First Impressions: Oberlin College (OH)
Oberlin College was the third of four schools that I visited during my first post-pandemic trek. It was quite a departure from visiting a relatively large public university (Kent State) and a near-Ivy/Ivy-like mid-sized research university (Case Western).Oberlin College also has one of the most famous music conservatories in America. It enrolls 600 of the college’s 2,900 undergraduates. Approximately 200 students on campus will pursue a Bachelor of Music degree from the Conservatory and a Bachelor’s degree the College of Arts and Sciences. I found a few photos on Pinterest for you. I must thank the admissions team for the photo that you see up top.
Founded in 1833, Oberlin College was the first college in America to admit students of color, welcoming them in 1835. In 1841, Oberlin became the first college to grant bachelors degrees to women within a co-ed college setting. These are significant dates in the history of American higher education. Oberlin admitted men of color two years before the very first historically black college (Cheyney University in Pennsylvania) opened its doors. The college also granted degrees to women before any of the original Seven Sisters women’s colleges.
If someone told me that Oberlin was a “liberal” liberal arts college I probably agree, at least for these reasons:
- The college tries to touch on three themes within courses in any major: Equity, Diversity and Sustainability.That is easier to do in some courses and subjects than it is to do in others. I can imagine seeing varied viewpoints in arts, humanities and social science courses, even at the introductory level, as well as advanced courses in the sciences.
- Student participation in campus issues. The students were involved in the design of college’s Lewis Center for Environmental Studies as well as the college’s commitment to become a carbon neutral campus by 2025. I saw a massive effort around the academic quad to convert old steam pipes to geothermal energy that will cost in excess of $120 million.
- Community-based learning is taken quite seriously. Over 60 percent of Oberlin students are engaged in community service programs and projects. They’re especially needed in neighboring communities such as Lorain and Elyria that have lost jobs and population. However, I must add that Oberlin is a liberal community in a county (Lorain) that flipped to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.
- The Oberlin Experiential College offers courses on a variety of entertaining and intellectual interests are taught by students and community members as well as faculty. These courses can be taken for credit or enrichment. I’ve seen this at only one other school that I have visited: UC-Berkeley.
I did get a “mini-Berkeley” feel while walking downtown and around the campus.
I had enough time to venture downtown during my day at Oberlin. My favorite places were the Slow Train Coffee Shop (breakfast), the Feve (lunch), Ben Franklin & Mindfair Books (best buy for an Oberlin t-shirt) and Ratsy’s (vintage toys, clothes and cool t-shirts). The campus bookstore is a Barnes and Noble, but virtually anything that isn’t a bank or insurance office is a local business. However, a litigious action between a local bakery and the college hit the national news, and the college lost in court.
I could imagine that a college student who made a well informed decision about Oberlin could have a comfortable life in Oberlin, Ohio over four years. But that student might also become bored with a small town life after two or three years. If they want to escape to a big city Cleveland is 35 miles away–if you have access to a car. Over 10 percent of the student body goes on semester or year-long study abroad.
Someone who loves music and liberal politics could really like Oberlin.
The campus community produces over 500 free concerts each year in a variety of genres, so it really helps to appreciate music, even if you cannot play or sing a note. But I’m not sure that people who have no interest in music and/or no interest in left wing politics will like this school. Oberlin bonds quite well around concerts and liberal causes as well as traditions such as Art Rental. First year students will live in one of four halls: Barrows, Dascomb, Fairchild and Kahn. From taking a tour, Kahn is the hall to hope for. It’s the most modern and nicest of the four. Oberlin has no Greek life at all. But the college has cooperative houses where everyone takes care of cooking, cleaning and programming.
While a third of the students are also varsity athletes, this is not a school that bonds around sports.
Oberlin was the last Ohio school to beat Ohio State on the gridiron back when John Heisman, whom the legendary trophy is named, coached the football team in 1892. Today the most successful intercollegiate sport is Ultimate Frisbee.
This school has amazing resources.
