Thoughts on the Fate of Liberal Arts Colleges

Green Mountain College

Green Mountain College (VT) announced recently that it will close at the end of this year. Other small liberal arts colleges (LACs) face severe financial issues that have led to closing (Newbury College, Atlantic Union College, Mount Ida College) or fear of imminent closure (Hampshire College, Bennett College). Antioch College closed its main campus in Ohio a few years ago, and is now trying to rise phoenix-like from its ashes. 

I recall in the early 2000s seeing a TV segment about Upsala College, a small liberal arts college in East Orange, NJ, that had closed in 1995. The TV show featured an architectural salvage crew entering the now-overgrown buildings to reclaim whatever might be useful. My thought at the time was “Wow! How could that happen!? Glad it wouldn’t happen to me!”
 
Now it is clear that Upsala’s fate will be the fate of many other good schools. Why is this happening? All of these colleges have struggled with attracting students, whose tuition dollars are essential given relatively low endowments. Students chose not to attend these schools because of the perception that they could get the same education for a lower price elsewhere, typically at large state universities. This is a misperception that liberal arts colleges must overcome in order to survive
 
Course names and major names might be the same, but that’s where the similarities between the LACs and the state universities end. LACs send proportionately far more students to graduate programs than do the large universities; students come out of the small schools prepared for PhD programs because they have often done things that graduate students do: overseen research projects, presented papers at conferences, published articles. LAC graduates are preferred by businesses because they are better trained to think and to communicate.
 
High school students can’t assess the differences,and their parents are typically also not prepared to do so. A prospective student interested in, say, Psychology, will see a Psych program at Albion College and a Psych program at Big State, and on paper the programs look similar. Big State probably offers more courses, has a larger faculty, and publishes more papers, so Big State must be the better place. Look a bit deeper and the differences become clear: Big State has classes of 100 students or more, taught by graduate students, and those many research papers represent work done by graduate students under the mentorship of professors. Small classes at Albion are taught by professors, who oversee the research of undergraduates (much like the prospective student), mentoring it through to presentation or publication.
 
The prospective student who opts for the LAC will graduate in four years with a level of preparation that surpasses Big State’s graduates (who might have taken five or more years to graduate). Liberal arts colleges must figure out how to convey this truth to the prospective student and her parents if they hope to survive. I don’t know how to do this, nor, sadly, do most of the rest of us at liberal arts colleges. Until we figure this out the distinctly American liberal arts education is threatened, and with it one of the foundations of our country’s greatness.
 
News of the closings of these small schools saddens me, but it also reduces any potential regrets about my approaching retirement; I won’t have to spend much time worrying about the future of my job security at my very good small liberal arts college.
 
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A few disclaimers:
 
Of course there are students who do very well at Big State U. My two older kids attended Big States and are quite successful in their careers. Finding and taking advantage of the best opportunities is easier at the LAC.
 
The perceived price difference between the LACs and Big State is smaller than it seems. LACs offer scholarships and financial aid that can significantly reduce the cost. The likelihood of needing more than four years to finish at Big State (due to difficulty in getting the required courses, or finding that the general education requirements for a changed major differ from those of the old major, requiring more classes, or maybe just due to poor advising) adds to the cost; LACs almost always get students out in four years.
 
This piece clearly reflects the views of the author, informed by many years of teaching at a liberal arts college, and experience at a few Big States.
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