Liberal arts colleges

The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College

The continuing saga over the closure of Antioch College (including a plan to revive it) heightened concern that many storied, but financially stressed, liberal arts colleges may be in danger of closing in a time of economic turmoil. Antioch educated prominent Americans like the civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, and the Nobel Prize winner Mario R. Capecchi. The threatened demise of any innovative and influential college that has nurtured generations of leaders, scholars, public servants and social critics would be a loss both to higher education and our nation.

But the focus by reporters and educational policy makers on the potential closure of some colleges may mask a more serious threat to liberal arts colleges: a slow abandonment of their traditional mission in favor of a more “professional” orientation.

This longer-term and more significant trend was first highlighted by the economist David Breneman nearly 20 years ago in a 1990 article that asked, “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” At that time he concluded that many one-time liberal arts colleges were not closing, but gradually transforming into “professional colleges” as they added programs in vocational fields such as business, communications and allied health.

Recent research we have conducted using data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the trend Breneman identified has continued. The 212 liberal arts colleges that Breneman identified in 1990 have now decreased to 137. Many former liberal arts colleges are evolving, consciously or unconsciously, into more academically complex institutions offering numerous vocational as well as arts and science majors. In the process, they may have lost the focused mission and carefully integrated academic program that for generations made small liberal arts colleges a model of high quality undergraduate education. Most likely this trend will persist.

In a recent interview, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, predicted that 10 to 15 years from now there will be even fewer institutions that look like traditional residential liberal arts colleges. Little by little, we may be losing an alternative model of undergraduate education that has challenged and inspired many other types of higher education institutions to take risks, experiment, and improve the quality of their educational programs.

The gradual, and almost invisible, transformation of many “liberal arts colleges” to more comprehensive institutions is similar to another gradual trend that has reshaped the composition and the work of the American academic profession. Over the past three decades, colleges and universities have replaced tenure-track faculty positions with part-time and full-time term-contract positions -- a phenomenon Jack Shuster and Martin Finkelstein referred to as the “silent revolution” in their book The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). This piecemeal process at most institutions was not the result of a careful review of academic staffing needs or a systematic effort to improve the quality of instruction and scholarship. Nor was it the outcome of a national debate on the nature of the academic profession in the 21st century.

Instead, as research on contingent faculty documents, most colleges and universities added part-time and term-contract faculty in response to immediate staffing needs or short-term budget constraints. The gradual but profound shift in the focus of many liberal arts colleges appears to follow a similar pragmatic but also very reactive pattern.

Change in higher education is inevitable and highly desirable. It is essential in order to craft a lean, efficient educational system capable of meeting the educational demands of an era defined by demographic diversity, economic uncertainty, rapid technological advances, and a global market place. The evolution we see in liberal arts colleges is symptomatic of a much larger evolutionary process underway throughout higher education. We recognize that liberal arts colleges and all of higher education must adapt to the demands of the times.

Our concern is not with change itself. Our concern is with the way change unfolds in our complex and loosely coordinated higher education system. Should evolution in higher education follow a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” course or should we intervene to preserve and update valued types of educational institutions because of the important roles they play in serving our pluralistic society?

The Value of Liberal Arts Colleges

The current saga of the U.S. auto industry may contain some useful lessons for higher education. Although the final chapter on this story has yet to be written, the news media has chronicled a national dialogue on the fate of the American manufacturing sector. Rather than letting U.S. automobile manufacturers disappear in the midst of a dramatic economic recession, we have decided as a nation to preserve GM and Chrysler but also to require them to retool and streamline their operations. This decision was driven by the belief that losing the backbone of our manufacturing sector would ultimately be harmful to our country.

It may be time for a similar dialogue on the shape of the U.S. higher education system and the place of liberal arts colleges within that system. For generations, small liberal arts colleges have demonstrated their educational value. As Thomas Cech noted in his article “Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education,” they produce scientists and scholars at a higher per capita rate than other types of postsecondary institutions. Furthermore, many leaders in business, politics, education, and other fields received their education at liberal arts colleges, as noted in the Annapolis Group’s report, “The Nation’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges.” In addition, liberal arts colleges have served as a valuable “test kitchen” for other more complex but less nimble higher education institutions.

According to the education historian Frederick Rudolph, numerous educational innovations, such as freshman seminars, single-course intensive study terms, honors programs, and senior theses emerged from liberal arts colleges before they spread to other types of colleges and universities. Likewise, many second and third-tier liberal arts colleges have demonstrated a special talent for serving first-generation college students. Essentially, these small colleges with nurturing environments have served as a portal to liberal education for many students whose families have never before participated in higher education.