Oberlin’s endowment as of the end of FY 2020 was approximately $955 million, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Only 14 private liberal arts colleges have larger endowments to support an undergraduate student body. Any career resource or research opportunity that you hope to find at a selective private mid-sized research university is here, including funded internships and study abroad. The career services, including career communities, are among the best that you will find at a liberal arts college. So are the cultural and science facilities.
This college has a nice choice of majors, minors and concentrations.
Oberlin offers majors such as Book Studies, Business, Cognitive Studies, Comparative American Studies, Education Studies and Journalism that are quite hard to find at a selective liberal arts college. Oberlin also has a January term where students will typically take an internship or study abroad. You could have some larger classes at the introductory level. But only ten percent of all courses at taught at Oberlin had more than 30 students.
Oberlin retained students very well before the pandemic.
Liberal arts colleges have their own unique cultures, even if their degree requirements are similar. Oberlin retained 83 percent of the freshman who arrived in 2019. The most selective liberal arts colleges retain closer to 90 percent of their freshman class. However, the Class of 2023 spent part of the year during the early stages of COVID 19. Freshman retention never dipped below 89 percent from 2012 through 2018. Over three-quarters of a freshman class will finish in four years. That’s to be expected from a school that attracts an academically strong student body.
Oberlin is an extremely selective liberal arts college.
In 2019, the last year data was made available for the College of Arts & Sciences and the Conservatory:
- The College of Arts and Sciences accepted 40 percent of all applicants for their freshman class
- Oberlin’s Conservatory accepted 27 percent of all freshman and transfer applicants
- Just over a third of the incoming class for the College and Conservatory was filled through Early Decision
- The average high school GPA for incoming freshmen in the College of Arts & Science was a 4.0 (weighted)/3.7 (unweighted)
Oberlin became test optional starting only last year with the freshmen who will start classes this fall
The middle 50 percent of the freshman class that entered in 2019 scored between 1340 and 1530 on the SAT and between 31 and 34 on the ACT Composite. Test scores were considered to be ‘Important’. The next year, according to Oberlin’s 2020-21 Common Data Set, test scores were considered to be Very Important, if they were submitted. However, half of the incoming freshmen class did not submit scores. The college will be test optional for the next two admissions cycles.
If you fall in love with this school, and have achieved academic excellence, apply Early Decision.
The majority who do have gotten in. Oberlin makes it easy to apply to the College of Arts and Sciences by charging no application fee and not requiring a supplemental essay. This school gets shopped against other selective liberal arts colleges (Smith, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Carleton, Haverford, among others). But it is also considered against schools such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern and UC-Berkeley. The Conservatory requires auditions. Admissions will be based on academics and faculty assessment of musical talent.
Oberlin will meet full-need, though admissions are ‘need aware’.
The average student loan debt for the last year’s senior class among those who took out loans was approximately $28,000. That’s including the students who did the Bachelor of Arts and the Bachelor of Music degrees. More important: over half of the students graduated with no student loan debt at all. Depending on where you come from, Oberlin might be less expensive than Home State U. But you must complete the CSS Profile.
Oberlin has an impressive alumni base.
Among the more than 26,000 Oberlin alumni registered in LinkedIn.com over 4,000 are based in/around New York City. There are more than 1,900 alumni in and around San Francisco as well as more than 1,500 each in the Boston and Washington DC metro areas. The college has produced three Nobel laureates, eight Pulitzer Prize winning writers and 12 MacArthur Fellows.
Oberlin is a resource rich liberal arts college with an especially active and talented student body. There is considerable pride in the college’s progressive social achievements. The school also deserves admiration for its desire to be a good steward of the environment.
However, Oberlin may not be the best school for someone who is apolitical and/or disinterested in the arts, or seeking a college experience with sports and Greek life. If you want a small school where Greek life and athletics matter, take a look at arch-rival Kenyon. Or check out a similarly selective school in the East like Trinity (CT).
Report Card: Oberlin College
- Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rate: A/A
- Freshman Retention: A
- Costs: A
- Curriculum: A
- Community: B+
- Comforts: A
- Connections: A
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