In 1952, the Ladies’ Home Journal launched the longest running women’s magazine feature ever. Entitled “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” the column drew upon the files of professional marriage counselors to present the troubled unions of real-life wives and husbands.
The columns dealt with infidelity (“I Had an Affair”); sexless, loveless unions (“My Husband Isn’t There for Me”); intrusive mothers and mothers-in-law (“His Mother Is Tearing Us Apart”); and much more: alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse, and married women’s thirst to work outside the home.
Each column followed a common formula, beginning with the wife’s complaint, followed by the husband’s response, advice from Paul Popenoe—a eugenicist with no formal psychological credentials—and, invariably, a happy ending: a reconciliation or the birth of a child.
All the way through the 1960s, woman blaming defined the column’s advice. A happy marriage required a woman to damper her expectations and accommodate her husband’s needs. As one column concluded, “when she reduced her career to second place … she became a successful wife and a successful mother.”
Yet even though the column’s advice catapults us back to a very different world, it does remind us that many issues that bedevil marriages today—struggles over power and control, anger that is repressed or nurtured or vented—have a long history.
Which brings us to today’s topic: Can (or should) small liberal arts be saved?
The liberal arts college might yet become another of the pandemic’s casualties.
With applications and enrollment down, expenses rising and students’ interests shifting toward the practical, the future of those tuition-dependent small colleges without Amherst- or Williams-size endowments is at grave risk.
I had the great good luck to attend a residential liberal arts college. There’s nothing quite like that experience: the intellectual and cultural intensity, the immersive college-going experience, and the level of mentoring and student-faculty interaction can’t be matched at larger institutions.
The reasons are obvious: their locations, often in rural or suburban areas that lack the dynamism of a big city or access to urban cultural resources. Their narrow, humanities-centered curricula. And, of course, their steep price tags.
Worse yet, a diminishing number of faculty members actually buy in to the liberal arts mission. Fewer and fewer are willing to sacrifice their research and professional ambitions to devote themselves full-time to their students. More and more of these colleges’ faculty members commute. No longer does the status that accompanies teaching at a name-brand institution outweigh uncompetitive salaries and benefits. Morale has flagged as students’ level of preparation has declined.
Adding to the challenges that these schools face is a constricted curriculum.
Without robust engineering programs, their ability to attract the nation’s most talented students shrinks. These institutions may still do an effective job of getting their very best students into medical school, but without nursing and other health programs, they’re unable to effectively serve those who’d be interested in entering other health-care jobs.
At the same time, everything from programs in business to social work seem antithetical to these colleges’ self-image.
As student interest in career readiness grows, the disadvantages of attending a liberal arts college have grown more glaring. This is true even in domains that a liberal arts education led to. These institutions generally lack well-developed journalism or communications programs or museum studies programs.
For those institutions without big endowments, their scholarship resources simply aren’t competitive. These institutions lack the economies of scale and access to sufficient state resources that might allow them to keep up with their public competitors.
In the past, liberal arts colleges had strengths that clearly compensated for any disadvantages. These included an elite reputation as well as higher graduation rates, shorter time to degree and an unrivaled ability to get graduates into prestigious graduate programs and professional schools.
But today, much less expensive flagship campuses and urban publics offer honors programs that combine a liberal arts college’s intimacy with a research university’s broad curriculum.
Most liberal arts colleges are in an arms race that they cannot win. They must radically increase financial aid, institute high-demand majors, expand undergraduate research opportunities and substantially increase learning support and career preparation programs, even as they struggle to sustain an average class size of fewer than 20 students.
The kinds of solutions that larger institutions have adopted—like online professional master’s programs—won’t work for liberal arts colleges. Lacking the brand and the internal capacity, their ability to serve new markets is extremely limited.
That reality has led liberal arts colleges to embrace enrollment strategies—like greatly expanded athletic offerings, reduced admissions standards or gold-plated amenities to appeal to affluent students and aggressive pursuit of full-paying international students—that threaten their historic mission.
