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Study shows Oberlin's difficulty in retaining black students

by Janet Paskin

For anyone who has attended an Oberlin commencement in the last few years, it is no surprise to learn that Oberlin has been better at getting black students here than it has been at keeping them.

President Nancy Dye became concerned that Oberlin was not living up to its historical committment to graduating black students after she noticed that the number of black graduates crossing the stage at commencement in 1995 was far fewer than she expected. According to Ross Peacock, director of institutional research, the six-year graduation rate for the college is 88 percent, while for black students in the college it is 66 percent.

Following this revelation, Dye commissioned a study on black student retention to better assess the difficulties Oberlin has had retaining black students.

The preliminary results of the study begin to explain why black students do and do not graduate from Oberlin. The strongest predictor of retention was involvement in community service, multicultural activities and student government. Academic performance, choice of major, high school grades, SAT scores and financial aid were not related to retention, according to the study.

The study was administered through phone interviews with over 150 black alumni, including African-American, African and Caribbean graduates who attended Oberlin in the years 1987 through 1991.

The study, which was conducted by Special Assistant to the President Diana Roose, has received high praise from Dye. "It's a very, very well-done study," she said.

Roose said, "We had faculty who knew about survey design, as well as research on retention, as well as statistics. We had students who knew the problems firsthand and could also interview former students very sympathetically. It was a group effort, which made it strong."

Although the final analysis of the survey results is not complete, Dye spoke about some of the preliminary findings at the African-American alumni reunion April 12.

Retention, Dye said, is a complex issue. There are many factors in a student's decision to stay or to leave Oberlin. There is no single cause and no single cure.

The study showed that involvement in community service, multi-cultural activities, or student government was a strong indicator of retention. Brian Williams, intern for African-American students in the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), called that finding "logical." "If you feel like you have no stake in a community," said Williams, "you are more likely to leave. But if you are working towards something, you are more likely to stay."

By doing community service, "I'm actually seeing my results, which translates academically into me realizing that if I work hard, I can see outcome," said Ari Jones, a college senior. "People who do community service are willing to work hard, and that's a general theme of academic success," she added.

Students who were in frequent contact with Student Academic Services were also more likely to graduate. Student Academic Services is responsible for "special populations," said Gloria White, associate dean for Student Academic Services and math instructor. Special populations include "first generation college students, low income students, disabled students and international students. Many are students of color," White said.

Financial aid was not a predictor of graduation, but the high cost of Oberlin was acknowledged as one of the reasons some students don't graduate. "Oberlin has not been as competitive or as generous in meeting students' financial needs," Dye said when she addressed the African-American alumni. The audience responded with loud applause.

Alumni at the reunion emphasized the obstacle that the cost of Oberlin poses. Denise Rodney, OC'91, said that the students she knew who left Oberlin before graduation withdrew for financial reasons.

White confirmed that financial difficulties are a significant factor in students' decisions to withdraw or to take time off.

Andy Evans, Vice-President of Finance, said that Oberlin has made a concerted effort to keep costs down, and that financial aid is a top priority. Ten years ago, he said, financial aid was 14 percent of the budget. This year, it is 22 percent.

In addition to a commitment to more financial aid, the college will be hiring a financial counselor. The counselor will assist students, helping them to obtain, keep and budget their resources before they even arrive at Oberlin.

Maelinda Turner, OC'91 and a participant in the African-American alumni conference, stressed the importance of money. "You can counsel all you want," said Turner, "but can you come up with the money?"

The study also showed that academic performance, choice of major, high school grades and SAT scores and financial aid were not related to retention. These results were also met with loud applause at the reunion luncheon. "Black students who get here can do the work," Williams said.

Junior Amy Silveri agreed. "There are some misconceptions about affirmative action," Silveri said. "[There is an idea] that some mediocre black student is taking the place of an intelligent white student. Black students can do the work. [The finding] supports the idea that they belong here."

In addition to the financial counselor, White suggested that increased diversity of the faculty might make a difference. "It is important for students to be able to maintain close relationships with people who look like themselves," said White.

Silveri stressed the importance of feeling represented on campus. "Black is not enough," she said. "You have to be represented. In terms of black women, there are only two black female tenured professors. I need to see myself represented here. I want to be a professor, and I need to see that there are black women professors out there in departments other than African-American studies."

To gauge retention, the college uses the percentage of a given first-year entering cohort who graduates within six years of matriculation and the percentage of a given first-year cohort returning for the second year.

The first-to-second year return rates are comparable. The overall rate of first-to-second year return for cohorts entering the college in 1993, 1994 and 1995 was 88 percent. For the same year, the first-to-second year return rates for African-American students was identical.


Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 22, April 25, 1997

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