In a 2005 report on the impact of liberal arts colleges, Ernest Pascarella and his co-authors observe that the liberal arts college is unique in its total dedication to undergraduate education. Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini in their comprehensive study of college outcomes concluded that the liberal arts college in its traditional form provides a supportive psychological environment that promotes institutional impact on students. Pascarella and his 2005 co-authors concluded the attributes that have made the liberal arts college a powerful learning environment include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty.”

Alexander Astin, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, drawing upon extensive national research on higher education, reported that liberal arts college students expressed higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs than students from other types of postsecondary institutions. Similarly, Indiana University researchers Shouping Hu and George Kuh found that students in liberal arts colleges, in general, are more engaged in their college experience than their counterparts in research universities and comprehensive colleges.

Many liberal arts colleges today are working to update their academic programs and better connect them with the outside world and career opportunities. Writing in a 2009 Liberal Education article, Richard Freeland notes that these changes are driven by recognition that “a traditional liberal education may not, by itself, be a sufficient preparation for the adult world.” Freeland further reports that colleges such as Bates and Wellesley have established programs to enhance civic engagement and develop skills needed for constructive citizenship.

Many liberal arts colleges are trying to make liberal education more relevant and practical by making internships, study abroad, service learning, and other forms of problem-based and experiential learning opportunities available to their students. The challenge for all liberal arts colleges is to adapt their educational programs in a turbulent environment without losing their educational souls and distinctive identity. Can they preserve their core values and mission that have made them particularly effective educational institutions throughout the history of American higher education while adapting to the challenging demands they confront in the early 21st century?

Given their powerful educational environments and important contributions to society, it would be unfortunate to see liberal arts colleges disappear or become so few in number that they lose their ability to influence and inspire other types of colleges and universities. Yet national data on liberal arts colleges suggest that their numbers are decreasing as many evolve into “professional colleges” or other types of higher education institutions.

Fundamentally, the future of the liberal arts college is uncertain. The traditional residential liberal arts college offering a coherent educational program based firmly in arts and science fields and offering a shared intellectual experience to all of its students may be dying out. Or the liberal arts college may gradually be evolving into a new, more up-to-date form. Are we witnessing a process of extinction of the traditional liberal arts college or a healthy process of adaptation and evolution? Whichever process is underway, it seems to be largely unplanned and incremental rather than strategic.

What to Do?

In a dynamic society, change is inevitable and, in most cases, desirable. However, how change occurs is important as well. Do we let change unfold without direction or do we guide change through a careful process of assessment, dialogue, and strategic initiative?

The American liberal arts college has reached an important crossroad. We believe that assertive and coordinated action is necessary to stem the gradual demise of the liberal arts college sector. For this reason, we urge private philanthropic foundations with a tradition of supporting liberal arts colleges (for example the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Teagle Foundation) to take the lead with two important steps:

1. Convene a series of meetings to discuss the future of the liberal arts college with the goal of recommending specific actions to update and strengthen these institutions. These meetings should include a diverse mix of liberal arts colleges, voluntary college consortia, other major education interest groups, and representatives of the public at large.

2. Establish a competitive funding program encouraging liberal arts colleges to design innovative and entrepreneurial educational programs that preserve the best aspects of the liberal arts college model while adapting the model to the demands of a rapidly changing world. This initiative should encourage creative proposals within the liberal arts college framework rather than the addition of new programs on the margins that dilute the mission and intellectual coherence of these colleges.

The future of a core component of the U.S. higher education system is at stake. It is time for bold action before the liberal arts college sector becomes too small to be relevant and influential. It would be shameful if we allow the liberal arts college model to dwindle to the scale of an educational boutique accessible only to the academic and socioeconomic elite. We do not advocate a GM-style bailout for liberal arts colleges. However, we hope that one or more private foundations that recognize the important contributions of liberal arts colleges will step up to the plate and assume the vital leadership role that is needed before many more of these esteemed colleges disappears.

Author/s: 
Roger G. Baldwin and Vicki L. Baker
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration and coordinator of the graduate program in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University's College of Education. Vicki L. Baker is an assistant professor of economics and management at Albion College.

College Seats for 75,000

Warning: The following column contains neither satire nor humor. Any such interpretations could be denial of the senseless, egregious inequities in U.S. higher education today.

