Liberal arts colleges

Furman U guarantees internships, research opportunities and mentors for each student

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Furman University seeks to set itself apart by focusing on students' career and research experience, and the liberal arts university will create a team of mentors for each student, often including faculty members.

Reorganization at St. John's has some supporters worried about future of Great Books institution

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Plan to put Annapolis and Santa Fe campuses of Great Books college under a single president at Santa Fe sets off anxieties among supporters of older campus in Annapolis.

A humanities professor visits colleges with his daughter (essay)

I have spent a lot of time in the past year visiting college campuses with my daughter. She is a senior in high school and has recently made her college choice. We visited all kinds of institutions: elite private schools, liberal arts colleges, Christian colleges and public universities. My daughter is a humanities person. She will most likely major in something like English or history. If she dabbles in the social sciences, she will probably pursue anthropology or sociology.

She was also very perceptive about the vibe that she got from the colleges that she visited. She did not merely want an institution with strong humanities programs. She wanted one with a humanities ethos that pervades the campus.

A few months ago, on back to back days, we visited two very prestigious private universities. The first institution, despite its reputation as a world-class research university, presented itself, first and foremost, as an undergraduate liberal arts college. The admissions office and tour guides noted that many of the professional schools, including the graduate school, were located in remote parts of the campus. The layout of this campus exuded a sense of community rooted in ideas and questions about what it means to be human.The departments of History, English and African-American Studies were all located at the center of campus. When my daughter told some of the current students that she was thinking about majoring in English or history she was greeted with enthusiasm.

The second institution -- another world class research university -- offered a very different feel. Little was said about the humanities and liberal arts. Our tour did not even venture to the location on campus where these departments were housed. Instead the presentations stressed professional programs: business and engineering.  When we talked to some students at an off-campus residential community, we learned that none of them were majoring in humanities-related fields. I think my daughter was embarrassed to tell people on the campus that she was interested in the humanities.

Last fall, we also attended a few Christian colleges. One of these colleges had a strong tradition of liberal arts and humanities education. During her evening in the dorms, my daughter met several humanities majors. The next day, during presentations, tours, and classes, she was deeply impressed by the way the questions raised by the humanities-oriented disciplines animated everything that happened in the curriculum of this institution. (This college is not defined as a "liberal arts college" by the Carnegie rankings.)  

My daughter was not sure if she wanted to attend a Christian college, but if she decided to do so, she wanted an institution with a strong commitment to the integration of faith and learning. She was aware that such integration is difficult, if not impossible, without robust support for the humanities -- history, English, theology, philosophy, languages and the like. Those disciplines raise the “big questions” about what it means to be a human being in the world -- the kinds of questions more compatible with religious faith. She felt at home in this place.

The other Christian college that she visited attracts more students interested in professional majors. The humanities programs are solid, but the faculty spends a lot of its time fighting for the importance of the liberal arts. During the course of the visit, a few students asked my daughter about her intended major. In every case, when my daughter said she was interested in history or English, her new acquaintances asked her if she wanted to teach. When my daughter said she was not interested in teaching, her hosts responded: "Then what are you going to do with that [degree]?" She also sensed that the admissions staff did not know how to talk about the humanities.

My daughter came home from the visit wondering if she could find any conversation partners or friends with the same interests. Everyone she met, it seemed, was majoring in athletic training, nursing or business. I told her that she certainly would meet people at this institution who had the same passions and interests as she did, but, in the end, what my daughter sensed was correct: this college did not have a humanities or liberal arts ethos.  She felt it.

I have enjoyed seeing these various colleges and universities through my daughter’s eyes. I have concluded that the liberal arts and humanities are still strong at the small institutions of higher learning that continue to define themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and are categorized as such. But beyond those elite colleges, the chances of finding an institution in which the humanities define the academic culture are slim at best.

In my experience, students are still interested in subjects like history and English, but they see these more as a "hobby" than a legitimate focus of undergraduate study. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a talented undergraduate tell me something like this: "I love history, and I would love to study it, but I am not sure what I can do with it, and neither are my parents." 

For the last several years, I have been arguing (along with a lot of other people) that humanities departments need to do a better job of showing students how the skills they learn in our courses are transferable in the marketplace. As part of their college experience, humanities and liberal arts students should know how to articulate those skills to potential employers. We want our students to get jobs in the business and nonprofit sectors not in spite of the fact that they majored in a humanities discipline, but because they did.  I have made these arguments in my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and at my blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” through an ongoing series of posts that I call "So What CAN You Do With a History Major.”

