Of all the colleges that stand to face difficulties in the coming decade, liberal-arts colleges are at the top of the list. This is not news to anyone who follows higher education, but this thoughtful interview with Victor E. Ferrall, the former president of Beloit College, brings a lot of the points home.
One of the points of pride of the many liberal-arts colleges in this country is that each one is different: in culture, in appeal, in teaching style. All feel superior to the other, at least in one area, or at least “different” enough that they could never stand to be affiliated. But it is that competition and unwillingness to compromise that may kill them. Almost half of the non-profit institutions listed earlier this month by the Department of Education for low financial-responsibility scores can be classified as liberal-arts colleges. Throw in small religious and bible colleges, and theological seminaries, and the proportion is almost two-thirds.
Here’s the usual proviso: the most deep-pocketed liberal-arts colleges with the biggest brand names need not worry so much. Their education is still in demand. But for most other small liberal arts colleges, they face a public who sees their education as a luxury they cannot afford, not with all the student debt already out there.
Mr. Ferrall has reason to be worried. His college, Beloit, may be just the type of colleges with a future that looks pretty cloudy financially. He proposes that liberal-arts colleges look to share faculty, share curriculum, and look elsewhere for commonalities. As he rightly points out, many smaller liberal-arts colleges long ago shed their pure “liberal arts” orientation, and now graduate more students with degrees in education and business than in any other discipline.That was the major departure from their historic orientation. Merging some operations with other like-minded institutions won’t take away their reason for being. It may make them stronger.
The alternative for many of these colleges is likely somewhere off a cliff.