ADRIAN, Mich. — They're the places you think of when you think of "college" — leafy campuses, small classes, small towns. Liberal arts colleges are where students ponder life's big questions, and learn to think en route to successful careers and richer lives, if not always to the best-paying first jobs.
But today's increasingly career-focused students mostly aren't buying the idea that a liberal arts education is good value, and many small liberal arts colleges are struggling. The survivors are shedding their liberal arts identity, if not the label. A study published earlier this year found that of 212 such institutions identified in 1990, only 130 still meet the criteria of a "true liberal arts college." Most that fell off the list remained in business, but had shifted toward a pre-professional curriculum.
These distinctively American institutions — educating at most 2 percent of college students but punching far above their weight in accomplished graduates — can't turn back the clock.
But schools like Adrian College, 75 miles southwest of Detroit and back from a recent near-death experience, offer something of a playbook.
First, get students in the door by offering what they do want, namely sports and extracurricular opportunities that might elude them at bigger schools. Offer vocational subjects like business, criminal justice and exercise science that students and parents think — rightly or wrongly — will lead to better jobs.
Then, once they're enrolled, look for other ways to sprinkle the liberal arts magic these colleges still believe in, even if it requires a growing stretch to call yourself a liberal arts college.
"We're liberal arts-aholics," says Adrian President Jeffrey Docking, who has added seven sports and two pre-professional degree programs since arriving in 2005 — and nearly doubled enrollment to about 1,750.
But he's also a realist.
"I say this with regret," said Docking, an ethicist by training. But "you really take your life into your own hands thinking that a pure liberal arts degree is going to be attractive enough to enough 18-year-olds that you fill your freshman classes."
In ancient Greece, liberal arts were the subjects that men free from work were at leisure to pursue. Today, the squishy definition still includes subjects that don't prepare for a particular job (but can be useful for many). English, history, philosophy, and other arts and sciences are the traditional mainstays. But these days, some prefer a more, well, liberal definition that's more about teaching style than subject matter.
"I refer to it as learning on a human scale," said William Spellman, a University of North Carolina-Asheville historian who directs a group of 27 public liberal arts colleges. "It's about small classes, access to faculty, the old tutorial model of being connected with somebody who's not interested only in their disciplinary area but culture broadly defined."
Does it work? It's true that research tying college majors to salaries can make the generic liberal arts degrees look unappealing. But technical training can become obsolete, and students are likely to change careers several times. These schools argue you're better off, both in life and work, simply learning to think.
Research does point to broader benefits of studying liberal arts in small settings, in areas like leadership, lifelong learning and civic engagement. Liberal arts colleges are proven launching pads to the top of business, government and academia (graduating 12 U.S. presidents, six chief justices and 12 of 53 Nobel laureates over a recent decade who attended American colleges, by one researcher's count). Foreign delegations often visit to observe, and big U.S. universities are trying to recreate mini-liberal arts colleges within their campuses.
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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