In 1997, a telephone survey on behalf of the President's office was conducted of black students who had entered Oberlin between 1987 and 1991 in order to explore the reason why the black student retention rate was so low. The class of '97 black student graduation rate was 39 percent, while the student body as a whole held a rate of 63 percent. The 1998 graduation rate was 65 percent for all students and 59 percent for black students, a twenty-percent increase. Administrators are holding their breath to find out what the rates for students of color will be this year.
College President Nancy Dye says that the administration will not know the numbers until the night before graduation. She also said, "We know we will show improvement." There are reasons as to why there could be such confidence about the retention rates of students of color, but there are many whose hopes are not so high.
Many students feel that the retention rate of students of color is tied directly to the way that they relate to and are treated by others on campus, including the administration. Many students seem concerned, but when last year the Standing Committee On Pluralism and Equality administered a campus-wide survey, less than 10 percent of the student population responded. Dye says that despite this, the committee feels the numbers are enough to do significant statistical analysis.
"The SCOPE study is designed to focus on how can the college do a better job of meeting needs of all students and creating a genuinely multicultural campus," Dye said. In the survey, diversity was designed as encompassing race, age, disability, ethnicity, class, gender, religion and sexual identity.
If the black student retention rate is any indication, Oberlin has been looking at a serious problem in the past that may indeed continue into the future. The 20 percent increase in black student retention may in fact not continue into the future.
Many students feel that one of the problems with retention deals with the presentation of Oberlin to prospective students as oppossed to the reality that they face here on campus. First-year Anika Adilifu, speaking as a black student, said, "It definitely has a lot of untruths that it puts out there. A black student comes to Oberlin and slowly finds out what the real truths are. It makes it more frustrating for them."
Sophomore Katharine Cristiani, who is white, responded similarly. She said, "I think the admittance office does a good job of displaying Oberlin as a really good place for students of color. They send out the whole Bill Cosby video [etc.] to students of color to come here and when they get here they realize it's not the sort of utopian place everyone wants to think it is."
One issue that the SCOPE committee tried, through their survey, to expand on was that of the role of programs on campus that help lessen these feelings. The committee is preparing present recommendations about the Multicultural Resource Center.There was some resentment and opposition toward the MRC evident in some survey responses. One of the problems that some students expressed with the MRC is that they thought it created divisions rather than fostered multiculturalism.
Regardless of one's view of the MRC, it serves as a reliable source of expanding multiculturalism for many, as one of the institutions that helps get them through Oberlin. Other things that have been found to affect whether or not a student of color will make it through Oberlin are involvement in community and help with financial aid. As a result of the black student retention study, the College hired a full-time director of the Bonner Scholars program.
They also made the decision to create a position for a student financial counselor in Student Accounts. Studies showed that students were more likely to graduate if they had support from student support services.
Those who received assistance with financial problems were far more likely to graduate (85 percent) than those who did not receive such help (60 percent). In a random poll, however, two-thirds of students questioned did not even know that this position existed.
A lot of time has been spent concentrating on the financial aid aspect of retention. 81 percent of respondents to the 1997 black student survey had been on financial aid. The graduation rate for those receiving financial aid was the same for those who were not.
There have been improvements since the results of the survey were released, and Dye said that she feels improvements in financial aid have helped the retention rate.
"We also made changes in the ways that the College does registration and enrollment holds. We found a way to get students started fresh and stay current," she said.
But what of students who feel the issue goes a lot farther than financial needs? Dye said, "I think Oberlin could do a lot more in supporting students in crossing cultural boundaries." Many students agree. Many feel that the College needs to live up to the hype in order to help improve the retention rate.
Sophomore Brian Chang said, "I went to another school where it was lacking as far as diversity. I read the Oberlin perspectives and I was very excited, but when I got here I realized that the goals of diversity are not always achieved. The college portrays a different view of interaction than actually occurs on campus."
Cristiani said, "A lot of white students here think they're better than the the rest of the white people in the world, that they're not racist, so they are not willing to deal with the racism that exists on campus.
They don't see the racism," while an anonymous student commented, "I think Oberlin spends too much effort trying to bridge the gap between minorities and others."
Overall, Oberlin College recognizes that student of color retention is a large problem on campus. Dye has suggested establishing focus groups for first-year students, then doing a longitudinal study throughout their Oberlin careers. Examples of focus groups are Bonner Scholars and athletes, whose rates could be compared to non-Bonner scholars and non-athletes. Some of Dye's other ideas are extending freshmen orientation to provide more programs to first-years throughout the year, and having a series of seminars on diversity.
In the meantime, the SCOPE survey results are currently being tabulated by the committee, a study on faculty and staff retention is in the works, and students are just trying to figure out where they stand.
Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 24, May 14, 1999
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