Oberlin Should Invest More in Honors Program

 When I visited Oberlin as a junior in high school, I was intrigued by the College’s honors program. Though the speaker did not go into detail about what the program entailed, it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I would be interested in doing, as well as something that might seem impressive to future post-graduate programs or employers. 

However, after attending two Senior Symposiums during my first and second years as a student, I realize the honors program at Oberlin is much more than I originally thought. It is more than just an opportunity for students to say they graduated “with honors,” or a way to impress future employers and universities. Rather, honors incorporates many elements that draw prospective students here in the first place, and is also the embodiment of what makes Oberlin College such a special place.

The honors program allows Oberlin students to engage with these passions on their own terms. While projects are constrained by department requirements, the program still allows students to hone in and extensively explore topics that may lie outside the scope of classes offered by the College. As a prospective student, one of my favorite things about Oberlin was that students seemed genuinely interested in a variety of topics, many of which I did not know much about myself. While I still feel this way on a day-to-day basis when talking to friends or listening to my peers talk in class, the Senior Symposium schedule is a yearly reminder of all the niche and individualistic interests of Oberlin students.

Although each academic department has its own way of running its honors program, most programs involve working closely with a professor who guides students through the research and writing process. Final products typically take the form of 40- to 60-page papers and a final verbal presentation, although projects may be different depending on the department. This is yet another strength of Oberlin that the honors program incorporates. The student-to-professor ratio is always a major talking point on any Oberlin tour or admissions event. The honors program allows students to access the full benefits of that ratio and work closely with a professor, which is an opportunity that undergraduates at large universities can’t access as easily. 

This is an especially important consideration during a time when liberal arts colleges are trying to figure out how not only to survive, but also prosper. Oberlin and other liberal arts colleges around the country are suffering major financial challenges; some are even being forced to close their doors permanently. There are many things that a large university can offer its students that liberal arts colleges simply cannot, due to financial restraints. However, Oberlin’s honors program, and similar programs at other liberal arts colleges, combines many of the best elements of a liberal arts education: interdisciplinary pursuits, a great student-to-professor ratio, and opportunities for undergraduate research — elements that larger institutions can’t replicate as effectively. 

However, the Office of Admissions does not emphasize the honors program program nearly as much as it should. Due to new financial challenges in higher education, we must now more than ever make the case for why an Oberlin education is valuable — and the College’s robust honors program is one thing that is both unique to a liberal arts education and beneficial for students post-grad. 

To better emphasize this program, the Office of Admissions could take better advantage of the fact that All Roads Lead to Oberlin and the Senior Symposium always happen around the same time period. If both of these events happened simultaneously in the future, it would be a great way to both highlight the meaningful research that Oberlin students are conducting, and also show prospective students the benefits that an Oberlin education, as well as the honors program, have to offer. 

Furthermore, Oberlin should invest more in the honors program. There should be more research funding set aside specifically for students participating in the honors program. Often, being a part of the honors program is a daunting task for many students. The projects are long and time-consuming. Having funding set aside for research might encourage more students to participate, and also attract more prospective students to choose Oberlin over other institutions. 

The honors program and undergraduate research, in general, must be bolstered and promoted to a higher degree in the future, especially as the Academic and Administrative Program Review searches for ways to attract and retain students. They are both unique aspects of an Oberlin education that will lead prospective students to choose Oberlin over other institutions. As liberal arts institutions across the United States face financial distress, we need to ask ourselves what a liberal arts education has to offer that other institutions don’t, and how we can make our programs highly beneficial to students. Our honors program is part of that solution; let’s continue to invest in it.