The Question Being Ignored

Victor E. Ferrall Jr. wants to know why leaders of liberal arts colleges aren't focused on the decreased student demand for liberal arts education at their institutions.

March 22, 2011

In 1994, relying on 1988 data on liberal arts college degree completions, David Breneman optimistically concluded that “unlike many colleges and universities in recent decades,” liberal arts colleges “have refused to shift curricula toward more immediately marketable technological or vocational subjects. In fact one can almost view these colleges as standard bearers, holding out the promise and the reality of education for education’s sake.”

Indeed, in 1987, nearly 90 percent of the graduates of 225 private liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News had majored in liberal arts areas of study (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences). More than 95 percent of the graduates of the 50 highest-ranked colleges had majored in these traditional areas. Not surprisingly, the less highly ranked, less wealthy colleges had graduated more technological and vocational majors. Still, almost 85 percent of those college graduates majored in liberal arts areas.

By 2007-08, however, the picture had changed radically. The percentage of graduates at all 225 colleges who majored in vocational areas had nearly tripled. The growth was most notable at those outside the top tier. More than half of the graduates at the lowest ranked colleges were now vocational majors. But even at the top ranks, the percentage of vocational majors had more than doubled -- from 4.2 to 10.4 percent.

Sadly, liberal arts colleges are becoming less and less the standard bearers for the liberal arts.

My new book, Liberal Arts at the Brink, examines the dramatic growth in demand for vocational majors (such as accounting, business administration, computer programming, insurance, law enforcement, nursing, and parks and recreation) and the concomitant decline in demand for liberal arts. It explores why this massive demand shift is occurring, whether it is reversible, and if so, how.

While more and more students are willing to pay a cost-covering price for vocational education, colleges are being forced to discount their tuitions further and further below the cost-covering price to attract students to liberal arts. On the basis of public commentary, one would think the future viability of liberal arts colleges depends on endowment growth, not on reversing the precipitous drop in demand, despite the obvious facts that (1) an endowment, no matter how large, will not persuade students of the value of a liberal arts education, and (2) being able to cut financial aid discounts a few percentage points would strengthen a college far more than it could hope to achieve by yet another fund-raising campaign.

The question I would like to raise here is, why isn’t the reality that liberal arts education is becoming less and less wanted the number-one topic of discussion at and among liberal arts colleges? I have no ready answer. Certainly, it cannot be that liberal arts college administrators are unaware of the demand shift driving their colleges to become more vocational. Even if they did not know the same thing was happening at other colleges – which seems highly unlikely – the annual completions data relied on in Liberal Arts at the Brink are readily available from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Perhaps harried college presidents, endlessly pressured to raise more money, simply lack the time and energy to focus on what they are selling so long as students are buying it.

Perhaps college administrators know their alumni want to hear "our college is getting more applications than ever," not "most of our graduates have not taken a single history course and fewer and fewer of them are majoring in liberal arts disciplines." Then, too, as between "we saved the college but not liberal arts" and "we saved liberal arts but not the college," which would college officials opt for?

Could it be that, in their secret hearts, liberal arts college administrators believe liberal arts education is a luxury we can no longer afford, and simply don’t want to talk about it?

If college administrators don’t talk about the declining demand for liberal arts, it is unlikely anyone else will. The media has little interest in liberal arts education, and, it seems, neither does the federal government. A 55-page report on the future of higher education by a special commission headed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, published in 2006, discussed vocational education at length, but did not mention liberal arts or liberal arts education. Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often talks about higher education in the U.S. as though the only issue is a better technically-trained workforce.

The cases liberal arts colleges make to attract high school students focus on getting a good job and financial well-being after graduation, understandably so given that jobs and economic security are by far the major concerns of both students and their parents. In so doing, however, the colleges’ own words reinforce the demand for vocational education. Further, when College A advocates for liberal arts education, it makes the case for why a student should attend College A rather than College B, not why a student should attend College A or College B. In competing for students, colleges deplete their own meager resources while driving up each other’s costs. The tragedy of the commons is at work.

Declining demand for liberal arts is the elephant in the parlor of liberal arts colleges. The problem will not be solved without close cooperation among them. This will not happen so long as their leaders refrain from openly discussing the problem.


Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).


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