by Anna Holshouser-Belden
[originally published April 22, 2022]
Since their origins seventy-two years ago in the Spring of 1950, cooperatives at Oberlin have a long and tumultuous history. According to OSCA’s old website, the idea of opening a co-op on campus came from a group of eleven upperclassmen who wanted an alternative option to the college’s food, which they called “expensive and low quality,” and the college’s restrictive housing policies. In addition, these students wanted to revive Oberlin’s “Learning and Labor” slogan to create the opportunity to participate in a small-scale democratic system in order to shape themselves into more informed citizens and neighbors. Many of the women who advocated for the founding of the co-op stressed the benefits of learning to prepare food before departure into married life. The concept of an alternative, more affordable college experience through communal living and dining, however, was the integral idea that spurred the first co-ops’ creation. With the Rochdale Cooperative principles in mind, the help of the since-disbanded Oberlin Consumer Co-op, and provisional permission given from the faculty and board of trustees, Pyle Inn Co-op was founded in the fall semester of 1950 in a building on West College Street.
After this first semester of dedicated work by the members of the original Pyle Inn Co-op, they already had a 40% savings rate over the 1950 equivalents of Res Ed and CDS, again according to OSCA’s old website. Due to their newfound success in financial sustainability, the co-op could remain open. During the spring semester of 1951 a second co-op called Grey Gables opened, along with the founding of the Inter-Cooperative Council, a student committee to help the rapidly-growing co-op population make collective decisions that would later transform into the OSCA Board. Pyle Inn and Grey Gables were praised by various students, on top of having more affordable accommodations and a wider variety of foods, for having a “relaxed social atmosphere” complete with communal “folk sing” events and what participants described as “interesting, intellectual conversation[s]” facilitated by and for members concerning everything from politics to music and the arts. OSCA also provided an escape from the college’s dining hall dress code policy–dresses for women, jackets and ties for men–and brought increased integration between the sexes, with all co-opers living in the same building sans supervision from a strict “house mother,” present in all college dorms at the time.
OSCA’s financial sustainability and cheaper rates for room, board, and dining, which initially allowed them to remain open and drew in new members, quickly became the reason for the College’s resentment of co-ops on campus and repeated rifts between the two organizations. The first such occurrence began with the request for the opening of a third co-op in the spring semester of 1952. This request was turned down by the college’s Faculty Council on the claims that co-ops promoted an “informal lifestyle” and “forced non-conformity” allowing students to skirt around the dress code (women could wear pants, men could wear shorts) and sex-segregation policies and do outlandish things like go barefoot in the dorms, put milk bottles on the dinner table, and take jam straight from the jar, according to the old OSCA website. This created a disparity between students on campus who aligned themselves with co-ops and those who did not a divide that exists to this day.
Those on the pro-co-op side argued for OSCA’s affordability, community, and higher rates of diversity while the anti-side argued that co-ops created “obnoxious” peers that didn’t dress or act like “typical” college students. The college continued to side with those in the anti- camp, claiming lack of student interest for a third co-op as a large population of enthusiastic applicants were turned away due to lack of space year after year. It was also argued by members of the Board of Trustees and the college’s president, Robert K. Carr, that co-ops took up too much of students’ time, therefore decreasing their academic standing, and that co-op participants were not paying a “fair share” to attend Oberlin compared to other students. Thus, the likely reasoning for the college’s delay on opening a third co-op (from 1952 until 1965) was fear that college-run housing and dining services would lose a substantial amount of income if all those interested in co-ops were allowed to join them. The Inter-Cooperative Committee was renamed as OSCA in 1962, and in 1965, Keep was founded, followed by Harkness in 1967.
