“Commitment Scholarship” Places Financial Burden On Upperclassmen

This school year marks the first time that Oberlin College has a sticker price — tuition, housing, meal plan, and other fees, before any financial aid is applied — of over $80,000. Tuition is the largest contributor to this figure, coming in at $61,106. These numbers are astounding, especially when you consider that the median household income in the United States was $67,521 in 2020, according to the US Census Bureau. 

While tuition and fees continue to climb, the College has made the decision to grant $10,000 “commitment scholarships” to all students starting at Oberlin in the fall of 2021 or after. To be clear, this isn’t a scholarship you’d apply for or a grant awarded based on demonstrated need; you just need to accept your offer to Oberlin and you will receive the money. Every single member of those classes is entitled to scholarship, regardless of any other factors. Veiled in the rhetoric of understanding and supporting the expenses of higher education, the College is moving to reduce the tuition costs for incoming students. As an independent decision, we applaud the College and its desire to improve access to higher education, and reducing tuition is an important step in the right direction. But this decision doesn’t exist independent of other factors, most notably the fact that students who enrolled at Oberlin before fall 2021 won’t experience these benefits. On the contrary, these students continue to experience tuition hikes, and in a way are footing the bill for the $10,000 commitment scholarships for incoming students. The College also states on its website that this scholarship will be given to all new students enrolling in fall 2023 as well. 

The burden of College fees is not unique to incoming class years, so why do only current first- and second-years, in addition to future classes, benefit from this? There are not currently dire economic circumstances that make it so that new students in 2022 and 2023 have financial constraints not faced by members of other class years. Current third-year students entered college in the midst of a pandemic, during which many people lost their jobs or were otherwise unable to work, therefore resulting in massive losses of income. Global conflict has slowed the economy in significant ways, and that impact is felt by all of us, most especially by lower-income families. If there is a surplus of scholarships to distribute, or the College’s financial circumstances make it so that more money can be given to students, why not introduce dining and housing subsidies, or offer a flat tuition reduction across the board for all class years? The College could, for the same overall cost, offer a $5,000 tuition reduction to every currently enrolled student. Why not improve funding for student worker salaries and create more and better-paid positions? Of all the possible options, why specifically should the College offer $10,000 to new students just for committing to Oberlin? Students who enrolled after fall 2021 do not have outstanding financial needs that other class years do not share.

We are not arguing with the principle of Oberlin providing financial aid to mitigate the prohibitive cost of a college degree; rather, we question the execution and selection of benefactors. As happy as we are for class years receiving commitment scholarships, the whole scheme seems less like an altruistic initiative and more like a strategic move by the admissions office to motivate more people to attend Oberlin. We’ve seen two consecutive years of record-breaking class sizes, but it is also worth noting that both class years have benefitted from the commitment scholarship program. Oberlin famously meets 100 percent of demonstrated financial need — why not instead increase the number of students with higher demonstrated need, possibly even implementing need-blind admissions, then fulfill that demonstrated need? Consider that the $80,000 granted across eight students who don’t otherwise require financial support from the College could instead be used to provide a full ride for one student who couldn’t afford Oberlin any other way. Instead, students whose families can easily afford an Oberlin education are being given unnecessary scholarships. Where is the equitable access to higher education in that? 

As it stands, the problem with the concept of a “commitment scholarship” is that it misses a very obvious base of Oberlin’s already committed student population: upperclassmen. What Oberlin is willing to provide for third, fourth, and fifth years directly influences their connection to the College. By using an established connection with the College as a ballooning revenue flow to entice new applicants, Oberlin is turning away from its obligations to half the students that currently call this College home.