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Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Despite heroic efforts by America’s small liberal arts colleges to remain viable, the bad news keeps coming. Grim forecasts for the prospects of nonelite colleges are well documented, and the pandemic has catalyzed prevailing forces that have for years placed these institutions in jeopardy. Amid a mounting crisis, many worthy colleges face transition from precariousness to extinction. This would be tragic, not only for these colleges and their communities, but for our democracy.

Authoritarian/populist movements here and abroad gain adherents and preach disdain for intellectuals. The idea of a liberal education has been traduced by adherents of the conservative media as a threat to American values and cultural norms, while liberal arts colleges are dismissed as citadels of “political correctness.” The need to engage a broader spectrum of students from a diversity of economic and cultural backgrounds becomes ever more urgent.

Many small colleges work vigorously to survive challenging times: revising admissions criteria, lowering tuition, expanding virtual learning, cutting costs, excising what are deemed unpopular majors, reshaping curricula and energetically recruiting students. But their survival may well depend on another approach: reconnecting with their neighbors.

We might characterize small liberal arts colleges as adopting either a “village commons” or a “privileged enclave” persona. The former describes a college that actively engages and helps prepare students from area high school backgrounds while also serving as a center for a community’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. While the privileged enclave model (recruiting students from affluent families nationally and largely ignoring regional concerns) may work for elite colleges that have the luxury of rejecting a high percentage of applicants, it is likely at times like these to prove disastrous for tuition-dependent small colleges, however well deserved their reputations might be for providing high-quality education.

Our village commons approach, emphasizing college efforts to engage a broader range of young people in surrounding neighborhoods, is not a quick fix; it will demand significant and mutually reinforcing changes to traditional academic attitudes and practices. These reforms might include ideas like performance assessment, which emphasizes the practical application of knowledge and skills and appeals to students whose strengths lie in making things happen (as opposed to taking exams) and the integration into the liberal arts curriculum of essential skills for success in enterprises, large and small, that require such skills. The good news is that such reforms will benefit all students.

And if they are packaged in an affordable degree option that leads to good careers and a life soon free of tuition debt (a big if, but the authors have developed a baccalaureate design that can accomplish this without interfering with existing faculty contracts), these changes will broaden a college’s appeal to area families of modest means who want their children close to home, as well as to students from beyond the region. If pursued with openness and collegiality, such an approach can develop enrollment streams from area high schools that have been engaged as full educational partners with their local college. These reforms are also likely to appeal to students everywhere who seek self-directed and collaborative learning environments.

Nonelite small colleges face a pivotal choice: they can try to persevere by emulating elite Ivies, hoping to outlast the multiple threats they face; or they can remain true to their historic mission and high academic standards while extending the best traditions of liberal education to young people from surrounding community high schools, many of whose students now view their local college as “not a place for people like me.”

Gregory Prince, a former president of Hampshire College and a proponent for educational reform on all levels, argued to us that,

“Small liberal arts colleges can be a vanguard for helping their communities understand that liberal education is universal, valuable for every occupation and activity. It ultimately is about developing an attitude of mind, not tied to any particular field, activity, trade or occupation. It is about gaining the capacity to think clearly, creatively and critically; to judge wisely and act humanely; and to communicate effectively.

“These skills are as useful for farmers, entrepreneurs, nurses and industrial workers as for skilled professionals and academics the world over. Just as importantly these habits of mind can be learned and acquired and can flourish in any setting. Liberal education, defined as an attitude of mind, is the antithesis of cultural elitism.”

Such a transition won’t be easy; it confronts a critical aspect that is contributing to the decline of these small colleges -- the threat to our democracy from a social and cultural divide between liberal arts colleges and their noncollege neighbors.

Michael J. Sandal’s opinion column in The New York Times entitled “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice” describes “a meritocratic hubris” that threatens our fellowship as citizens and emboldens those who seek political advantage by pitting racial and social class groups against each other.

While many small colleges are working toward greater community engagement, prejudice and misperceptions persist on both sides of the town/gown divide, often stemming from issues of social class identity that are too often ignored in our colleges’ emphasis on selective categories of diversity. To many of its regional neighbors, a college’s liberal ethos seems alien, remote from the values and challenges of small community life. One college president told me that now he avoids using the term “liberal arts,” after one of his rural neighbors demanded, “What’s wrong with ‘conservative arts’?” Such prejudice, on both sides, is not only poisonous to a college’s future, it is a threat to our democracy, as the tumult of our recent election and its violent aftermath clearly manifests.

Liberal arts college leaders need to bravely confront such prejudice -- unintended though it may be -- and work to change that perception. The logical place to begin is in their own neighborhoods, by seeking out, listening to and engaging as equal partners the families, small-business people and civic groups, and by looking to dedicated high school educators as essential colleagues to encourage a wider spectrum of their students to consider and prepare for a liberal education.

Practical strategies that will enable struggling liberal arts colleges to improve area recruitment via a village commons approach include working with K-12 educators as partners in youth development; reaching out to students early in their high school careers, with college student mentors helping them expand their communication skills; hearing from the best regional employers, large and small, about the skills critical to success in today’s complex organizations; replacing outdated distribution requirements with coordinated freshman seminars taught by instructors passionate about helping students gain the habits of mind that lead to critical inquiry; and designing an affordable, performance-based baccalaureate degree option that emphasizes and rewards student collaboration, inventiveness and self-motivation.

Each of these strategies is integral to the New American Baccalaureate Project that we are assisting colleges to initiate. The NAB is a nonprofit, largely volunteer organization that has developed a design for the liberal arts that features mutually reinforcing reforms to help colleges revitalize their approach to diverse 21st-century learners.

A renewed emphasis on regional partnerships will pay off handsomely in decades to come, as the college and its neighboring communities rediscover the mutuality of their concerns and their hopes, and as area families, civic groups and businesses come to see their college as a true village commons, dedicated to the aspirations of area high school students and the revitalization of community life -- a place where all voices in the community are empowered to contribute to the conversation.

“The real task,” Gregory Prince reminds us, “is to get a lot more students to believe they have the potential to be successful, motivated learners, rather than to seek the few within diverse populations who have already bought into that vision. It is with that openness and humility that vulnerable colleges can become a true village commons and, in so doing, help themselves, all of education and our democracy.”

Reaching out to the people in a college’s neighborhoods will require modest investments in initiatives that engage high school students in their early years and that invite their teachers to partner with college faculty. By offering a performance-validated degree option, area businesses can confidently hire graduates who have a high prospect of success, and families can be reassured that their children will be able to land well-paying jobs and create meaningful careers, along with the intellectual benefits of a college education.

Our democratic way of life, our embrace of the universal rights of human beings and the survival of our planet cannot remain the exclusive province of a highly educated and culturally sequestered gentility if we are to withstand the onslaught of populist, authoritarian ideologues and their exploitation of working-class and poor people. We must counter with a democratic way of living that is itself populist in its embrace of universal human aspirations for dignity, respect and inclusion amid an evolving global economy and a social media explosion.

It is to our small liberal arts colleges that our diverse communities should look for a mutual renaissance of social, economic and cultural uplift -- but only if our liberal arts colleges can shift their gaze and their abundant intellectual powers to better serve their neighbors.

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