Given this history, it’s easy to see a connection between OSCA’s slightly bumpy founding in the 1950s and 1960s and recent disparities between the administration and the students in OSCA, driven by OSCA’s financial competition with ResEd and CDS. OSCA is and has always been a nonprofit organization which functions solely off of yearly membership charges to pay rent to the college, and feed and house a quarter of the student body every semester, distributing partial refunds to students at the end of each year if there is money left over in the budget. OSCA does not hire any outside help and all of its cooking, cleaning, maintenance, and management are carried out by students. Elections are held based on group consensus for higher-up organizational positions, which change on a semesterly basis. The college, on the other hand, currently has an endowment of $1 billion, and investments including stocks in the fossil fuel industry, but continues to claim that it is harmed by financial “losses” created by students opting to be in OSCA. On the college’s website, there is a projected “$1.9 million negative impact” yearly in the form of so-called subsidies to OSCA, hardly harmful given the college’s impressive endowment. These “subsidies” are really just the money that the college would have gained in residential and dining payments from students currently in OSCA, since OSCA is entirely student-funded and receives no form of aid from the college.
There are two recent policies implemented on campus that have particularly created ruptures between the college and OSCA: the administration's “One Oberlin” austerity plan and OSCA’s recent five-year lease agreement with the college. The “One Oberlin'' plan was put into place in May of 2019 by the Academic and Administrative Program Review (AAPR), which is a group formed in 2018 to assess Oberlin’s budget across all departments and programs. Their Final Plan can be found on the school’s website under a quick google search of “One Oberlin,” for those interested. The AAPR’s mission, according to the introduction in its “One Oberlin” Final Report, is to “help Oberlin fulfill its mission in a new way, translating its core values and distinctive strengths in a way that is most relevant and sustainable for future generations.” This statement is soon followed by another, under the ominously titled section “The Challenge,” that Oberlin derives 83% of its operating expenses from student housing and dining tuition, and draws almost 8% from the endowment, an amount the report classifies as far too high. We can infer that if the AAPR’s goals are to sustain the endowment as much as possible for use of future generations, this tuition from college housing and dining becomes all the more valuable than before, placing OSCA in an incredibly awkward position, teetering on the edge of the slashing of seventy-two years of student tradition in the midst of fine print about budget cuts and fiscal cycles.
The AAPR’s “One Oberlin” plan soon proves this inference right: we can find our evidence under Section X: An Equitable and Financially Sustainable Residential Experience under AAPR Recommendations for Operational Efficiency in the Final Plan PDF. The only suggestion under this category is for the college’s administration to “develop a financial relationship that eliminates the $1.9 million annual negative impact on Oberlin’s budget.” The plan continues to focus in again and again on this $1.9 million loss (about one five-hundredth of the endowment), at one point stating that students who choose to live and dine in OSCA “represent both lost revenue and additional facilities capital and operating costs to the college,” deliberately stating the administration’s issue with the organization. The plan goes on to call the increased affordability of OSCA’s program in comparison to the college “artificially underprice[d],” suggesting that “students who participate in OSCA gain what is effectively additional financial aid, subsidized by students who live and dine with the college.” This insinuates that students in OSCA are somehow taking resources from those in college facilities, a claim that is entirely untrue and offensive. Subsequently, OSCA is described as the cause of the college “surrendering an important revenue source for its residential program, creating inequities between students.”
The solution for these alleged “inequities” between students in and out of OSCA comes in OSCA’s new 5-year lease with the college, signed–partly out of desperation for a re-opening during the pandemic–during late 2020. This new agreement claimed that instead of a flat fee each year, OSCA would charge students based on whatever amount they would have been paying for college housing and dining. It claims to treat students in OSCA “the same way that a student in College housing and dining is treated by asking them to contribute the same revenue towards College operating expenses.” The methodology of acting out this proposal, however, was nowhere near as equitable as the language used by the college makes it sound. This “lost revenue,” since the college views being in OSCA as gaining un-justified financial aid, is taken away each semester from students' need-based aid, at a dollar for dollar rate to what they would be saving from joining OSCA. This idea of being in OSCA as being equivalent to receiving more aid is untrue, however, since students in OSCA work around five hours of shifts each week (without time aid) for free in order to keep co-ops running. Without a “discount” on being in OSCA, a quarter of the student body would essentially be performing free labor, so this approximate $1,200 per student per semester is completely justified.