As a history department chairperson, when I speak to potential history majors, or even curious students in my general education courses whom I am trying to "convert" to the history major, I emphasize not only the content that they will learn in history courses but also the transferable skills. I would encourage professors in liberal arts colleges to work with admissions officers about making sure students know that humanities majors can make a decent living in a variety of different professions and careers. If trained well, they should know how to think clearly, write well, communicate effectively, tell stories, empathize with others and take small bits of information and make meaning out of them.

A move in that direction may also require curriculum changes or additions. For example, at the college where I teach, we added a one-year "Introduction to History" course that contains a substantial unit devoted to careers. The students read the pertinent chapters of Why Study History? and hear from career-center staff about how to sell themselves as history majors to potential employees. Our department even added an "administrative studies" concentration to our curriculum. Students in that concentration take the full history major, but they use some of their non-history electives to take courses in business, leadership, economics and politics. 

I have worked hard at trying to transform my department along these lines, but sometimes I wonder if I have gone too far in this direction. Instead of championing transferable skills and all the things students in history can "do" with their majors, maybe I should have spent more time challenging this market-oriented approach by defending humanities learning for learning's sake. We don't spend as much time anymore talking about the non-marketable values of the humanities or the benefit of humanistic learning to make us better people or citizens. I know that my faculty colleagues care about this, but I'm not so sure about the majority of the students whom I encounter. I worry that the success of a particular humanities discipline is now being measured by utilitarian ends such as career outcomes.

This career-driven approach to the humanities is the new reality for those of us who teach at tuition-driven schools with smaller endowments. I am aware of the high-profile cases in which politicians with control over state budgets have attacked the humanities. I realize that unless we start focusing on careers and transferable skills we will continue to have depleting enrollments in humanities majors, continue to lose faculty lines in our departments, and see government funding for our disciplines dry up.

But I still believe this: STEM and other professional fields may help to build a strong economy, but the humanities -- and the liberal arts more broadly -- provide education for a democracy.

I understand that my daughter's interest in a college with a humanities ethos is unusual in today's day and age. In the end, she decided she wants to attend a college with a culture where the humanities define the warp and woof of everyday life and where she will not have to explain to dorm mates and other friends why she is majoring in history and what, beyond teaching, she is going to do with such a major.

John Fea is the chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA.

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Teagle Foundation grant recipients discuss how to get liberal arts students excited about online learning

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At hybrid learning conference, participants discuss how to get students who signed up for a traditional liberal arts experience excited about online education.

The debate over the liberal arts vs. vocationalism is a lazy one (essay)

Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.

It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.

Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.

Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.

Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.

Doubling the Open Positions

So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.

As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.

Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.

With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.

Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.

The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.

Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.

Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:

Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.

For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?

The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.

Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.

Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.

That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.

That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.

Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.

You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.

Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.

The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.

How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.

The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.

Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.

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Foundation proposes a national transfer pathway partnership

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Edvance Foundation calls for a national college transfer partnership to improve graduation rates and access to four-year institutions.

How to fix a struggling, and hypothetical, small college (essay)

Just over two years ago, I wrote to the campus community to reveal the dire financial situation of our college. It is painful to recall the details, but revenues were falling, we were in serious debt and we had no viable plan for paying off what we owed in order to move forward as an institution.

After 24 months of difficult decisions and sometimes painful implementations, today I am both pleased and proud to tell you that St. Bridget’s is well on the way to reversing our indebtedness and putting the college on a solid financial footing. As part of this process, we are modernizing and streamlining the college to face the rest of the 21st century.

It has not been easy, and I thank all members of the community who took the time to understand our situation, contributed ideas and supported the sometimes painful, radical change that was necessary to save our college.

Part 1 of This Series
In an earlier essay, Aden Hayes
suggested that many small
colleges are kidding themselves
about their financial viability, and
imagined the conversation they
should be having. Read more.

In June 2015, the Board of Trustees met to discuss our very difficult situation and to make major decisions. It was decided -- correctly, I think -- that the college needed fundamental changes, and not simply a fund-raising effort to “Save St. Bridget’s.”

At its meeting two years ago the board recognized that we faced major challenges and felt that all of us -- including me -- needed advice, counsel and guidance in achieving the turnaround we all sought.

The board approved the retention of an experienced, nonprofit consultancy to help us strategize. But it was the board’s call to the entire college community to step forward with ideas, with energy and with inspiration that really set us on the right track.

With the help of faculty members, administration, students and our strategic consultancy partners, we have together achieved marvelous results:

Outreach. Our first goal was to reverse declining enrollments and a low yield rate. Of the five administrative positions that were eliminated as part of our restructuring plan, three professionals transitioned to the newly expanded and fortified office of St. Bridget’s Outreach.

