To B.A. or not to be?
In early March, Obies gathered to hear a talk by Andrew Leland, one-time Oberlin student who left the flatlands of Ohio for an editing job at every wisecracking coed’s favorite magazine, The Believer. Leland confessed that the office that made his visit possible was the good old alumni office. Leland, however, couldn’t be considered an alumnus in the traditional sense. He was offered the San Francisco post just months before ducking under the arch. Of course, that didn’t stop Obies from breaking fire code in Wilder to hear how an awkward chain smoker like them had made good in publishing.
Oberlin has been concerned for some time about its student retention rate, which, at 85 percent for 2006, lags behind some of its peer institutions. Many of our admired “alumni” heroes sneaked out before commencement or transferred — Thornton Wilder, James Lawson (he studied at the Theology Seminary), New York Representative Yvette Clark and a couple of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs among them. They aren’t limited to the College, either — but most conservatories do not find it uncommon to lose a senior or two to an actual paying job.
The names span majors and demographics. Some of these dropouts have found acclaim in the arenas of social activism, politics, the arts and even science. While all earn the school bragging rights on guided tours, very few have the purse-strings to call up the Oberlin Fund and pledge five thousand dollars — keep the tote bag, please. That may be because the first step on the path to financial flushness is usually staying in school until you’re 42. There aren’t too many unpaid internships in the oral surgery business, for example.
On those same guided tours, solemn parents with notepads and brains full of Princeton Review statistics want to know how good the school is at shepherding its flock — which is to say, not letting any little lambs wander off.
But as those of us who make it through four years — or six — rightly know, Oberlin’s pasture doesn’t have the tastiest grass for everyone. The academic and social atmosphere simply doesn’t accommodate as many students as it could, even considering its size. Many talented musicians who don’t live up to the Conservatory’s grand plan may be happier gig-hunting in Asheville, NC. And it’s no secret that students of color, especially in recent years, have a notoriously difficult time getting comfortable. The success of Oberlin as an institution is so dependent on the satisfaction of small groups which round out the school’s diversity that it’s no wonder the secrecy surrounding the presidential search makes some of the little lambs rub their hooves together in concern.
Many of the students who fall into those and other categories may transfer, ending up anywhere from the Ivy League to Naropa University. Or they may choose no college at all and go to work at what makes them happier, if not more “marketable,” than academics.
When I was sixteen and at a summer arts program, a visiting artist warned 200 resume-happy high school actors, musicians and writers that if we really wanted to make art, we might want to think about not going to college, at least for a while. But that we shouldn’t tell our parents that he said that.
To the throng of students in Wilder, Leland did not mince the fact that he hadn’t finished his degree — he had left school to do something he loved. For graduating Oberlin seniors, it may be too late to weigh that option, and perhaps for most of us, it was never a consideration. But the admissions office and concerned parents would do well to remember that in a unique and not always career-driven environment like Oberlin’s, many students may see a radical option: to B.A., B.M. — or simply not.