Oberlin College is a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio. The college was founded as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in 1833 by John Jay Shipherd and Philo Stewart. It is the oldest coeducational liberal arts college in the United States and the second oldest continuously operating coeducational institute of higher learning in the world. The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, part of the college, is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States.
The College of Arts & Sciences offers more than 50 majors, minors, and concentrations. Oberlin is a member of the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio consortium. Oberlin is a place of intense energy and creativity, built on a foundation of academic, artistic, and musical excellence. With a top-ranking liberal arts college, a world-class conservatory, and a first-rate art museum all on a single campus, it is the ideal laboratory in which to study and design the world you want.
A Presbyterian minister and a missionary founded Oberlin in 1833. The duo, the Rev. John J. Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart, became friends while spending the summer of 1832 together in nearby Elyria. They discovered a mutual disenchantment with what they saw as the lack of strong Christian principles among the settlers of the American West. They decided to establish a college and a colony based on their religious beliefs, “where they would train teachers and other Christian leaders for the boundless most desolate fields in the West.”
Shipherd and Stewart adopted some of the ideas of the man who inspired them: Alsatian pastor John Frederick Oberlin, who pioneered educational programs, established schools, built roads, and introduced the trades of masonry and blacksmithing throughout poor communities in France.
With their own labor and faith, combined with funding from several wealthy sources, they established the town and the college on about 500 acres of donated land with about 40 other individuals. In spring 1833, the first settler, Peter Pindar Pease, built his log house at the center of Oberlin. That December, 29 men and 15 women began classes as the first students of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute.
The college soon adopted the motto, “Learning and Labor.” In those days, tuition was free because students were expected to contribute by helping to build and sustain the community. The concept attracted many bright young people who would otherwise not have been able to afford tuition. Eventually this approach was discontinued, although the motto remained.
Shipherd and Stewart soon gained the support of Charles Grandison Finney, one of the great revivalists of the 19th century. Finney’s reputation as a fiery and outspoken preacher attracted many to this fledgling community. He later served as the second president of the college after social reformer and abolitionist Asa Mahan, who served from 1835 to 1850.
The college and community thrived on progressive causes and social justice. Among Oberlin’s earliest graduates were women and black people. While Oberlin was coeducational from its founding in 1833, the college regularly admitted black students beginning in 1835, after trustee and abolitionist, the Rev. John Keep, cast the deciding vote to allow them entry.
Women were not admitted to the baccalaureate program, which granted bachelor’s degrees, until 1837. Prior to that, they received diplomas from what was called the Ladies Course. The college admitted its first group of women in 1837: Caroline Mary Rudd, Elizabeth Prall, Mary Hosford, and Mary Fletcher Kellogg, although Kellogg did not complete her degree in 1841 along with the others.
In 1844, George B. Vashon became the first black student to earn a bachelor’s degree from the college, followed by Mary Jane Patterson who, in 1862, earned a BA degree in education, becoming the first black woman to earn a degree from an American college.
In 1850, Oberlin Collegiate Institute became Oberlin College. The name reflected a gradual shift in the curriculum and educational focus, which transitioned the institution from a preparatory, manual labor, and theology-based program to one that offered formal instruction and coursework in the classics, sciences, the fine arts, and music, among other disciplines.
The conservatory became part of the college in 1867, two years after its founding as a private school.
Efforts throughout Oberlin’s history to build and sustain a strong liberal arts curriculum paid off in 1957. The Chicago Tribune, after a national survey, named Oberlin the number one coeducational liberal arts college, ahead of such institutions as Swarthmore, Carleton, Reed, Lawrence, Kalamazoo, and Hope. The paper cited the college’s exceptionally high standards of scholarship and teaching and its record of producing one of highest rates of graduates who go on to earn doctorate degrees.