The Road Ahead: Debunking the Demise of the Residential Liberal Arts College

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The Road Ahead – Debunking the Demise of LACs

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.

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10 responses to “The Road Ahead: Debunking the Demise of the Residential Liberal Arts College”

  1. Tom Boat says:


    Right on! Those institutions that can adapt to current forces and stresses will prevail. Quality is in the end what counts and will be the foundation for sustainability. I applaud and support your approach, and look forward to future installments.


  2. Don Huffman says:

    I agree with you, and with Tom Boat’s premise that institutions which adapt and deal realistically with current stresses will succeed and continue to thrive. It appears to me that Central’s planning to meet the challenges of “Money, Mismanagement and Mattering” is precisely where we should be.
    In many ways these processes are very similar to the stresses which middle income families have faced, and still face when finances, management and mattering become essential. Mattering is likely the most important, but management is also critical to the enduring existence of these families. Level of income may be the prime determinant for recognition of “middle income” status, but the management and wise budgeting of resources will likely determine the success of those who continue to achieve goals that “matter” in our society and institutions.

  3. Ed Maroon says:

    Hi Mark,

    In addition to what Tom and Don have said, I also think it will be the universities / colleges that prepare their students for what happens after they get their degrees. What most parents look at these days is not only the cost, programs, facilities a university offers, but also how many of the graduating class get jobs right away or pursue highier education degrees. So in addition to Money, Mismanagment, and Mattering, I also think it will be progressive thinking that determine success and failure.
    Best of Luck and welcome to the Central family!

    • Don Huffman says:

      Dear Ed,
      I have a feeling that the greater emphasis at Central on internships for Central students in divserse areas of study is largely a response to the need to prepare for “what is out there for the graduate.” At any rate, it is a good point.

  4. Rick Johnson says:

    My first thoughts were of a sailboat: to ignore a change in the winds is disasterous. However, adjusting one’s sails does not mean a change in destination. So that must always be the first question: what is the destination? What is the point of the whole trip? Central’s strentgh has always been to keep that port, that goal, firmly in mind. Without it we are lost indeed.

  5. Kelly Shaw '88 says:

    An interesting article, and certainly food for thought for those of us in higher education, or those otherwise heavily invested in higher ed.

    In a related article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, it is found that 60% of U.S. colleges and universities are either unsustainable or are headed in that direction, this according to a new Bain/Sterling study. ( While there will be a lot of nit-picking over these findings, and the study itself is not terribly transparent in terms of methodology used to reach these conclusions, it would appear to be a good indicator of the financial health…or lack thereof…of institutions of higher learning in this country.

    Unfortunately, at least according to this study, Central College finds itself in the “unsustainable financial path” segment.


  6. Brian Peterson says:

    Mark and others –

    As Ed indicated, progressive thinking, together with “money mismanagement and mattering” are what are needed for schools like Central to be successful. But this must be taken in the same vein as Sen’s argument that economic, political and social freedom are inextricably intertwined in the development of economies; you can’t focus on only one at a time.

    This is where, I think, Central has made great strides in the last few years. We have been focusing on the general question of, “Why are we here, and why do we deserve to survive in this educational climate?” This addresses the “mattering.” Effective management has initiated the question, but has tasked faculty, staff, and students with leading the conversation to answer that question – there’s the second part. As we discover who we are, and who we want to be, we become more stable financially; there is no more throwing money into the wind and hoping that something good comes of it. The more financially stable we are, the more financially stable our students will be.

    Unfortunately, institutions of higher education are burdened with inertia; the argument “because that’s how we always did it” tends to rule the day. In this conversation about who we are and who we want to be forces us to think more strategically, and progressively. What we once were and what we once did may no longer be sufficient in a changing climate.

    In my conversations with prospective students, I have always found the liberal arts to be an easy sale (at least from my perspective). I refer to the liberal arts as preparing students for that which cannot be anticipated. Students come in with a desire to do x occupation, or go into y industry, but those decisions are made up to four years in advance of when they actually have to look for a job. That’s where liberal arts comes in; students become more flexible when they are forced to be, especially in this economic climate.

    Finally, let me add that as an economist, I truly appreciate my discipline’s forecasting ability no longer compared to that of meteorologists and now with educational pundits – and looking better in the process!


  7. Ed Ver Hoef says:

    My memory isn’t very reliable these days and I may have written essentially the same as that shown below and, if so, I apologize.

    I was in the Central class of 1954. Actually, I graduated in 1955, because I kept changing my major and ended my 4th year one hour short of the 120 required for the degree and took care of that in summer school. I had a BS with majors in math and physics. After two years in the Army, I started working full-time and going to grad school in the evening. I got my MS in Math from De Paul University in Chicago in 1960.

    In the course of my working career (primarily in the field of custom software development), I interviewed innumerable job candidates, most of them having received engineering degrees from large engineering universities. If there was one common thread in many of these candidates, it was their poor communication skills. In general, they knew their technical material quite well but (and this is a VERY BIG but) their writing skills, sadly, were woefully poor and inadequate. Their grammar was atrocious and their vocabularies were extremely limited outside their particular specialty. In many cases they just made up words, seemingly thinking there must be a word something like this. Their engineering college had done them a serious injustice! They were going to find their job growth very difficult unless they dealt with this deficiency.

    This is not to imply all technical graduates need to be incredibly gifted wordsmiths, but, unless they are able to, or learn to express themselves clearly and well in their writing, they will, in all likelihood, be seriously limited in their growth potential. I suspect that technical colleges would probably do their students a big favor if, in addition to their technical courses, they would require their students to take the appropriate non-technical courses such as history, english, geography, etc., especially courses in the general field of english such as grammar, and exposition, both written and oral. The argument will be made that there isn’t enough time to properly and adquqtely train the students in their technical skills and their communication skills, and this is quite reasonable. But it does a student no favor if he is trained to be an excellent engineer but has woeful communication skills. If this can’t all be done properly in four years, then the program should be extended another year.

  8. Deb Bruxvoort says:

    Speaking of MOOCs and the shifting sands of higher ed, here’s an opportunity to experience them firsthand: an open online course entitled “Current/Future State of Higher Education” will run from October 8 to November 18, 2012. You can register for it here: