Passionate Traditionalist or Pragmatic Visionary?

Emily Miller and Richard Skinner examine the challenges facing liberal arts colleges and how those might shape their next generation of presidents.

March 7, 2012

The vaunted benefits of a liberal-arts college education will be much in need by the women and men who become the next generation leaders of those institutions.  They will inherit places and practices beloved by most alumni but increasingly unaffordable for most prospective students or their families and, for some, of questionable relevance to the 21st century.

Much of the discussion about liberal arts colleges focuses on finances and, as we note below, for good reason.  But we believe these institutions’ problems are as much ones of imagination and intellect as they are financial.  Indeed, the challenge to liberal arts colleges is part of a broader questioning of a liberal education, long a centerpiece of American higher education. 

If liberal arts colleges are to survive intact, their presidents and their governing boards will need to think critically and creatively, honor the voices of stakeholders, communicate clearly, and act with resolve – in short, they will have to demonstrate the capabilities they cite as attributes of their graduates.

By the Numbers

They are icons of American higher education and are what most of us think of when we hear the word “college.”  Often situated in bucolic settings in small towns sometimes far removed from urban centers, America’s liberal arts colleges serve as homes to homogeneous student cohorts of 18- to 22-year-olds burdened with few obligations beyond attending college.

But many of the 300-odd existing liberal arts colleges in the U.S. struggle with major financial problems.  The challenges arise from tightly interwoven strands of the living/learning experience the institutions require, including

  •  residence on or immediately adjacent to campus and a myriad of services associated with campus life – meals, recreation, entertainment, custodial, security, maintenance;
  • classes of 8-24 students taught by full-time professors who graduated from prestigious universities and chose to be somewhat less in the way of researchers and scholars and more teachers/mentors;
  • a rich assortment of learning and experiential opportunities managed usually by college staff – study abroad, community service, internships, clubs, and intramural and intercollegiate athletics.

This combination of elements and the lack of state-government support guarantee that a liberal arts college education is expensive.  According to the College Board, average tuition at a four-year private nonprofit college or university rose 66 percent between 2000-1 and 2008-9; the estimated cost for 2011-12 is $38,590 for tuition, fees and room/board.  Some of the most prestigious institutions already charge more than $50,0000, inclusive.

By contrast, the Census Bureau reported in 2011 that median household income in the United States, 2000 to 2010, declined by 7 percent to $49,445.  Hispanic/Latino and African American median household incomes dropped to $37,759 and $32,068, respectively.

The effect of these trends is that the market in America shrinks in terms of the number of families able to pay the costs of or obtain financing for a student attending a traditional liberal arts college. And because race/ethnicity and family income are so strongly correlated and most of the growth in high-school graduates is among African American and Latino families, even fewer will likely have the means to pay the price of a liberal arts college education in the future.

What’s more, the various innovations spawned in and by liberal arts colleges – first-year experience, learning communities, writing across the curriculum, and the like – typically add costs rather than hold or lower them.

Here, then, is the financial dilemma of most of the 300 liberal arts colleges:  The components that go into making a liberal arts college are inherently expensive and enjoy little or nothing in terms of economy of scale. Indeed, the lack of scale in terms of small class sizes is one of the attributes boasted about by these institutions. 

Within higher education and among some liberal arts college presidents the collective judgment is that these institutions’ basic business model is broken, period.  High tuition, coupled with discounting rates averaging 35 percent (and some approaching 60 percent) from 1999-2009, is already straining funds to support the academic mission.  And while the potential exists for large gifts to lessen fiscal strain, college fund-raising is in an increasingly competitive market for philanthropic dollars.  Moreover, fund-raising efforts are notorious for not aiding operating budgets. 

Fund-raising and the development of new revenue streams will bolster financial aid availability, make it possible to renovate and improve existing buildings or build new facilities, and offset some of the costs of faculty salaries and benefits. But unless the harvest of funds is quite significant and establishes a large endowment, it is only a matter of time before tuition and fees will continue to increase at a rate sure to exceed affordability for most families.

Enter the Digital Generation

As daunting as the financial dilemma is, it is not the only challenge confronting liberal arts colleges. Very soon, an entire generation of high school graduates for whom instantaneous communication and online courses are simply part of learning will seek out a college or a university to attend. These students are familiar and comfortable with the reach of technology and its ability to enable the formation of ad hoc communities and social networks.  Lectures and seminars may seem “quaint” means of transferring information in an environment with a surfeit of information ready at hand.

To a lesser extent, the next generation of college freshmen is also experienced in travel both within and outside the U.S.  For some, the world beyond America’s borders is not necessarily a distant place, and many are first- or second-generation Americans, having migrated from around the globe.  Will the confines of a college campus far removed from cities really hold much attraction, no matter how bucolic the setting?

Liberal arts colleges will be tested to provide an education and experience sufficiently intriguing to warrant students enrolling in these institutions at the attendant price.  Small classes may have appeal, but these students are able to create what for them are intimate one-to-one virtual as well as physical environments at a moment’s notice and can be part of very large communities instantaneously with members dispersed throughout the world.

If the professor is an authority on a given subject, there is little to keep a student from seeking out other authorities, perhaps with very different views on a particular subject. 