Eureka. I need thousands of seats at four-year colleges for community college students. And the seats are right under my nose – all the undergraduate spots at the Ivies and all the seats, period, at the four-year Self Described Most Highly Selective Elites (”elites” hereafter). How? Easy, and everybody wins.

Next month, at graduation and all graduations thereafter, the top high schools – Riverdale, Brearley, Exeter, Andover, Scarsdale High School in the East, and Lafayette High School and Thacher School in California -- award bachelor’s degrees. These are the students finishing high school with wheelbarrows full of Advanced Placement college credits and equivalent courses.

Why? I need these seats for the students lined up outside my door this winter at Bunker Hill Community College, most of whom have ample ability but little hope of an elite spot worthy of their dreams. Why are the odds so against the students at my door? Because the AP-laden students already have the elite seats, to redo an education they already have.

U.S. higher education needs what the MBAs call a discontinuity, an iPod-style move by someone to flush out at least a few of the inequities. Hit the “Refresh” button. The elites brought this situation on themselves, by cramming down admissions standards requiring that incoming students already have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the first place. In one move, all the students preparing for the Ivies and the elites don’t have to apply to college at all, and students who today don’t dare to dream of attending a great college can go.

Lord knows, I’ve tried to remedy all this. In my (as yet) unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Williams College, for example, I proposed that Williams offer a master’s degree for the regular students and a Ph.D. for students who complete an honors thesis. Nothing doing on that from Williams. So far.

Last winter, the formidable and impressive Independent Curriculum Group, a consortium of public and private secondary schools trying to build a better mousetrap, invited me to join a conversation about how these schools can reclaim their curriculums from the demands of elite admissions. That’s when I realized that trying to persuade the elites to change is futile. As long as the Common Application brings these colleges terabytes full of overqualified students willing to beg, borrow and scrounge $50,000 a year in tuition and fees, what’s the incentive to change? Nothing. High schools have to take back the curriculum on their own. “Go for it. Award a B.A. yourselves. Who’s to stop you?” I exhorted the audience.

The sic probo, as the academics say, is a snap. What self-respecting accreditor would deny a bachelor’s degree to these AP-laden students? Take samples of student work at these secondary schools, even from the bottom of the class, AP or not -- papers, essays in foreign languages, lab write-ups and math exams. Match this work with a random sample of student work from college seniors around the nation, even at the elites. If even I have seen high school work that stacks up, the faculty of these secondary schools certainly know that what they have taught their students by senior year beats what, sadly, too many bachelor’s-degree-receiving graduates have learned.

The outrage is the total feasibility, not the outlandishness, of my bachelor’s proposal. Everyone reading here knows that for these AP high schools a bachelor’s degree reflects the academic achievement of the graduates far more than the high school diploma these students are about to receive. Is this situation just? No way. For the sake of a few thousand students in community colleges, could we at least admit the folly in sending the most fortunate cohort of students to college twice, while millions of others, just as able, may never finish college at all?

I explained all this at the ICG conference. These fine secondary-school teachers offered a few laughs. No takers on my proposal. Nothing new there.

Three successive principals of Exeter, my school, have refused to consider my bachelor’s-degree idea, no matter how polite my presentation. On the drive home, I realized I’d failed at even the basics of the persuasive skills I try to teach in my own expository writing classes at Bunker Hill Community College. What does a principal care? Principals have good salaries, secretaries, great parking and often a house. The current system works for principals. Serves me right. The principals, like the elites, are the wrong audience, too.

I had forgotten to follow the money. So, who wins under my proposal? First, the teachers at these public and private secondary schools. Delivering a bachelor’s degree by 12th grade is worth a big raise. To pay for the raises? Private schools can charge more. School districts with these high schools can raise taxes. As noted, based on work quality alone, these public and private secondary schools will have no trouble receiving accreditation to award bachelor’s degrees.

Then, parents will jump for joy at a bachelor’s degree at the end of 12th grade – saving $100,000 to $200,000 in college tuition. As long as no one is greedy, teachers can have this raise and still save families a bundle. Your students won’t need to go to college, and that opens up all those seats for a few of the community college students with few choices ahead.

Anticipate objection, I tell my students. OK, who could object?

Certainly not anyone in higher education. In a tough economy, my proposal means more dues-paying members for the powerful higher education trade groups, such as the American Council on Education. Heck, even the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which seems to oppose everything, would have a hard time turning away this many new members.