The selling point of a liberal arts college ought not to be a pampered country club experience on a highly groomed campus.
A recent book by Adrian College president Jeffrey R. Docking, entitled Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America, underscores the liberal arts college dilemma. The idea that a liberal arts college will be saved through belt tightening or megadonations, Docking argues, is a pipe dream. The only sustainable solution is to increase enrollment and tuition revenue. Docking labels his strategy “admissions growth.”
To increase enrollment, Adrian invested heavily in sports teams and athletic facilities, imposed admissions quotas on coaches and admissions staff, upgraded facilities, and subjected every academic program and part-time faculty members to a cost-benefit analysis.
At Adrian, this strategy worked, doubling the college’s enrollment and sustaining its financial viability.
Nevertheless, Adrian’s strategy will provoke guffaws or worse from most academics and alumni. Investing in a college’s library holdings, Docking writes, is not worthwhile, since this will not contribute to increased enrollment. Nor were the arts or foreign languages inducements to enroll, and therefore they could be downgraded.
The college went so far as to propose terminating programs in history, philosophy, religion and theater before alumni pushed back. In contrast, Adrian spent money on a crew team and such highly visible amenities as a boathouse, chandeliers, fireplaces and patios.
To be fair, however, Docking’s approach is not simply a matter of foregrounding athletics, extracurriculars and luxury amenities. His argument is actually about accountability, institutional differentiation, faculty and staff buy-in, and pursuing a strategy for enrollment growth.
Whether this strategy is sustainable in a region suffering demographic decline and the waning of its major industries remains unclear. Adrian’s enrollment growth has depended on an increasingly high tuition discount rate.
Nor is it obvious that a strategy that emphasizes identifying and addressing the interests of students and parents is replicable when lower-cost options are widely available. The Adrian approach might be an example of how to destroy an institution in order to save it.
Another strategy, pursued by Adrian College’s geographic neighbor, Albion College, was to reach out aggressively beyond its traditional demographics. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of Black students at Albion rose from 81 to 233 and of Latinx students from 63 to 176, while the number of white students fell from 1,044 to 859. Within four years, a campus that was 83 percent white was transformed into a campus 64 percent white.
Today, 41 percent of Albion’s undergraduates are students of color. Perhaps not surprising, the diversification of Albion’s student body resulted in widely publicized culture clashes.
In the past, small liberal arts colleges’ small size and selectiveness was not inherently a barrier to diversity. But a rising price tag has become a restrictive barrier, as Steve Volk, formerly a professor at Ohio’s Oberlin College, and Beth Benedix, who taught at DePauw, point out in The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention.
Far from being gateways to opportunity, these institutions have become, Volk and Benedix argue, islands of exclusion. The consequence: an increasingly bifurcated student body, consisting of students from privileged backgrounds, many unable to be admitted to more prestigious institutions, and aspiring diverse students from lower-income homes.
Also, Volk and Benedix insist, too often liberal arts colleges fail to take advantage of their comparative advantages: the multidisciplinarity and collaboration that their small faculty and lack of rigid departmental silos should facilitate.
I, for one, believe that most undergraduates would benefit from something like a traditional liberal arts college experience involving small classes; a full-time, immersive college experience; close student-faculty interactions; extensive extracurricular activities; and a humanistic curriculum.
But given the fact that most liberal arts colleges are struggling financially, how can we even begin to imagine how to make this opportunity more accessible?
Let me offer a few modest proposals.
1. Liberal arts colleges need do a much better job of touting the advantages of the kind of immersive education that they offer.
It’s become increasing tough to sell the kind of general education that most small liberal arts colleges have traditionally offered. It’s not a surprise that many of these colleges have responded by adding preprofessional programs at great expense—and often with mixed results. But the fact is that many of their graduates will go on to some form of postbaccalaureate education and only then will the students specialize.
