The OSAP diet and the student lifestyle

Just how well should students expect to live while in school?

Okay, I’ll be the one to say it. I have no problem at all with the “OSAP Diet” as exposed by the Toronto Star. Apparently students funding their studies entirely on government loans are expected to survive on $7.50/day for food. And my reaction, mainly, is a big “so what?”

Related: Budgeting for the real world

First, let’s get the obvious (and somewhat spurious) argument out of the way. Social assistance in Ontario–still generally thought of as “welfare”–will provide $221/month to a single adult for all personal needs after housing costs. So this number includes food, clothing, hygiene products, transportation, etc. If that’s $3-4/day for food they’re lucky–and this ignores the fact that most welfare recipients need to dig into their $221 just to cover rent shortfall.

This is a spurious argument because I would never defend welfare as a livable income–not for anyone. Pointing out that some other group of people is being starved out of existence doesn’t prove that students are getting a fair deal simply because they receive more. But I am somewhat surprised that the “OSAP Diet” is a front page news item when the “Welfare Famine” is not. If educated, presumably competent young people can’t feed themselves on $7.50/day, then honestly, what do we think is happening to the people who rely entirely on public assistance? Do we even care?

Second, let’s agree that an ordinary person, with a little effort and attention, can indeed live on $7.50/day for food–assuming access to reasonable cooking facilities. Does it involve a fair amount of pasta, veggies, and bulk food preparation? Of course it does. Anyone who heads straight to the frozen food aisle and loads up on prepared meats might as well be eating out. The only thing to recommend frozen chicken fingers, really, is convenience. For what they cost by the pound you might as well get fast food. So yes, learning to shop and feed oneself on a budget is a skill, even a valuable educational experience.

There are some barriers and potential issues we should acknowledge. Not every student has access to a grocery store or to transportation. On my campus, the residence council (with support from the university) organized regular grocery van trips. That’s a service I’d want to see on any campus not within walking distance of groceries. Some students off campus simply don’t have access to reasonable cooking facilities. They get stuck in living arrangements they didn’t think enough about, and due to roommate problems, landlord problems, or other issues their “cheap” accommodation ends up costing far more than they realized. But that’s a problem of education too.

Some students have dietary restrictions that may increase their food expenses. That’s a huge problem with social assistance as well–adding to what is already a deeply unrealistic calculation–but I certainly endorse considering any unusual dietary expenses as a medical issue. I’m frankly not sure of the status of such claims within student assistance plans, and I’d be interested to learn more. There may be the kernel of a real problem lurking in this story after all. But for now, let’s stick with a typical student. That’s the thrust of this breaking news story, after all.

For all those “drop fees!” proponents who see this as further evidence that education is too expensive, I’d like to remind you that we are not remotely talking about the cost of education just now. We’re talking about the cost of living. The funding that students require to access education is still, in the majority, not required to pay for tuition but rather required to support their lives and lifestyles while they are in school. Which is fine. People need to live, after all. But if you want education to be affordable, and if you expect governments to subsidize it to that point, you need to eventually confront the question of just how much lifestyle the government has an obligation to fund for each student. And please, think carefully about that question because there isn’t an endless pot of money here. The more extravagantly you believe each student has a right to be supported, the fewer students in total can be funded.

Much as we hate to admit it, expectations around student lifestyle have become divorced from reality. Universities build extravagant residences and then charge students what it takes to recoup the cost of construction, thereby increasing debt load on graduation. Campuses supply more in the way of fast food options than general eating areas, microwaves, and other amenities for students who might pack their own food. Total cost of education is driven up not only by increasing tuition (a real problem, of itself) but also by ancillary costs for athletic facilities, expanded parking lots, and entertainment venues on campus. This is not to suggest that any investment at all in these areas is unreasonable, but how much is too much? Is there ever a point when we admit that universities have entered into the business of selling lifestyle rather than education?

This comes back around to the welfare question. Of course there’s a reason why the “OSAP Diet” is front page news while the “Welfare Famine” is not. It’s because our post-secondary students are the leaders of the future (presumably) while our welfare recipients are the problems of the present (by implication). I’m not suggesting that post-secondary students should expect to live at a bare subsistence level similar to welfare. There is, admittedly, a difference. But the larger we allow that gap to become the more we are simply entrenching a distinction between those who are entitled to government-subsidized privilege and the social underclass that is not. There isn’t a lot more basic than food. Do we really imagine that students feel hunger differently than the unemployed and impoverished? Do we think they find it harder to fill their stomachs each day?

Quite frankly, if our post-secondary students are the leaders of tomorrow then I think it’s a damn fine idea for them to know what it takes to cook a few meals, to struggle with their food budgets, and to worry just a little about making ends meet. Someday, they’re going to be making decisions about how to deal with people who are genuinely poor, and genuinely hungry, and how much we allocate to the truly needy in our society. And a little empathy, at that point, might contribute to some better social policy than we have now.


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