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Could it be that the demise of liberal arts colleges, like the death of Mark Twain, has been exaggerated?

That's the contention of an analysis published in Harvard Educational Review (abstract available here) -- which seeks to challenge the "declension narrative" about liberal arts colleges. Bruce A. Kimball, the author and a professor of educational studies at Ohio State University, argues that the numbers commonly given to illustrate the decline of liberal arts institutions aren't the best way to judge the health of the sector. Further, he argues that these figures exclude a growing form of liberal arts college: the honors college at the public university.

"[T]he enrollment of liberal arts students has not been dropping over the last four decades but, rather, shifting from liberal arts colleges to their counterpart in universities," writes Kimball.

Studies abound suggesting a retrenchment for the liberal arts college sector. David W. Breneman wrote a much-discussed article in 1990 titled "Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?" and he answered in the affirmative. A 2012 article in Liberal Education looked at the 212 institutions Breneman found to be liberal arts colleges, and, using his criteria found that only 130 of them still met the criteria Breneman had used for liberal arts colleges 20 years earlier -- a decline of 39 percent.

Kimball challenges those statistics in several ways. His general theme is that the number of liberal arts colleges alone does not measure the health of the sector and its role in American society.

He notes that, in modern times, liberal arts colleges have suffered periodic dips in enrollment during periods of economic stress, but then bounced back. Comparing the share of the U.S. population enrolled in liberal arts colleges, he finds that it constituted about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the population in the period of 1800-1860 and in 2011.

Kimball notes that in the earlier period, that was the percentage of Americans getting a higher education of any kind, and that those Americans were white Protestant males. In the intervening years, many other forms of higher education were created and grew in the United States, attracting far more students. But that doesn't mean, he argues, that the share of Americans receiving a liberal arts college education has declined.

Further, Kimball takes issue with the analyses based on the number of liberal arts colleges. While some colleges have disappeared, many of those that remain have grown -- dramatically over the long run. Between 1939 and 2009, he writes, Amherst College's enrollment grew from 900 to 1,750. Vassar College's enrollment grew from 1,100 to 2,400.

But more broadly, he argues that the lamentations for the liberal arts college ignore the evolution of a new kind of institution -- an honors college within a large state university. The number has grown steadily, to about 400 today, he writes. (He includes honors programs at many regional state universities, not just the flagships.) So today, he writes, students seeking a liberal arts education can enroll in liberal arts colleges (some of which have disappeared due to financial difficulties) or in honors colleges that are "heavily subsidized" and can afford to recruit and enroll students.

Public universities, he writes, have "triumphed by replicating the liberal arts college."

In his piece, Kimball also notes that this new model may be challenged over the long run. By equating liberal arts education with "honors" education, universities are associating "elitism with liberal arts education more explicitly and directly" than has been the case with liberal arts colleges, which included both elite and non-elite institutions. Further, he writes that honors colleges operate in an "alien, even threatening, environment" in that they are parts of institutions with a range of missions far from the more singular goal of a liberal arts college.

But as of today, Kimball writes, we should not be mourning the demise of the liberal arts college.

Breneman, one of those who has worried about the future of the liberal arts college, and the Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, praised Kimball as a "superb scholar." And Breneman said that it was possible to produce a liberal arts experience in a large university. He said via email that he attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in the early 1960s, "and we had a superb honors program that was the equivalent of a small liberal arts college embedded within the university, roughly 500 students admitted competitively, all courses with the best professors and all in 15 student seminars."

While that may be possible, he said, "from what little I know about undergraduate programs around the country in state universities, I don’t think that many of them replicate what I, at least, think of as the essence of the liberal arts college."

Roger G. Baldwin, professor of higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University and one of the authors of the 2012 Liberal Education article, said via email that he thought Kimball made a better case that "liberal education" was being sustained than that liberal arts colleges were being sustained.

"At its best, a liberal arts college education is a deep, impactful and distinctive type of education that occurs in a close community that shares a clear vision of its educational mission," Baldwin said. "Kimball offers little evidence that honors programs in large universities offer educational experiences equivalent to the liberal arts college experience. To support his conclusion that many students are now getting an education equivalent to a liberal arts college education within honors programs, Kimball should provide more information on the nature of honors programs and the types of educational experiences they offer to their students."

In an interview, Kimball acknowledged that many university honors colleges are for students in business and professional fields, not just the traditional arts and sciences. But he said that arts and sciences disciplines are valued nonetheless in honors colleges. "There is an impetus in most university honors programs I know to preserve a commitment to general education of the liberal arts tradition," he said.

The question should not be whether these institutions represent a "pure" model of the liberal arts college, he said. They may not. But, he argued, they are providing education in many key ways similar to the liberal arts colleges others have suggested are disappearing.

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