Showing posts with label small liberal arts colleges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small liberal arts colleges. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Southern Vermont College is closing: Shrinking demand for expensive liberal arts degrees

Inside Higher Ed has done a terrific job reporting on the demise of small liberal arts colleges, and Greg Toppo's recent story on the closure of Southern Vermont College is a fine Inside Higher Ed story on this sad phenomenon.

As Toppo reported, David Rees Evans, Southern Vermont's president, announced that the college is closing at the end of the spring semester. The college has been buffeted by a series of blows: an embezzlement scandal, accreditation problems with its nursing program (which the college resolved), and news that the college's principal accrediting body is planning to put the school on probation.

Closing was the right decision. After all, Southern Vermont only has 332 enrolled students--down from a peak of 500 students just nine years ago. President Evans candidly admitted that the trustees decided to announce its closure now rather than later due in part to fear of being sued if it continued recruiting new students and then shut down precipitously. That's what happened to Mount Ida College, and Southern Vermont wisely decided to wind down its affairs more transparently than Mount Ida apparently did.

President Evans partly blamed negative demographics for its predicament. "New England is in a bad way--especially the rural parts of New England," Evans said. Vermont's high school population, which provides Southern Vermont with about a third of its students, has declined dramatically, and it will decline even more in the years to come.

But demographics doesn't fully explain why so many small liberal arts colleges are closing. There are two more major dynamics in play--and small colleges have no means to counter either of them.

Small, private colleges are too expensive.  First, small, private colleges are simply too expensive for the average family to pay. Most of these small institutions charge somewhere north of $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board--around $120,000 for a four-year degree. Few families have the resources to pay these costs out of pocket, which means students must take out loans to finance their education.

It is true that small private colleges are discounting tuition drastically--on average by about 50 percent. But $13,000 a year in tuition (about half of Southern Vermont's posted rate) is still a big nut to crack. Increasingly, families are sending their children to attractively priced, regional public universities, which look pretty appealing compared to a rural college with less than 400 students.

A liberal arts education has lost its appeal.  Secondly, some would say tragically, a liberal arts education has lost its appeal in the minds of most Americans. There was a time when most Americans believed that a liberal arts education has intrinsic value. People once believed that a grounding in the liberal arts nurtured civic values, cultivated an appreciation for beauty, and promoted rational thinking. Liberal arts, it was generally believed, helped prepare young people for a fuller and richer life.

I don't think many people believe that anymore. Most young people are keenly aware that they will go into debt to get their college degrees, and they know they must get a degree that will lead to a well paying job or they will be in big financial trouble.  More and more undergraduates are majoring in business, and fewer and fewer are majoring in English, history, and philosophy.

Indeed, colleges themselves are finding it increasingly difficult to articulate exactly what a liberal arts education is these days. For example, there was once a broad consensus about what constitutes the canon of American literature. Scholars might disagree on the details, but most would identify The Great Gatsby as a great American novel--perhaps the great American novel. And most would agree that a basic knowledge of American literature includes at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and perhaps Steinbeck.

That's not true anymore. After all, these authors are all dead white men. Where are the works of African American writers, Hispanic writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers?

Of course colleges can add books by marginalized writers to the curriculum, and most are doing so. But students can only read so much, and somewhere on the road to greater relevancy in the liberal arts students start asking--what's the f-cking point?

In fact, I have great sympathy with the critics of traditional liberal arts. I for one would rather be shot than read a novel by William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, or Henry James.

Moreover, literature that is particular to my own life experience means more to me than the so-called great works of American literature. I am a Catholic, and I have read widely in the works of Catholic writers: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Walker Percy, and Alice McDermott. I am a great fan of Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue, a hidden treasure of Catholic literature that is sadly out of print.

But I would not argue to anyone that the Catholic novels that mean so much to me should form part of the liberal arts curriculum. So how can anyone argue that every educated American should read The Great Gatsby?

And so the liberal arts colleges are dying--victims of demographics, soaring costs, and perhaps most of all by our increasingly diverse society that has become fragmented with regard to our understanding of what it means to be an educated American.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Many small liberal arts colleges are closing: Don't borrow money to attend an institution that is struggling to survive

Many small liberal arts colleges are on the brink of closing, making them a poor risk for people struggling to decide where to get their liberal arts degrees. Last year, one-third of colleges with enrollments below 3,000 students ran operating deficits, which is a very bad sign.

Even these schools' chief financial officers, who have every incentive to paint a rosy picture, are worried. According to the Wall Street Journal, only about half the CFOs at private, nonprofit colleges rated their institutions as being financially stable.

Small liberal arts schools are trying all sorts of strategies to survive. Some, like Holy Cross College in Indiana, have sold real estate to get cash infusions. Others, like Wheelock College in Boston and Shimer College in Chicago, have merged with larger institutions. And some, like Sweet Briar, are sending out distress calls to alumni, hoping cash infusions from wealthy patrons will keep them afloat awhile longer.

But the handwriting has been written on those ivy-covered walls; small liberal arts colleges have no long-term future. Some may limp along by selling real estate or drawing down their endowments, and some may continue to exist in an altered form by merging with stronger institutions. But the small, free-standing, liberal arts college is dead.

What are the implications of this shake up in the higher education industry? First, if you are shopping for a college, do not take out student loans to obtain a liberal arts degree from an obscure, private college that may be extinct before your student loans are repaid. How will you feel if you are still writing monthly student-loan payments ten years after your beloved alma mater closes its doors?

And college administrators and trustees should think about the ethical implications of continuing to recruit students when all the insiders know that their college is on its last legs. Is it morally right for a college with a string of annual budget shortfalls to hire an advertising firm to lure new students?

Of course, small colleges have the right to fight for survival and to try various strategies to meet their operating budgets. But the time must come when terminally ill institutions, like terminally ill hospital patients, must face reality.

A small college can keep itself alive from month to month with regular infusions of student-loan funds and Pell Grant money, just like a comatose patient can live from day to day by being fed intravenously.

But the day finally arrives when it is apparent that a dying institution is only postponing the inevitable by rolling out new schemes to raise cash or lure more students. And that day has come for dozens and dozens of small, private, liberal arts colleges.



Melissa Korn. Some Cash-Strapped Private Colleges Cut Programs, Sell Assets. Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Shimer Will Become Part of North Central College. Inside Higher Ed, May 27, 2016.

Rick Seltzer. The Future of the Tiny Liberal Arts College. Inside Higher Ed, November 11, 2016.