the process would appropriate financial aid resources in a way that is more fair and equitable to all students. This in turn provides the College with more capacity to enroll a wide range of students, particularly those who have high levels of financial need.”

However, many students believe the new policy threatens their ability to pay tuition.

“Since they explicitly state that they will decrease your financial aid if you live off campus, I have no problem believing that they will decrease your financial aid if you have a lower meal plan,” Neoma said. “I would not be able to go here at all under the new policies on the website.”

According to Krislov, Oberlin is more generous than students may think — more so than peer institutions.

“I understand that people are anxious,” Krislov said. “The way we work financial aid is that we meet everybody’s need. If you have a concern about whether or not your package is meeting your need, you go to financial aid and you talk about it. Some people may not like the packages that they’re offered, but we do them according to very well established procedure; we use the forms that the federal government provides. Frankly we are very generous, much more so than many of our peers. If students have individual concerns about their circumstances, the best thing to do is talk to the people in financial aid.”

Policy Precedent:

In the wake of their discovery, students have researched and reconsidered other policy changes made in the past decade. Several of these innovations were discussed in the meeting at the Cat in the Cream.

Under particular scrutiny is the College’s modification of its study away policy. Much like the amendments to the financial aid policy, the changes in the study away policy were formulated without student input. The past policy allowed students in approved study away programs to pay the costs of tuition, room and board of the program, while the modified policy charges students the equivalent Oberlin tuition, in addition to room and board costs within their program. At the time, students argued that the new policy might deter low-income students from studying abroad. The College’s transition from a need-blind to a need- sensitive admissions process was also mentioned in Sunday’s meeting.

“It demonstrates their lack of true commitment for supporting [marginalized] students,” said College junior and Tank Co-op Housing Loose Ends Coordinator Pablo Cerdera. “It would be not thinking critically to ignore the connections between all of these different types of marginalized students, and I think that these changes, as well as the lack of funding for the MRC … It’s interesting and telling to see where money is cut from. That really lays bare what the College values, and which students they think are important.”

Both policy changes came partly from “A Strategic Plan for Oberlin College,” a document dated March 5, 2005, whose stated goal is to “ensure academic, artistic, and musical excellence as well as financial sustainability in the years ahead.”

According to Dean of Studies and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Kathryn Stuart, the financial aid policy was largely conceived from one of the plan’s financial strategies, which states that the College will “continue to reduce operating expenditures by identifying and implementing additional efficiencies throughout Oberlin’s operations in order to meet its listed financial goals.”

“The decision to apply financial aid to meet the cost of a student’s chosen housing and meal plans, rather than exceeding it, was viewed as a means of distributing the College’s resources in a fair and equitable manner,” Dean Stuart said in an email to the Review.

Another poorly received component of the plan stated that, “currently [Oberlin’s] most critical financial priority must be to realize more net tuition revenue per student and to do so in ways that honor Oberlin’s long traditions of racial and socioeconomic diversity.”

Students interpreted this statement to mean that the College prioritizes revenue over its student body.

“If this is [the] College’s most critical financial priority … then the College might just have its priorities mixed up, and we should address that,” wrote one student in the Defending Oberlin Financial Accessibility Facebook group.

Currently the College is initiating another strategic planning period for this year. The administration recently proposed the framework, which will occur in the next few years. In their resolution, student protesters mindfully included assertions regarding the upcoming plan.

In the upcoming year, students and administrators will continue to collaborate and reshape the policy.

“Many of the best approaches and ideas come from students or [collaborating] with students. I’m open to finding the best solutions together this coming year,” Estes said. “This, of course, will require a lot of sharing of information in both directions. I know I learn a lot from students in the day-to- day, and it makes me better at my job.”