NOTE: This is the final installment in a six-part series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We explored the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.
In this series of essays, I have attempted to describe the contours of change impacting the landscape of higher education in general and for liberal arts colleges in particular. My task in this final essay is to focus on Central College as an example of a liberal arts college defining a future rooted in an impressive tradition and yet growing toward possibilities that embrace thoughtful and meaningful change. And, while this essay speaks in broader terms, you are invited to find specifics of the Central College implementation plan, The Work We Have to Do, on the Civitas website.
I begin with the premise that regardless of the technological innovations, economic realities and demographic shifts affecting liberal arts colleges, this educational endeavor will remain fundamentally rooted in human relationships. The modalities of learning will indeed change just as they have for centuries in response to an ever-evolving set of societal expectations. However, the idea that learning can or will be primarily achieved by the interface of a student with a technological device is misguided. The ability to efficiently and effectively retrieve the content for learning is critically important, but we lose our way when we think delivering content is the same as facilitating learning. That’s why I think MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a greater challenge for publishers than they are for educators.
For me, the relationship between teacher and student, master and apprentice, and parent and child, is the base element of learning. To be sure, the nature of those relationships changes through the course of lifespan development. Gradually, we become more independent in our learning as our knowledge, skill and experience expand. The learning approaches we use for adult and professional populations are quite different than techniques utilized for children and adolescents. For this reason, adult and professional learners can benefit most by online learning opportunities. The key is the context for learning matters, as do the developmental needs of the learner. This is what it means to be “learner-centered.” I’m a fan of technology in teaching and learning, but we must never confuse the tools of learning with the relationships of learning.
Liberal arts colleges emphasize the interaction of the teacher and learner, and attempt to do everything possible to deepen that connection through curricular design, co-curricular activities and experiential education. Our focus is on what students and faculty do together. Here’s the problem: it’s expensive to do this. It would be much more cost effective to put everything online in homogenized, static formats with standardized course materials. So push is coming to shove as scarce resources and competing priorities are driving us to rethink how we are facilitating learning. So what has to change? Here are my top ideas for reshaping liberal arts colleges for the road ahead:
First, we should increase our emphasis on the intersections among our academic disciplines and professional fields of study. The expansion of the body of knowledge has created increasing specialization for members of our faculties and a fragmentation of the curriculum. Too often, we think more is better, when perhaps less is more. There is increasing pressure on our liberal arts colleges to expand the scope of the curriculum, rather than revising the content of the curriculum. Staying current is essential, but chasing the growth is unsustainable. The unique opportunity we have, however, is that our faculty members have already self-selected into an educational setting that values the breadth of one’s knowledge and the connections among disciplines. Accordingly, it is not only possible, but desirable for our professors to teach across disciplines, where appropriate, at the undergraduate level. At Central College, the Intersections program for first-year students and the Liberal Arts Seminar for seniors are powerful examples of valuing the whole of the curriculum and expanding the reach of our faculty as they explore interdisciplinary topics, team teach and reinforce the coherence of the curriculum by demonstrating the integration of knowledge. The model is a good one.
Second, as liberal arts colleges we need to unleash our creativity and stop trying to copy our way to success. The genius of the American system of education is that one size does not fit all. There is much we can learn from each other and our efforts at benchmarking various activities and characteristics are indeed useful. However, there are limits to what we can gain through similarity and sameness. The shadow side of rankings, standards for accreditation and state/federal regulations is we are too often forced into the same exact mold. While the excellence of our institutions should be ensured, such limited expectations serve to inhibit creativity and reinforce the status quo.
Technology has a lot to offer us in this arena. As we find ways to make use of the innovations available in our teaching and learning activities, we must avoid the sameness that would gradually degrade us all. We should be inspired by the innovations among our institutions, not bound by the limits of conventional wisdom. This should lead us to partnerships among institutions to take advantage of shared expertise, shared services, economies of scale and collective innovation on uniquely designed programs and services.
Third, it is essential that we bend the cost curve, moderate pricing, diversify revenue streams and limit the extent of student debt. This will not be an easy task, but the realities of our economics are emerging in ways that have been long predicted, but assiduously avoided. Affordability will be the greatest demand of the next decade and to meet the challenge, we will need to think and act in new ways. In addition to the partnerships among institutions referenced above, we will need to reverse the ratchet on the cost of educating students. Some assert the cost increases in higher education are a function of the availability of financial aid funded by state and federal governments. The reality is our pricing is driven much more by competition and cost than the funding of outside aid. The rate of increase in both federal and state aid is dwarfed by the rate of increase in institutionally funded aid. While the funded aid programs have fallen behind the real cost of producing an educated student for society, more funded aid will play only a limited role at best. As our costs are driven at a rate much higher than the Consumer Price Index (CPI), we will need to make tough choices about the scope of our enterprise in a competitive landscape.
These three steps, (1) a more interdisciplinary focus, (2) the unleashing of creativity in the design of programs and services, and (3) an honest look at the realities of affordability can combine to reshape the landscape for liberal arts colleges. If education is fundamentally relational, not transactional, and requires the human element to be successful over the long-term, then the ways we do things will necessarily change. That change, however, need not redefine education to be less effective in order to be more efficient. We dare not abdicate our role in preserving an educational model that seeks to deepen understanding, open minds to nuance, explore rich context and find new synergies. American society desperately needs the leavening of a thoughtful educational experience for coming generations. It is our task to preserve it.