Welcome to this 20th installment in my series of articles about great American universities. Today we visit Oberlin College and Conservatory, a highly regarded liberal arts school with one of the best music programs in America (or anywhere).
My readers might be particularly interested in Oberlin because it is one of the private institutions in the U.S. that provides a comprehensive financial aid package for every student. There is, however, much more to commend the school than just its generosity.
U.S. News & World Report ranks Oberlin in the top 25 of the hundreds of pure liberal arts schools in the United States. The Conservatory consistently hits the top of national and international rankings, and the College consistently rates well on the overall higher education (not just liberal arts) lists generated by various publications and other evaluators. Oberlin has been ranked #1 in the State of Ohio (which has 12 million residents and several dozen notable colleges and universities).
Oberlin College and the surrounding town of Oberlin were both founded in 1833 by Presbyterian ministers. The first students did not pay any tuition, as they were expected to serve the community and contribute to the construction and maintenance of the town during their studies. This ethos was crystallized in the school’s motto, “Learning and Labor.” The work ethic and progressive mentality defined by the original cohort of students are still very much alive on the campus today.
The school has won many accolades for its forward-thinking stance on major social issues, but perhaps none more so than its stance against slavery. Oberlin was the first college in America to regularly admit African-American students, beginning in 1835, and was a main stop on the famous Underground Railroad that spirited slaves to freedom in the North. A century later Oberlin students led sit-ins, rallies, protests, and demonstrations that helped bolster the American Civil Rights Movement.
Oberlin is also the oldest continuously operating coeducational institution in the U.S., first admitting women in 1837. In 1862 it became the first higher education institution in America to confer a bachelor’s degree to a black woman. Today, Oberlin continues to celebrate diversity and is listed as one of the 20 friendliest LGBT schools in the country, with multiple centers, organizations, and cooperatives for LGBT or questioning students.
Situated on a park-like 500 acres (202 hectares), Oberlin has a small student population of just 2,900 — 600 in the Conservatory of Music and 2,300 in the College of Arts and Sciences. Ninety percent of all students live on campus or in campus-owned housing. As of 2011, Oberlin allows students to room with any other consenting student, regardless of gender, in almost every residence facility on campus.
The school maintains an environmentally sustainable campus. One of the first to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, it aims to have a carbon neutral footprint by 2025. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this commitment is the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, which set the standard for sustainable buildings on college campuses and has a 4,600 square-foot (427 square-meter) voltaic array and a “living machine” that purifies waste water.
The internationally acclaimed Lewis Center houses, of course, a rigorous environmental studies and conservation program with a wide array of specialized courses including ecological design, sustainable agriculture, solar energy, and conservation biology. In addition to environmental studies, Oberlin also offers well regarded degrees in biology, creative writing, and teaching. In the spirit of a pure liberal arts program, students commonly double-degree or take a major plus a minor, expanding the breadth of their studies and experience.
Among Oberlin’s strong offerings, the Conservatory is a world renowned stand-out and the oldest continuously operating music degree program in the United States. Admission to the Conservatory is very selective, and there are just over 100 openings for new students each year. It offers private study in most fields of the musical arts, and alumni of the program can be found in world-class ensembles around the world. Many students in the Conservatory simultaneously pursue a second degree in the College of Arts and Sciences.
One of the most unique offerings at Oberlin is the Experimental College. If Oberlin does not offer a particular course that students wish to take, the students themselves can create the class and add it to the curriculum. Recent examples range from philosophical studies to the art of hacky sack, and a certain number of such experimental courses can be taken for credit by any student. If the class is a success, it will be kept from one year to the next.
Oberlin is one of the few elite private educational institutions that offer 100% of demonstrated financial need to every student admitted to the school, including international students. The college is “need-aware,” meaning that the school may take your ability to pay into account when making admissions decisions. Students who are admitted often find that the majority of their tuition is covered by the College.
The school boasts a great number of famous alumni including Broadway legend Julie Taymor, Oscar-winning writer William Goldman, numerous Grammy winners including Marc Cohn, Eric Bogosian, Lena Dunham, Ed Helms (of The Office), Jim Burroughs, James McBride (author of The Color of Water), Ishmael Beah (who wrote A Long Way Gone), Jerry Greenfield (cofounder of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream), John Gutfreund (the King of Wall Street), Charles Martin Hall (founder of Alcoa), 10 MacArthur Fellows, and 3 Nobel Laureates (all in sciences).
