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4/6 Year Graduation Rates (66%/82%): Why are they so (relatively) low at Oberlin?

D'yer MakerD'yer Maker Registered User Posts: 3,421 Senior Member
edited May 2010 in Oberlin College
I was looking at some numbers (a couple years old) for 4- and 6-year graduation rates and Oberlin's numbers weren't clustered among the LACs that it's typically clustered with for other statistics, from tuition to SATs and beyond.

Its 4-year graduation rate is 66%. It goes up to 82% for 6-years, but that's still below the 4-year graduation rate for all (or, depending on how you slice things up, nearly all) of the other schools it typically compares with.

That 66% is in a league with (yet still barely below): Spelman, St. Thomas Aquinas, Beacon, Drew, St. Anselm, Puget Sound, Sweet Briar, Lewis and Clark, Hampden-Sydney

The significantly improved 82% number puts it in the company of Beacon, Dickinson, F&M, Grove City, Illinois Wesleyan, Occidental, Mount Holyoke and Skidmore (among others).

There are two concerns here that I can't get a handle on from numbers: (1) What is the dynamic that has 1 out of 6 students graduating in years 5 or 6? (2) Why are just as many not graduating at all (or more than 6 years later, which is long after I'd tap out from the expense of it all)?

Does the Conservatory skew the numbers in some way? Is there some, "Oh! I see! Well that makes sense now!" explanation for this that would rebut or soften the negative presumptions that these numbers create? What's going on here that I'm missing and should know about (for better, hopefully, or for worse)? Thanks in advance for your insights!
Post edited by D'yer Maker on

Replies to: 4/6 Year Graduation Rates (66%/82%): Why are they so (relatively) low at Oberlin?

  • hudsonvalley51hudsonvalley51 Registered User Posts: 2,449 Senior Member
    Well, the Conservatory definitely impacts the 4-year graduation rate. If you look at the 5-year grad rate you'll see that it jumps to 81% from 66%. An additional 1% graduate by Year 6.

    I also wonder why a school that is as highly regarded -- and selective -- as Oberlin "only" graduates 82% of its students. I would have expected a 6-year rate of 85-90%.
  • speedospeedo Registered User Posts: 1,204 Senior Member
    O has a reputation for enrolling well qualified, independent free thinkers. Those students may do well in school but may develop other options or simply not be as committed to the 4 year experience as more traditional types. However that may now be changing and I'd look for O's grad rate to increase.
  • KajonKajon Registered User Posts: 4,380 Senior Member
    Just thinking out loud here and not Oberlin specific.....I wonder how much of this has to do with kids changing majors and poor/non existent relationships with advisors?
  • quaerequaere Registered User Posts: 1,264 Senior Member
    I think this was discussed a while back, but I can't find the thread - I'll post it if I can find it. edit: it's here

    First of all, the Con definitely has an impact. Conservatories typically have lower retention rates that liberal arts colleges. I was talking about this the other day with a friend who's a composition major: of the 11 students who started out in his program freshman year, 7 are no longer there, either because they no longer want to pursue composition or because they had creative differences with the faculty. Of the remaining four, one is double-degree (a five-year program) and the other has a double major within the Con that will take an additional semester to complete. So that program has a four-year graduation rate below 20%, at least for that particular year.

    I don't think this is representative of the Con as a whole, but it illustrates three things.
    1. Conservatories are much more career-oriented than an LAC. Some students realize that they aren't dedicated to a life of music, and leave.
    2. Conservatory programs often have a specific creative philosophy. A student may leave because they disagree with the philosophy of the department or studio in which they've been placed. This is especially true of things like Composition and TIMARA.
    3. There are many programs associated with the Con in which students are supposed to take extra time to graduate. In particular, more than 5% of the students at Oberlin are enrolled in a double-degree program, which takes an additional year to complete. Double majors within the Con generally take an extra semester, etc.

    (I'm not a music student, so I'd appreciate additional insights or corrections from people who know more about the universe of conservatories.)

