Why Students Are Choosing to Leave—or Come to—Oberlin as Enrollment Challenges Persist
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By Sam Schuman / / March 9, 2018 / 6:11pm

Twenty-seven is a big number to Oberlin College. Retaining just twenty-seven students who had planned to leave the College last Spring—only enough to fill a single lecture course—impacted Oberlin’s revenue significantly enough that President Ambar chose to highlight the achievement during her March 1st presentation on Oberlin’s finances.

“We found the faculty member, the staff member, the coach, the whoever-it-is that was connected with that student and said ‘Hey, we really want you to return, what can we do to help make that happen for you?’” said Ambar to the students assembled in King 306, later adding “We’re trying to institutionalize those types of strategies and others to help students be able to stay here at Oberlin.”

Keeping students at Oberlin is increasingly a concern for the College. In the past several years, Oberlin’s retention rate has at times dipped below 90 percent–a “major” drop, according to Ambar. As the College struggles to reach its enrollment goal of 2,950 students–a number it has only reached twice in the past ten years–student shortages have contributed to the College’s structural deficit, which is projected to be as much as $5 million this fiscal year.

A Student Senate survey conducted last semester shows that the College, which depends on student tuition for well over half of its annual operating revenue, has ample reason to be concerned about retention: Of over one thousand students surveyed, just under half said that they have at some point considered leaving Oberlin before graduating.

The most-cited factor among those who had considered leaving was student community, including parties, peer support and community building. Said one respondent: “everyone is a dam [sic] hipster elitist.”

This attitude was prevalent. Said another respondent: “I have honestly started to despise how much people care about their aesthetic here and now i [sic] pretty much hate the ‘hip’ people i always wanted to be lol.”

Many students also cited a lack of support from the Office of Disability Services, suggesting the college hire more staff for the office. A common complaint was that the ODS needed to make itself more accessible through better student outreach.

Other popular factors were the lack of desired majors or classes and the cost of attendance. At least one student has left the college due to upheaval in the creative writing program, professor Dan Chaon told the Grape last month.

One first-year student who declined to be identified told the Grape that they are leaving at the end of this semester for a variety of reasons. “Financial inaccessibility, lack of diversity, an isolated campus—pick a reason.” they said via Facebook messenger. They will be attending school abroad full-time in the Fall.

Interestingly, while few students had complaints regarding isolation in Oberlin, improved transit to Cleveland was the project students said they would most like to see the Student Senate take.

While many students have considered leaving Oberlin, there are nonetheless several transfer applicants who choose to enroll each semester–a decision sure to pique the interest of an administration trying to parse what makes Oberlin stand out among small liberal arts colleges.

First-year Adeline Grame is one of a handful of Spring 2018 transfer students. An Oberlin native, she attended Kalamazoo College in Michigan for a single trimester before applying for transfer. Despite the College’s website stating that students in their first year at another college can only apply for Fall admission, Grame said she received her offer of admission “well under a week” after submitting her application.

For her, the decision to transfer came down to wanting to live closer to home and to attend a bigger school than Kalamazoo, which has fewer than 1,500 students. Oberlin’s financial problems did not affect her decision, even though she was aware of them through her mother, a College employee.

For second-year Phoebe Pan, the calculus of transferring was a little bit different. The dual-degree student transferred from Columbia University this semester in order to study music along with a liberal arts education.

“Oberlin…gives you space to breathe… It’s not as intense [as Columbia]”, said Pan, adding that the dual-degree program “feels much more well put together than other dual-degree programs” like the Columbia-Juilliard exchange. Financial aid was a factor for her, as well.

Oberlin’s perceived prestige also played a role in students’ decisions to transfer. Pan said she had her doubts about leaving an Ivy-league university for Oberlin, but ultimately “saw this transfer decision as a step towards making my own decisions and trying not to be influenced by things like prestige or the name of Columbia.”

For other students, it wasn’t so easy to escape the pull of rankings. Aoi Nakazawa spent a year at Oberlin as an exchange student from Waseda University in Tokyo, but this semester she will graduate from Wesleyan University. Aoi applied to Oberlin after deciding to transfer from Waseda to an American school. She was not accepted, despite having letters of recommendation from multiple faculty members. Nakazawa probably would have enrolled in Oberlin had she been accepted. Still, she said, her parents are glad she is attending Wesleyan instead. “They wanted me to go somewhere that’s better known outside of the country.”

Nakazawa lived in Transfer Hall during her time at Oberlin, and said that many students she met there chose to transfer to Oberlin for a smaller college experience and because they wanted a school more accepting of various identities. One common thread among transfer students is their appreciation of the College’s academic atmosphere. “I think Oberlin is definitely more challenging [than Kalamazoo],” said Grame.

Pan and Nakazawa described Oberlin as less competitive than Columbia and Wesleyan, respectively.

Despite the College’s enrollment difficulties, some students as well as administrators are confident in Oberlin’s ability to increase enrollment in the next several years.

Twenty complete transfer applications were received this semester, with three of seven admitted applicants enrolling—a higher yield rate than the first-year class of 2021—according to Associate Director of Admissions Leslie Brat. Last Spring, the College received 34 complete applications and four new enrollees out of the 14 students it admitted. Brat noted that, generally, more students apply for transfer in the Fall than in the Spring. There is no fixed number of transfer applicants that the College accepts each semester.

Kam Dunbar, Admissions Office intern and chair of Student Senate, doubted the College’s enrollment and retention will be affected by its ongoing financial troubles. “They’re [prospective students] thinking four years, eight, even the rest of their life out…I don’t think they’re thinking about Oberlin’s structural deficit.”

He also expressed doubt that any faculty departures and staff cuts would discourage prospective students. Said Dunbar: “There are more than enough people here to take care of students and provide a good experience, even if you take 100 of those people out.”

Last month, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid projected it would meet its target admission rate for the class of 2022.

Late in her presentation Ambar stressed the role of everyone in the Oberlin community in maintaining a healthy student population: “I will submit to you…that every person on this campus has a role in admissions and retention.”

Contact staff writer Sam Schuman at sschuman@oberlin.edu