For a good while now, many observers have been making dire predictions about the future of liberal arts colleges and universities. A bubble is about to burst, we are told, poked by the sharp ascent of online education and the costs of higher education.
It is no doubt a time to be concerned. But it is also time to take a breath. It is time to recall the mettle of which the liberal arts are made, which is a vigor meant for just such a time as this.
Of course, the news that Sweet Briar College, a quality institution with a long tradition in the liberal arts, will close later this year has re-ignited these doomsday speculations. The end of such a venerable, well-endowed institution has unsettled both the media and representatives of the hallowed realm of liberal arts education.
It is not difficult, therefore, to concede that the gloomy predictions for such institutions have merit. At the same time, however, there is strong reason to believe that these same predictions may serve—as they have in the past—as the motivation for leaders in the liberal arts to regroup, reinvent and revitalize.
This is not the first time that the survival of the liberal arts has been challenged. During World War II and the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, liberal arts institutions, as with all colleges and universities, were forced to close, scale back, delay expansions or consolidate to deal with enrollment shortfalls.
Although liberal arts schools, if they survived, were often made better by the challenges, today’s obstacles appear more threatening to the life of a broader range of traditional liberal arts colleges. Costs for maintaining brick and mortar residential campuses have risen sharply, while enrollment in online education has accelerated and sharply reduced tuition for many degree-seekers.
But liberal arts institutions are not without their resources for fighting back again and ultimately prevailing, especially if they come together in ways they have not done before to share costs and highlight their advantages. Some are finding that the technologies that threaten private liberal arts institutions can also serve as a means of supporting them.
Members of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, for example, have pooled human and financial resources to deliver a greater diversity of quality online language courses. Other such online courses in liberal arts disciplines are underway. Especially useful to small colleges, these and other types of consortia not only help reduce costs, but enable a more fluid sharing of ideas that make liberal arts institutions more flexible and responsive.
[liberal arts skills] get you hired, they help you stand out, they create workers with passion and purpose, and they lead to promotions.Steve Sadove,
Past chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue
As these schools work together, they also have the opportunity to reinvent the liberal arts. Many institutions have been emboldened by research that shows that employers by large percentages desire graduates from liberal arts institution. According to Steve Sadove, past chairman and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, liberal arts skills “get you hired, they help you stand out, they create workers with passion and purpose, and they lead to promotions.”
Such praise for the liberal arts among employers provides not only a strong, joint marketing message, but also the rationale for a greater emphasis on experiential (project-based, hands-on and entrepreneurial) learning that focuses on inter-disciplinary problem-solving, thus enhancing the qualifications that employers say they most value in their workforce.
The need for the liberal arts is self-evident. These schools, more than any in our culture, work to uphold the practice of critical thinking so crucial to a democratic society.
The small college campus, where individuals come together to daily discuss and solve the issues of our time while building the connections to one another and their futures, is a time-tested, successful approach that will not be easily replaced by technology.
As unsettling as the current trends may seem, these are also exciting times for the liberal arts. Many of these institutions already are responding in innovative, cost-effective ways that have made them more vital.
Competition and hard times have always bred in this country invention that leads to progress. That scenario has applied to all industries, but should be especially true of higher education in the liberal arts, where creative problem solving has always been the hallmark of its purpose.