    Within the College, many of my friends will be taking more than eight semesters to graduate, though probably not 40% of them. Poor advising and last-minute major changes haven't been a factor for any of them. A lot of people choose, at some point in their Oberlin career, to take some time off. A few took unplanned personal leaves because of physical or mental health issues that prevented them from finishing the semester on their best foot -- Oberlin's administration is very proactive about this, for better or for worse. Most took some time (anywhere from a semester to three years) to travel, work, or intern elsewhere. There are many things that are worth learning that take place outside a classroom, with no credit awarded, and Oberlin tries hard to cultivate that view. So it shouldn't be surprising that some students actually decide to leave college for a time and go out and do things in the real world. It's like the ultimate Winter Term project.

    Finally, I do know people who've left Oberlin for good -- or, at least, right now they're not planning on coming back; who knows what will happen down the road? One transferred to a well-regarded journalism school (we don't offer journalism as a major). One left because of mental health issues and hasn't returned. The rest realized that college just wasn't for them, and left to do activist work. I don't see this as a bad thing at all; college isn't for everyone, and there's no point wasting your time and money (or your parents' money, or Financial Aid's money) for a degree that won't get you where you want to go. I suspect that these folks would have left school no matter where they went to college -- but Oberlin, because of our political reputation, attracts a disproportionately large number of young activists.
  • D'yer MakerD'yer Maker Registered User Posts: 3,421 Senior Member
    Although I'd like to hear more...that reply seems very insightful and useful, quaere, so thanks. And I agree with your point about it not being a particularly bad thing for students to leave because they are activist-oriented and realize that college isn't for them. I don't think it reflects negatively on student or college.

    On seeing those numbers my concern -- approaching this as a parent/educational funding source -- is mainly that there's wandering during the Oberlin experience. Taking a semester or year off isn't repugnant to me...but spending a semester, on my dime, to feel things out and to take accidental detours is a problem. I think lots of us would like to have that sort of freedom, academically and intellectually, but college is expensive enough without adding semesters of undirected exploration.

    Four years of liberal arts education is fabulous and I'm thrilled for anyone who wishes to pursue a college education that isn't zeroed in on a vocation. Even five years in a joint-degree is (ahem) music to my ears. Maybe I'm anti-education, but spending (let alone paying for) six or seven years as an undergrad is noisome to me. If Oberlin somehow fosters the third of these three paths in some way, I need to know. I feel better now that that's probably not the case, but I'd love to hear more insights.
  • ahuvah47ahuvah47 Registered User Posts: 21 New Member
    I think that finances are always an issue. It may be important, no matter what school the student is attending, to say (if this is the intention) "I will pay up (%) to 4 years of a college education, degree or no degree" grad school or other possible adventures "to be negotiated".....
  • dave72dave72 Registered User Posts: 637 Member
    As an Oberlin faculty member (and conscientious advisor), I know very few students (apart from double-degree students) who take more than eight semesters to graduate, even if those eight semesters are interrupted by personal leaves. It just doesn't happen often, in my experience.
  • PlainsmanPlainsman Registered User Posts: 1,503 Senior Member
    On seeing those numbers my concern -- approaching this as a parent/educational funding source -- is mainly that there's wandering during the Oberlin experience.

    But that's the fault/choice of the individual student, not something the college advocates. If your child is not the wanderlust-full, need to find myself, activist oriented person she/he will "git 'er done" in four years. If he/she is the wandering inclined, she could go to West Point and still decide to leave and wander. It's not the college; it's the person. So you shouldn't be concerned at all if you know your kid.

