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An Obama bounce at L.A. campus?

A rise in enrollment at Occidental College, where the president spent two years, brings speculation about an Obama effect.

June 27, 2009|Larry Gordon

Is it an Obama bump?

Is freshman enrollment at Occidental College skyrocketing because a certain young man from Hawaii started college there 30 years ago?

Or is it just the unintended consequence of an insurance plan of sorts by admissions officers trying to protect the 1,868-student campus in uncertain economic times?

Whatever the reason, Occidental College, a liberal arts school in Eagle Rock, is expected to enroll a freshman class of about 560 this fall -- up 100 students, or 21% -- from last year.

Experts say an increase of that size is unusual during healthy financial seasons, let alone in a recession in which families are more cautious about paying nearly $50,000 a year for tuition, room, board and fees at a private college.

Many people at the campus and in the wider college admissions world cite the publicity Occidental has received in the last year as the school where President Obama, then known as Barry, studied for two years before transferring to Columbia University.

Oxy has promoted that O-O connection, even creating T-shirts noting the coincidence of the school's address at 1600 Campus Road and the White House location at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"I don't think there is any doubt Oxy is getting a bump from the president," said Bill McClintick, president of the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling.

McClintick said such enrollment increases have occurred occasionally at various colleges, usually linked to athletics in what he and others call the "Flutie Effect." The term refers to an upsurge in Boston College applications after its quarterback Doug Flutie made a famous Hail Mary pass in the last seconds of a 1984 game against the University of Miami. Boston triumphed and Flutie went on to win the Heisman Trophy.

"There is some sort of rock star effect when something positive happens to a place and they get a bump for at least a year or two," McClintick said.

Occidental Admission Dean Vince Cuseo said he could not quantify any Obama effect.

Still, "it certainly hasn't hurt our case," Cuseo said. "I think it raises the image and public relations bar for the institution when you have a recognized figure connected with your college. But the reasons for choosing a school are far more complex than one individual, even if he happens to be the president of the United States."

Various factors may have contributed to the rise, according to Cuseo. First, Occidental received a record 6,013 applications, up 4% from last year, and that may be related to Obama, he said.

Then, as many colleges did this year in case the recession scared students away, Occidental accepted more applicants than usual, 43%, compared with 39% last year. But in a surprise, the college's yield rate -- the ratio of accepted students who decide to attend -- rose from 21% to 24%.

Many incoming freshmen said Obama's attendance, from 1979 to 1981, helped attract them to the college. (Some from outside California conceded that they hadn't heard of the school before last year, and at first thought mistakenly that it might be a dentistry academy, "Oxy-Dental.")

Zack Del Rosario of New York City said the Obama link boosted Occidental above other schools that accepted him, including the University of San Diego and Clark University in Massachusetts. "Since he has been someone I admired so much, the idea of walking on the same ground he walked on and going to the school that he attended is definitely inspiring me," Del Rosario said.

Timothy Glen of Chicago said the college's Los Angeles location, intimate scale and ethnically diverse student body, along with a chance to play Division III basketball, attracted him. Then, he said, the Obama factor helped him explain to relatives why he chose a lesser-known school over USC and the University of Illinois.

"They think if Barack went there, then they automatically trust Occidental," Glen said. "They think, 'This kid is trying to do something. He is following in the steps of the president of the United States.' "

Robbie Thomas of Washington, D.C., however, said that even though he supports Obama, the president's attendance at Occidental had nothing to do with his choice of the school.

"I think it's a little ridiculous that the college plays it up. He spent two years there but really graduated from Columbia," said Thomas, who was looking for a California liberal arts college with a strong international studies program.

Meanwhile, over at that other Obama alma mater, a Columbia University spokesman said he did not think the 11% increase in application numbers this year could be attributed to Obama earning a bachelor's degree there in 1983 before heading to Harvard Law School. Columbia, the spokesman said, has had steady increases for the last few years.

Occidental's Cuseo insisted that he did not set out to enroll a much bigger freshman class and said he was worried that the faculty might be angry about teaching more crowded courses.

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