College Fiscal Plan Edges Out Low-Income Co-opers

Taylor Field, Staff Writer

At this week’s Board Night in Oberlin’s co-ops, representatives of OSCA’s Board of Directors introduced a caucus based on the covert changes made to Oberlin College’s financial aid policy last semester, reopening discussion on the detrimental impact these changes will have on co-op accessibility.

The policy, which originally did not adjust financial aid based on a student’s choice to live or dine in OSCA, changed without warning last semester to read, “If you choose to live or dine in a co-op, your financial aid will be adjusted accordingly.” On April 13, after extensive student protests, College President Marvin Krislov announced in an email to the student body that the policy change would be delayed by one year.

When news of this policy change broke last spring, I wasn’t on campus, but information and outrage flooded my social media feeds. After parsing through this informational overload, I was able to reduce the policy change to the following simple, albeit deeply unsettling, terms:

Behind our backs and without notice, the College administration has entirely eliminated OSCA’s position as an affordable alternative for students struggling to save money on a $239,787 education.

That figure — $239,787 — is calculated based on tuition, required fees and the cheapest nonOSCA housing and dining plans, each individually determined based on options available to first-years, sophomores, juniors and seniors. As long as OSCA functions as an alternative living and dining system, students have the option to reduce this hefty total by $14,914. This reduction can mean the difference between a student who can afford an Oberlin education and one who cannot. The administration’s actions speak loudly: These students are not a valuable source of revenue. These students do not matter.

What angers me is not only the secretive way the College went about this change, but the very language used in the policy. “If you choose to live or dine in a co-op, your financial aid will be adjusted accordingly,” the policy reads. When it comes to affording college, choosing a meal plan is not a free choice based on whim or taste; for some students, housing and dining options are among few other areas where it’s possible to cut costs. For many, the cheapest option is the only option; this choice is not always a matter of want, but is often a matter of financial need. Choosing OSCA may be choosing to stay in school. Is that really a choice worth punishing?

This financial aid policy issue returns to the table as the College is undergoing its own financial self-reflection — the Strategic Planning Steering Committee meetings. I had heard the phrase “Strategic Planning” thrown around several times, but never quite had a solid grasp on what it was. In the Sept. 12 issue of the Review, Oliver Bok’s article “Committee Convenes to Plan College’s Fiscal Future” defined the Steering Committee as “an organization whose purpose is to determine the future of Oberlin’s educational and financial endeavors.” While this is the most succinct definition I’ve heard, the concept and purpose of this omnipotent Strategic Planning Steering Committee still seem vague. How does any organization begin to go about determining the future of Oberlin College?

While the Steering Committee preaches transparency, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s been left scratching their head over this “Strategic Plan” concept. Committee member and Politics Department Chair Chris Howell is quoted in Bok’s article as saying that the last Strategic Planning meetings proved “disastrous” and that “there is a healthy skepticism” among faculty regarding the effectiveness of the Strategic Plan. And despite his unwavering support of the plan, even Krislov — a Committee co-chair himself — has spoken about the impossibility of constructing it. “How can Oberlin plan for a future that’s inherently unpredictable?” Krislov said in Bok’s article. If the president doesn’t know how to do it, and the majority of the student body can’t define it, how can this Strategic Plan possibly be transparent, much less effective?

My doubts about the Strategic Planning process aside, the Plan historically hasn’t been conducive to making Oberlin more affordable. The last version of the Strategic Plan from 2005 defined the College’s financial goals in the following terms: “To remain a great institution of American higher education, Oberlin must enhance each of its revenue streams. Currently its 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.”

In simple terms, the last Strategic Plan called for the College to profit more off its students — to increase tuition and decrease financial aid. While the Plan does throw lower-income students a bone at the end of the passage, the proposed policy change spits in the face of “Oberlin’s long tradition of socioeconomic diversity.”

The Plan also defines OSCA as a non-profit organization, one that is committed to providing housing and dining at actual cost, not for profit or to “enhance revenue streams.” Thus, the revenue from decreased financial aid would not go to OSCA, but rather the College would reabsorb the money, according to the OSCA Board.

Last Sunday, the Board sent out the OSCA Member Survey, which asks a number of questions about demographics and OSCA’s effectiveness and role in student life. The survey ends with a section on the proposed financial aid policy change, and the final question outlines a newly proposed stipend system that would compensate students in co-ops at approximately minimum wage for the hours they work in OSCA.

There are so many disturbing problems with this that I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, if it comes to compensating co-op members for their labor, minimum wage is not even close to accurate. Within any co-op, students are collectively responsible for buying food for the co-op, planning meals, tracking dietary needs, training members in food safety, leading discussions, handling complaints and concerns, managing finances, maintaining functional industrial kitchen equipment and organizing a workchart, plus the day-to-day cooking and cleaning. All of this for $8.50 per hour in a four-hour co-op and just $6.79 per hour in a five-hour co-op? By comparison, student wages in CDS jobs range from $8.50 per hour for serving food to $9.40 per hour for washing pots. Furthermore, co-op members sacrifice more than just their labor hours to eat in OSCA: co-ops offer only one food option per meal, and meals are at set times around which students must work. A stipend that makes up a minuscule fraction of co-op members’ current savings is both immensely unfair and terribly illogical, not to mention disrespectful.

I would like to call on those in OSCA to take the Member Survey and to use your answers to express outrage and disgust at how this proposed financial aid policy disregards lower-income students and impacts all co-op members.

I would also like to call on all students to make their voices heard by the Strategic Plan Steering Committee at the next listening sessions. Not being in OSCA is no reason to ignore language that defines students as “revenue streams.” Let the 2005 Strategic Plan be a warning, not merely a premonition. Don’t let the administration “strategically plan” to turn the student body into a profit margin.