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Colgate University is a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Pandemic presents an opportunity for small liberal arts colleges to change

In their newly released book, “The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College,” Steven Volk, emeritus professor of history at Oberlin College, and Beth D. Benedix, professor of world literature, religious studies and community engagement at DePauw University, call for small liberal arts colleges – that is, those with 3,000 students or fewer – to not just respond to the economic pressures of the pandemic, but to make themselves anew. Here, the authors answer questions about what changes need to occur.

Will COVID-19 be the death of small liberal arts colleges?

Beth D. Bendedix: Dozens of these colleges, which are colleges that offer a broad-based education and are less vocationally centered, already have collapsed.

And anywhere from an estimated 10% to 20% of these schools are in danger of closing because of the unique economic pressures that they face. There are about 200 liberal arts college in the U.S. What Steve and I say in the book is that this moment of multilayered crises – the pandemic as well as racial and social inequity, and economic and environmental instability – provides an opportunity for these colleges to radically reimagine and transform the nature of what they do.

For too long, many of these schools have been elitist, exclusive, overwhelmingly white and disconnected from the problems the majority of people in the world face. They need to become institutions of access, equity, shared power and extraordinary relevance.

Why should they focus on social mobility?

Steve Volk: Social mobility – that is, the ability of individuals born into low-income families to move into higher income brackets – has been stagnant for decades. Only half of Americans born in 1980 earn more money per year than their parents did at the same age. Education, which was long seen as an engine for social mobility, no longer fills this role.

Educational “merit” is determined within unequal and highly segregated K-12 school systems. These school systems are largely funded by property taxes and often supplemented by private donations that bring in significantly more resources for wealthy districts.

Meanwhile, a substantial minority of low-income children are so far behind when they enter kindergarten that school success will be very hard. Even leaving cost apart, students from low-income families often lack the academic credentials (test scores, GPAs, AP courses, extracurriculars) to get into selective colleges. Or they don’t consider applying in the first place. The result is that colleges have become part of “an inequality machine,” in the words of Georgetown research professor Anthony P. Carnevale.

In 2017, 38 colleges – several of which were small liberal arts colleges – enrolled more students from the top 1% of income earners than from the entire bottom 60%.

Is it a problem that small liberal arts colleges are increasingly becoming enclaves for the wealthy?

Absolutely, we would argue. We believe that education cannot nurture democracy if the peers with whom students engage are largely wealthy and privileged like themselves. If students do not daily engage with those whose lives have been shaped by struggles against poverty, racism or displacement, they will not understand the reality lived by a growing portion of U.S. society.

Liberal arts colleges have long understood the role they can play in creating a more just society. Yet financial pressures and the chase for “the best and the brightest” students are pushing these colleges to “take the inequality given to them and magnify it,” as Carnevale stressed. They need to return to the promise of their mission statements if they are to continue to benefit both their students and U.S. democracy.

How can these schools cut costs?

Volk: The fundamental financial problem of higher education rests on the fact that instructional expenses continue to climb. These increases are being driven by a variety of factors including the rising cost of skilled faculty, the fact that colleges prepare students for the working world, and that world is saturated in new technology that comes with its own price tag. They are also being driven by the expansion of services colleges now see fit to provide, including comprehensive mental health and wellness counseling.

Meanwhile, the wages that families relied on to pay for most of their children’s college tuition before 1970 have remained stagnant for 40 years. And public funding for higher education has declined considerably over the past 20 years.

Many colleges and universities have cut their expenses by reducing salaries and benefits, replacing full-time, tenure-track faculty with part-time and contingent staff. Adjunct instructors, hired on a course-by-course basis and often without health care or other benefits, now outnumber full-time professors. This approach strikes us as fundamentally inequitable.

While private liberal arts colleges would benefit from policy changes that affect public institutions – changes such as expansion and increase of Pell grants and loan forgiveness programs – they can also move to reduce their own costs and lower tuition. Catharine Hill, a former president of Vassar, recently warned of the risks of colleges’ continuing to try to out-prestige one another.

While liberal arts colleges spend less on amenities designed to attract students than do larger universities, they still spend a significant amount on housing, meals and noninstructional student support services. “When we compete with each other, it pushes up costs,” Hill said. “We do cool things, but it costs more money.”

Chief among these is the awarding of merit scholarships, which largely go to families that could afford to pay a full tuition. As education author Jeff Selingo once observed, merit aid has turned into a financial burden for many colleges. It deprives the schools of funds that could support students in need even as colleges bring in less cash from wealthier students.

Why should anyone care about the fate of small liberal arts colleges?

Beth: If small liberal arts colleges insist on retaining their exclusionary strategies at a time when America is experiencing this cultural shift, then we say good riddance.
But if they do take this opportunity to become truly accessible institutions, there is so much our world stands to gain from a liberal arts ethos. Fundamental to that ethos is a commitment to the idea that knowledge can’t be compartmentalized or contained within one sphere or discipline; it’s the conversation and connections between these spheres that produce the most useful knowledge. Also fundamental is the residential component. Though the practice of living and learning together on a small campus stands to look very different on the other side of the pandemic, the aspect of regarding campus – be it virtual or actual – as a home, with all the intimacy that that entails, is a central feature of the liberal arts experience.

Steve and I believe that so much in the liberal arts approach has the promise to generate innovation that can solve the world’s urgent problems. With its emphasis on collaboration and creative problem-solving across a wide spectrum of disciplines, the liberal arts approach is well set up to provide students with the skills that are essential for today’s global workforce and for a post-pandemic world.

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