Given its long history and unique orientation, it should be no surprise that Oberlin has dynamic campus life and a strong sense of tradition. Reflecting the school’s origins in community service and working while studying, the school’s mascots are the Yeoman and Yeowoman. Among its sports offerings, the most famous are the Ultimate Frisbee teams — the Flying Horsecows (for men) and the Preying Manti (for women), both of which are perennial national championship contenders. The men’s and women’s rugby teams are also popular and competitive.
One of the most interesting and surprising school traditions at Oberlin (or anywhere that I’ve seen) is called Art Rental, launched in the early 1940s to “develop the aesthetic sensibilities of students and encourage ordered thinking and discrimination in other areas of their lives.” For $5 per semester, students can “rent” original works by Picasso, Renoir, Warhol, Dali, and other renown artists from the Allen Memorial Art Museum to hang in their dorm rooms.
Another interesting tradition is the Oberlin Rocks, a collection of large boulders on campus that are regularly painted by students to advertise upcoming events, commemorate important anniversaries, or otherwise express their views. Anyone is allowed to paint a message on the rocks by simply covering up what was painted before. It is unusual to see any rock stay the same for more than a few days, and in fact the rocks sometimes change appearance multiple times in an afternoon.
The Big Parade is a recent addition to the school’s lengthy list of traditions. A major “town-and-gown” event, the Big Parade encourages campus organizations, residential houses, local businesses, community groups, and individuals to march in ways that express themselves as they see fit. The procession leads to a festival with food and entertainment, a perfect opportunity to bring students together with the Oberlin community.
Oberlin also runs a Convocation Series, another town-and-gown program that brings leading thinkers to campus for lectures and seminars open to students, faculty, and Oberlin town residents. Since its beginning in the 1940s, the Series has brought to campus such speakers as E.E. Cummings, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger, Margaret Mead, and Barbara Ward.
As one might expect of a school with a world-renowned music Conservatory, students can also take advantage of a large number of free, world-class concerts and other performances – more than 500 every year in fact. Hosted by the Conservatory, the concerts have included performances by the likes of Yo Yo Ma, George Li, Susan Graham, and Marilyn Horne.
Finally, I should mention the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, a non-profit, 100% student-run residential institution that houses more than 175 students and feeds more than 600 with an annual budget of approximately US$ 2 million. Students take turns cooking, cleaning, gardening, shopping, and coordinating events. The Coop is the largest student organization at Oberlin and the third largest of its kind in North America.
The campus blends seamlessly with the town of Oberlin, which has approximately 8,000 permanent residents and is, like the College, historically progressive. Having played a major role in promoting abolition of slavery, Oberlin still holds an annual celebration of Juneteenth, the Emancipation Day for slaves in America, on June 19th.
Oberlin is a quintessential college town with cafes, restaurants, bars, boutiques, and other amenities that enrich the lives and occupy the free time of students. Visitors should certainly check out the Apollo Theater, one of the first in the nation to install sound equipment for the advent of the “talkies,” as well as the various monuments documenting the city’s role in the Underground Railroad.
Only a short distance from town are many indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities. Oberlin is located just a few minutes’ drive from Lake Erie, one of North America’s Great Lakes, with boating, sailing, swimming, sandy beaches, and fishing. Also nearby are excellent national and state parks and the mighty Cuyahoga River. Ohio is the rollercoaster capital of the world, and the mega Cedar Point Amusement Park (known as “Rollercoaster Heaven”) is within easy reach of campus.
About a half-hour drive from Oberlin is Cleveland, a dynamic city at the heart of a metropolitan area of more than 2 million people. Cleveland has excellent shopping and dining, a vibrant nightlife, a zoo, several famous museums, a full array of performing arts options year-round, a number of professional sports teams, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington are each less than a 90-minute flight away.
For more information about academic programs and student life at Oberlin College and Conservatory, browse the school’s main website. For additional info about financial aid packages, click here. As always, please feel free to email my Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov if have other questions about Oberlin in particular or about studying in America in general.
Next time we will travel south to the great city of Atlanta, Georgia to tour the Georgia Institute of Technology (a.k.a. Georgia Tech), one of the top research and technological universities in the United States. If you have suggestions for a specific school, category of schools, or field of study that you would like me to discuss after that, please let me know. I’m at the end of my initial tranche of topics and open to your ideas for what to cover next.