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‘Wither’ the Liberal Arts College?

• September 27, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Writer and Oberlin English professor Anne Trubek quizzes Victor E. Ferrall Jr., author of “Liberal Arts on the Brink,” about the glum future of the American liberal arts college.

In Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor E. Ferrall Jr., former president of Beloit College, bluntly and convincingly argues that liberal arts colleges, from famous leafy schools like Swarthmore and Bowdoin to lesser-known regional schools like Bethel and Hiram, are in trouble. The increasing career orientation of students entering higher education has led many of these schools to add vocational majors such as nursing, education and leisure studies, watering down their historic missions. While listed tuitions remain high, in part to ensure prestige, colleges compete for the few top students, discounting tuition for them so drastically that the institutions lose money.

Ferrall, who was a senior partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm before becoming Beloit’s president, where he is now president emeritus, believes in the core values of a liberal education and urges America’s 225 liberal arts colleges to band together to ensure their collective survival. He advocates for creating tuition consortia, curricular collaborations and cost-sharing measures.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Victor E. Ferrall Jr.

As a professor at a liberal arts college dismayed by higher education’s increasing cost and its increasing silence in public debates, I was eager to read Ferrall’s book. While Liberal Arts on the Brink has been discussed at institutions, such as the Wilson Center, and lauded by business leaders, the book has yet to generate much response within the very communities Ferrall writes about. By ignoring Ferrall’s warnings, are liberal arts colleges proving his point that they are “at the brink”?

Anne Trubek: You cite a statistic that in 2000, fewer than 100,000 students, or less than 0.6 percent of all U.S. higher education enrollees, graduated from liberal arts colleges. That really surprised me. I would have guessed the number to be much higher, closer to 15 percent.

Victor E. Ferrall Jr.: That’s because so many well-known leaders and public figures graduate from liberal arts colleges. For some reason — whether it is the sharing, the intimacy, the intensity or the course — liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionate number of leaders in all areas, not just in academia, but also in business, entrepreneurship, the arts, and elsewhere. A liberal arts education makes individuals inquiring, less self-certain, and more concerned citizens.

But it is hard to be quantitative about the liberal arts. I looked at 225 schools in four tiers. The colleges most of us think of as liberal arts colleges are in Tiers I and 11. But when you get down to the bottom of the list, at the Tier III and IV liberal arts colleges, some offer so many vocational majors, like criminal justice or business administration, that it is hard to know how to count their graduates. Students who major in liberal arts subjects are becoming fewer and fewer. Fifty-one of the 225 colleges had more than 50 percent vocational majors. Do we count those as those liberal arts colleges?

AT: You argue that demand for liberal arts degrees is going down, and that’s a key issue these colleges must confront. But you believe in their mission, that “the pubic interest is far better served by maximizing the number of young people who receive a quality liberal arts education” and that “this requires that the viability of as many colleges as possible be maintained.” Your solution is collaboration and cooperation.

You and I both attended Oberlin College, and I returned there 15 years ago as a faculty member. You, after a long career in law, became president of Beloit College. You say that every liberal arts college believes it is “unique and special, and that its special-ness matters.” I agree. At Oberlin, our sense of specialness can sometimes veer into smugness, as if no other college comes close to us. You argue this “special” attitude prevents liberal arts colleges from collaborating with each other and becoming a unified group advocating for the liberal arts.

I have a hard time seeing Oberlin’s faculty and alumni getting behind this because it would threaten that specialness — or “brand” — of Oberlin.

VF: Oberlin isn’t unique. It’s unique in the sense that chocolate cake is unique from vanilla cake, but both are cakes. Each college’s uniqueness is marginal: it’s the frosting, and yet the frosting is what the schools focus on.

Collaborations are about cost savings. That’s good. It’s clear to me that there’s going to be more and more Internet collaboration. But if you use the word “collaboration,” faculty starts thinking about sharing classes and everyone gets edgy.

The No. 1 problem facing liberal arts colleges is demand. An increasing number of people don’t think they are valuable. In the past, people never really thought, “What I want is liberal arts education.” They thought, “I want a degree from Williams or Swarthmore.” Now that more people see college as an investment, asking what they can get out of it, they are choosing vocational majors. Everyone else is telling them they should — even [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan is telling us we need a “better-trained workforce.”

