Oberlin Least Financially Accessible Among Peers

Oliver Bok, Editor in Chief

A recent analysis by The New York Times ranked Oberlin the least financially accessible among its 16 peer schools and 132nd overall.

The Sept. 16 article, “Top Colleges Doing the Most for Low-Income Students,” used the share of students on Pell Grants and the net tuition charged to both middle and low-income students to rank 179 elite colleges and universities.

Administrators in the past have defended Oberlin’s tuition rates by noting that the College has a significantly smaller endowment than peer schools and thus relies heavily on tuition revenue. The Times ranking shows that Oberlin’s endowment-per-student ratio is lower than 13 of 16 elite small liberal arts schools — the so-called “Sweet 16” — that the College considers its peers. To take the most extreme case, Pomona College has an endowment-per-student ratio more than four times that of Oberlin.

However, all three peer schools with lower endowment-per-student ratios than Oberlin — Kenyon College, Connecticut College and Wesleyan University — rank higher than Oberlin in the Times’ analysis, scoring 120, 115 and 38 respectively. Kenyon’s endowment-per-student ratio is just 41 percent of the size of Oberlin’s, Connecticut College’s ratio is 44 percent of Oberlin’s and Wesleyan’s endowment-per-student ratio is 80 percent of Oberlin’s.

According to the Times, Pell Grant recipients constitute 17 percent of Wesleyan graduates and eight percent of Oberlin graduates. From 2011 to 2014, Wesleyan charged an average net tuition of roughly $16,000 to students from households that make $48,000 to $75,000 annually. Oberlin charged around $19,000 in net tuition to the same group of students over the same time period.

In an email to the Review, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Debra Chermonte objected to the use of Pell Grants as an indicator of how many low-income students attend various colleges and universities.

“While it is understandable why Pell is used publicly to measure an institution’s commitment to educating low-income students, measuring financial need by Pell eligibility only is problematic in that there are families with significant need above the Pell threshold,” Chermonte wrote. “With specific regard to Pell it is important to remember that income is only one factor.”

Chermonte warned against reading too much into averages, as a small number of data points can distort the situation substantially. Chermonte pointed to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College, shows how just a handful of unusual cases made it seem like Wellesley had tripled tuition for low income students when, according to Levine, nothing had changed at all (“What’s Wrong with the Government’s College Cost Information — and How to Fix It,” Nov. 21, 2014).

“When dealing with averages, you must remember that just two people with unusual circumstances can skew data when numbers are small,” wrote Chermonte.

Chermonte also noted that Wesleyan’s total revenue is roughly $13 million higher than Oberlin’s.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the median federal debt of undergraduates who completed their Oberlin degree is $25,217. For Wesleyan, the figure is $18,633.

From 2011 to 2014, Oberlin charged an average net tuition of $12,740 to students from households that make $30,000 to $48,000 and $11,158 to students from households that make less than $30,000 a year, according to Chermonte.

To College senior and Student Labor Action Coalition liaison Omar Hurtado, the fact that students have no access to the College budget itself makes it much harder for student voices on financial accessibility to be heard.

“We don’t even know what the budget looks like,” Hurtado said. “If we had some kind of transparency about what our finances looked like, then maybe we could work with trustees.”

To some students, the disparity in financial accessibility is clearly reflected in the makeup of the student body.

“If you look at Wesleyan and Vassar [College], [which] have comparable endowments, they have a much lower average total cost of tuition, and as a result of that, the percentage of low-income students is twice at Vassar what it is at Oberlin and a little bit under twice at Wesleyan,” said College sophomore, Student Senator and Chair of the Financial Accessibility Working Group Jesse Docter.

Docter said he thinks the difference between Wesleyan and Oberlin is mostly a matter of institutional priorities, not a matter of resources. He also emphasized that the College is at an important crossroads on this issue, as the Board of Trustees meets this weekend to make crucial financial decisions.

“I think we should await judgment on the Strategic Planning process,” Docter said. “I think there’s reason to believe the administration may be taking financial accessibility more seriously than they have in the past, but also the budget is going to be reduced this year because of the endowment payout, and financial aid is a common target of that process.”