But outside a secure tier of elites with 10-figure endowments — the Swarthmores, Amhersts, Wellesleys of the world — many schools are in trouble. The liberal arts still account for about one-third of bachelor's degrees, but the experience of getting one in these small settings is increasingly atypical. Definitions vary, but liberal arts colleges today probably account for between 100,000 and 300,000 of the country's roughly 17 million undergraduates. There are more students at the University of Phoenix, alone.
These schools "are all getting to around $40,000 a year, in some cases $50,000, and students and their families are just saying 'we can't do it,'" Docking said. Small classes make these schools among them most expensive places in higher education, though they often offer discounts to fill seats (Adrian's list price is $38,602, including room and board, but the average student pays $19,000).
Other pressures are geographic and generational. Many liberal arts colleges are clustered in the Northeast and Midwest, in towns like Adrian, founded by optimistic 18th- and 19th-century settlers who started colleges practically as soon as they arrived. But where the country is growing now is the South and West, where the private college tradition isn't as deep.
Meanwhile, students these days expect the climbing walls and high-end dorms that smaller, poorer schools can't afford. And a growing proportion of college students are the first generation in their family to attend. They've proved a tougher sell on the idea they can afford to spend four years of college "exploring." In UCLA's massive national survey of college freshman, "getting a better job" recently surpassed "learning about things that interest me" as the top reason for going to college. The percentage calling job preparation a very important reason rose to 86 percent, up from 70 percent in 2006, before the economy tanked.
Politicians have reinforced the message. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott recently proposed public colleges charge more for degrees in subjects like anthropology that he said were less economically valuable to the state than science and engineering (though in fact, those subjects usually cost much more to teach).
So, with varying reluctance, colleges have adjusted. In his 2011 book "Liberal Arts at the Brink," former Beloit College president Victor Ferrall calculated that in 1986-87, just 30 of 225 liberal arts colleges awarded 30 percent or more of their degrees in vocational subjects. By 2007-2008, 118 did so. Even at a consortium called the Annapolis Group, comprised of the supposedly purest liberal arts colleges, the percentage of vocational degrees jumped from 6 percent to 17 percent.
"What's new in the past few years," said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, "is people are beginning to wonder in the places that have remained liberal arts colleges whether that's enough." Schools like Adrian that had already shifted to a more vocational approach "are asking whether the balance is right, whether they need to tip more to the professional side."
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