Do I mean to send these 18-year-old bachelor’s-degree-wielding men and women out into the world to work at places like banks? Well, aren’t most of the top malefactors of Wall Street, the graduates of these same elites? What’s to lose? The Ivies, the public flagships, and the rest of the self-described most-highly selection colleges account for -- depending on where you draw the line -- maybe 75,000 undergraduate seats. All of these AP-laden students -- set them free now.

For most of history, physical adulthood has begun expected adulthood. Civilization has allotted “youth,” and bright college years, to only a very few. What have we done with our gift of youth? On our watch, so far, we are responsible for global warming, two wars, the economy and letting most of the U.S. public education system fall to ruin.

Still, someone reading this will object. Fair enough. Explaining your objections to your colleagues at the elites is too easy. I invite you to make your case to the students at my door at Bunker Hill and the other 1,177 community colleges.

Who else is the audience for your objections? Students waiting in line here and at the other community colleges. That’s one student, jailed, beaten and tortured in Africa. A single mother, beaten and cigarette-burned, who asked me the other day, “What do you know about Plato’s Apology?” Or the construction mason, who has read every book I know. An authentic Jude the Obscure, but botched surgeries from work injuries keep intruding, and he can’t work and finish school. A wounded Iraq veteran. A woman who apologized for missing class – “My boyfriend was murdered, and the memorial service was that day.”

Do these students have the intellect to succeed at the Ivies and the elites? Judge for yourself. Sometimes I wonder what Walt Whitman would make of the voices at community colleges. From time to time, I ask students to write their own version of Whitman’s "I Hear America Singing." We don’t spend time on Whitman first. I just say that they can choose another verb. I hand out a copy of Whitman’s poem. That’s it.

If you object to my proposal, what case would you make to these two students?

I Hear America Texting
Zelideth Rivera

I hear America Texting, the different finger speeds at work.
The bankers texting about the market system.
The politician texting for his donations as he smiles@people.
The father texting, who has the game on their big-screen T.V.
The mother texting her friends for the ingredients for a
quick dinner for five.
The kid texting his buddy, so he can copy his homework.
The girl texting her BFF, telling her about the cute boy
in class.
I even hear the toddler texting as he pretends to
text like mommy.
Quick, fast, smooth, easy finger strokes, all to get the
Message through. All day and night even on your 15-minute break
America is texting and getting its message through.

***

I Hear America Crying
Tatiana Baez

I HEAR America crying, the varied carols I hear;
Those of single mothers -- each one crying to sleep at night as they try
and brainstorm new ways to make ends meet;
The little boy crying out for a father figure, someone who he can look
upto, and teach him how to become a man;
The addict in every family crying as he or she struggles to stay clean
just so that he or she can win back custody of their child;
The young teenage mother crying hoping she will be able to graduate
high school and not become another teen statistic;
The father behind bars crying as he tries to explain to his only daughter
how come daddy isn’t home;
The insecure girl within all of women crying as we struggle daily to learn
how to love ourselves unconditionally
The awful cry of the single mother – or the little boy – or the addict –
Each crying about what eats up at them;
The day what belongs to the day at night, the party of young fellows,
upset, disappointed,
Singing with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Thus, I prove?

Author/s: 
Wick Sloane
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Liberal Arts II: The Economy Requires Them

Many of us committed to the liberal arts have been defensive for as long as we can remember.

We have all cringed when we have heard a version of the following joke: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”; the graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”; the graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

We have responded to such mockery by proclaiming the value of the liberal arts in the abstract: it creates a well-rounded person, is good for democracy, and develops the life of the mind. All these are certainly true, but somehow each misses the point that the joke drives home. Today’s college students and their families want to see a tangible financial outcome from the large investment that is now American higher education. That doesn’t make them anti-intellectual, but simply realists. Outside of home ownership, a college degree might be the largest single purchase for many Americans.

There is a disconnect as parents and students worry about economic outcomes when too many of us talk about lofty ideals. More families are questioning both the sticker price of schools and the value of whole fields of study. It is natural in this environment for us to feel defensive. It is time, however, that we in the liberal arts understand this new environment, and rather than merely react to it, we need to proactively engage it. To many Americans the liberal arts have a luxury they feel they need to give up to make a living -- nice but impractical. We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree.

The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way.

We are witnessing an economic shift that may be every bit as profound as the shift from farm to factory. Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.

Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.

We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.

If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors. Colleges and universities with a true culture of assessment already are making the necessary strategic adjustments.

In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.

Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.

For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.

It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.

In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.