Colleges need to band together to share with the public that a liberal education is a good thing. You can’t do that by just talking to nervous 17-year-olds and their parents. I advocate a collaborative education campaign. Colleges hate the idea of lobbying, but they need to share with the nation that liberal arts education is a good and useful thing.

If we don’t do that, it’s not going to be that far in the future when the liberal arts become just a nice thing, like women’s colleges were seen as being 30 years ago — a place to drink wine and chat. People will always want to go to Amherst because that’s where bright people are going — but only as preparation for professional schools. And a little ways down the list it’s not so clear. We’ll be left with a really small group of liberal arts colleges.

AT: At Oberlin we extol the percentage of our graduates who go on to get Ph.D.s and encourage our students to do the same. Given how few jobs there are for Ph.D.s, I wonder if this isn’t an act of bad faith (and I do not encourage my students to go to graduate school). But if I don’t then teach vocational courses, what am I preparing my students for? What’s the purpose?

VF: You’re right. Are you really doing the right thing when you urge your students to go into English literature? Faculty shouldn’t encourage students going to graduate school. That’s treating liberal arts education as vocational education, and that’s not the value of it. The value of it is to study something that you might not actually do later. Faculty should just teach and not worry about preparing their students for anything.

I had a lot of criticism for suggesting a liberal arts education is useless. But uselessness is a good thing. I don’t mean useless in sense that it doesn’t advantage you. I mean studying something you don’t have to so you are focused on the act of learning instead of what you are learning it for. That’s huge. That’s the most important reason why people who have a liberal arts education do well.

AT: Like what Immanuel Kant says about art, that it is being “purposive without a purpose”.

VF: Exactly.

I’m not against vocational education; I’m suspicious of how good it is. I know for a certainty that one does not learn how to be a lawyer in law school. Do you learn how to be a parks and recreation person by taking parks and recreation courses? It is better to work at place as an unpaid volunteer even if you make nothing. You’ll still be better off than if you paid tuition. The problem is everyone says, “But you need the credential to get in the door.” Credentials are getting more important as the number of people looking for jobs is getting larger.

AT: You discuss the complicated topic of discounting very persuasively. As you put it, colleges sell their services to the lowest bidders, effectively “purchasing” students and then selling them back an education. Colleges tell prospective students, “We sell liberal arts education services for $40,000, but we provide discounts (financial aid) of up to 100 percent, that is $40,000.” [They] could just as well say, “We purchase students and will pay up to $40,000 for a high-quality applicant.”

The fact that few students actually pay the sticker price of liberal arts colleges is something more parents and prospective students need to better understand. I am always explaining to my friends that it probably will not cost them $50,000 per year to send their kids to Oberlin. Many attend for, say, $10,000 a year or for free. They don’t believe me. And I have a hard time making the case clear to them. Discounting is really confusing.

VF: It is easy to find a parent and tell her, “You don’t actually pay list price. You won’t pay the sticker price tuition.” And she says, “Yes, I know,” and then she sends her kid to an out-of-state university [paying out-of-state tuition]. This school costs more than a liberal arts college would have. But the reason she gives for her decision is because the liberal arts college is too expensive!

I have no explanation for this. It is such an odd disconnect. List prices give the colleges prestige, so they keep them high, and then discount tuition when they admit students. But the problem is people do not believe in the discounting.

AT: Your depiction of liberal arts professors is, um, amusing. You make fun of them — or should I say us — but you say you admire us, too. I suspect when you are off the record, you just tell stories about ridiculous faculty debates and completely out-of-touch tenured professors. Am I right?

VF: No. I love the faculty. Faculty [members] are people in very special circumstances, and they are the product of those circumstances just like coal miners or dentists are the products of their circumstances. It’s silly to expect them to be different from what they are. They are bright and interested — what’s wrong with that? They are an attractive bunch.

But they are different! And they are terribly conservative. The worst thing is that in their calculus for making decisions, timeliness is never part of it.

AT: Some have said liberal arts colleges won’t be around in 50 years. Are they right?

VF: No. There will be some, but not as many. And the lower-tier schools are the ones that will go first. Some are gone already, having been acquired by for-profit institutions, who then display the schools’ pretty campuses on their websites.

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Anne Trubek
Anne Trubek is the author of A Skeptic's Guide To Writers' Houses and is associate professor at Oberlin College. Her website is http://www.annetrubek.com

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