The initiatives undertaken by this office are most impressive: presentations at more than 200 high schools in our state and in other parts of the Northeast; a highly successful online information campaign involving social media; the naming of five St. Bridget’s seniors as brand ambassadors with responsibility for outreach not just through local high schools but via clubs, sports teams, young enterprise projects and other affinity groupings; the establishment of a permanent representative of the college in the largest city in our state with responsibility for communication to high schools, interaction with media, assistance to college personnel and students when they visit the city, and serving as institutional ambassador.

Study abroad. Eighteen months ago we transferred our tiny study abroad program from London -- where it competed with nearly 80 other U.S. college and university programs -- to Sanya, on Hainan Island, China, a beautiful, small university city. We have partnered with Quingzhou University, and changed our model from exclusively classroom study to intensive Mandarin and Chinese culture classes combined with internships at local companies and organizations. This has proved to be a very popular option, and we have moved from barely breaking even with our own students in London to hosting young people from seven U.S. colleges in our new program, set to increase to 12 partner colleges in 2018.

In addition to being much more practically oriented than the London classroom and library experience, our Sanya program represents a significant source of income for St. Bridget’s and is on target to position us among the leaders in experiential education in China.

Teacher training. Working closely with our nonprofit consultancy and the St. Bridget’s Education Department, our education major has received a significant upgrade. Students now do a full major in an academic field, in addition to their education courses and teacher training. This has resulted in a significant strengthening of both the Education Department and the major. We have partnered with six local school districts to receive our students as practice teachers in their final year of study, and of the 41 St. Bridget’s seniors who did their practice teaching this year in our partner school districts, 35 have received job offers to start full time in August.

Part-time adult learners. We have established an office dedicated to adult learners from the surrounding community, including active-duty service personnel and spouses at nearby Fort George Patton. We have applied to be placed on the approved list of institutions under the Military Tuition Assistance Act, whereby the Department of Defense pays tuition and fees directly to the college, for approved courses.

Using the validation and accreditation criteria of Excelsior College, we have begun to accept credits for learning done outside the traditional, four-year residential college system. This will be especially important for our adult learners seeking a St. Bridget’s degree.

Online learning. St. Bridget’s has joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning, and we have incorporated Coursera content into two of our highest-enrollment courses, American History and The American System of Justice. Plans are underway to use Coursera in at least five more popular courses, which will produce significant savings in instruction costs in those courses, and free up faculty to provide a wider range of courses in their specialties, or for other teaching and administrative duties on campus.

Equally important, Professors Smith and Higgenbottom of the St. Bridget’s Biology Department are at work with colleagues from two other regional liberal arts college to produce a complete, online Fundamentals of Biology course aimed at nontraditional learners. This initiative, and its spin-offs, may bring significant revenue to our college.

Centralized purchasing. We have partnered with an agency whose sole job is purchasing for more than 100 college campuses across the Northeast. With their economies of scale, they are able to receive price discounts that we could never achieve on our own. As a result, academic departments are no longer responsible for their own purchasing, and everything from paper to toner to ballpoint pens is now uniform across campus. As soon as stocks are exhausted and need to be replaced, this will run to whiteboards, laser pointers and other durable goods.

Generating nontraditional revenue. We have sold All Saints Hall to a Singapore investment fund and leased it back at a stable rent for a period of 10 years with an option for a further 25 years. And we plan to sell two more college buildings within the next year. This initiative alone is programmed to bring in $2.5 million in the period through June 2018.

Outsourcing. We have contracted for many campus services, including landscaping and snow removal, so that we pay for these services only as we need them. We have sold all landscaping and snow removal equipment to the contracted firm, generating revenue in the five figures.

Enrollment upgrade. Working with our consultant partners, we have upgraded our enrollment software and streamlined the application process. Prospective students now automatically get individualized follow-up communication tailored to their academic interests and are put into contact with faculty in the areas where they might study. All this has meant a much more personalized application and acceptance process, and I am pleased to say that this past spring we admitted approximately the same number of students as we did two years ago, but the yield rose from 35 to 68 percent -- a significant increase in the number of students who have committed to St. Bridget’s for the coming fall.

Our streamlining has necessitated some difficult decisions that affected our community:

We have closed two academic programs that had been underenrolled for years -- including the interdisciplinary program in Northeast Studies, which competed directly with a similar program at the nearby state university. Three departments had their majors eliminated -- German, anthropology and creative writing -- and were merged into one service department providing 100- and 200-level courses to fulfill the college’s general education requirements.

