Welcome to the Party

Less-elite liberal arts colleges, which have struggled with demographic and economic change for years, think they have something to teach the elites, who are starting to consider those issues.

April 19, 2012

Small private liberal arts colleges with a regional orientation, such as the University of Charleston – a 1,339-student college in West Virginia with an endowment of about $30 million – have historically looked to the elites in the field, such as Williams and Swarthmore -- institutions with similarly sized student bodies but more than $1.5 billion in endowment funds -- as the trend-setters.

But, to use a phrase that’s popular in education these days, maybe it’s time to flip the classroom.

At a conference at Lafayette College last week, a group of about 200 administrators from some of the top residential liberal arts colleges in the country – those with national reputations, significant financial resources, and high demand, particularly among students and families with the means and willingness to pay full price – discussed challenges facing the liberal arts sector and how they might confront them.

Those challenges include a changing college-going demographic that will result in fewer upper-class students, the traditional pool for a residential liberal arts colleges; increasing skepticism among the public about the value of a liberal arts degree with no direct ties to a profession; the rising costs of educating a student, which will likely result in even higher tuition; and a changing understanding of technology that might require greater inclusion of technology in the curriculum, both as a tool for learning and a subject.

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It is only in the past few years that much of this group has engaged in a national conversation about these issues. But to say the questions are new might overstate the situation. “Some of these issues might be new for them, but they’re not necessarily new for small privates,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a group that represents the more than 600 small private colleges, including many that were present at last week’s conference. “It’s just that more of them are having to contend with these issues than in the past.” Organizers of last week's conference invited only a small portion of the residential liberal arts sector – those that are ranked highly in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of national liberal arts colleges -- to keep the conference small and focused on institutions with similar concerns.

The colleges that make up the rest of the sector, most of which don’t have the financial cushion of the elites, have confronted these issues over the past two decades. In that time, many have made significant changes to how they operate, from both administrative and curricular perspectives. Administrators at many of these colleges say the elites, which are now starting to consider these fundamental questions, might benefit from exploring how the rest of the field has adapted.

Administrators from such institutions also express more anxiety about the next few years and the challenges that lie ahead than do their elite counterparts. At the same time, they note that the anxiety and pressure can make them more open to experimentation and change than institutions that don’t feel as much heat. “If you’re enrollment-driven, you have to be open to change,” said Duane Bonifer, director of public relations for Lindsey Wilson College. “Either you’re open to change or you close.”

Existential Experimentation

The conversation at the Lafayette conference had a more measured tone than the general conversation that surrounds liberal arts colleges. In general, the presidents at the conference said that while they plan to tinker around the edges and make some curricular and operational changes, they didn’t think the current challenges would lead to a fundamental revision of their model of education, which emphasizes face-to-face interaction with faculty members and a residential experience.  

But that confidence might be limited to the top of the pack. Bonifer from Lindsey Wilson said that while his college has never been in a stronger position with regard to enrollment and finance, he and other administrators are anxious that changes in the higher education landscape could make their current model irrelevant. “We all know that higher education is going to be different 10 years from now, we just don’t know what it will look like,” he said. “And that makes everyone so anxious.”

Bonifer said he could easily see a world where, in two decades, Lindsey Wilson looks significantly different in how it operates than it does today. That new model could include more distance education programs, more courses taught online by faculty members at other institutions, or more professional and graduate programs. The big concern he said he and other administrators have is that nobody knows exactly what changes might be required, so adopting any solutions right now could be counterproductive. Most of the presidents at the Lafayette conference wouldn’t share that view about their own institutions.

While some small college administrators are afraid of what they see on the horizon, others say they’re facing very real challenges right now. “When you have for-profits, distance education, a national emphasis on community colleges, and on the other side you have economic challenges that have a real impact on what families do and the decisions they make, you better be looking at innovating,” said Edwin H. Welch, president of the University of Charleston. His institution made headlines in November when it announced a 22 percent cut in tuition. “We’ve got to be thinking, ‘How can we deliver the same level of quality at a lower cost?’ ”

The fact that such colleges are worried is not something the rest of higher education is celebrating, but that pressure can drive such institutions to experiment, which will provide examples for others to learn from. “Don’t take anything off the table,” Bonifer said. “You have to be able to consider every opportunity. You can’t outright say no. The question should be, ‘Why can’t you do something?’ ”

Lindsey Wilson, which has an endowment of about $50 million, has made some significant changes in the past few years, including opening the college up to more transfers from community colleges. And it is not alone. Many colleges that for years taught a traditional liberal arts curriculum have in added professional and master's programs, such as nursing and business. Others have changed their orientation to try to tap into new markets and reach certain demographics.

