Liberal Arts and Not So Liberal Economics

Oberlin embarks on a plan to improve its finances and academics -- in part by getting a little smaller. Critics fear key values are at risk.
March 17, 2005

Oberlin College has a long history as an educational pioneer deeply committed to social justice. From its founding in 1833, it had a policy of admitting students regardless of race -- and it took the policy seriously, such that by 1900, one third of black graduates of predominantly white colleges in the United States were Oberlin alumni.

The college also has been justifiably proud of its academic reputation, with a top-notch liberal arts college and a world famous conservatory of music. And Oberlin produces intellectuals, with unusually high percentages of alumni working in academe (more than 17 percent).

But for a number of years now, the college has faced periodic budget crises, leading to painful and prolonged debates (one of Oberlin's other traditions is a strong commitment to student and faculty involvement in governance) about how to pay the bills.

This month, Oberlin tried to deal with its financial problems by adopting a new strategic plan. Much of the plan would seem unobjectionable -- its focus is on improving academic quality. But after 10 pages of a plan that cover topics like faculty salaries, academic programs, internationalization and the like, the 11th and last page is much more stark: It says bluntly that Oberlin "is not now in a sustainable financial position." And it says that the college must improve its finances, in large part through tuition revenue.

The plan itself is short on specifics -- a favored criticism of it is that for a strategic plan, it's not strategic or a plan. But Oberlin officials have started to talk about some specifics on the campus, and to start carrying them out. The student body -- currently just over 2,800 -- will shrink by at least 100. And the faculty of liberal arts, which has 204 members, will lose 7 slots over time due to retirements.

But while it shrinks slightly, the college also intends not to lose any students with a particularly special quality: the ability to pay all of their costs themselves. Currently, more than 56 percent of students get some financial help from the college toward paying for Oberlin, where total costs this academic year are just over $39,000.

And that is why many are worried about the plan. If you preserve slots for those who can pay, who doesn't get in? "We're going to be getting more kids from the wealthy suburbs, and diminishing opportunities for African Americans and for those who are late bloomers," said James C. Millette, a professor of African-American studies.

And when people at Oberlin talk about a fear that students may end up being more "vanilla," they aren't just talking about race, but about style and values. While it's easy to overstate college stereotypes, Oberlin students say there is plenty of truth to the idea that their college attracts many students who are artsy, liberal, idealistic and individualistic.

"Now it seems like the school may be looking for more students who are mainstream and from conservative or wealthy families," said Marshall Duer-Balkind, a junior who is a member of the Student Senate. He said there is a "major, major concern" among students about how this would play out, even as they acknowledge that they can't be sure how admissions will change. "The worry is that the college will lose the students with individuality and quirkiness."

A spokesman for Oberlin said that senior college officials had decided not to talk to reporters about the plan at this time. Having just completed extensive campus and trustee discussions, they want to communicate with alumni first. But Oberlin has released various documents that outline the kinds of challenges the college faces as it seeks to define itself.

For example, consider yield rates -- the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll. The college does fairly well with poor students who rely on the college for aid -- a 43 percent yield for those with family incomes under $30,000 and a 48 percent rate for those with incomes of $40,000 to $59,999. But move up a few rungs on the income scale, and the college has a problem. The rate is only 28 percent for those with incomes of $100,000 to $149,999. And the rate drops to 18 percent for those with incomes of $150,000 to $199,999.

Where are those students going? Apparently to other top liberal arts colleges. Oberlin likes to think of itself as among the nation's top colleges, but it also released its disappointing "win rates" against some other top liberal arts colleges. Those rates are the percentage of students who are admitted to both colleges and enroll at one of them. Against Wesleyan, Oberlin's rate is 25 percent. Against Vassar, 37 percent; Carleton, 41 percent; Grinnell, 42 percent.

While these statistics upset many on the Oberlin campus, they don't shock admissions experts elsewhere. Joan Casey, a private admissions counselor in Brookline, Mass., said that while students she works with think of Oberlin as a very good college, many students "don't want to go to school in what they would call the middle of nowhere." (While Oberlin boasts a remarkable cultural scene, in large part courtesy of the conservatory, it is in rural Ohio, 40 miles from Cleveland.)

Michael London, the founder of College Coach, a nationwide private admissions service, said that he too thinks of Oberlin as a very strong college. But as he looks at where counselors encourage students to enroll, he's seen Oberlin "down a notch" from the places it aspires to compete with.

"A Vassar is an A- [high school average], 1400 SAT school, and a Wesleyan is a little higher than that, and Oberlin is more of a B+ 1300 school," he said. "They may be guilty of thinking that they are stronger than they are."

And in many ways, that is precisely the argument Oberlin administrators have made for putting more of an emphasis on academic quality -- and being sure that they can pay for it. You need more full-paying students to finance quality, they have said. While there are no price tags in the strategic plan, there are many areas offered up as needing more money -- areas that could be better financed with more tuition revenue.

Among other things, the plan calls for increasing faculty salaries, reducing the teaching load to allow faculty members to have more time for research and professional activities, renovating student dormitories, expanding athletic opportunities at both the intramural and varsity level, and creating new programs to recruit minority students and faculty members.

That agenda -- even lacking details -- is what led the majority of faculty members to back the plan.

And the idea of getting smaller to get better reflects a trend that extends beyond Oberlin.

Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that many colleges that are smaller and less competitive than Oberlin can improve financially by growing. But when you are a well established college with competitive admissions, and the endowment isn't booming, and costs are rising, shrinkage makes sense as it gives you more endowment dollars per student.

"It's not that Oberlin or colleges like it have gotten too big," said Ekman, whose group consists of liberal arts colleges. "It's just that the economics underlying higher education have changed."

Alfred MacKay, a philosophy professor at Oberlin, said that changing economics is a reality, and that failing to accept that puts academic quality at risk. That's why he supports the plan.

"I think it's important for Oberlin to focus on academic quality and musical excellence. We have to be sure that we are continually vigilant about that side of things," he said. "Of course we also have a long history and tradition of being involved with progressive causes and social justice and what not. But we have to achieve the right kind of balance."

And economics has people who are concerned about some parts of the plan supporting other parts. Duer-Balkind, the Student Senate member, said students are frustrated by annual budget battles, and would like to see the college on solid footing.

Of course, skeptics think that the plan is so vague that it won't put Oberlin on solid footing, but will set off more difficult debates. Luis Fernandez, a professor of economics, said, "there's nothing in the plan that I object to."

But he said it was meaningless to offer "a long list of all the things we are going to do" with increased revenue without saying more precisely "which things we're not going to do."


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