College Financial Aid Policies Deprive OSCA Members of Full Benefits

After three semesters of being on a meal plan with Campus Dining Services, I made the decision to start dining in Keep Cottage, a part of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, this spring. During my time as an OSCA member, I have heard quite a few critiques of the organization. Some are smaller, mostly harmless misconceptions, like the idea that our food is “sad” and we eat nothing but beans and rice. Others are significantly more substantial: many people have pointed out a lack of economic and racial diversity in OSCA.

Oberlin’s dining co-ops, founded in 1950 with the opening of Pyle Inn, were built upon principles of equity and social justice. OSCA as we know it was founded in 1962, when the first two co-ops, Pyle and Grey Gables, merged together. As OSCA’s website reads, “Throughout the years OSCA has engaged in social justice issues, taken stances on fair labor practices in agriculture, and created policies to reduce our environmental impact, as well as participating in boycotts and working to create partnerships with other like-minded organizations nationally and internationally.” Details of campus protests are often distributed through the OSCA network, and members are required to attend a workshop at a semesterly symposium on privilege and oppression. Given the history and ethos of OSCA, the lack of diversity in our membership is disheartening.

While OSCA must, of course, take responsibility for our lack of diversity and consider ways we can work to mitigate it, there are other important factors to recognize that are largely outside of the association’s control and contribute to the phenomenon, especially regarding the lack of class diversity. The College’s OSCA financial aid policy in particular has contributed to this lack of class diversity. In an effort to address facts presented in the One Oberlin Report, published in May 2019, the College adopted a policy of decreasing need-based financial aid for OSCA members at a level that fundamentally erases any cost-savings. For example, this semester, the most comprehensive meal plan, the GoYeo plan, costs $4,633, and an OSCA dining membership costs $2,575. A student on need-based aid who is dining in OSCA this semester therefore loses $2,058 of their tuition aid.

According to a statement released by the College, OSCA’s current rent contract, negotiated for a five-year term in 2020, stipulates that OSCA will pay a per-student fee to the College of 42 percent of the Gold Dining Plan for dining members and 89 percent of the housing fee for housing members. The statement notes that the fees will “meet the College’s net revenue expectations for each student attending Oberlin,” and that the new contract “equalizes the revenue from room and board fees the College earns from all of its students, regardless of whether they belong to [a] co-op.” In theory, then, the College’s budget should no longer be negatively impacted when its only source of replacement revenue from a given OSCA member is the exemption that OSCA pays for them. Students on need-based aid are arguably paying twice for the right not to participate in College-owned housing and dining: once with their OSCA fee, part of which goes toward the exemption and again with the cut to their financial aid. It is a cruel irony that, for a student paying full tuition like myself, the $2,058 per semester that I am saving by dining in OSCA is far less significant than it would be for a low-income student, yet I am the one that gets to reap the benefit.

The College’s justification for decreasing aid dollar for dollar seems to be that, as dining or housing cost decreases, financial need decreases. However, that fails to factor in the work that members are expected to contribute to their co-ops. As part of our commitment to accessibility, OSCA has a “time aid” policy, allowing students who work campus jobs to subtract from the usual five-hour weekly commitment of contributions to dining operations. Policies vary between co-ops, with Keep’s time aid policy stating that for every five hours worked, a, co-op member is exempt from one cook shift, and every additional three hours of work qualify for an additional hour of time aid, but everyone in the co-op is expected to work one crew shift per week. Thus, each member is contributing labor to the co-op which, for a full-pay student, would be offset by a lower dining cost, but for students on need-based aid is entirely uncompensated. Additionally, many co-op positions require a significant time commitment, meaning students who have to take time-aid are not able to take advantage of everything their co-op has to offer, an issue which would be mitigated if everyone in OSCA, regardless of financial aid status, was able to benefit from the decreased cost. Keeping this in mind, it makes a lot of sense that lower-income students would be far less likely to join OSCA.

It’s also worth noting that, while for some people, like me, joining OSCA is simply a fun way to get involved in a campus community. The benefits of co-op dining for other members are far more important. One of the core tenets of OSCA is accessibility, and we have policies in place to make our programs as accessible as possible. We take dietary restrictions and cross-contact incredibly seriously, and we have numerous precautions in place to keep allergens separate. Clarity Dining Hall, the designated allergy-friendly spot on campus, is free of only the top allergens and is only open during very specific hours of the day (11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and then 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.). Co-ops avoid cross contact of all ingredients, accommodate any food sensitivities or allergies that members note, and use a save-plate system which allows members to ensure a plate will be available for them at any hour of the day. The College’s financial aid policies surrounding OSCA not only dissuade low-income students from enjoying the OSCA experience, they also potentially deprive students of a safe and accessible food source on campus.