A Strong Year for Admissions Despite Uncertainty

Despite the challenges that universities around the country have faced regarding depressed enrollment levels for incoming classes, Oberlin has had a successful year recruiting and enrolling new students. 

The beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. aligned closely with the timing of admissions decisions for high school seniors. Around the country, some College administrators began to worry that they wouldn’t meet their commitment goals. After implementing several new programs to engage admitted students, Oberlin has successfully met its admissions target. 

On May 1, when most students had submitted their decisions, Oberlin already approached 100 percent of its acceptance goal.

“We were a little bit shy in the College, and the Con was a little bit high, so roughly we were about 30 [College students] shy, and they were about 30 high,” said Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Manuel Carballo. 

In light of this, the Conservatory admitted a larger class this year despite the One Oberlin recommendation that the Conservatory decrease its student body after finding that College students pay an average of $10,000 more per year than Conservatory students. The decision was made in response to concerns about enrolling a full class amid travel restrictions for international students.

Even after commitment goals are reached, the College must contend with “summer melt” — students who cancel or delay their enrollment. 

“Particularly this year, given the uncertainty around yield and around COVID, I think we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to under-enroll because we knew [summer melt] was coming,” Carballo said.

The College had 53 admit-cancels this year. This figure resembles past years — in 2019, 42 students canceled. As of August 12, the College granted gap years to 77 students, compared to 28 in 2019. 

Of returning second- and fourth-year students, 122 will be taking a leave of absence this fall, compared to 51 students taking personal leave in the fall of 2019, according to Associate Dean of the Registrar and Academic Advising Trecia Pottinger.

In comparison, Conservatory Admissions has had limited summer melt. This year, the Conservatory only had nine students defer their admissions offer.

“Typically, melt in the Conservatory is not as big of an issue as with typical College admissions,” said Director of Conservatory Admissions and Enrollment Management Beth Weiss. “I think it has something to do with the fact that music students pick their teacher. It’s very personal. It’s very protracted — they spend a lot of time finding the right school, the right teacher to take them to the next level.”

With many changes coming to campus next fall, students may feel wary about attending Oberlin when many parts of the traditional college experience are no longer possible. However, College first-year Josie Rosman explained that College was still the best option for her. 

“I was vaguely considering taking a gap year, but I’ve been so excited to get to college that I knew I wouldn’t want to delay my experience for anything that I wasn’t at least as excited about, and most gap year plans I was looking at (like traveling) were suddenly out of the question, so I decided against it,” Rosman wrote in an email to the Review.

Carballo believes that many incoming first-years feel similarly to Rosman. 

“The real challenge with COVID is what are the alternatives?” Carballo said. “What we are hearing from students informally is, ‘I’m nervous about these things, but I would rather be [on campus] than be [elsewhere]’… just this idea of, ‘This has been really disruptive, and I’m looking really forward to that next step.’”

Part of the College’s success has been due to Admissions’ adoption of virtual programming to help students get the Oberlin experience remotely. This year, the College increased funding for All Roads Lead to Oberlin and prepared to welcome more students to campus for the admitted students weekend. Because the pandemic sent students home just weeks before All Roads, the program was held virtually instead.

“Roughly 25 percent of the admitted students would come to an All Roads experience,” Carballo said. “We went from that to then having it accessible to 100 percent of the students.”

The College also created the Uncovering COVID-19 program, a series of interdisciplinary Zoom classes in the spring and summer. This course allowed students to get a feel for Oberlin curriculum, faculty, and prospective students.

“The All Roads events and the Uncovering Covid-19 class gave me a clear picture of (at least some of) the kind of people who go to and teach at Oberlin — I was blown away by everyone’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and openness,” Rosman wrote. “I could tell that I would feel at home at Oberlin, so I could make my decision with confidence.

The Peer Advising Leader program, which helps students who intend to enroll transition to campus life, was also expanded this year. PAL cohorts meet several times a week throughout the month of August to help students navigate starting college in the midst of a pandemic. 

“We were able to take our time with it, and we were also able to build in a lot more content,” Director of PAL and SOAR Nathan Carpenter said. “We were able to have some sessions exploring the regional context of Oberlin and Northeast Ohio, and how it impacts the student experience; we were able to spend more time on communication strategies and skills; and we were able to do some more reflection work and planning work. There was a huge opportunity there to really work with students for a month as they prepare for their first semester, that I think will ultimately be very beneficial.”

Going forward, Admissions will face new challenges in the fall, when staff would typically travel domestically and internationally to visit high schools and the College would host prospective students on campus. Instead, Admissions will continue to hold virtual information sessions for high school students. 

Conservatory Admissions is currently discussing how to safely hold auditions, which typically bring an influx of prospective students and their parents to campus in the spring.

Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, both the College and Conservatory plan to continue using digital programming to increase accessibility to Admissions’ panels and information. Although Zoom cannot replicate some of the experiential events available on campus, the platform does offer distinct advantages to international students and students who cannot afford to travel to Oberlin.

“The stuff that we figured out in the spring with all the virtual content is great and … even when things go back to normal … down the line, we are going to use some of those techniques with Zoom,” Weiss said. “We are doing info sessions right now that are virtual — we have some great assets online that [Conservatory Communications] made for virtual tours, and we are building on that.”

First-years who are not studying remotely this semester arrived on campus early last week. The first week of classes is currently being held over Zoom due to test processing delays.