Like many sectors, higher education is in a panic about coronavirus survival rates. Small liberal arts colleges that are tuition dependent are at particularly high risk. To be sure, there is a lot to worry about: most obviously, endowment losses due to stock market declines and the prospect of lower enrollments if too many accepted students take a gap year. Family economic woes causing a decline in the number of returning students, perceived or real quality control issues with remote learning, and the threat of more disruption or a coronavirus cluster on the campus could also wreak havoc on an institution’s bottom line.
Despite some bold and early announcements that face-to-face instruction will take place in the fall, we all know that such instruction might not be possible or wise. A good deal of institutional thinking currently revolves around reconfiguring the calendar to anticipate and diminish disruption. But institutions should be thinking more about how to authentically market what they offer, and they need to explicitly address legitimate concerns of parents and students. To do so, small liberal arts colleges need to innovate in order to deliver on what they already do best.
First and foremost, our colleges need to make good on the rhetoric that the safety of students and employees comes first. The jig is up if getting room and board fees in the coffers trumps the well-being of the campus community. Even if it seems that institutions can open safely, a hybrid model that allows remote-learning options for students who might be able to afford college if they can forgo room and board fees, or who might be high risk, sends a clear message that different needs will be honored.
Planning now for such a hybrid model also means that a college will be halfway there to a total remote-learning environment should that again become necessary. Such a model also accommodates high-risk faculty. Community-minded values are one of the appeals of a small college. Planning for the next academic year should build on -- rather than violate -- those values of care.
What are some specific steps that small colleges can take in the challenging months ahead?
Small liberal arts colleges focus on low faculty/student ratios and small classes that allow meaningful mentoring relationships with faculty members as well as peer education. What if a British-style tutorial were part of every first-year student’s experience? Among smaller groups, meetings powered by Zoom can foster intellectual community, while online discussion forums can require students to respond to one another’s writing. Many faculty members at liberal arts colleges have the pedagogical chops to do this work well. Colleges that can clearly communicate that such high-quality experiences can be expected in person or at a distance are more likely to be able to recruit an incoming class.
Intensive research seminars where faculty-guided independent work is supplemented with a cohort of peers who can help vet one another’s projects and learn to ask (and answer) critical questions about both the research process and its products should be provided for upper-class students. This seminar could be a prelude to capstones in the major or to other high-impact experiences such as internships. Such offerings would be in keeping with and an extension of research opportunities already on offer at many liberal arts colleges.
Some students might elect to study pandemic-related topics in an effort to process the experiences of this moment. Others might need to lose themselves in a passion that seems distant from the horrors of the present. Enabling students to make their education their own is a hallmark of the liberal arts experience, and additional intensive research and writing experiences can aid emotional and intellectual development during these unprecedented times.
Liberal arts colleges should also use this moment to integrate career coaching throughout the curriculum. First-year tutorials and research seminars are the perfect places to do some of that work. The next few graduating classes will be entering a brutal job market, and we owe our students careful instruction in the development and transferability of marketable skills.
One of my regular course offerings at the liberal arts college where I teach is Novel English Majors, which is focused on both literary and career narratives. I’m already thinking about strategies for coping with a pandemic and post-pandemic economy and how students might be able to capitalize on recently being forced to up their technological game for remote learning. Making a case for the economic value of the liberal arts experience adds value to the education we offer rather than detracting from it. We owe it to students and parents to ameliorate rather than add to the economic hardship that is now irrefutably part of the zeitgeist.
Part of career coaching involves connecting current students with alumni. Current students benefit from hearing firsthand about the twists and turns that professional trajectories take. Millennials who had to find their way during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 will be particularly helpful to the next few graduating classes, since real talk about navigating a spiraling economy can prepare and empower students. But we also have a responsibility to those very same alums who are now navigating the second major economic crisis of their careers. Especially if our institutions have spaces in virtual classes, why not invite alums to sign up for some lifelong learning at steeply discounted prices?
Small-scale, caring communities. Intensive mentoring and research experiences. Relationships and connections that last a lifetime. Lifelong learning. These are the signatures of small colleges. If we hold fast to our core educational values while innovating for a new, potentially virtual normal for a time, we’ll give ourselves and our institutions a chance to survive this pandemic.
Just as important, we’ll hopefully prepare the next generation to not repeat the myriad mistakes that brought us to this cataclysm. Colleges committed to ensuring that we don’t end up with a lost generation of traumatized students are likely to earn their future.