Enrollment and retention are two of the most immediate issues that Oberlin College must address. That much has become clear over the last few years, as the College has seen its Moody’s credit rating drop and budget deficit soar due in large part to unexpected enrollment shortfalls.
Naturally, the College’s administration is looking to address these problems that have a significant impact on College finances — the PAL program is a prime example. Created by Associate Dean of Students Dana Hamdan, PAL seeks to address feelings of discontent and isolation among first-year students that have negatively impacted retention.
One aspect of student life that has been overlooked in discussions of how to address student unhappiness and dropout rates is College facilities, particularly dorms. It’s no secret that Oberlin’s dorms are not in good shape. Some of them, like Barrows Hall and South Hall, are often the target of criticism for failing to support students’ well-being. Barrows, for example, has the capacity to house 130 students, but only offers a single drinking fountain. Its bathrooms regularly flood. Such conditions are unacceptable, particularly at a school like Oberlin, where many students pay more than $70,000 in tuition and other costs and often take on significant debt in order to attend.
It has become part of the Oberlin ethos to make light of — and perhaps even take a perverse pride in — the “jankiness” of our facilities. This dynamic is representative of how Oberlin students talk about the many stressors in our lives — work overload, lack of sleep, and isolating social conditions, to name a few. These factors are unceremoniously bundled into a romanticized view of Oberlin life that is unhealthy in many ways.
In reality, there is nothing funny about inadequate dorms. Living spaces, both private and shared, have profound impacts on mental health. Returning to poor living conditions every night can be demoralizing for students — especially first-years who may already be struggling with the transition to college.
Parents and guardians — the people who are, in many cases, writing the tuition checks — have expressed serious concerns about the condition of Oberlin’s dorms. Following first-year move-in this past August, these complaints reached President Carmen Twillie Ambar herself. She responded by tasking Residential Education with double-checking all of the living spaces that were unoccupied at the time, prior to the official move-in period for returning students. ResEd’s student and professional staff meticulously catalogued all the various damages and structural issues in dorms across campus.
The connection between parent concern and student retention should be clear. A significant amount of the money that families are paying to send their children to Oberlin is directly tied to the residential experience, and the rest of the bill is connected indirectly to the same. If parents’ faith in Oberlin to provide a positive, healthy living situation for their children wavers, then their trust in and support of the rest of the institution begins to crumble as well.
Leaving the poor state of dorms across campus out of the conversation concerning enrollment and retention is an oversight that must be addressed. Oberlin students are required to live in on-campus housing for at least their first six semesters of enrollment, and a significant part of that experience centers around dorms. This residency requirement prevents students from moving to off-campus houses, which often cost significantly less than living in a dorm and are in better condition than many options on campus. For this requirement to be fair to students, the College must concentrate on providing dorms that students do not dread living in for three years.
Responsibility for living spaces does cut both ways, however — both the College and students must hold themselves accountable for keeping dorms liveable. Adequate resources must be allocated not only to cleaning services, but to structural upkeep. Coupled with this institutional commitment, students must also take a sense of ownership of their buildings and make an effort to keep them clean and liveable. In particular, kitchens and bathrooms are often treated with blatant disregard for fellow residents and custodial staff. Part of the dominant student perspective on the dorms is that they do not need to be respected because they are often in poor structural condition. This perspective must shift in order for healthy, productive communities to thrive — we must make do with what we have, out of respect for others in our community, while reminding the College that the structural issues in our facilities must be addressed.
It’s true that the College’s financial situation is troubled, and there’s not a lot of money to go around. Our deficit will only continue to grow, however, if we do not address the steady stream of students choosing to either not enroll or not remain at Oberlin. Part of the solution must be addressing the problem of inadequate living facilities on campus. Unfortunately, that may mean spending money in the short term to secure the happiness of Oberlin students and financial security of the College in the long term.