A Rescue Plan for America’s Small Colleges

Liberal arts colleges can save themselves -- and perhaps our democracy -- by mining their backyards for and educating more students from working-class backgrounds via a new degree option, Rob Fried and Eli Kramer write.

January 21, 2020
 
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Marlboro College, a historic center for innovative higher education in southeastern Vermont, with a rich tradition in liberal arts and in music, is folding its tent and going to town -- literally. It is delivering up its small but not insignificant endowment, along with its 366-acre campus, to Boston’s Emerson College to be disposed of as they see fit. Along with the demise of Vermont’s stately Green Mountain College and dozens of other unique environments for learning across our nation, it will leave a profound sense of loss in its community and a small but serious hole in our larger society. It need not have happened.

Though the value of the liberal arts as a foundation for a humane worldview has never been greater, we are losing a small but potentially vital resource for the intellectual, emotional and social development of our youth -- and for the maintenance of our democracy.

More young people may indeed be going to college than ever before, but this does not mean that they are being prepared to take on the tremendous challenges of our age, or of their future. STEM-based programs may support our tech economy, but they do not see the preservation of democracy and humane values as an essential part of their mission.

And notwithstanding the availability of liberal arts courses at other higher education institutions, including vocational colleges, we see many small colleges -- key advocates for higher education centered on the whole person -- suffering a steady decline, faced with demographic and economic realities they seem unable to cope with.

Ignoring High-Potential Learners in Our Backyards

What’s to be done? While there are obvious reforms that also need to be made in K-12 that will enable all students to better prepare themselves for postsecondary learning, liberal arts colleges must repurpose their degree programs for 21st-century challenges. They need to recruit from a broader spectrum of youth, update “liberal education” to include essential skills for success in complex organizations, develop in their students a greater capacity for critical inquiry, advocate forcefully for democracy and create an affordable economic model to attract youth to a new liberal arts baccalaureate without inundating them with debt.

These seemingly overwhelming challenges become achievable once we see how they intersect and reinforce each other. But they begin with three fundamental requirements:

  1. empowering youth while still in high school to take charge of their learning;
  2. recruiting a cadre of full-time instructors from inside and outside the college who devote themselves fully to the intellectual development of undergraduate nonmajors; and
  3. creating a campus culture for students from nontraditional backgrounds, one that is welcoming, collaborative and interdisciplinary, and that offers an affordable degree that combines career readiness with classical themes and great ideas.

Why do the smartest students have to be the richest? Why do we have to compete for a handful of “diverse” students instead of recognizing the brilliance it takes to survive harsh and difficult upbringings? How can scrappy genius be channeled in higher education without it being overlooked or snuffed out?

-- Cathy Davidson in The New Education

Across America, there are tens of thousands of young people from lower-income and working-class families who could benefit greatly from -- and in turn be a dynamic asset to -- liberal arts colleges. Their inclusion would allow these colleges to become conduits for these neglected students to a world of creativity, entrepreneurship and civic engagement, along with immersion in bold ideas, complex questions and encounters with great works of literature, art, science and history. It would also enable them to interact with students from across the land and other nations. Most of these young people, however, haven’t given a thought to applying to, let alone attending, a liberal arts college. And few adults around them can envision how they might succeed.

Mike Rose, in Back to School, poses the question “Do we really want to urge more students into a system that on average graduates about 50-60 percent of those who enter it?” and he answers, “We need to be careful about painting this broad group of students with a single brush. Some are strongly motivated but because of poor education, family disruption … or a host of other reasons are not academically prepared,” and he warns, “It is a simplistic solution to funnel everyone who is not thriving [in the existing high school academic program] into a vocational program. Such a solution also smacks of injustice … A long history of exclusion must be addressed before countering broad access to higher education.”

We are speaking of students who possess a high level of intelligence that hasn’t translated into high grades and honors classes in schools that are characterized by compliance and competition. They come from families who cannot imagine their daughters and sons entering the rarefied world of a four-year liberal arts campus -- such colleges appear too expensive and debt encumbering, they do not promise a well-paying job, and they may be culturally alienating, catering to the children of rich and/or highly educated parents, along with a sprinkling of scholarship kids recruited in the name of “diversity.”

A significant number of these overlooked potential college students live in communities that surround our struggling liberal arts colleges but have little or no contact with them. Their GPAs and SAT scores reflect their disaffection with what they see as the rigidity and irrelevancy of much of high school. They are smart and purposeful in ways that are likely to be frowned upon by adults who view them as rebellious or uncooperative. Their nonacademic achievements may be disdained by educated adults, much as one might praise this child for practicing the violin and chastise that one for wasting time learning how to skateboard. Parents and coaches often channel them into athletics rather than academics, with a profound negative impact on their future ability to earn a good living, let alone participate actively in fostering democracy.

Their rebellious spirits -- fine-tuned to detect hypocrisy and irrelevancy -- are punished while other students’ protests regarding climate change are celebrated. The work they perform as volunteer firefighters or EMT aides is not deemed worthy of credit. Labeled neither as “honors” or “special needs,” they are likely to be nobody’s priority, largely left to themselves and prone to rebel against the very institution that ought to empower their future.

In this climate, they fail to sharpen those skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening so necessary for success in college, skills they might readily acquire if they were given a reason to do so and a mentor to guide them. They go on to make a life for themselves as best they can in a world geared to higher knowledge, and they are inclined to vote for Trump in part because they feel dismissed and disdained by those “elites.”