This could be a moment for the rebirth of the liberal arts. For starters, we are witnessing exciting new research about the economy that is situating the discussion more squarely within the liberal arts orbit, and in the process blurring disciplinary boundaries. These scholars are doing what the American studies scholar Andrew Ross has called “scholarly reporting,” a blend of investigative reporting, social science and ethnography, as a way to understand the new economy shift. Scholars such as the sociologists Dalton Conley and Sharon Zurkin and the historian Bryant Simon offer new models of engaged scholarship that explain the cultural parameters of the new economy. We need to recognize and support this research because increasingly we will need to teach it as the best way to ensure our students understand the moment.

We also need to be less territorial, and recognize that the professional schools are not the enemy. They have a lot to offer our students. Strategic partnerships between professional schools and the arts and sciences enrich both and offer liberal arts students important professional opportunities long closed off to them. We also need to find ways to be good neighbors to the growing micropreneurial class, either by providing space, wifi, or interns. Some schools have created successful incubators, which can jump-start small businesses and give their students important ground-floor exposure to the emerging economy.

Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family. And, since there will be little budget or time for entry-level training, we need to ensure that all our students understand the basics of business even if they are in the arts. We also might consider preparing our graduates as if they were all going to become small business owners, because in a sense many of them are going to be micropreneurs.

Author/s: 
Richard A. Greenwald
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Richard A Greenwald is dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, director of university partnerships, and professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is entitled The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life.

Liberal Arts I: They Keep Chugging Along

When the economy goes down, one expects the liberal arts -- especially the humanities -- to wither, and laments about their death to go up. That’s no surprise since these fields have often defined themselves as unsullied by practical application. This notion provides little comfort to students -- and parents -- who are anxious about their post-college prospects; getting a good job -- in dire times, any job -- is of utmost importance. (According to CIRP’s 2009 Freshman Survey, 56.5 percent of students -- the highest since 1983 -- said that “graduates getting good jobs” was an important factor when choosing where to go to college.)

One expects students, then, to rush to courses and majors that promise plenty of entry-level jobs. Anticipating this, college administrators would cut back or eliminate programs that are not “employment friendly,” as well as those that generate little research revenue. Exit fields like classics, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, religion, and enter only those that are preprofessional in orientation. Colleges preserving a commitment to the liberal arts would see a decline in enrollment; in some cases, the institution itself would disappear.

So runs the widespread narrative of decline and fall. Everyone has an anecdote or two to support this story, but does it hold in general and can we learn something from a closer examination of the facts?

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of bachelor's degrees in “employment friendly” fields has been on the rise since 1970. Undergraduate business degrees -- the go-to “employment friendly” major -- has increased from 1970-71, with 115,400 degrees conferred, to 2007-08, with 335,250 conferred. In a parallel development, institutions graduated seven times more communications and journalism majors in 2007-08 than in 1970-71. And while numbers are small, there has been exponential growth in “parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies,” “security and protective services,” and “transportation and materials moving” degrees. Computer science, on the other hand, peaked in the mid-80s, dropped in the mid-90s, peaked again in the mid-2000s, and dropped again in the last five years.

What has students’ turn to such degrees meant for the humanities and social sciences? A mapping of bachelor degrees conferred in the humanities from 1966 to 2007 by the Humanities Indicator Project shows that the percentage of such majors was highest in the late 1960s (17-18 percent of all degrees conferred), low in the mid-1980s (6-7 percent), and more or less level since the early 1990s (8-9 percent). Trends, of course, vary from discipline to discipline.

Degrees awarded in English dropped from a high of 64,627 in 1970-71 to half that number in the early 1980s, before rising to 55,000 in the early 1990s and staying at that level since then. The social sciences and history were hit with a similar decline in majors in 1970s and 1980s, but then recovered nicely in the years since then and now have more than they did in 1970. The numbers of foreign language, philosophy, religious studies, and area studies majors have been stable since 1970. IPEDS data pick up where the Humanities Indicator Project leaves off and tell that in 2008 and 2009, the number of students who graduated with bachelor's degrees in English, foreign language and literatures, history, and philosophy and religion have remained at the same level.

What’s surprising about this bird’s-eye view of undergraduate education is not the increase in the number of majors in programs that should lead directly to a job after graduation, but that the number of degrees earned in the humanities and related fields have not been adversely affected by the financial troubles that have come and gone over the last two decades.

