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EASTON, PA. -- A year ago, the notion that Smith College -- with a $1 billion endowment, high student demand, and frequently cited educational quality -- was raising existential questions, particularly about its economic model, seemed a fairly radical notion.

But an idea that seemed striking in the past  -- that elite liberal arts colleges might have to make significant changes in the next few years if they are to remain relevant (or present) in the current educational market -- is now the hottest topic in the sector.

A conference this week here at Lafayette College entitled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World,” drew more than 200 college administrators, including about 50 college presidents, out of an invite list of U.S. News and World Report’s list of top national liberal arts colleges. Judging by the turnout, the discussion, and the fact that several other conferences addressing these questions are scheduled over the next few months, it’s clear that the questions are on everybody’s mind.

But even among the fairly homogeneous group represented here, there was significant disagreement about how pressing the economic challenges are and the best ways to tackle them. And liberal arts college administrators still seem reluctant to adopt some major ways of cutting costs that other sectors of higher education have adopted.

And the solutions administrators did offer, many of which have high up-front capital costs, such as increased collaboration through technology, might not be options for the many less-wealthy liberal arts colleges (generally not represented here) that are facing some of the most immediate threats.

Paying the Professorate

In his opening talk Monday night, Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss laid out four major challenges facing liberal arts colleges -- affordability, public skepticism about the value of a liberal arts degree and college in general, decline in the share of U.S population who fit the demographic patterns of students who traditionally attend liberal arts colleges, and questions about how to incorporate technology into the college and serve a generation of students that is increasingly networked -- most of which was addressed in various forms throughout the day Tuesday.

But talk about the cost of educating students at liberal arts colleges, and potential ways of decreasing those costs, dominated Tuesday’s presentations. And when it comes to the costs of educating students at liberal arts colleges and what costs get passed on to students and families in the form of higher tuition, nothing seems to weigh on presidents’ minds more than what they pay professors.

Several studies have shown that the cost of educating students has increased dramatically over the past few decades, primarily because the cost of highly educated labor has increased. Efficiency gains in other industries have tended to come from replacing employees with technology, or making those employees more efficient through technology. But those improvements haven’t dramatically affected liberal arts colleges, which pride themselves on student-faculty interaction. As a result, the amount that such institutions are charging has gone up over the years.

In one presentation, Suzanne P. Welsh, vice president for finance and treasurer at Swarthmore College, created a composite picture of 12 institutions with an administrator speaking at the conference. At that composite institution, faculty salaries increased 35 percent between 2000 and 2010, and 40 percent when benefits were included. Over that time period, educational costs, which includes faculty salaries, increased from 48 percent of the budget to 51 percent.

Unlike other sectors, particularly research universities and the for-profit sector, liberal arts colleges have not sought to use technology to increase productivity in instruction, principally by increasing the student to faculty ratio. Faculty members at research universities teach lectures of 500 students at a time, and online for-profit providers might have thousands of students assigned to each faculty member. But Welsh’s composite college had a student-faculty ratio of about 11 to 1.

At liberal arts colleges, the low student-professor ratio is part of their identity and a point of pride, and they are reluctant to abandon that, citing a potential decrease in quality. “We haven’t had any disruptive technology that changed the professor/student mix at our universities,” said Jill Tiefenthaler, president of Colorado College.

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, said liberal arts colleges exist at the nexus of “quality, distinctiveness, and social purpose.” If colleges are going to continue to attract students and survive, they are going to have to “deliver a better and better education.”

For that reason, the concern about a decrease in perceived quality looms large. Presenters pointed out that “quality” at such institutions has historically been measured by inputs, such as how much is spent on a program or faculty-student ratio. But liberal arts colleges and higher education institutions in general are bad at measuring outputs, specifically educational gain. Finding a way to show that instructional efficiency initiatives do not decrease quality will be a major challenge over the next few years if institutions want to drive down cost.

The concerns over decreasing quality also came up when conference participants talked about the possibility of increasing teaching loads for faculty members at liberal arts colleges. Among the institutions represented here, many require faculty members to teach only two classes a semester, compared to three or for at other types of institutions (or less privileged liberal arts college). While the topic came up a couple times in presentations, presidents did not press the idea, saying that shifting away from research and other responsibilities would decrease quality.

Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, noted that there might be room to make faculty more productive by making class time more valuable, such as by using new educational technology programs to teach lower-division programs and concentrating faculty time in high-touch seminars.

Collaborating for Cash

Technology is one area where presenters and attendees seemed genuinely divided about utility.  Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka, a research organization that encourages the use of technology to disseminate scholarship, presented on potential ways technology could transform liberal arts institutions over the next few years, such as using computer-guided programs to teach hybrid courses across institutions.

But immediately following Guthrie's presentation, Williams College President Adam F. Falk argued that the principal reason for adopting technological innovation should be for educational improvement, not just productivity gains. “College education isn’t simply about most efficient or innovative means of delivering content,” he said, arguing that the engagement component of what colleges like his do was over all more important. “It’s hard for even the best student s to learn on their own.” Falk’s presentation was warmly received by the crowd.

But not every institution has the luxury to not seek productivity gains in the next few years, particularly those liberal arts colleges who didn’t make the invite list.  Many of those institutions are facing greater scrutiny on costs, families who are less willing to pay high prices, and climbing discount rates that are eating into their budgets.

Eugene M. Tobin, program officer for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation noted in his talk Monday night that collaboration is one way that colleges could potentially use technology to cut or maintain costs without harming quality.

By partnering with one another, or with other types of institutions, liberal arts colleges could offer classes or programs that would be too expensive for any individual institution to offer. Languages, which have been cut from many colleges in recent years due to low demand, have often been cited as a place where these types of programs could easily be adopted. But presidents also noted other areas ripe for collaboration, such as upper-level electives in most majors, where on-campus faculty might not have the particular expertise a student seeks.

But, as with technology, there was some debate about where to set the bar to consider something a success. Some college presidents said that simply improving quality while maintaining costs would be enough of a reason to start such programs, while others were clearly more interested in ways to cut costs.

Audience members noted that the only way the use of technology could significantly reduce costs if it results in fewer educated workers needed to deliver education, and many presidents are not willing to reduce faculty rolls, so there won't be significant reductions in cost.

If that reluctance is true, then it becomes important for liberal arts colleges to make the argument to the public that investing in liberal arts colleges -- either in subsidies or tuition -- is important, a topic that is on Wednesday's agenda.

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