Off the Cuff: Manuel Carballo


Photo courtesy of Manuel Carballo

Manuel Carballo, Dean of Admissions.

Sydney Allen, Editor-in-Chief

Manuel Carballo is the new vice president and dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for Oberlin College. He arrived at Oberlin Aug. 15 with his wife Brooke Escobedo, who works in the Dean of Students office, and his four-year-old son, Julian. Carballo comes to Oberlin from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he served as the coordinator for multicultural recruitment and associate director of Admissions for six years and the director of Admissions for another six years. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. Carballo was born in Costa Rica and has lived in Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you choose to settle in Oberlin?

I am a product of the liberal arts. Home for me is Costa Rica, and I went to Swarthmore College. I originally chose Swarthmore because my sister was there. I have two sisters, and all of us went there. At the time, it was one of the few schools that offered engineering in a small, liberal arts setting. I ended up majoring in something completely different — I majored in economics and went off to grad school in education. But I’ve always loved the liberal arts. I spent the last 12 years at Middlebury College, also a small liberal arts school. I like the idea of the intentional community that we have at liberal arts schools. And from my days at Swarthmore — the idea that it’s not just about the education and that education is not just about the classroom education but about what else is there. In my Swarthmore days, we talked about how Swarthmore had started as a co-ed school, but [after] … Oberlin. There were always little references to Oberlin and Oberlin’s commitment to social justice. So this is a place that I’ve always appreciated [and] liked for its wonderful academic commitments, but also for its creativity and commitment to social justice. I thought it would be a great place to be part of the community but also, quite honestly, a place I would love to see my son grow up, for all the wonderful things that it has.

What specifically do you and the admissions office do?

Our main goal is to bring in a fresh batch of students each year. And we work in conjunction with the Admissions Office in the Conservatory and our friends in Financial Aid. About this time of year, we have colleagues who are traveling all over the country, all over the world. We have a lot of fall visits where we go to high schools and visit students and a bunch of programs on campus as well. So we do a lot of recruiting talking about how wonderful Oberlin is. We do that until early November when we start getting applications, and at that point we switch over to reading applications. [We review] 6,000-plus, 8,000- plus applications … to see who we think should be a part of the Oberlin community. We do a lot of work around reading those files, seeing what those students have to say, seeing what people in the community have to say about them, and trying to figure out what that fit might be. After we send out our decision letters, we go into recruitment. The goal is to basically talk about what Oberlin has to offer and find students who think that that matches up with what they’re looking for.

What exactly are you looking for in Oberlin students?

That’s on the students a little bit. If we’re doing our job right in the Admissions Office, I think it makes it hard for anyone in the community to see what an Oberlin student is. There are going to be some things that are commonalities — a passion for learning, a commitment to being in a small intimate community, an appreciation for sharing ideas. But we hope this is a place that attracts a lot of different kinds of people. Because if we say, “An Obie is this,” we are only going to get one point of view. To me, at the end of the day, the mix of very different types of people is what creates an interesting community. While we’re looking for that student that can impress our professors in the classroom, we hope that outside the classroom our students are going to be very different in some ways. An athlete and an artist, a musician and a scientist [might all be the same person, can come together and say, “This can be home for me”]. So we hope [those] are students from close and far, students who are very religious and those who are not, and students who might be very liberal and those who are conservative, so then we end up getting that exchange of ideas when [they] get here.

Do you have any strategies for doing this job that are different from your predecessor?

For me, it’s an opportunity to build on the work that [former Dean of Admissions Debra Chermonte] has been doing. I see my role as a little bit of a consultant. I get to come in with a fresh set of eyes and ask those questions that we may have already gotten answers to, but [that] maybe no one has asked before. We have new leadership, so maybe the answers to some of those questions [are] different. I want to make sure we are doing things for the right reasons. Integrity is important. Oftentimes it’s seen as Admission’s role to bring in more applications. A lot of times people are saying, “Let’s double the application pool,” and I don’t quite think that’s the right way to do it. If you are doing that by bringing in more students who you think would be wonderful to Oberlin, then that’s a good thing — doing it the right way. … Being able to pick from a better pool — that’s a positive.

This year, Oberlin has had a drop in admissions numbers. Do you think that’s a fluke? What does it mean for this upcoming year?

It’s important to look at that through the national numbers. For years, we saw more and more applications coming in. Once the Common App came in, it was easier to apply to more schools, so for years we saw more and more incoming applications, more students to pick from, more international students coming in. That made it a little bit easier.

That landscape is changing. There are now fewer and fewer high school graduates and declining especially from areas where we historically have yielded more applications. While the population is growing in the South and the West, it’s a little bit declining in Ohio and the Northeast, places that might have a little bit more of that liberal arts mindset we have. Also looking at the Oberlin mindset of where we’ve been the last couple years, [there’s been] some bad publicity in the news, so our goal is to make sure we are continuing to to attract those great Oberlin students and talk about what a great place this is. Is it a long-term trend? Not yet. It’s been a year, a couple years where we’ve struggled with the numbers, but I think that’s what my role means. We still had the highest applicant pool in history this year. It’s not that we are hurting for students and hurting for numbers. It’s about really attracting the right kind of mix of students where we can ask some of those tough questions about financials of the College and making sure we’re bringing in a good number of students. [It’s] also showing we are committed to bringing in students who are a good fit who want to be here.

Do you feel any pressure that 80 percent of Oberlin’s revenue comes from admissions?

Absolutely I feel that pressure. I’m new; we have new leadership. More so than a pressure, I’d say that it’s an awesome responsibility. We’re the ones who get to introduce Oberlin to the world, to talk to prospective students and bring students to Oberlin. It’s exciting that that work is relevant. Enrollment, at the end of the day, is not just about the work of admissions. It’s really about the place we are talking about. In that, we are dependent on students to be our tour guides, our overnight hosts, we reach out to alumni who help us recruit and interview out there, our coaches, our professors. It’s how that all comes together with our wonderful student life on campus. Yes, it’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s also a shared responsibility.

What are your priorities this year?

What we do is tell stories. My job right now is learning about Oberlin and learning what it’s all about. I think right now that it’s important to share the news that Oberlin and the liberal arts are just as relevant today as they have ever been. We are getting more questions now about the value proposition of a college education. Parents are asking about the outcomes of a liberal arts education, so how we talk about that is important to us. It’s something that isn’t always understood out there.