Each year between 70 and 75 percent of Oberlin first-years report that they have at least some concern about how they will finance their Oberlin education.
This isn't surprising, since the cost of attending Oberlin, and schools like it, continues to rise faster than inflation, and the costs aren't expected to fall anytime soon.
But the cost of higher education isn't just squeezing students; liberal arts colleges around the country are finding it more and more difficult to balance their budgets, due in part to ballooning financial aid needs.
Oberlin is no exception. Last year the College went overbudget on financial aid spending by $1.4 million, and this year they expect to spend $600,000 more than they anticipated.
This squeeze has forced Oberlin to follow the trend set by peer schools to begin considering ability to pay when making admissions decisions.
In light of this fact, Oberlin implemented need-sensitive admissions for the first time this admissions cycle. Although the policy had been approved by the General Faculty in 1993, it had not been practiced.
It doesn't take much vision to see that this new policy contradicts Oberlin's traditions of inclusiveness, openness and diversity. During the debate about the issues, opponents have been eager to point this out.
In addition to threatening diversity, some people - particularly those in the Conservatory - fear the move to need-sensitivity will give Oberlin less ability to attract top students.
Mike Manderen, director of Conservatory admissions, said music schools often compete for top students with scholarships. "The switch is going to make it very difficult to compete for the students we'd like to have," he said.
Despite various projections, no one is quite sure what the impact of changes in financial aid will be. Admitted students must declare on Saturday whether they plan to enroll at Oberlin next fall, and even then the make-up of the class won't be really set until September.
One fact administrators have emphasized throughout the year is the need-sensitivity will affect only borderline admissions cases.
Director of college admissions Debra Chermonte described the admission's process, and the way need-sensitivity fits into it: each applicant is assigned an advocate, to read their application. The application is then sent to another reader, and sometimes a third. At this point applications are brought to the admissions committee. The committee looks at qualifications from GPA and SAT scores, to written comments and class rank.
Chermonte said that when borderline cases come up, she might bring up the applicants' ability to pay. "There is somewhat of an emphasis on ability to pay when it comes to marginally qualified students," she said. Chermonte said that this year about 3 to 5 percent of applicants were in that borderline category.
Admissions in the Conservatory work very differently. Most of the emphasis on admissions is based on auditions, and the faculty of individual departments play an important role in both ranking applicants and encouraging top candidates to choose Oberlin.
Admissions in the Con are also complicated by the fact that they need certain numbers of each instrument or department. "It's like fielding a baseball team," Manderen said.
Manderen said that this year ability to pay was also a consideration for some applicants.
"When we projected the class we saw the dollars would be stretched," Manderen said. "Something had to give and it was the merit program."
"The reality is if we did everything we could to enroll the 50 most talented students, there wouldn't be a penny left for the rest of the class," he said. "Obviously we are going to try to enroll some of the them, but we have to provide for the needs of the others as well."
Neither Chermonte or Manderen particularly enjoyed implementing need-sensitive admissions. They both agreed that in a perfect world, ability to pay wouldn't have to be a concern.
"It is a tough thing to do," Chermonte said. "You come to care very deeply about the students you are working with."
Manderen said financial concerns don't integrate well with the ideals of the Conservatory. "We tend to look at the awarding of scholarship gift aid as an investment," Manderen said.
Manderen also said aid has allowed the Con to attract highly talented international students. "It seems like a disproportional number of the most talented, deeply artistic applicants are from parts of the world where - because of exchange rates - there isn't enough money to pay for a school like Oberlin," Manderen said.
While there are many drawbacks to need-sensitive admissions, there are some advantages as well, according to Chermonte and Manderen. The most important advantage is that the college can meet all of students' demonstrated financial need.
Chermonte said that when the General Faculty passed the original approval of need-sensitive admissions, Oberlin was "gapping" 10 percent of students' need. This means that they were meeting just 90 percent of students' demonstrated need.
"The original change came with the mandate that we no longer do that," Chermonte said. "It is more honorable."
Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman agreed. "Everyone agrees that the ideal situation is that we admit students regardless of need. We've come to a point where that ideal is no longer possible," Lindeman said. "I'd rather be able to meet the need of students we admit."
Lindeman said the method used to determine financial aid packages is roughly formulaic. He said families are expected to contribute roughly half their income, after being adjusted for taxes and living expenses. They also look at some family assets, but the first $40-50,000 are ignored. Retirement accounts are also overlooked.
Special circumstances - such as parents' separation or siblings in school - are also considered when the Office is informed of them.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 22, April 30, 1999
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