    There's nothing in the food or water at Oberlin that causes Kids to leave and wander. Just like there's nothing in the food and water, academics or dorms, that causes kids at Cornell U to jump into gorges. The gorges just happen to be convenient.
  • D'yer MakerD'yer Maker Registered User Posts: 3,421 Senior Member
    @ Plainsman -- yes, it's true that those things are fueled by the individual. That's true for nearly all big life decisions. I've been in a couple organizations where good people kept leaving and the party line, time after time, was that these were all personal choices. In fact, taken one-by-one, they all had very good personal reasons for leaving. But the "truth" didn't dovetail so neatly with the facts. After a while, anyone who didn't stick their head in the ground could see that there was a trend. Most people who find other, better opportunities do so because they're actively looking for them. In one organization, I believe people were escaping a toxic workplace environment. (Ultimately, that's why I left -- though I had enough tact to not spin it that way.) In the other organization, I think it was a terrific launching pad for the best people to find other, amazing challenges. That organization didn't repel people so much as it propelled them. Sure, everyone has their own story...but numbers talk, too.

    The graduation rate numbers suggest something bigger than just a few individuals dawdling. Because of my personal experience, I know not to jump to conclusions and not to be too quick to make a value judgment about the numbers. Attrition is not, per se, a "bad" thing. The graduation rates are different enough (relative to other top LACs) to suggest a larger force is at work here. Even if it was all about student personalities, then it's still worth asking what is it about Oberlin that means it attracts more than its fair share of such people...and, faced with such a distinctive student body, why wasn't it apparently doing enough to guide and advise them? Are they somehow managing to get lost and drop off the radar? My S has ruled out plenty of schools (including my own alma mater) because they are too big and impersonal. (Before I sound like I think that's what the numbers reveal, I should point out that the firsthand, long-term observations of dave72 addressed that specific concern to my personal satisfaction.)

    Still, relative to peer institutions, these numbers are much lower...so that suggests something about the Oberlin experience itself that accounts for the difference. That said, I think I've read some very plausible and credible statements that explain why these numbers exist at Oberlin. It seems to me, in fact, that the difference is very likely grounded in the type of atmosphere that exists at Oberlin and I'm beginning to think that these numbers may be a function of one or more ways that Oberlin distinguishes itself from other top LACs. Starting with the presence of the Conservatory.
  • ahuvah47ahuvah47 Registered User Posts: 21 New Member
    I definitely believe it is the presence of the conservatory that changes a lot of comparisons to other LAC's. I think this is really the answer to the question. Also, just in general, most of the LAC's seem to have lower 4-year graduation rates than I expected when first looking into these schools last fall!
  • raelahraelah Registered User Posts: 806 Member
    When I was on campus at Oberlin, they told me that their dual-degree programs is responsible for the low four-year graduation rate. Dual-degree is a five-year program, so a certain percentage of Oberlin students come into Oberlin with no intention of graduating in four years in the first place. This kind of skews their numbers but is pretty meaningless in the end, because the dual-degree students that graduate in five years are matching up exactly with the academic plan they designed. It's not like they get "stuck" there for an extra year.
  • PlainsmanPlainsman Registered User Posts: 1,503 Senior Member
    What raelah and ahuvah47 said makes SENSE to me. I don't buy D'yer Maker's speculation about something in the "atmosphere" or the "Oberlin experience." On it's face, it sounds kind of vague.

    Perhaps the "Oberlin experience" is the college presents a great deal of independence for the student. The college expects students to act like grown-ups. Unlike some other schools, freshman year isn't a repeat of high school. There is no sophomore "rush." The kids aren't coddled as much as they are at other schools. Unfortunately, some kids show up not really ready to handle being grown up or not knowing enough about themselves to handle the independence.

    I'll speculate on one other difference that just might align with D'yer Maker's speculation but is more concrete. I look at the New England-base LACs as pulling to a greater extent than Oberlin from a common cultural pool, regardless of the students states of origin. That cultural "glue" helps to keep more kids on track for four years or six. At Oberlin: no frats, no sororities, (not as many kids with parents that belong to yachting clubs?), few people who care about college sports---the kinds of things that tend to be unifying for a lot of people, regardless of political or economic persuasion. Campus clubs are not the same thing.