G. T. (Buck) Smith, president of Davis & Elkins College, another small private institution in West Virginia that traditionally taught a narrow liberal arts curriculum, said in recent years his college added programs in environmental and sustainability studies, hospitality management, and Appalachian studies, and is considering adding programs in early childhood learning, clinical psychology, and religious studies. "We haven’t survived with a silver spoon," he said. "Rather we know what it means not to rest on our laurels, but to scrap for every dollar, and then spend it wisely."

At the Lafayette conference, presidents noted that they probably have something to learn from what has been happening among lower-ranked colleges, and several presidents said they would like to expand the conversation. Ekman said there is a role for his organization to play in facilitating that discussion. At its annual presidents' institute next January, the council hopes to hold a workshop that brings together liberal arts colleges across the spectrum to tackle some of these issues. “Everybody needs help thinking about these issues,” he said.

Finding New Friends

One of the major themes to emerge from the Lafayette conference, pushed heavily by representatives from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helped support the conference, was that liberal arts colleges need to do a better job collaborating, not just with one another, but also with other sectors of higher education and beyond.

Presidents and other administrators said that, in general, there has been some reluctance among national liberal arts colleges – which often compete in admissions – to get together on academic matters. But there’s nothing like a crisis to make you rethink who your friends are, which was evident in the conference itself and organizers’ calls for further discussion about these issues.   

It is also evident among those institutions that have had a longer and deeper struggle, which have begun integrating in significant ways. The Independent College Enterprise, a group of nine small colleges in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts, has been collaborating on administrative services since the late 1990s. The group pooled resources to purchase shared administrative software, which the presidents in the organization estimate to have save each campus millions of dollars since it was purchased.

Sharing the service also allowed the consortium to share the employees required to service it. The consortium has seven staff members, all of whom are specialists in some area of the software, such as a database administrator and a student systems coordinator. If the campuses still ran their own system support, they would each have three staff members who were generalists in the software. As a result they get better service, Welch said.

The group is also starting to share some academic programs. Despite stretching a geographic area of more than 300 miles, five colleges in the consortium -- University of Charleston, Bethany College, Davis & Elkins College, Emory & Henry College and West Virginia Wesleyan College -- are launching a shared remedial math program next year. In the program, funded through the Teagle Foundation, a faculty member hired jointly by the consortium will teach a course through distance education technology to students on the five campuses. At each campus, local facilitators will help students learn the material.

“If there is some way we can save institutional dollars while delivering the same educational experience, that could be both better for the school and better for the students,” Welch said.

Michael P. Mihalyo, chancellor of Davis & Elkins, said the consortium chose to start with a remedial math program because the institutions faced a growing number of students requiring remediation.

The University of Charleston is also putting together another shared course with West Virginia Wesleyan, wherein a faculty member at West Virginia Wesleyan will teach American history courses to students on both campuses. That professor will also occasionally travel back and forth between the two campuses.

Charleston and its partners are hardly the first group of institutions to collaborate in this way. Small colleges across the country have formed several partnerships to share faculty in certain fields. Languages have proven particularly popular. This week a group of five liberal arts colleges in Texas announced that they would be teaching languages across the institutions using video conferencing software. The Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, many of which are regional in orientation and don’t show up high on the U.S. News rankings, also has some resource sharing programs in place.

Welch said the college is working to balance the financial challenges it faces with trying to maintain the identity of a college known for face-to-face interaction. “The challenge for residential liberal arts colleges is that, understandably, there is a great commitment to face-to-face interactions,” he said. “At the same time, can we take advantage of efficiencies of technology and distance learning?

“We can experiment with blended learning without endangering the fact that students need residential experience and talented mentors in learning.”

But the proliferation of such groups likely provides good fodder for places that are looking to integrate in deeper ways.

Bonifer said the country’s top liberal arts institutions aren’t likely to get knocked out of their positions any time soon. The larger threat, he said, is that the world will continue to change around them. “These schools that are good schools are still going to be good schools,” he said. “But they’re not going to be the only good schools.”


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