The beginning of the academic year in American higher education invariably seems to be accompanied these days by a growing wave of rankings, surveys, and stories in the media attempting to judge the quality, value, cost, purpose, pitfalls, and promise of a college education. And now the Federal government is joining the ranking parade.
Having worked in higher education for many years, I know rankings are a fact of life. That said, I don’t like them. I don’t believe they come close to capturing the experience of going to a particular college or university. But we all—faculty, students, alumni, administrators, prospective students, and parents—look at them. We all want our alma mater to get high marks. And I think we’re all a little uncomfortable with the data and methodologies used to determine that school A is ten places higher than school B.
As Oberlin’s president, I’ve also written and spoken a lot about the relevance, cost, and value of college education on various media platforms, including a letter to the editor of the New York Times.
Simply put, I believe liberal arts education is the best preparation a young person can have for success in life. I have benefited from and believe in studying the distinctive blend of the humanities, sciences, and the arts that is the essence of liberal arts education. And I know Oberlin prepares students to lead meaningful, considered lives, to flourish in multiple careers, and to be informed, engaged citizens of their communities and the world. By studying languages and literature, for example, students gain insight into other cultures, and learn to see the world from multiple perspectives. In a global economy those are powerful assets.
The efficacy of an Oberlin education can be measured many ways—the economic and career success of our graduates; the commitment our students and alumni have to serving their fellow human beings around the country and the world; their stalwart participation in and support for music and the arts; their generosity of spirit and devotion to teaching and learning; their international orientation, and their steadfast belief in making the world a better place for everyone.
From afar, in years or distance, those may sound like platitudes. But when you meet Oberlin’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents, those qualities are quite evident.
I was thinking of the power of an Oberlin education last night in Finney Chapel during Ishmael Beah’s Convocation talk. In some ways, Ishmael is the quintessential Oberlinian. While he was here, he worked hard, followed his passion, and benefited from the teachings, encouragement, and wisdom of faculty mentors including Professor Dan Chaon and Professor Sylvia Watanabe in creative writing, and Professor Laurie McMillin in Rhetoric and Composition.
Ishmael didn’t know that his student writing project would become his first book, the international bestseller, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Nor did he know that the success of that book and would help him be appointed UNICEF’s first “Advocate for Children Affected by War” and become a high-profile spokesperson for human rights. He was an Oberlin student—albeit from an unusual background—benefiting from this institution’s great traditions of outstanding teaching, devotion to academic rigor, commitment to financial aid, and belief in giving back to society through service.
All those things helped Ishmael Beah—and countless other Oberlin alumni from around the world and from every walk of life—to build meaningful, financially successful lives that benefit their communities and humanity.
That doesn’t lend itself to ranking schemes or headlines. It’s just what Oberlin does—transforming the lives of its students for the better and helping them change the world.
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