Can These Colleges Be Saved?

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You’ve seen the signs: “Do Billboards Work? Just Did.”

There are headlines and ads that you can’t help but click.

They’re funny, snappy and eye-catching.

They scare you (“The 15 Ways You’re Putting Your Career in Jeopardy”).

They hold out a promise that is irresistible: a surprising tip (“How to Stop Online Cheating in 3 Simple Steps”), or an easy ways to get to a goal (“How to Move your Class Online in 2 Hours”).

What makes a killer headline? You know the formulas:

  • Trigger a primal emotion: fear, disgust, anger.
  • Be sensationalistic: exaggerate, mislead, startle, thrill or simply appeal to our basest emotions.
  • Grab attention by provoking or enticing or teasing you.

Clickbait pervades the higher ed and ed-tech press.

  • The headlines alarm you: “Nearly a Third of All College Students Still Don’t Have a Degree Six Years Later.”
  • They lead with a question: “Will Free Tuition Increase the Number of College Graduates?”
  • They give you a list: “10 Ways Colleges Can Navigate the Coronavirus Crisis.”
  • They tell you how: “5 Cost-Effective Ways to Raise Graduation Rates.”
  • They tell you why: “Why Graduation Rates Are Rising But Student Achievement Is Not.”
  • They offer secrets: “Colleges Reveal the Secret Formula for Deciding Who Gets In.”
  • They enumerate trends: “10 Trends to Watch for in 2021.”

The headlines that get me to click are these: “Can small liberal arts colleges survive the next decade?” “Are Liberal Arts Colleges Doomed?” “Farewell to America’s Small Colleges.” “Will the coronavirus kill liberal arts colleges?”

These headlines are clickbait because they speak to a reality that we desperately hope won’t come true.

Liberal arts colleges are in deep doodoo for reasons we all understand: demographics. Shrinking applicant pools. Competition. Rising costs. Falling enrollments. A broken business model. Tuition dependence. A questionable value proposition. Shifting student tastes. Rural location. Students’ appetite for vocational and preprofessional education.

Unlike flagship and land-grant institutions, even many of the wealthiest liberal arts colleges must, essentially, bribe students to enroll.

In the past, liberal arts colleges were the schools of choice for the daughters and sons of those who sought an education more intimate, intense and undergraduate-focused (yes, and more exclusive and prestigious) than could be found at a larger public institution, and that would give their children lots of mentoring.

Their value proposition was clear. These schools played an outsize role in preparing graduates for the learned professions, especially law and medicine, graduate school, and the arts and social services.

Today, however, their primary market shrinks while competition stiffens. Like other private institutions, liberal arts colleges’ finances hinge on attracting as many students as possible from the less than 100,000 high school seniors who come from families that earn more than $200,000 a year — and especially the fewer than 50,000 from high-income families with SAT scores over 1,200.

But many of those students want things that few liberal arts colleges can offer: an expansive curriculum; a vibrant, vital and diverse urban environment; and big-time college sports.

To be sure, liberal arts colleges still dominate our mental image of what an undergraduate education should possess: a bucolic campus, a residential student body and a faculty committed to teaching rather than scholarly publication.

You did not have to attend a liberal arts college (like I did, Oberlin Class of 1973) to fantasize about what such institutions claim to offer: a close-knit community where the intellectual and artistic life, creativity, and “heavy raps” are central.

But their return on investment is no longer self-evident.

Demand for the kind of education that liberal arts colleges offer has fallen for reasons that we all recognize: intense competition from urban privates (think BU, Emory, Georgetown, NYU, Rice and Vanderbilt) and selective publics (which now offer honors programs that combine a small college feel with the resources of a research university) and a barely sustainable business model, hard-pressed to offer the programs in highest demand: computer science, cybersecurity, data science, emerging communication technologies, engineering, neuroscience and nursing, among others.

Also, it’s hard to find internships outside metropolitan areas.

But I fear that the roots of the problem lie deeper, beginning with today’s academic culture. The most talented doctoral students aren’t socialized to emulate Mr. Chips and provide students with intense mentoring and lots of outside-of-class interaction — with HBCUs and tribal colleges the most striking exceptions.

Steeped in a culture that prizes disciplinary specialization and professional visibility, most faculty members have little interest in offering sweeping interdisciplinary courses or devoting much attention to advising and mentoring, let alone teaching introductory courses.

