Residential Liberal Arts Colleges: Something’s Gotta Give

Plenty of people will gladly tell you that higher education is broken. That a college degree is unnecessary. And, that college is not preparing students for the job market, nor for life.

Perhaps some, or even all, of these statements are true.

What is undeniably true, is that college is expensive.

Yesterday, I described the elements of the collapse of Sweet Briar College: a school with a declining market of students, the inability to borrow money and pay down debt, and an endowment hog-tied with restricted funds.

Sweet Briar is not an outlier. More schools than not are in a similar condition, coming off a decade-long arms race of new dorms and facilities, new amenities, and substantial new bond debt.

What can small, residential colleges, particularly liberal arts colleges, do then, to fiscally survive, and remain true to the precepts of academic excellence, academic freedom, and the pursuit of knowledge, for knowledge’s sake?

Colleges will have to change. And they will have to change in ways that will make many inside – and outside – the academy uncomfortable.

Here are ideas that can really move the needle, financially, and still afford a quality liberal arts learning experience. All it takes is vision, and courage.

  • Offer three-year Bachelor’s degrees. This idea alone will drive the cost of college down 25%, by definition.
  • Ditch the high-list price / heavy-discount model of pricing. True market, apples-to-apples comparisons can then be made, based on ROI, and not prestige.
  • Do away with Sports programs. Saving substantially on facilities, travel, and staffing costs.
  • Accommodate non-traditional learners. Exploit the market beyond 18-22 year olds. Who have actual money to spend.
  • And, most radical of all – Do away with the residential model, altogether.

Someone will step up, and be the first to implement one or more of these measures – and rightfully be labeled a Visionary. Most likely, they will also be fired.

But they will still be right.

Go, and be you.


2 thoughts on “Residential Liberal Arts Colleges: Something’s Gotta Give

  1. davidjhinson says:

    Reblogged this on Logorrhea and commented:

    If real change is to occur in the small residential college educational model, significant structural change will have to occur. If your institution has a billion dollar endowment, odds are you’re perfectly happy with the status quo. For the vast majority of everyone else, “change or die” is not merely a hypothetical question.


  2. Gabriel Ferrer says:

    Very interesting post.

    One thought I had as I looked at each item, is that those things persist because they represent local maxima. For example, part of the appeal of the small college is that an average student athlete can continue to play varsity sports. I’ve become convinced that this is part of what makes small colleges viable. So to remove them would move away from this local maximum. The three-year bachelor’s is an intriguing idea, but it would likely involve persuading faculty to give up their summers (traditional research time). Another local maximum. Similar reasoning motivates the pricing model.

    A typical model for non-traditional learners is to do Master’s programs. I’m thinking of Rollins College here with its MBA. Non-traditional students in need of a BA; they might not have as much money, but that is certainly an interesting market to try to crack.

    So perhaps this list is most likely to be realized by a school that is in deep trouble but (unlike Sweet Briar) is committed to surviving. And by “deep trouble”, I mean that they have exhausted their local maxima.

    Liked by 1 person

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