Nine faculty positions were eliminated, and some of these faculty members found other academic jobs outside St. Bridget’s. For six who did not, the college contracted a professional counseling and coaching service specializing in transitions from the academic to the private sector.

Those are some of the initiatives we have undertaken in the past two years. But we are not stopping there. By June of 2018 I hope to announce more major changes, at least in the following areas:

We will be merging all foreign languages into a single department. At least two foreign language majors will be eliminated, and these languages will become service departments. They will take the initiative to partner with stronger departments to add language skills to business, education, psychology, criminal justice and possibly other majors. I emphasize that this initiative must be led from the departments themselves, not directed from my office.

The provost, the Academic Affairs Committee and I will begin to look at the research interests and production of faculty members, particularly in the humanities, with a view to encouraging these interests to become more closely aligned with teaching duties. We want research to result in more effective teachers, and research at St. Bridget’s should be aimed, first and foremost, at improving instruction on our campus, and these priorities will be taken into consideration in tenure and promotion decisions.

Research and publication will benefit faculty members at other institutions only insofar as their aims, like ours, are laser focused on the highest-quality teaching performance.

Under the guidance of our consultants, we are looking into joining an online library consortium, using the collection of Johns Hopkins University, one of the top-ranked institutions in the nation. This will reduce the need for new book purchases and eliminate subscriptions to very expensive scientific journals. For the time being, the current library will continue to operate as a basic study resource with a skeletal staff.

As I said earlier, we plan to sell and then lease back two more buildings on campus and are in the process of determining which those will be.

We are also determined to move the few St. Bridget’s sports teams still competing in Division II to Division III. Athletic scholarships will be eliminated, and we plan to apply the savings achieved to strengthen intramural and club sports, with a view to participation by a maximum numbers of students, at a wide range of skill levels.

At the suggestion of Professor Kim of the Computer Science Department, we have decided to change the configuration of several college office buildings to free up space. Although this is still in the planning stages, it is our vision that only heads of administrative departments and chairs of academic departments will have private offices. All other staff will share open spaces for university-related duties, and they will be assigned desks based upon need. Conference rooms will be available for professors’ office hours as well as other meetings, and these will be assigned on a full-semester or one-time basis. Following a trend in the IT and other industries, the college is contemplating a one-time subvention for faculty to set up home offices.

There will be more initiatives for the improvement and streamlining of our college, and I look forward to working with you on these, in due course. Meanwhile, I again thank the entire St. Bridget’s College community for its help, support and enthusiasm in our turnaround.

Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.

Small private colleges need to confront their financial viability (essay)

The announcement of the closing of Marian Court College, with faculty disclaimers (“didn’t realize it was as dire as it was,” and the president’s dreaming (“hopeful the college would remain open”), should pull us back to the realities that have been set out very clearly for years -- by the Bain Report, by Clayton Christensen, by Thomas Frey, by Nathan Harden, by dozens of others:

Many, many colleges are working with a business model that simply cannot sustain them, and tinkering around the edges with defective enrollment management software, combined majors, a part-time (as yet unaccredited) M.B.A., or Saturday classes is almost a distraction from the main challenges of shrinking demographics, low-cost online instruction and skills validation, and the imminent tightening of government money that has been pouring into the mix.

The problem is compounded because so many college leaders can barely discern the symptoms of the malaise and are blind to their underlying, rampant and immutable causes. It is only natural that those who have trained to manage the status quo first and foremost long for its return. In no other industry -- with the possible exception of organized religion -- is so much wealth entrusted to people so unequipped to manage it.

The shock is not that the college closed -- it is that no one saw it coming.

But Marian Court was not unique. It was among the country’s vulnerable institutions, and there are hundreds of them: tuition dependent, with enrollments under 1,000, small or shrinking endowments, significant tuition discounts, high admission rates with low yields, and low retention rates.

St. Bridget’s also fits these metrics. It is a private, coeducational, not-for-profit liberal arts college in the Northeastern U.S.: a fictional composite based on real institutions like Marian Court -- some now closed and some that will close, although they don’t know it yet.

What all have in common is the lack of a full grasp of their true financial situations.

As at St. Bridget’s, at many institutions the administration and even the Board of Trustees will claim they did not have all the necessary data and did not recognize the looming threat to the college until it was too late.

And faculty -- who work with research and analysis every day in their professional lives -- may not have asked the right questions, or did not insist on honest and complete answers.

How many could not bear to put aside that tenure-track research on Theosophy or the ring-tail lemur to learn about boring subjects like deferred maintenance, debt overhang and bond interest rates? Surely some were living on hope: “next year our enrollment numbers will be up,” or “we’re in line for that federal grant that will help us attract veterans.”

