Oberlin Blogs

Battle of the Liberal Arts

March 24, 2024

Ozzie Frazier '27

If I know one thing about Obies, it is that we are exactly like all other liberal arts students. Well, not really. We're actually super unique and cool and different. But I do know that the majority of us fall into similar demographics as other liberal arts students, which means we all applied to basically the same colleges. For example, I know at least 30 people who applied to Bard, Skidmore, or Vassar in addition to Oberlin. If you are currently trying to decide between any of those schools, I probably won't be of much use (as I applied ED at Oberlin), but I can help with one dilemma in particular: Oberlin vs. Reed. Now, you might be thinking, "Ozzie, why would you know anything about Reed College?" and that would be an excellent question. The answer is that my childhood best friend goes to Reed, and I am currently visiting her on my spring break. Therefore, I am the perfect candidate to write a (mostly unbiased) comparison between the two.

Admittedly, this is a juxtaposition that some might find peculiar, as the two schools are geographically very far apart, but you might be surprised by how much overlap there is. I have several close friends at Oberlin who "almost" went to Reed (their words), and I've met at least a handful of people here at Reed who also applied to Oberlin. If you're looking for further proof of this crossover, the comparison has even been made by the illustrious Lorelai Gilmore! In episode 6 of Gilmore Girls Season 7, Lorelai is talking to Rory on the phone and says, "You know who'd make a great mascot? Paul Anka! I'm not sure if he's the Ivy League type though. He might need more of a hacky-sacking, poetry-reading, tie-dyeing kind of place... like Reed or Oberlin, where the air is sweet with the scent of patchouli." So, if you are looking for a place to hacky-sack to your heart's content, I'm here to help you pick The Right Liberal Arts School for you.

The first and most obvious difference between the two schools is size. Where Reed has a population of about fifteen hundred, Oberlin's student body numbers almost three thousand, making it nearly double the size (partially because of the conservatory). Neither size is necessarily good or bad, but the population of a school does impact the experience you will have there: if you want a more tight-knit feel, Reed may be the way to go, but if you're worried about being able to meet a lot of people, Oberlin offers you a larger student body. Oberlin's campus is also bigger than Reed's, which means you may have to do more walking around if you don't own a car. That being said, both campuses are easily navigable by foot (although most Oberlin students also bring a bike to campus). 

The size of the campus may also impact your housing and dining experience. For example, Reed is small enough that it only has one dining hall, but not all the students are on the meal plan. My understanding is that Reed students are only required to live on campus for 2 years, after which many students leave the meal plan in favor of nearby apartment housing. Oberlin, on the other hand, boasts a "foodie culture" with 4 different dining halls and 5 retail dining locations, including a coffee shop, burger joint, and sushi bar. It's also far more common to live on campus all four years.

While I enjoy the variety of Oberlin's dining halls, I will say that I have also been pleasantly surprised by the options at Reed. This mostly boils down to a quantity vs. quality dilemma: would you rather have more options that can be sort of hit-or-miss, or only one dining hall that delivers consistently yummy results? Another thing to note is that Oberlin is one of only a handful of schools in the country with coop dining and housing options. If you're interested in learning more about dining in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (or OSCA), you can read Biba's blog about cooking in Tank.

The other main difference between Reed and Oberlin is proximity to the city. Oberlin is a full 30-minute drive from Cleveland, so it's much less common for students to leave campus. As someone who grew up in a rural area, I personally love the town of Oberlin and the open campus, but I know it sometimes feels confining for students who hail from big cities. Because of this, the Oberlin administration works really hard to organize enough on-campus events to keep everyone entertained. You will always have something to do!

Conversely, Reed is nestled in a cute residential area of Portland, with a lot more access to events in the city and public transportation, which can definitely be a benefit. It seems to me that there are fewer events happening on campus, but there's less of a need because the entire city of Portland is within reach. For safety reasons, Reed's campus is also a bit more closed off than Oberlin's, so if you're looking to connect with the community around your college, that might be something to consider. 

I have found Reed's campus to be pretty quiet compared to Oberlin, but I've been told I'm staying in one of the quietest dorms, so I'm not sure how accurate my analysis is. My hypothesis is that the lack of noise may be correlated with the lack of varsity athletes, but I have yet to conduct any real research on this. Reed also doesn't really have a central quad, so I think it's less common for students to gather outside. Where Reed has trees and lakes (just one lake really), Oberlin has large expanses of grass, which means that students tend to congregate in central locations more frequently, especially in Wilder Bowl or Tappan Square. Oberlin does have an arboretum for those who need to walk in the woods, but the campus itself is definitely less nature-y. It's also harder to see the stars in Oberlin than in Portland, which sort of surprised me. Not sure what that's about.

I don't know very much about academics at Reed, but I do know that they have a unique grading system. Taken from their website, "Reed College encourages students to measure academic achievement by intellectual growth and by self-assessment of their grasp of course material. The registrar's office does not distribute grades to students, provided that work continues at satisfactory levels." 

Although I have focused primarily on the differences between these two schools, they also have a lot in common. Ultimate frisbee & rugby teams, mostly open curricula, gay people, no Greek life, weird fashion trends, stoner culture, niche interest groups, etc. Students come to both Reed and Oberlin from all over the country (and the world!), though there is a bit of a coastal majority at each school—east coast for Oberlin, west coast for Reed. I hope this blog has helped you understand the nuances between the two schools. And, if you're trying to choose between them, I wish you the best of luck. There's a lot to love about both! 

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