Will Our Liberal Arts Colleges Step Up or Step Aside

As the number of high school graduates continues to decline, so will the number of college-bound students. That is of little consequence to a few hundred institutions of higher learning in the United States, but there are thousands of colleges and universities dotting the American landscape. What about the hundreds of institutions with student populations of less than three thousand?

The trend began several years ago. Well-respected liberal arts schools merging with their larger counterparts or simply closing their doors for good. How can something like this happen to colleges that were founded in the 17 and 1800’s? Sometime the age of the institution is the problem. They have been doing things the same way for over 100 years and that has always been good enough. Well, a lot has changed outside our institutions of higher learning in the past 100 years and the colleges that did not adjust to those changes are in trouble.

In an Inside Higher Ed article written by Rob Fried and Eli Kramer, suggestions are made about how our small liberal arts colleges can move from the back to the front of the line in attracting students who will save not only the small colleges, but likely our democratic way of life. Most of us who have a vested interest in higher education are familiar with the book Colleges That Change Lives. This is a group of schools that have been touted for doing an extraordinarily good job of producing the kind of graduates that enrich the world around them. Fried and Kramer believe that our society needs to surpass the efforts of this group of colleges by cultivating the best and brightest high school students, developing a degree program to engage and captivate them without demanding they leave college laden with debt. They advocate buy-in from high schools, colleges, local employers, corporations, foundations and anyone else interested in supporting a fair and equitable life for anyone willing to work.

One of the things I liked about what they said is how difficult this transition will be. The picture they painted was not all butterflies and rainbows. Changing systems that are hundreds of years old is a daunting task but if we are to save the American liberal arts education, changes will have to be made; Fried and Kramer have some pretty good ideas about how to go about making those changes.

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