Our small liberal arts colleges, meanwhile, are desperately seeking students, seemingly from anywhere but their own working-class neighborhoods, even as they retrench and retreat in the face of lower enrollments and rising costs. They spend money on recruiters, on fancy dorms, on fundraising professionals, money that could be invested in cultivating future enrollees from surrounding towns. Their faculty reward structures often favor teaching upper-level majors over working collaboratively to help freshmen and sophomores become creative and critical thinkers.

Small colleges continue to wither on the vine, cleaving to an outmoded model of a liberal education largely because their well-endowed elite college brethren burnish the same academic memes and rely on exclusivity to boost their rankings in U.S. News & World Report and upon generous alumni to propel them further into elite status. These second-tier colleges, in pursuit of full-tuition students, feel obliged to play as much of the same game as the Ivies as they can afford. And they are going out of business in the attempt.

Failing Even Our “Brightest” Students

What we have to say is this: there is not enough higher learning in higher education. This is a critical problem that demands our urgent attention. The need for systemic institutional change -- not just by one college, and not just in a few exemplary academic programs -- is pressing.

--Richard Keeling and Richard Hersh in We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education

The sad fact is that even honors students are being cheated out of a real education. They emerge from high school, where they have competed for straight A’s, to college, where they compete for grad school, med school or Wall Street. They endure two years of random courses taken to fulfill distribution requirements, often taught by graduate students or professors in large survey classes.

While many work extremely hard, record numbers are reporting depression and anxiety and thoughts of self-harm. And there is much debate, and a lack of scholarly consensus, regarding evidence that students are developing critical thinking skills in the first two years of college, which suggests to us that a more deliberate and coordinated approach is needed.

Yet just as they pushed aside concerns about the irrelevance of high school classes in order to “get that A,” they now participate far too little in the intellectual environment of college as they competitively pursue graduate study and lucrative careers, or simply join the ranks of less motivated students who embrace living in what some call “a five-year party.”

America’s small liberal arts colleges ought to be in the best position to offer a substantive and broadly inclusive approach to liberal education, education for the whole person. Their campuses ought to be places where students and faculty, working collaboratively to enhance one another’s grasp of world issues, engage in profound dialogue and prepare for dynamic action and enterprise, taking “learning for learning’s sake” to a new dimension as “learning for the sake of my life and the future of the world.”

By drawing from the best of these small institutions, we believe such change can be achieved. Here’s how small colleges can transform “ought” into “will.” An important caveat: none of these ideas is new; most are being attempted at one college or another. But to our knowledge, few if any colleges combine these strategies in an interdependent, mutually reinforcing program. And without such synergy, most attempts at reform quickly run out of steam.

Small liberal arts colleges partner with high schools in their region to seek out and engage those high-potential students who possess “scrappy genius,” mentoring them over the course of their high school careers to take charge of their learning and to build critical skills for college readiness. Enlightened business leaders who appreciate the value of a liberal education step up and support these initiatives and offer internships to career-focused students. It is our as-yet-untested assumption that, given a baccalaureate that leads to enhanced career possibilities at the best area businesses, these nontraditional students and their families will be willing to pay something like $10,000 a year for their education -- and even incur some debt. They already pay that much and more to technical and vocational institutions.

These small colleges create a new baccalaureate option for every self-motivated and independent-thinking student, one that is based on assessed performance of projects, portfolios and internship reports, rather than exam-based grades and that combines the best of traditional liberal arts with skills required by the best area employers. What cannot be overstated is that we must empower students themselves to participate and co-lead the transformational process. The changes we are seeking will only occur if students own them.

An alternative professorial career path is fashioned -- without impinging on existing faculty contracts -- to allow colleges to hire full-time instructors who are passionate about a collaborative approach to teaching that fosters whole-person intellectual and emotional growth. These new teaching positions -- aimed at the first two years of study -- may allow for a significant savings for colleges who are thus able to fill underutilized classrooms and dormitories from the ranks of the regional students we’ve been describing, at significantly lower tuition rates for new students who accept the challenge of a self-motivated, performance-based degree.

Small liberal arts colleges move front and center in the fight to support democratic processes and humane values. We will not be able to sustain democratic societies unless many more of our young people demand that we do so. The challenge is to consciously promote and defend these values in a way that is not only culturally sensitive to oppressed communities but also recognizes that members of the working class, white as well as minority, are underrepresented in the halls of our colleges and universities. We simply cannot defend democracy without our liberal arts colleges becoming more socially inclusive in the broadest sense.

Finally, foundations and philanthropists who are dedicated to redressing social inequality and fostering democratic and humane values must help underwrite such a transformational process at a few pilot colleges so that the rest of higher education sits up and takes notice. Instead of attacking the symptoms of inequality only by providing scholarships for low-income students, cherry-picking the highest performers from underserved communities, or playing at the edges of academic reform, our donors must recognize, as does Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, that we must no longer limit ourselves to alleviating symptoms. We must tackle the root causes of inequality if we want to solve anything.

All this is eminently feasible. None of it will be easy or assured. As the percentage of graduates with traditional liberal arts majors continues to decline, the need for young people who experience and can articulate the values of a liberal education grows. We need our small liberal arts colleges to lead the way in demonstrating that those institutions who offer a truly “liberating” education are unquestionably vital to our society and our world.

Bio

Rob Fried is an author and retired professor who directs the New American Baccalaureate Project. Eli Kramer is director of research for the project and an affiliated researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw.

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