What I think these institutions need to emphasize is not only that their students are far more likely than those elsewhere to graduate in four years, but also to acquire the skills and personal experiences that will benefit their graduates in the years ahead.
2. These institutions need to increase access by pursuing many more community college transfer students.
In the past, the admission of transfer students seemed antithetical to the liberal arts college experience, which nurtured close peer bonds extending over four years. But there’s no particular reason why those kinds of bonding experiences should be concentrated in the first year. I can think of a variety of ways that these institutions could create not just a robust first-year experience, but rich second-, third- and fourth-year counterparts designed to forge a sense of belonging and identity. A 2+2 program would significantly reduce the overall cost of a liberal arts college education for transfer students.
3. These institutions need to radically rethink the academic experience that they offer.
Why would anyone pay two, three or more times as much to attend a small liberal arts college if the educational experience was pretty much the same as that found elsewhere? I don’t think the traditional answers—a more prestigious degree or the opportunity to play college sports—are enough. The actual student experience, both academic and nonacademic, needs to be special.
Free of many of the constraints imposed on a public university education, a liberal arts college can institute alternatives to education as usual. Let me suggest a number of alternatives that draw upon the example of such pace-setting institutions as Berea, Drexel, Northeastern, Paul Quinn and Minerva.
- Various earn-learn models: These might involve a co-op model, in which students alternate time on campus with a full-time internship, or defraying some of an education’s costs by making paid on-campus work an essential part of the undergraduate experience.
- Distributed education models: Already, liberal arts colleges offer extensive study abroad programs, but I can easily imagine other initiatives along similar lines. Why not supplement time on campus with learning and research experiences elsewhere—working in a government agency or at a nonprofit organization or spending a semester undertaking a mentored community service activity?
- Accelerated models: These might include a three-year bachelor’s degree that takes advantage of prior learning or four-year joint bachelor’s-master’s programs.
- Problem- and project-based models: Babson and Lehigh are among the colleges that have created innovation centers and accelerators where undergraduates investigate and propose solutions to a business or community problem, design and prototype a start-up, and learn about marketing, accounting and business operations from faculty and alumni mentors. Nor must these programs be limited to business. Arizona State has created a Performing Arts Venture Experience that might serve as a model for how many departments might assist students in implementing a project that grows out of their discipline.
4. At least some of these institutions should work with their state coordinating board and Legislature to become a more integral part of the public higher education ecosystem.
There are, of course, many practical and theoretical objections to tightening the connection between private liberal arts colleges and public university systems. But why not give a broader range of students an alternative to the more impersonal education offered by most large public institutions, even if this was only for a year or two? States might take steps to make this an affordable option for many more undergraduates.
Liberal arts colleges have historically served as higher education’s ego ideal and, at their best, laboratories for experimentation. More than any other institutions of higher learning, these colleges have had a goal that extends far beyond career preparation: to transform undergraduates into successful, mature, self-reflective adults.
We need liberal arts college to serve as a counterweight to the R-1 ideal, the idea that colleges and universities should prioritize funded research and graduate and professional education. We also need these schools to counterbalance the idea that the primary purpose of an undergraduate education is job-focused.
Much as we need the example of Sweden to remind us what a humane and just society looks like, we need liberal arts colleges to show us what a high-quality education ought to be.
Even though some liberal arts colleges have become privileged enclaves that are, essentially, finishing schools for rich kids, and despite the fact that some of the most prestigious have become insular hothouses that breed a particularly febrile campus culture, their declining number represents a real loss. We need institutions that not only focus on teaching, but that are committed to well-rounded student development and offer a genuinely immersive and engaged college-going experience.
But these institutions will not survive if they remain static. The phrase “adapt or die” is as applicable to higher education as to every other domain. For liberal arts colleges, the challenge is to adapt in ways that do not undercut their special mission, while making the benefits that they offer much more widely available.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.