NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We will explore the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.
Very early in my career I was called to a campus-wide meeting for faculty and staff of the institution I then served. The president of the college spoke of the results of a recent regional accreditation visit and the actions of the commission related to our future.
It was 1987 and the “baby bust” was unfolding before our eyes. The population of 18-year-olds was in dramatic decline and predictions of widespread failure for liberal arts colleges could be found in many newspapers and magazines. Pundits reported we should expect at least 500 college closures in the coming years. We were told education by extraction – students relocating to a residential campus – was a thing of the past and that the future was in education by extension. Progressive institutions would be opening centers for students to attend classes in locations near home and educational programs offered by video with guided instruction would replace the traditional classroom. Many mergers and acquisitions were to follow as institutions would inevitably consolidate for efficiency in offering programs of study.
It was in this context that our president read to us a letter known as a “show cause” order. Essentially this letter was a shift in burden. It indicated an institution must demonstrate a rationale for preventing the impending loss of institutional accreditation. We were all stunned.
It was at that time I initiated my graduate study in higher education administration. I decided this front row seat at an institution threatened with demographic and economic challenges presented a great opportunity to focus my research. My dissertation explored institutions threatened with failure to determine if one could predict the conditions under which failure would occur. After studying the broader trends in depth, I focused in on three campuses (not including the one I served) and followed two others less extensively. Today, none of the five institutions I studied exist as they once did. Two of them closed completely; two were acquired and have faint remnants in other institutions; and one reopened in a different form, in a new location, with an alternative mission. The institution I served remains alive and well, having made a series of organizational adjustments over many years, but with the same mission.
Why the difference in outcomes? Were some just lucky? History teaches us there is much more at work than luck. The demise of liberal arts colleges has been predicted for more than 100 years and largely, incorrectly. The failure of the institutions I studied revealed the causes were highly contextual and specific to the challenges faced and the responses implemented. During the time of my research, I had an opportunity to interview Katherine Hanson, who was then with the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE). She articulated a pattern I recognized in my research and helped me formulate an understanding about why the failure of colleges was not something that grew from macroeconomic and demographic patterns, but from interpretations and responses that were found on the micro scale. Institutions fail for a combination of three reasons: money, mismanagement and mattering. It was easy to understand the money side, particularly at that time, as enrollments were in decline and some institutions failed to develop an appropriate response. The mismanagement was the most obvious thing I discovered as institutions made decisions that were ill-advised and, in more than one case, reckless. The most powerful reason, however, was this concept of mattering. The failed institutions no longer mattered to the constituencies that founded them and sustained them for generations. All five of the institutions I studied had been abandoned by their alumni. Fortunately for Central College, this is an historical army of strength.
Accordingly, higher education has experienced seasons of change throughout its history. This is amply recorded. However, the question for every generation of college and university leaders is: What is the task of this generation? How will we respond to the challenges we encounter?
In a recent op-ed piece written for the Los Angeles Times, “Give Colleges More Credit,” Barry Glassner, president of Lewis and Clark College, and Morton Shapiro, president of Northwestern University, offer some important insights. Here is an extended excerpt:
Higher education as we know it is about to come to an end. After all, there are no jobs for college graduates, certainly not for liberal arts students. Moreover, even were such students employable, they come out of school so burdened with debt that they will never dig their way out. The educational equivalent of eight-track tapes, traditional colleges and universities will vanish almost entirely, replaced by slimmer, more technologically advanced online and for-profit models.
As college presidents who hear such proclamations over and over again, we find ourselves suppressing the urge to yawn, and not because we lose sleep over them. Rather, we are reminded of Marcel Proust’s splendid observation in Remembrance of Things Past: “The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been ‘great changes.’”
We take comfort in the fact that for more than a century predictions about the impending demise of classic higher education have met the same fate: They have been utterly wrong. Around 1900, David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford, forecast the end of the liberal arts college. Others foresaw financial ruin for higher education during the Depression, when public colleges suffered 40% reductions in funding and private institutions lost more than a quarter of their endowments and more than 70% of gifts from benefactors. Then came proclaimers of the end of educational excellence resulting from democratization associated with the GI Bill, followed by prophets of demographic devastation from the large baby boom generation, and conversely, from the baby bust.
In short, there has been no scarcity of doomsayers. We thought that economists were bad at predicting. Next to educational pundits, they have the vision of Nostradamus.
In this series I’ll explore what is happening in higher education today, particularly as it relates to liberal arts colleges. For the past two years our academic community at Central College has been deeply involved in planning for the future. As we move toward implementation, it is time to set the context and outline the road ahead. Below is some background reading for those coming to the conversation more recently:
• Rediscovering Academic Community, 2010 inauguration program
• Conventional Wisdom is Killing Us, Inside Higher Ed, April 19, 2012
• What in the World Are We Doing?, Civitas, Nov. 25, 2011
• Perspectives: Are We Asking the Right Questions, Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning, January-February 2012, in libraries or by subscription
For now we have questions to explore. Will renewed predictions of a widespread macro failure for residential liberal arts colleges come true this time? Will an aversion to debt lead students to convenient, inexpensive online learning programs immediately following high school? Will Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) deliver academic content for society in the future? Stay tuned and join the discussion.