The Student Co-op Movement
The student housing cooperative movement serves more than 10,000 students across Canada and the United States. Student housing co-ops provide an alternative to living in dormitories, apartments, or fraternities and sororities, usually on a nonprofit, least-cost basis. They range in size from single houses with fewer than 10 members to multi-house systems with over a thousand.
Many students originally choose co-ops as an inexpensive housing alternative, but they stay because of the community ties that form there. Co-ops provide a social living environment, often with shared meals, work holidays, and regular house meetings. Student co-opers play Scrabble and plant gardens together, and sometimes generate local community activism. Cooperatives that bring people together around a theme often exhibit the strongest community bonds. Many student co-ops are vegetarian or vegan houses; others are kosher, women-only, gay and lesbian, students of color, or substance-free. Upon graduation, many student co-opers find themselves looking for a community to move into more permanently. If their co-op allows nonstudents, members may remain and strengthen the community that exists there.
Co-ops are guided by a set of economic, social, and philosophical principles. The Statement of Cooperative Identity reaffirmed by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1995 defines a cooperative as ‘an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically controlled enterprise. Cooperatives are based on the values of democracy, solidarity, self-help, and self-responsibility. In the tradition of their founders, cooperative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others.’ The basic tenets, known as the Rochdale Principles, are as follows:
- voluntary and open membership;
- democratic member control;
- member economic participation;
- autonomy and independence;
- cooperation among cooperatives; and
- concern for community.
These principles have their roots in the mid-1800s in Rochdale, England. In 1844, a group of weavers opened a general store there to provide low-cost basic foods to their members. The statutes that they wrote are the basis of modern-day cooperation. In 1882, North America’s first student cooperative, The Harvard Cooperative Society, was formed. The co-op originally sold textbooks and firewood; it is now a ‘collegiate department store.’ The oldest North American student housing co-ops still in existence got their start half a century later, in the 1930s. Students during the depression found it difficult to pay for college; living and eating in co-ops allowed many to finance their educations. The co-ops at Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Toronto got their start during this period. After a wartime decline, student co-ops resumed growth in the late 1940s, when co-ops began buying their houses and legally incorporating. The movement picked up steam again in the 1960s, as more people sought an alternative to mainstream ways of living. In 1968, the North American Students of Cooper-ation (NASCO) formed to join supporters and members of student co-ops, and has expanded to provide management assistance to new and ailing student cooperatives. With college tuition rising through the 1990s, the need for affordable student housing has grown dramatically. Established student cooperatives are seeing low vacancy rates and are working with NASCO to assist new co-ops in meeting the great demand.
North American Students of Cooperation is the organized voice of the student co-op movement, providing education, training, networking, and development assistance to new and existing student housing cooperatives. More information about student housing co-ops can be found on NASCO’s Web page at http://www.umich.edu/~nasco/, or by calling NASCO’s main office at 734-663-0889.
- Thompson, David J. Weavers of Dreams. University of California, 1994.
- Jones, James R. History of Student Cooperatives in North America. Unpublished.
Megan Case has been involved in the co-op movement since 1996. She has worked for the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), and the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, for which her thesis was a sociological study of student housing cooperatives. She has lived in and been a board member of housing co-ops in Chicago, Illinois and Ann Arbor, Michigan. She currently lives in the Lamont Street Collective in Washington, DC.