President Carmen Ambar and other senior administrators have launched an 11-day presentation campaign in which all College and Conservatory faculty, administrative and professional staff, Student Senate, student media, and other constituencies will see the largest overview of Oberlin’s financial situation to date, along with Ambar’s proposed plan to rectify Oberlin’s ever-worsening deficit.
The College managed to reduce its deficit from $5 million to $3 million this year, largely due to a last-minute admissions push that secured an additional 27 students at the beginning of the academic year. Unexpectedly high investment returns after a market uptick also contributed to the decrease.
Despite the unexpected financial pickup, the College’s current structural model still yields a bleak future, as the deficit is projected to rise to about $9 million next year — and that’s if the market stays consistent.
Given this concerning model, Ambar has proposed hiring an outside consulting firm — Stevens Strategy — to evaluate every academic and administrative department on campus in a data-centered review. The Board of Trustees will ultimately decide on Ambar’s proposal during their March quarterly meeting.
“We haven’t selected Stevens Strategy yet,” Ambar said. “This is really a board decision, and so I think the board will take this up this discussion in the March board meeting, and I think we’ll have some clarity about the way forward. Certainly, I’ve worked with them before; I think they’re the right group … [The Financial Sustainability task force] has seen them present, but they will be at the full board meeting in March.”
Stevens Strategy is the same company Ambar used when she was president of Cedar Crest College, as they worked through the same process. The group’s mission statement describes its work as “managing the process of strategic change in colleges, universities, and schools.”
“What I like about Stevens Strategy is that I think the way they approach this challenge is very Oberlin,” Ambar said. “It has a lot of open forums. All the data is shared campus-wide. The process of thinking about the types of data you’ll consider is not imposed from the outside. The committee and their groups make that determination and try to figure out what types of data points we’ll use for — academic quality, let’s say.”
The New Hampshire-based group has consulted with nearby schools such as Hiram College, Tiffin University, and John Carroll University, to name a few.
Despite Ambar’s confidence in the group, some faculty members aren’t as optimistic about appointing an external organization to assess the value of an academic institution.
“Frankly, consulting companies are not competent to make judgments about the quality of academic departments,” said James Monroe Professor of Politics Chris Howell. “We all have program reviews, every single academic program at Oberlin undergoes a program review where outside academics — leaders in their field — come in and evaluate the program. Those are the people who can evaluate your program, not a consulting company.”
According to the presentation, the review will assess all College expenditures, programs, and departments on four parameters: quality, mission centeredness, marketability, and financial viability. It will be spearheaded by a group of College and Conservatory faculty, administrative and professional staff, and potentially Board of Trustee members and students.
Though the particular makeup of the group is currently unknown, it will be the driving force behind the process, which could take between 18 months and two years to complete. The finalized data will be the primary basis for future budgetary and structural changes within the College.
A crucial component of the review will be campus-wide transparency, as all College constituencies will have access to the data as the committee works through it — although Ambar said this may be difficult once the data starts rolling out.
“When you see in stark reality that this unit has 10 majors but 11 faculty and one unit has six faculty but 80 majors, everybody has to see that,” she said. “The data gets laid bare and that also can be uncomfortable despite the fact that people want transparency, so it does test the community’s ability to practice what they preach about that.”
In the meantime, the College will be further tightening its purse strings to combat the creeping deficit. College faculty will see another salary freeze for the 2018–19 school year, after which time they will have a 2 percent increase in their salaries per year, a move some faculty members say puts Oberlin far behind our peer liberal arts schools such as Swarthmore and Amherst. There will also be changes to employee benefits.
“It’s terrifying because Oberlin faculty salaries are already well below the median of our peer group,” Howell said. “They are actually building a budget model, stretching out indefinitely, in which every year our salaries will be lower than those of our peers.”
The General Faculty Council, the College Faculty, the Conservatory Faculty, and administrative and professional staff have seen the announcement. Ambar will hold a media session Monday and present to Student Senate Tuesday.
“I’m looking forward to seeing a comprehensive budget plan from the President to address the long-term financial issues facing this school and its students,” said College junior and Student Senator León Pescador.
Oberlin is not alone in this deficit, as the pool of high schoolers looking for a college education continues to shrink. High school seniors are also increasingly questioning the value of a liberal arts education, as data shows more and more parents and prospective students seeking out concrete avenues to employment from their college degrees.
According to reports by Inside Higher Ed., for the 2017–18 school year only 34 percent of private colleges nationwide met their admissions goals. Oberlin generates over 80 percent of its income through student admissions, making the College’s financial security difficult, given the stark, competitive landscape of prospective students.
Although Oberlin has had an official admissions target of 2,950 per year, it has only reached this twice in the last decade, hinting at the antiquated way the College has approached an ever-evolving higher education market.
Vice President of Admissions and Financial Aid Manuel Carballo stressed the need for Oberlin to change its tactics, given Oberlin’s high price tag, the recent waves of bad press, and a general demographic shift from our student body.
“Demographic shifts have been a common topic of conversation among colleges and universities,” he said. “As the population of high school graduates evens out after years of increases and we see [population] declines in areas of the country that have been traditional feeders for us, we are having to adjust to these changes. We are also seeing more students applying for financial aid each year, which has a direct effect on schools like Oberlin who commit to meeting the full demonstrated need for all of its students.”
Donald R. Longman Professor of English Sandra Zagarell left Wednesday’s College Faculty meeting with a renewed commitment to resolving the overall budgetary issues.
“I was very impressed with the thoroughness and granularity of President Ambar’s presentation and with her commitment to transparency and to Oberlin,” Zagarell said. “One of my many takeaways from her presentation is that for employees, thinking institutionally and self-interest are intertwined. As a faculty member, for example, it is in my interest, both financial and professional, and in keeping with my commitment to higher education, that Oberlin College thrive.”
There will be a student forum Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 8:00 p.m. in room 306 in the King Building, which will give students the opportunity to see the presentation and ask questions about the financial situation and the proposed solution.