    My theory is Oberlin, basically, has 2800 INDIVIDUALS, and few of the kinds of cultural unifiers (things that are stronger than just liking music) which exist at the NE LACs. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating a Greek system for Oberlin. While it can present something for the wandering inclined to hold onto and graduate, it can also be divisive and unifying in the way the Nazi Party was both divisive and unifying. Okay, that was a bit of an extreme example, but you get my point. Pull the Greek system from certain colleges and universities (Lehigh, Williams, for example) and you would see drop-out/transfer rates go up.
  • Kei-o-leiKei-o-lei Registered User Posts: 1,631 Senior Member
    D'yermaker said: "The graduation rates are different enough (relative to other top LACs) to suggest a larger force is at work here. Even if it was all about student personalities, then it's still worth asking what is it about Oberlin that means it attracts more than its fair share of such people."

    The datum I'd add to this picture is % of students who decide to attend grad school.

    Of the LACs on my kid's intial college list here are the figures we had:
    Vassar 23%
    Oberlin 22%
    Wesleyan 15%
    Swarthmore 22%
    Skidmore 11%

    This high rate of graduate school attendance is ALSO part of the Oberlin experience.

    Factors that would decrease the retention rate:
    + the Conservatory- that part of Oberlin - about 15% of the student body? - is not an LAC and appears to have lower retention rates than the school of arts and sciences
    + the 5 year double degree - everyone who completes this program on time "fails" to graduate in 4 years
    + Obie students being a tad different/less traditional/more open to other career experiences than going straight through

    At the same time, with Oberlin sending the same high percentage of its kids to graduate school as other elite LACs, that indicates that for those that choose to take a more traditional academic route Oberlin is wide open (i.e., no systemic barriers to doing academia the traditional way.)
  • SDonCCSDonCC Registered User Posts: 2,373 Senior Member
    Williams does NOT have a Greek system. They abolished it when they went co-ed circa 1970.
  • D'yer MakerD'yer Maker Registered User Posts: 3,421 Senior Member
    @ Kei-o-lei: Excellent points. Thanks for adding that perspective to the numbers. And, ultimately, for all the number-crunching and Internet-surfing I might do, this will come down to how things shake out for my son during a visit in the Fall...but still, for now all I've got are numbers and the Internet.

    @ Plainsman: So then it is something that's different about Oberlin...

    Of course I'm vague about what that difference is because I'm asking the question, not providing the answer.

    What is clear is that there's something different going on that produces different results. (Even after factoring in the presence of 5-year programs, Oberlin's 6-year numbers are still below the 4-year numbers for other top LACs...so those programs may account for some of the difference, but there remains a gap. Plus, other LACs have 5-year degree programs.)

    You're suggesting one possibility is that Oberlin is tough from the start -- which is part of the Oberlin experience, no? -- yet freshman retention rates for Oberlin (93%) are comparable to other top LACs (93-97% range), so that's probably not a big factor. Your point that Oberlin lacks "cultural unifiers" would also be part of the Oberlin experience that sets it apart and distinguishes it from other LACs. The problem, if that is the explanation, is that Oberlin is letting students drop off without being proactive about ameliorating the impact of not having "cultural unifiers." And, again, that's something unique to Oberlin that would explain the difference in numbers and it's something I'd want to know about up front (again...if that's the case).

    I think this is worth exploring because there could be something very positive behind this...which would be well worth understanding...or maybe it's negative. Yes, I'm vague because I don't even know whether this is the byproduct of something positive or negative. The numbers, however, are not vague. There's a stark difference that, for the expense, requires an eyes-wide-open understanding. It's not just a matter of whether my own son might quit Oberlin...but it's possible that a higher attrition rate impacts the experience (perhaps positively, perhaps negatively...or perhaps not in any appreciable way).

    The other thing I don't know is whether this is an aberration or something that played itself out. Perhaps these numbers cover a period of heavy construction on campus and students in older facilities, dodging construction zones might have jumped ship while current students who enjoy newer facilities and don't have to compete with barriers and wheelbarrows for frisbee space are now staying put at higher rates than ever. I have no idea if these numbers are consistently different for Oberlin year-in and year-out over the past decade. That, too, is something I'd like to know.
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