Of course, macro-level statistics reveal only part of the story. What do things look like at the ground level? How are departments faring? Course enrollments? Majors? Since the study of the Greek and Roman classics tends to be a bellwether for trends in the humanities and related fields (with departments that are small and often vulnerable), it seemed reasonable to ask Adam Blistein of the American Philological Association whether classics departments were being dropped at a significant number of places. “Not really” was his answer; while the classics major at Michigan State was cut, and a few other departments were in difficulty, there was no widespread damage to the field -- at least not yet.

Big declines in classics enrollments? Again, the answer seems to be, “Not really.” Many institutions report a steady gain in the number of majors over the past decade. Princeton’s classics department, for example, announced this past spring 17 graduating seniors, roughly twice what the number had been three decades ago. And the strength is not just in elite institutions. Charles Pazdernik at Grand Valley State University in hard-hit Michigan reported that his department has 50+ majors on the books and strong enrollments in language courses.

If classics seems to be faring surprisingly well, what about the modern languages? There are dire reports about German and Russian, and the Romance languages seem increasingly to be programs in Spanish, with a little French and Italian tossed in. The Modern Language Association reported in fall 2006 -- well before the current downturn -- a 12.9 percent gain in language study since 2002. This translates into 180,557 more enrollments. Every language except Biblical Hebrew showed increases, some exponential -- Arabic (126.5 percent), Chinese (51 percent), and Korean (37.1 percent) -- while others less so -- French (2.2 percent), German (3.5 percent), and Russian (3.9 percent). (Back to the ancient world for a moment: Latin saw a 7.9 percent increase, and ancient Greek 12.1 percent). The study of foreign languages, in other words, seems not to be disappearing; the mix is simply changing.

Theoretical and ideological issues have troubled and fragmented literature departments in recent years, but a spring 2010 conference on literary studies at the National Humanities Center suggests that the field is enjoying a revitalization. The mood was eloquent, upbeat, innovative; no doom and gloom, even though many participants were from institutions where painful budget cuts had recently been made.

A similar mood was evident at National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a gathering of some highly regarded assistant professors in the humanities and social sciences this past February. They were well aware that times were tough, the job market for Ph.D.s miserable, and tenure prospects uncertain. Yet their response was to get on with the work of strengthening liberal education, rather than bemoan its decline and fall. Energy was high, and with it the conviction that the best way to move liberal education forward was to achieve demonstrable improvements in student learning.

It’s true that these young faculty members are from top-flight universities. What about smaller, less well-endowed institutions? Richard Ekman of the Council of Independent Colleges reports that while a few of the colleges in his consortium are indeed in trouble, most were doing quite well, increasing enrollments and becoming more selective.
And what about state universities and land grant institutions, where most students go to college? Were they scuttling the liberal arts and sciences because of fierce cutbacks? David Shulenburger of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities says that while budget cuts have resulted in strategic “consolidation of programs and sometimes the elimination of low-enrollment majors,” he does not “know of any public universities weakening their liberal education requirements.”

Mark Twain once remarked that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The liberal arts disciplines, it seems, can say the same thing. The on-the-ground stories back up the statistics and reinforce the idea that the liberal arts are not dying, despite the soft job market and the recent recession. Majors are steady, enrollments are up in particular fields, and students -- and institutions -- aren’t turning their backs on disciplines that don’t have obvious utility for the workplace. The liberal arts seem to have a particular endurance and resilience, even when we expect them to decline and fall.

One could imagine any number of reasons why this is the case -- the inherent conservatism of colleges and universities is one -- but maybe something much more dynamic is at work. Perhaps the stamina of the liberal arts in today’s environment draws in part from the vital role they play in providing students with a robust liberal education, that is, a kind of education that develops their knowledge in a range of disciplinary fields, and importantly, their cognitive skills and personal competencies. The liberal arts continue -- and likely will always -- give students an education that delves into the intricate language of Shakespeare or Woolf, or the complex historical details of the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution. That is a given.

But what the liberal arts also provide is a rich site for students to think critically, to write analytically and expressively, to consider questions of moral and ethical importance (as well as those of meaning and value), and to construct a framework for understanding the infinite complexities and uncertainties of human life. This is, as many have argued before, a powerful form of education, a point that students, the statistics and anecdotes show, agree with.

Author/s: 
W. Robert Connor and Cheryl Ching
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

W. Robert Connor is the former president of the Teagle Foundation, to which he is now a senior adviser. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at Teagle.

The Other Half

The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.

At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.

These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.

In his eye-opening 2008 book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.

Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?

Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.

However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.

But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.

Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.

We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.

I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.

In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?

Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.

Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.

Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.

My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.

What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.

We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.

Author/s: 
Eugenia Gerdes
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.

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