Oberlin Continues Diversity Efforts
On Oct. 25, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education released the findings of its annual survey of African American first-year enrollment in the nation’s top universities and liberal arts colleges. Oberlin, which has 41 black first-years comprising 5.7% of the class of 2010, is ranked as having the 13th highest percentage out of the 30 private colleges Oberlin considers in its “peer group.”
Substantial recruiment and retention of minority students has been a perennial problem that Oberlin has consistently tried to tackle, from dozens of angles.
In light of Oberlin’s efforts year after year to improve the enrollment rates for African American students, ranging from fly-in programs to full scholarships, how does one account for this seemingly low number?
“It’s not terrible, but it’s not good,” said College President Nancy Dye of JBHE’s ranking. “Oberlin will fix this. We are working on understanding why we aren’t getting the numbers we would like.”
Oberlin College Archivist Roland Baumann has done extensive research into and writing about the African American experience at the College.
“Over the last 25 years,” said Baumann in an interview with the Review, “Oberlin has been preoccupied with improving the admissions picture of African American students as well as the retention of them.”
Baumann cited the 1971 proposal to reaffirm Oberlin’s commitment to diversifying the student body. This document confidently stated that “approximately 100 Blacks and ten Spanish-American students [would] be admitted annually beginning with the 1972-73 academic year…12 to 15 percent of incoming freshmen [would be] drawn from Black and other minority groups.”
This commitment dates all the way back to 1835, when the College became the first to open its doors to African Americans.
Although Oberlin did see increases in the numbers of matriculating African American students after this proposal was passed, the numbers were not as high as those for which they had hoped. In fact, last year, in an admissions forum focusing on the state of student diversity on campus, Mary Heglar, OC ’06 charged admissions with having abandoned this goal entirely.
“You say you can’t find a hundred black students who can compete at Oberlin, and that’s a lie,” she said, as quoted by the Review at the time.
In March 2005, an amendment to the strategic plan expressed the need to “enhance the educationally enriching possibilities” of the institution by “expanding and diversifying [the] applicant pool” — with a particular focus on African Americans. Professor of African American Studies James Millette and Professor of Religion A.G. Miller spearheaded this initiative.
This motion has, in effect, replaced the proposal from 1971 as a frame of reference toward looking into the future of minority recruitment.
“Oberlin traditions are not cheap gifts to be used for a while and then discarded as they grow old,” Millette said at the pivotal General Faculty meeting in which the strategic plan was adopted. “In difficult times we should be cleaving to our traditions, not thinking of abandoning them or passing over them in silence in hope that…their protection will be realized.”
College junior and Student Senator Anthony Osei, who has consitently been an advocate for greater diversity in the student body, echoed some of Millette’s sentiments.
“What I’ve heard is that people are very concerned,” said Osei. “Oberlin prides itself [on being] a trendsetter. Oberlin made a promise to admit 100 black students [each year] in the 1970s…[and] not enough is being done to get the ball rolling. Environmental sustainability is important, but we can’t forget the mission we adopted years ago.”
Osei identified a couple possible ways to address the situation. For example, making sure the first impression prospective students receive of the College is actually Oberlin at its best. This would include increasing the number of professors of color and preserving safe spaces like Afrikan Heritage House.
“Safe spaces give minorities a place where they don’t feel constantly under the microscope,” Osei explained.
He also suggested that the Office of Admissions might not be taking full advantage of the resources available to them as far as spreading the word about what makes Oberlin unique.
“[Admissions officers] depend too much on their own resources,” he said. “They should be sending current students home to promote the College rather than sending admissions representatives.”
He argued that direct interaction with Obies who love the school, regardless of any disappointment they might have with the reality of ethnic diversity on campus, will attract more prospective students of color.
At the same time, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Debra Chermonte, along with Associate Director of Admissions Tom Abeyta, identified what they considered to be significant strides in Oberlin’s realization of a truly diversified campus. The first step, they say, has consisted of “broadening Oberlin’s appeal.”
Chermonte referenced the “Fearless” campaign, which “frames the many ways in which Oberlin is courageous and progressive.” Another program highlighted by Chermonte and Abeyta is the annual fly-in program for minority high-school students, which includes overnight stays in program houses like Afrikan Heritage House and Spanish House.
Also important have been collaborations with the Multicultural Resource Center, the Bonners Scholars Program and other departments on campus that can arrange an exciting variety of events for visiting students to take part in.
Chermonte and Abeyta emphasized that the problem lies not in finding minority students to accept, but in convincing students that they should choose to enroll in Oberlin.
“We always give questionnaires to visiting students coming to campus through fly-ins, and what we see the most is that they’re looking for a school with a good reputation,” Abeyta said.
“There was a time when Oberlin was on the cutting edge, when it was the only college thinking about diversifying its campus…thankfully, others are beginning to do the same,” Chermonte added. “These days we have found that, although there is a respect for Oberlin’s history, that isn’t the turnkey in and of itself that is drawing students today. So we need to find other ways.”
A major turning point in the mission to recruit more minority students is the recent collaboration with two new agencies: POSSE and QuestBridge. These organizations link minority and low-income students with prestigious institutions in higher education. POSSE seeks out student leaders from public high schools in large metropolitan areas around the country. Oberlin focuses on participants from Chicago. QuestBridge uses the Internet to match with and introduce qualified applicants to Oberlin admissions officers.
With Round One of early decision barely finished, 13 minority students have already committed to attending Oberlin, having first been introduced through the school through either POSSE or QuestBridge.
“We’ve never seen this many minority students so early in the cycle,” Abeyta said.
Forty-one African Americans in the freshman class is still, at the end of the day, a troubling statistic to reconcile, even for the Office of Admissions.
“One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that yield is the issue at hand,” Chermonte said. “The number of minority students applying to Oberlin is ahead of other institutions, and percentages of applicants of color has been stable.”
“I don’t mean this as an excuse; it’s not,” she continued. “For every person concerned about these numbers, we share their concerns.”