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.