The death knell of liberal arts education?

A well-known women’s college in Virginia is closing (stories here and here). While it is always sad to see a venerable institution go under, there is a much bigger underlying story here about quite radical changes in the shape of higher education. There is some current debate about whether these kinds of events mean that ‘liberal arts’ education per se is declining in America (in favour of vocational education, for example). The account here, for example, argues that liberal arts is alive and well in the ‘Honors Colleges’ that are part of big state universities. (An Honors College is an institution within an institution, providing a richer curriculum to high achieving students.) What is more clear is that the model of the liberal arts college — generally small, private, not-for-profit institutions staff by enthusiastic teachers and without much of a research profile — is declining. For more than a century, this model has been a big feature in the higher education landscape. Those colleges that are surviving are doing so by expanding their student numbers far beyond the intimate numbers for which they were famous and valued, or linking up with larger institutions. What the tale of Sweet Briar College makes clear is that the demographic of students has changed enormously, so such colleges draw students by offering more and more financial aid and scholarships, and fewer and fewer pay the full tuition fees. Another lesson, it seems to me, simply has to do with the cost ratios of providing higher education. The level of facilities and services demanded today, means that a small college will pay proportionately more of its income on keeping the place running, as opposed to just paying teaching staff. Just as in the UK, then, institutional mergers look to be an increasingly likely solution. The fact that Sweet Briar is on 3200 acres and has a couple dozen historical buildings no doubt doesn’t help…

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