Oberlin Is More Than A Number

Several weeks ago, I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a prominent alum (without getting into specifics, I'll just say that this alum is in a position of significant influence here) tell a group of fellow alums that his daughter "hadn't considered Oberlin because it was too low in the US News rankings" and that even if she had been interested in our alma mater, he wouldn't have let her come here. Apparently he valued this ranking -- one measure among many of an institution's worth -- above his own four years of personal experience as an Oberlin student (not to mention his many years as an engaged alum). In my head, all I could think was "shame on you," but I kept my mouth shut.

A colleague who was seated at the same table was far more diplomatic and gave an eloquent response, citing all of the ways we'd cease to be Oberlin if we began playing the game that others have played to raise themselves in the rankings. For example, we could sell all of the art in the Allen, put the cash into the endowment, and jump a few places. (Some might argue that our art collection is priceless as a teaching and learning asset, but the US News methodology does not seem to agree.) Or we could reduce our historic commitment to access and funnel much of the $52M annual financial aid budget into areas that US News does recognize in its methodology (with the current system, Oberlin gets zero credit for its commitment to access).

(I'll pause here to note that if you haven't yet read the Gladwell piece recently published in the New Yorker, you simply have to. It should be required reading for anyone who cares even peripherally about these issues.)

The alum's reaction to my colleague's perspective was borderline hostile, and that's when I distanced myself from the conversation before my Obie-alum mouth took control of my Obie-administrator mouth and got me into trouble. Ultimately it's better to be productive, I figured, despite the personal pleasure I could have derived from really engaging in that debate.

After all, the reality is that if someone so close to the institution can embrace these skewed views of the rankings and their importance, it is likely that many alumni are in the same boat. Which means we're not doing enough to counterbalance the argument with perspective and context.

I was heartened to see a contemporary of mine, Mike Bastedo '94, cited extensively in the Gladwell piece. Mike is an educational sociologist at the University of Michigan who has studied the US News methodology for years -- and the perfect person to inject our alumni community with some much-needed perspective. Hagan and I had a conference call with him yesterday in which he agreed to do just that -- if the timing works out, you'll see a feature story penned by Mike in the summer issue of the OAM.

There's a lot of good data in the US News rankings, but it requires strategic customization in order to be relevant to the individual. That one-size-fits-all final ranking shouldn't mean much to Obies or to others who embrace Oberlin values, such as the celebration of individuality. When I worked in Admissions, I used to tell kids to make their own rankings based on which factors were most important to them.

At the end of the day, Oberlin's place in the US News rankings is no more a measure of Oberlin's worth as an institution than your SAT score is a measure of your worth as a human being. And sacrificing who you are for the sake of a number (and one that doesn't really translate to the real world) is never a good way to go. It's definitely not the way to choose the college that is best matched to your personal and educational aspirations -- a lesson I hope the aforementioned student isn't learning the hard way.

Just my 2 cents, with the usual disclaimer - opinions stated on this blog are my own blah blah blah.

Responses To This Entry:

When I was looking at colleges, I found that the rankings were more of an afterthought to me, but of importance to the people to which I attempted to explain Oberlin as one of the schools on my list (at the top, in fact).

Since Oberlin's name isn't necessarily familiar in all circles (though at this point, I find this hard to believe, since I live and breathe Oberlin all the time), and US News is, using the ranking helped me put my list of schools into perspective and to give people an idea of where I was headed and why.

But to me, Oberlin's number one at everything in my mind. Maybe not in springtime (as I write this watching snow collect outside my window for the umpteenth time this month alone), but in everything else, we're the best.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on March 30, 2011 4:07 PM

When I entered Oberlin, a survey was administered to all incoming freshmen which sought to define a snapshot of the character traits of the typical frosh. The only trait of high significance was that we were very individualistic. We were administered the same exact survey during the last semester of senior year, and lo and behold, we were yet more individualistic than we had been when we entered four years previously. US News and World Report does not have a category for this, but to the student who values it, there is no other. And where is the category for the value graduates place on the quality of their experience during their years at Oberlin? And where....etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: Woody '71 on March 30, 2011 8:44 PM

I've been pondering this post for a couple of days now, and also the one where you mention weighing the blogger part of you against the VP part. I was very bummed over the absence of posts during the winter months so it was nice to read some new ones.

I can never think of clever things to say, and this time is no exception. However, I think both of those blog posts have something important to say about you, about Oberlin, and about the type of person who will love this place down to their socks - or Birkenstocks, whichever. And that important thing is that you can't set aside the person for the role.

I've been struggling with this myself lately and I've decided, at age 50, that you have to be authentic to who you are, all the time, or you'll be very unhappy. It doesn't mean you don't sometimes have to choose discretion over argument or that there won't be times when you put on a public face. But the truth underneath the public face has to be there - if that makes any sense at all. I'm sorry if it doesn't - I can't think of another way to put it.

Oberlin is the same way - we are who we are - an incredibly rich place in all kinds of ways - and we can't, and shouldn't, try to fit an arbitrary mold created by a commercial entity that's not so much imparting useful information as selling magazines. (Boy am I glad I wasn't seated at that table. I'd never have been as diplomatic as your table-mate.)

All this is a very round about way to say please find a way to keep blogging. If you want to keep being the coolest VP on campus, that's good too. And hopefully you'll keep asking questions that make us all think about the whys and wherefores and how comes. Cuz' you know you rock Ben Jones.

Posted by: Ruth Mercer on April 8, 2011 6:36 PM