The idea of taking away need-based aid but not merit-based aid is also completely inequitable. Most students who receive need-based aid would be joining co-ops because, as the Pyle Inn founders stated in 1950, Oberlin’s campus dining options are overpriced and low-quality. OSCA was formed out of a need for affordability, not to be a social experiment for wealthy white vegans, which it will inevitably turn into without accessibility to those who receive need-based aid. Additionally, students with need-based aid often work in order to pay the high prices required to attend liberal arts college, and likely would not consider it worth it to add 5 hours of free labor to jobs and a rigorous course load. With no reduction in merit-based aid, students with need-based aid who rely on OSCA’s affordability the most are being pushed out, due to paying less for the same resources than wealthier students with more time on their hands. An anonymous student in Harkness states that the loss of their need-based aid from participating in a co-op “deters [them] from wanting to rejoin OSCA,” and that they feel they are “doing free labor.” With two meals a day, they sometimes have to “pay out of pocket to supplement,” which does not feel worth it with the loss of a scholarship. They find it unfair that those with merit-based aid “are paying less than [them], while putting in the same amount of work,” and think that “Oberlin doing this makes no sense” as they are “putting in extra labor and paying more than before.”
This speaks to how this policy, on top of the post-COVID diminishment of institutional memory, has significantly decreased membership in OSCA, leading to a vicious cycle of dwindling resources. Since OSCA functions entirely on an estimated yearly budget constructed with student tuition, and gives end-of-semester refunds if under-budget, membership seriously affects the resources available. Due to lower membership, OSCA has not been able to afford rent for three of its previous spaces: Brown Bag Co-op, Old Barrows, and Fairkid, which has led to a decrease of accessibility within OSCA. Brown Bag Co-op used to provide extra food for students to enjoy outside of mealtimes, and without it students are left with only two meals a day, having to pay out of pocket for a third meal or snacks. Old Barrows was OSCA’s housing-only safe space for women and trans people, which now forces people that rely on these spaces to opt out of OSCA living entirely. Lastly is Fairkid, a dining-only option that was OSCA’s sole entirely-vegan co-op, increasing the difficulty of being in OSCA for those who cannot have dairy, or have other dietary restrictions.
Additionally, the lack of membership to lack of resources feedback loop leaves existing co-ops in the lurch for supplies. It is common for co-ops to have a lack of plates, cups, and utensils, leaving students eating off pot lids and using two knives like chopsticks, or not eating at all. Several co-ops are significantly over budget, with some doubts that enough food can be bought for two meals seven days a week, leading to a lower variety of food and discussions of having meals of entirely leftovers in order to self-sustain budgets by the college’s standards. This lack of accessibility to consistent meals can lead to serious problems in students’ relationships with food, especially those with eating disorders or those coming from food-insecure backgrounds. All of this can be misunderstood by co-op members as simply disorganization on the part of OSCA, and while there is some truth to this, as all students work hard and inevitably make mistakes, these recent college policies are intertwined with any lack of motivation from OSCA members. In this way, the administration has so far been successful in its gradual approach to rendering OSCA obsolete.
From the '50s to 2020s, the administration has repeatedly stood on somewhat difficult ground with OSCA due to its relatively low financial dent in the college’s housing and dining revenue. It started with claims that students in OSCA were practicing “forced non-conformity” and has culminated in the claim that students in the college are actively “subsidizing” students in OSCA and creating an inequitable pay-gap. Reducing the organization of OSCA to a mere number on a yearly budget erases its seventy-two years of history and significance in building communities between students and creating a unique campus culture that draws new students to Oberlin each year. The slogan “No OSCA, No Oberlin” speaks volumes to its integral role on Oberlin’s campus from its founding until the present day, as it is something truly only found at Oberlin. We must collectively find a way to push through these barriers and restore the beloved student-run non profit that over a quarter of us call home to make the accessible and welcoming space it once was. The immediate end of these unjust and inequitable financial aid policies is a good place to start.