Others may simply have been in denial. (How many women’s colleges have stated categorically, “We are not like Sweet Briar”?) But questions of financial health are of vital concern not only to presidents and chief financial officers, but to all whose lives are tied to the college. And any lack of focus is doubly distressing because there exist rough but impartial guides and stress tests that are open to all and can indicate, in general terms, a college’s level of strength or weakness.

But until all constituents consider the future of the campus to be their future, we will see more cases -- certainly dozens, probably hundreds -- like Marian Court (and St. Bridget’s). And more academic professionals will be reading untimely and distressing letters like this one:

From the President of St. Bridget’s College to the College Community

Regrettably, I have bad news about the financial situation of our college.

You all know of our difficulties. Reflecting the numbers from earlier years, last year we accepted 75 percent of all applicants, but only 35 percent of those accepted actually matriculated. And we lost 23 percent of those after their first year. In order to attract qualified students to St. Bridget’s, we had to offer discounts averaging 51 percent of tuition and fees.

In spite of our best measures, our enrollment has dropped by 38 percent over the past five years. Nevertheless, the structure of the college remained the same, and we added some administrative positions to stay within best practice and the law mandated from Washington.

When I took office eight months ago I discovered that the college’s finances were not as they had been painted. On the surface, it looked like we were breaking even: just covering our expenses with tuition-derived income.

But we were misleading ourselves.

During our past fiscal year, while the U.S. stock market rose by nearly 14 percent and the average college endowment earned 15.5 percent, the St. Bridget’s endowment showed an increase of only 2 percent.

In fact, we were spending all tuition revenues and nearly all the income generated by the endowment to keep the college operating. For the past three years, as enrollment dropped, we depended on earnings from our endowment in a strong stock market just to stay alive.

We don’t know if the past president understood this, nor do we know if the question was ever raised in a board meeting.

But now the stock market is weakening. As I’d like to think you all know, following five years of nearly free funds, the Federal Reserve has decided to tighten money supply and raise interest rates. The stock market is losing momentum; our endowment is generating a fraction of last year’s income; student loans will become more costly; and even fewer parents are comfortable borrowing $25,000 to $30,000 per year for a St. Bridget’s education.

We now find ourselves with an operating shortfall of nearly $4 million for this fiscal year. We also have bonds coming due in the amount of $1.5 million, and deferred maintenance on our physical plant that will cost upwards of $750,000. If we pay all this out of our endowment, we deplete that fund by more than one-third and severely limit its ability to generate income in the future.

Moreover, within our current structural model it will be impossible to find savings of $4 million beginning in the next fiscal year, in order to urgently balance the books. To accomplish savings of this magnitude will, at very least, require radical and immediate surgery. This would mean:

  • Eliminating some departments
  • Eliminating some programs
  • Cutting administrative staff
  • Reducing remaining faculty and staff salaries by at least 20 percent
  • Eliminating all college contributions to retirement and tuition plans
  • Selling some of the college buildings
  • Reducing student services

Taken together, these measures might put our accreditation in jeopardy. Our bond rating by Moody’s might drop even lower, and we would be forced to pay higher interest rates to borrow or to roll over current bonds.

It is with this reality in mind that the Board of Trustees meets this weekend to make major decisions that will impact the future of the college. I ask for your support and understanding in these difficult times.

Aden Hayes is executive director of the Foundation for Practical Education.

Essay calling for study of the most valuable qualities of liberal arts colleges

Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer. The closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.

To be sure, Sweet Briar is not closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.

Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.

Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.

In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.  

Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.

Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.

We can also consider how these colleges measure up to the research on evidenced-based best practices of undergraduate education. For example, a study from the University of Iowa and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College by Ernest T. Pascarella, Ty M. Cruce, Gregory C. Wolniak and Charles Blaich found “evidence supporting the contention that in comparison with other institutions, liberal arts colleges do, in fact, foster a broad range of empirically vetted good practices in undergraduate education.” Decades of research support our understanding of best practices and give evidence as to how these practices promote positive student development. From Pascarella et al’s study, examples of best practices include:

  1. Student-faculty contact
  2. Cooperation among students
  3. Active learning/time on task
  4. Prompt feedback to students
  5. High expectations
  6. Quality of teaching received
  7. Influential interactions with other students

Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.

To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts." While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.  

Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 "Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered," David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.

These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions. Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.

While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments -- Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others -- will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.

The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?

Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, is completing a dissertation on liberal education.

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Institute aims to give faculty primer of higher-ed economics

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A project from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest tries to bridge the divide between administration and faculty with primers on college finances.

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