Oberlin No Longer Eligible for Funding from McNair Scholarship
As of the 2009 academic year, Oberlin College will be ineligible to apply for funding under the Department of Education’s McNair Program, indefinitely ending 12 years of continuous funding from the scholarship.
The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which in 2006 gave more than 40 million dollars to over 4,000 students nationwide, is designed to provide first-generation, low-income undergraduates with access to research, mentorship, advising and support in preparation for graduate studies. Due to Oberlin’s inability to meet the Department of Education’s minimum number of first-generation, low-income students, however, the College is currently ineligible to receive McNair funding during the 2008 grant process.
Clovis White, associate professor of sociology and principal director of Oberlin’s Office of Undergraduate Research, explained that this is due to two factors — a federal increase in the number of disadvantaged students required for McNair eligibility and a simultaneous decrease in the number of such students at Oberlin.
“The Department of Education very recently changed the minimum number of first-generation, low-income students required to receive McNair funding from 20 to 27,” said White. “On top of that, the College just hasn’t admitted the same numbers of these students.”
According to OUR’s statistics, in 1997 Oberlin had 67 first-generation, low-income students who were eligible for recruitment into the McNair Program on-campus. By 2006, that number declined to 19 — nearly a fourth of 1997 levels and just short of even the Department of Education’s previous minimum requirements.
Monique Burgdorf, assistant director of undergraduate research and McNair Program coordinator, said that her office struggled to find a way to meet the Department of Education’s criteria before deciding not to submit an application for the 2008 McNair application cycle.
“We exhausted every statistical avenue we had for meeting the criteria…but the bottom line is that we just don’t have the numbers anymore,” Burgdorf said.
Burgdorf went on to explain the Department of Education’s reasoning for raising the minimum number of disadvantaged students: “[The Department of Education] wants to fund institutions with large numbers of first-generation, low-income students — they want to cast their financial net as wide as possible — and obviously you get those numbers at larger state schools, not small, private liberal arts schools like Oberlin.”
Oberlin first received McNair funds in 1989, but lost eligibility during the 1992-95 application cycle, when the College’s number of McNair-eligible students underwent a decrease similar to that of today.
Current McNair Scholar and College third-year Olivia Winter said the McNair program had had a significant impact on her college experience.
“It really created a community of inclusiveness for people who are rarely supported or encouraged to pursue academic goals in higher education…[and] for people from low-income or first-generation, minority backgrounds, their specific social and academic issues are inseparable,” Winter said.
Burgdorf said the College actively recruits underrepresented students, but said that it is limited by financial considerations: “Oberlin’s always had a long-standing commitment to first-generation, low-income students…[but] a commitment and what [the College] can actually afford are two different things.”
White brought up Oberlin’s current financial hardships as reasons why the College has not sustained the old numbers of historically underrepresented students: “A financially tuition-driven institution is going to look for those [students] who can provide income for that college.”
No one at the Admissions Office was able to give an official statement about Oberlin’s admission of disadvantaged students before press time.
However, the College’s active partnership with the POSSE and QuestBridge — two scholarship programs designed to increase the number of disadvantaged high school students accepted into top-tier colleges — illustrates that Oberlin is making active steps to recruit socio-economically disadvantaged students.
But this does not explain the reason why the number of McNair-eligible students at Oberlin has fallen nearly by a factor of four within the past decade.
Winter said prospective minority college students face significant challenges: “Issues of race are implicit in issues of class…especially when considering ability to compete for places at academically rigorous colleges like Oberlin.”
“There’s already a support network for the financially-advantaged, white community to get into elite, private schools,” she continued. “I came from a background in which education was kind of this far-off goal to attain, but that didn’t have the social support for people to get there…[and] I wouldn’t still be [at Oberlin] had it not been for McNair.”
Eric Estes, director of the Multicultural Resource Center, expressed his hopes for the future of disadvantaged students at Oberlin: “My sincerest hope is that the College can, either through the dedication of its own resources, the securing of new grant monies or some combination, fill this new problematic gap in the curricular opportunities offered to first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.”
White stated that the College is going to look into other ways of supplying the academic and social needs of its first-generation, low-income students, but expressed concerns about those students who may no longer have access to the benefits of the McNair program.
“It’s unfortunate for those students who might not get this opportunity, who we know could succeed if given the chance,” he said.
Winter reiterated her disappointment: “It’s frustrating, because Oberlin does blow its own horn about its student diversity, but every student knows it isn’t true — Oberlin doesn’t walk the talk.”