And this is a great shame. America's small liberal arts colleges emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to provide a college education to young people who previously had had no opportunity to attend college. Started by Catholic religious orders, Protestant denominations, and sometimes just by
Looking back on the golden era of the private liberal arts colleges, it is remarkable how physically beautiful many of them were. The founders seemed to have an innate sense of architectural taste. Many of the buildings on these small campuses were designed along classical lines and are truly beautiful.
And apparently, these colleges were relatively easy to found. In the days before onerous federal regulations and bureaucratic accrediting associations, it seems that just about anyone could start a college. And the nation owes a debt to the many civic minded individuals and organizations that created these lovely little institutions that dot the American landscape.
But their days are numbered and many won't survive another twenty years. Most have slashed their tuition rates and many have experimented with online offerings, or other innovations to stop their enrollment declines. But in the end, most private liberal arts colleges are doomed to close.
Why are the private liberal arts colleges in decline?
They have gotten too expensivee. First of all, liberal arts colleges have gotten too expensive. Many undistinguished little colleges charge as much to attend as the elite private institutions. Families have done the math and have come to the conclusion that it doesn't make sense to pay $50,000 a year in tuition, room and board for their children to attend colleges that have nothing special to offer in today's modern economy.
It is true that the real cost of attending one of these colleges is often far less than the sticker price. As a recent Inside Higher Education story explained, most students pay far less than the advertised price to attend a private college. But even if the $30,000 tuition is reduced to $15,000, the total cost to attend these schools is around $30,000 per year, when room, board, and books are figured in. That's a lot of money for a middle class or working class family.
The idea of a liberal arts education is dead. Second, the notion that a liberal arts education is a good in itself is dead. There was a time when most people agreed that the study of history, literature,
Postmodern education for free
Furthermore, even if students want a classical liberal arts education, they are increasingly unlikely to find an institution that provides it. Many of today's liberal arts professors are postmodernists, neo-Marxist cranks, moral cynics, or outright nihilists. For many liberal arts professors, stamping out the ideals of the young is their life's mission.
And many young people have figured out that they can become disillusioned about life for a lot less than $30,000 a year. After all, if they want a lesson in postmodern nihilism, they can watch reruns of Seinfeld.
Residential education is dead. Finally, American young people no longer see the value in residential education. In another time, students willingly lived in dormitories where they shared a room with at least one other student and showered in a communal bathroom. Students ate in university-run cafeterias and participated in a host of campus activities--student clubs, drama society, student government, etc. Dorm mothers and hall monitors kept order and made sure students made it back to their dorms every evening before the doors were locked for the night.
Today, many young people simply won't put up with living in a dormitory. They would rather live in off-campus apartments where they can cohabit with their significant (or insignificant) others, eat at fast food restaurants, and only come on campus for their classes. In fact, a lot of students prefer online classes so they need not come on campus at all.
Where are we headed? In short, liberal arts colleges are in a downward spiral for variety of reasons. And I don't see a revival. The future of higher education is still not clear, but I think it is headed into three main segments.
First, the elite colleges will always survive, selling prestige, political connections, and smooth access into elite graduate schools. The future of Harvard, Yale, Emory, Georgetown, Stanford, and 30 or 40 other elite universities is assured.
Second, most middle class students will attend public institutions, both flagship institutions like the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, but also a host of regional and satellite institutions like University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Western Michigan. Increasingly, these public universities will turn into mega institutions with thousands of students, soulless leadership, and robotic bureaucracies.
Third, working class students with college aspirations will go to community colleges with commuter cultures or will get sucked into the predatory for-profit institutions that will offer them lackluster educational experiences and leave them with high levels of student-loan debt.
But the lovely little liberal arts colleges with their elm-lined pathways and neo-Grecian halls are fading into the past. I think we will miss them.
Ry Rivard. Paper (Tuition) Cuts. Inside Higher Education, September 16, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/09/16/small-private-colleges-steeply-cut-their-sticker-price-will-it-drive-down-college