If a PowerPoint presentation is the bulk of a lecture, why not e-mail it to every student, record the lecture as a digital video and distribute it, make it the subject of texting or chatting, and avoid the logistics of going to class?

The impact of a digital generation of students will be felt across higher education, but nowhere will it more directly challenge the organizing principles for learning than in the case of liberal arts colleges.  This, then, takes us back to the need for a new generation of presidents willing and able to think anew and, with colleagues, reconstruct the learning experience.

Evolution and Adaptation vs. Transformation

As is the case in other types of American higher education institutions, the challenge to liberal arts colleges will not be felt uniformly.  A fraction of these are sufficiently endowed to enable them to withstand the financial challenge and maintain themselves as is for some time to come.  These fortunate few will also have the means to experiment with pedagogical alternatives to traditional in-class lecture and seminar formats. 

And if future generations of technology-savvy students question the premises of residential living and learning, these colleges have sufficient demand for admission to encourage the questioners to look elsewhere for an undergraduate education and experience, confident that there are ample numbers of applicants to take their places.

But for most liberal arts colleges, the challenges enumerated here cannot be sidestepped.  Some will follow a path pursued by many former liberal arts colleges and add degree programs (including graduate ones) intended for preparation for specific professions, forego a common general education for something more akin to an a la carte curriculum, and move from the student-as-athlete of Division III or intramural sports to the athlete-as-student of more competitive intercollegiate sports. 

In doing so, these institutions will join a well-trod passage of a sizable number of colleges that found a liberal arts education too constraining and too expensive to continue as before and, instead, became more comprehensive, albeit seldom more distinctive, than their often-neighboring public counterparts.  Too often, however, the evolution and adaptation of former liberal arts colleges leave them in situations at least as precarious as their former conditions, since they now have to compete with regional public universities that enjoy the financial advantage of state subsidies.  Still, conversations with the boards and presidents of the colleges that evolved make it clear that remaining a liberal-arts-only institution was not an option.

By contrast, exigency or inspiration or some combination of the two may prompt the presidents of some liberal arts colleges to think less in terms of evolution and adaptation and more about transformation of their institutions.  Embracing the ends of a liberal arts education, some presidents and boards could decide that the interwoven elements often seen as essential for such an education can be achieved in different ways and in different formats. 

For such ideas to be tested, boards and the presidents they hire will have to make clear their steadfast commitment to the ends of a liberal education, on the one hand, but also their collective appetite for alternative means to achieve those ends for the students they graduate, on the other.  Much is at stake: in some cases the very future of some liberal arts colleges. 

And much could be gained by this or other kinds of transformative change.  If effective, efficient, but less costly means can be found to educate students, then the liberal arts college may yet prove itself the durable institution long admired by many.  In the process, liberal education could be revived.

A Pragmatic Visionary          

Liberal arts colleges may be served well by welcoming back to campus graduates who have applied their liberal education to addressing challenges and opportunities across diverse sectors.  As leaders, these individuals presumably have lived and practiced the values of a liberal education.  They have successfully adapted to complex organizations, challenged prevailing cultures and traditions, created environments encouraging experimentation and innovation, and developed a comfort for risk. 

As future presidents they understand well the distinctive kind of institution represented by the liberal arts college but are also courageous enough to know that the time may be right to effect significant change.  While they share a commitment to and a good measure of nostalgia for liberal education and a liberal arts college as these were and are, their experiences beyond the academy allow them to lead the institution with perspective and perhaps change it to its betterment.

What’s more, the intellectual and personal challenge of transforming institutional practices that are legacies of centuries is surely substantial enough to attract the talents of women and men who in their first careers saved floundering enterprises, created entirely new kinds of businesses, and reinvigorated fading organizations. 

Such leaders exist and indeed many are products of liberal arts colleges.  No less a figure than Steve Jobs made the case in a 1996 interview that

computer science is a liberal art, it's something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life.  It's not something that should be relegated to 5 percent of the population over in the corner. It's something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that's how we viewed computation and these computation devices.

There are not as many Steve Jobs as might be needed to lead liberal arts colleges, but those institutions have produced a goodly number of leaders. 

Carthage College can claim the past World Bank president, Alden Clausen, and Trinity College can celebrate alumni Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius.

The inventor of touch-screen technology, Samuel Hurst, graduated from Berea College, and the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is an alumnus of Grinnell.

Wheaton College (Mass.) can point with pride to Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, while DePauw is able to celebrate the founder of Angie’s list, Angie Hicks.

The lists are long of accomplished liberal arts graduates, but few might be enticed to take on the presidency of an institution beset by challenges such as those that bedevil the majority of these colleges.  As Lewis Lapham once noted in another context:

Maybe it is an impossible task, like the juggler’s dream of the balls standing still in the air, but certainly it is of heroic enough proportion to summon leaders capable of drawing swords from stones.


Emily R. Miller is a consultant to the firm of Harris/IIC Partners, executive recruiters for senior administrators and scholars/clinicians at research-intensive universities, academic health/medical centers, and university research parks. Richard A. Skinner is senior consultant to Harris/IIC Partners. He was president of Royal Roads University, in Canada, and of Clayton State University and an online learning unit of the University System of Georgia.

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