Admissions Forum Addresses Efforts to Improve Diversity
Tensions ran high at Tuesday’s Student Senate Forum on admissions at Oberlin, as admissions representatives and administrators faced charged questions from the students on the subject of diversity and recruitment of minority and low-income students.
Debra Chermonte, the dean of admissions and financial aid, opened the meeting.
“Keep in mind, Oberlin has a long and admirable history of access to education,” she said. “I think that we have different aspirations and outlooks, but I hope we can define Oberlin in a way that we’re proud of.”
Mary Heglar, a senior in the College, was quick to criticize the call for historical perspective.
“Every time the issue of financial aid and diversity comes up, we are told to look at Oberlin’s history and to compare Oberlin to other schools. We need to stop using these [comparisons] as a shield,” Heglar said.
Heglar went on to ask the panel about a rumor surrounding the figure of 100 African-American first-years, a goal she believed was set and abandoned by admissions in the 1970s.
“You say that you can’t find a hundred black students who can compete at Oberlin, and that’s a lie,” Heglar charged.
Although President Nancy Dye was not present for medical reasons, Provost Al MacKay was there to represent her. Attempting to quell students’ anger, he explained, “[In the ’70s], we did not realize how hard it would be [to enroll 100 black first-years]. We had no experience.”
Another crucial theme in the panel’s defense of Oberlin’s diversity was the increasingly competitive market for qualified prospective students of color.
“It’s probably harder now then it was then,” said MacKay. “It’s a lot rougher because a lot more colleges are trying to do what fewer were doing then.”
Associate Director of Admissions Tom Abeyta emphasized Oberlin’s financial difficulties, quoting that three-quarters of Oberlin’s financial aid program comes from tuition and fees, increasing the difficulties in recruiting and enrolling low-income students.
Jill Medina, also an associate director of admissions, explained how she visits high schools across the country to recruit minorities, but that time prevented her from going everywhere. In response, one student suggested that Admissions workers visit fewer private schools in favor of low-income high schools.
Ross Peacock, director of Institutional Research, then presented his statistics findings, which he defended as unbiased since he in no way works for admissions.
Perhaps his most surprising statistic was that the percentage of Oberlin students from the richest one-fifth of the economic stratum dropped from 60 percent in 1989 to 45 percent in 2005. Other figures included Oberlin’s admission rate, which dropped from 58 percent in 1999 to around 36 percent in the last years. Sixty-five percent of Oberlin students receive some financial aid with a total of $39 million in scholarships a year.
The tensest moment of the meeting arose out of a misunderstanding: MacKay, in answering a student’s question about the goal of 100 black first-years, used the anachronistic expression “five dollar answer to a 50-cent question” to excuse his verbosity. Some students understood him to be debasing the validity of the question and elevating the value of his response, and attacked him accordingly.
“I am appalled,” said College junior Eli Szenes-Strauss. McKay promptly apologized for causing anyone to be appalled.
The panel often seemed to be pleading with students to acknowledge their commitment to diversity and accept the sincerity of their efforts.
“I’m not in this job for the money,” said Abeyta. “I
want to see more students have access to a great education. We’ve been
admitting them [minority students]; it’s about them choosing us.”