These days, fewer liberal arts college faculty live near campus, in part because dual-career couples are likely to find job prospects greater near big cities than in small, isolated college towns. The result: fewer dinners at professors’ homes.

To attract students, most liberal arts colleges have, I hate to say, had to pander. It’s not an accident that these were the first institutions to go test optional, nor is it surprising that they offer higher education’s least prescriptive graduation requirements and the most lucrative merit scholarships and in some instances among the highest proportion of international students. The least selective have gone further, building up athletic programs and bands.

To survive, they’ve also had to offer more vocationally oriented programs, especially in business and health care, which absorb an increasing number of majors. Between 1987 and 2007, the proportion of students at liberal arts colleges graduating with vocational majors rose from 12 percent to 28 percent.

There is, of course, another side to the story. However much the liberal arts college ideal may have eroded, there are still many good reasons to admire these institutions. Graduation rates remain significantly higher, time to degree faster, classes smaller and interaction with full-time faculty far greater, than at most public institutions. In addition, the campuses’ small size gives many undergrads the opportunity to take on leadership roles in student government and campus organizations. Yes, and participate in intercollegiate sports, be it at the Division III level.

So what advice might I offer?

First, liberal arts colleges need to double down on the things that make them special: seminars. Mentoring. The opportunity for students to undertake projects under a teacher-scholar’s supervision. A wholehearted emphasis on the well-rounded development of the whole student.

That certainly doesn’t mean a return to a liberal arts college education circa 1973, however appealing such a fantasy might be. It will require financially strapped institutions to provide more proactive support, more opportunities for experiential and project-based learning, and much more career preparation than in the past. Plus a lively extracurricular life.

They will also need to create innovation labs and promote entrepreneurship in ways that might seem alien to their DNA. They must abandon their walled-garden self-image and serve nearby cities and engage alumni, businesspeople and a host of others as mentors. They might consider ways to compress an education into three years, leveraging students’ prior learning in AP, IB and early college courses or classes at a community college, and taking advantage of intersessions and summer.

How to innovate with limited state support, without economies of scale, and with a student body five, 10 or 20 times smaller than the publics is, of course, the $64,000 question.

Next, these institutions must follow Denison University president Adam Weinberg’s advice and dedicate themselves even more than they already do to preparing their graduates to launch successfully, not just into a career, but into a meaningful well-rounded adulthood.

The transition to adulthood has grown longer, more circuitous and more risk-filled and uncertain, and liberal arts colleges are especially well positioned, thanks to their size and mission, to help students define an identity and a direction in life and a realistic path forward.

Then, too, liberal arts colleges, working in collaboration, need to do more to tout the advantages of a small-college education: the intensity, intimacy, interactions, immersion and level of engagement, community, support and undergraduate success that cannot be matched at larger institutions. And they need to convince state legislators that they are assets that will not only support local economies but aggressively recruit a much more diverse student body.

In a recent book, Steve Volk and Beth Benedix call for a radical overhaul of liberal arts colleges, observing that their dominant public image “features students shouting down unwanted speakers, harassing local merchants, or refusing to read novels that ‘offend’ them.” Theirs is a call for these institutions to focus on social mobility, inclusion, relevance, interdisciplinarity and community, though their seven-point funding plan strikes me as unrealistic.

Much as Scandinavia’s social democracies serve as a reminder that American society’s crushing inequities, endemic violence, rank commercialism and extreme individualism are not the inevitable price of progress, liberal arts colleges still serve as a kind of ego ideal, reminding us of what a college education ought to be. They may attract less than 2 percent of the college-going population, but they stand as a rejoinder to those who believe that the best education is a cheap education, an unbundled education or a career-focused education at a giant factory where the real business takes place in faculty labs and research centers.

Certainly, small liberal arts colleges are in many respects out of step with the times, including the “increasing specialization and subdivision of the university curriculum and the increasingly part-time and nonresidential character of the undergraduate experience for more and more students.”

If small liberal arts colleges go the way of the Dodo, we will lose something more than a faded, unfashionable vestige of the past or a boutique experience for pampered upper and upper-middle-class kids accompanied by enough scholarship students to be able to claim to be diverse.

We will lose the institutions that embody and perpetuate the liberal arts ideal.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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