School Profile: Why Oberlin is the Most Liberal of the Liberal Arts Colleges

Oberlin College is a private liberal arts college in Ohio is a self-described “ideal laboratory in which to study and design the world we want.” From its beginnings in 1833, Oberlin has been a progressive school dedicated to social justice. Twenty years prior to the Civil War, Oberlin had already graduated the first black student to attend the College, George Vashon, who went on to be one of the founding professors of Howard University. They were the first college to admit students regardless of race in 1835, and the first to admit women in 1837. Oberlin’s abolitionist stance and active roles in both the Underground Railroad and the ensuing U.S. Civil War cannot be overstated. The College has remained committed to progressive causes throughout their history.

More than 2,900 students call Oberlin’s 440 acre suburban campus home. The vast majority are enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences, but over 400 students are enrolled in the Conservatory of Music, one of the nation’s best music schools. The competitive conservatory admits fewer than 10% of the applicants who audition for the coveted seats. Nearly 200 students choose the five-year Double-Degree from the liberal arts college and the conservatory of music, a rare opportunity.

Oberlin offers degrees in 47 majors and 42 minors. The most popular degrees by enrollment are music performance, biology, and political science/government. Beyond their disciplines, students must take coursework in arts and humanities, social and behavioral sciences, natural sciences and mathematics, processes of quantitative reasoning and writing, and languages and cultures that aren’t their own. Two semesters are separated by a four-week winter term of self-directed study. Students must complete three winter terms to graduate.

Other academic opportunities at Oberlin are Study Away, which is primarily studying abroad for a semester to a year, but not all Study Away options are outside the country. Entrepreneurship is encouraged and supported through the Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project, where students’ great ideas can come to life. Oberlin’s Experimental College, or ExCo offers for credit classes in virtually anything imaginable, given by other students, community members, and faculty. Students can apply 5 ExCo credits toward graduation requirements.

Oberlin students joke on Internet message boards that Oberlin “puts the liberal in liberal arts.” Its reputation as a “hippie school” comes from its long history of progressive thought behind meaningful action, its Experimental College, and its Student Cooperative Association. Oberlin College embodies the philosophy of standing for something, even if you are standing alone, and have a rich history of social justice. If you have racial, ethnic, or gender hang-ups, this is definitely not the school for you. If you desire to be the change you want to see in the world, you’re in the right place.

Oberlin is enthusiastically committed to banning Greek fraternities or sororities, which has the full support of the student body. The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, therefore, is the school’s primary student-led social organization on campus. The students run four housing and dining co-ops, three dining only co-ops, and a grocery store. Roughly one-third of Oberlin students live in Cooperative Housing. OSCA also runs co-ops in film, photography, biking, and more; membership is open to faculty, staff, and Oberlin community members to foster a culture of camaraderie between students, the college, and the town.

Oberlin College has nine men’s and ten women’s NCAA Division III teams that compete in the North Coast Athletic Conference. Their football team’s claim to fame is being coached in 1892 by John Heisman, after whom the Heisman Trophy is named, and going 7-0 that season. They also hold the dubious distinction of being among the five worst Division III football programs for several years. The school’s Yeowomen (Rhinos) Rugby team has enjoyed the most success of both men’s and women’s teams. Both men’s and women’s Ultimate (Frisbee) club teams have enjoyed regional and national success. The Oberlin College Recreation Center serves not only the students, faculty, and staff, but alson the Oberlin community.

You would be hard-pressed to find another college that values tradition more than Oberlin. One of the most curious, but prized traditions at Oberlin is their art rental program. Black Friday type lines form overnight at the beginning of each semester outside Allen Memorial Art Museum for a chance to get an original Picasso, Renoir, or Warhol to display in their rooms. The program, which started in the 1940s, allows students pay $5 for the privilege of having a piece of art for the semester. Drag Ball is a playful annual event borne from student activism in the 1980s to support Transgender Awareness Week. It features professional performers and DJs, a main stage and runway, and three dance floors, and is held in the Student Union. Illumination, which began in November of 1860 to honor President-elect Abraham Lincoln, continues today to honor Oberlin graduates. On Commencement night, thousands of Japanese lanterns illuminate the night on Oberlin College campus and several streets in town. This is a smattering of Oberlin’s many traditions.

If you are progressive in your thought, are enthusiastic about applying action to it, and are committed to making the world a better place, Oberlin is your kind of school.

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By Colleen Hill