Saving the Liberal Arts, part I

The Associated Press recently ran a very good article about liberal arts colleges that featured my very own workspace, Adrian College. It discusses the challenges of liberal arts colleges in an age when most students (and their parents) want pre-professional training, and how schools like mine are adapting in order to survive.

[T]oday’s increasingly career-focused students mostly aren’t buying the idea that a liberal arts education is good value, and many small liberal arts colleges are struggling. The survivors are shedding their liberal arts identity, if not the label. A study published earlier this year found that of 212 such institutions identified in 1990, only 130 still meet the criteria of a “true liberal arts college.” Most that fell off the list remained in business, but had shifted toward a pre-professional curriculum.

That’s us in a nutshell. Our business and teacher ed majors have long been among of our largest, but we’ve added new programs such as athletic training, are giving more emphasis to programs like exercise science and criminal justice, and our social work program was restructured so it could achieve national certification. We have also added/are adding Master’s level degrees in athletic training, criminal justice, accounting, and something in chemistry that has an industrial focus, if I understand correctly. And biology and chemistry have been looked kindly upon by our current administration because it tends to see them primarily through a pre-med frame. This kind of leaves us political science, history, philosophy type folks out in the cold, or at least in the anteroom. I find it frustrating, but my preferences aren’t those of prospective students, and satisfying their preferences is infinitely more important to the institution’s long-term survival than satisfying mine.

And institutional survival is not a given. Our college was in a state of declining enrollment year over year, and its long-term survival was in doubt. I have colleagues who adamantly deny that there was any risk of closure, but the ugly facts are that almost every year some colleges close shop or merge. As well as the increasing difficulty of selling the liberal arts ideal to prospective students, the article points out that there’s a geographic problem for some schools as well.

Many liberal arts colleges are clustered in the Northeast and Midwest, in towns like Adrian, founded by optimistic 18th- and 19th-century settlers who started colleges practically as soon as they arrived. But where the country is growing now is the South and West, where the private college tradition isn’t as deep.

So, a small non-distinct liberal arts college in a small declining industrial town in the Midwestern economic-zombie state of Michigan? Heh, for us sanguinity is stupidity.

The difficulty of selling students on the liberal arts ideal is hard for us, because we’re the type of folks who did buy into it.  We were an  easy sell, so how hard can it be?  But no matter how much we liberal arts folks dislike and don’t understand it, the declining saleability of the liberal arts is our unavoidable reality. I’ve had colleagues say, “we just need to figure out how to sell the liberal arts ideal better.”  But “we just need to figure out how to do something that none of us has ever before figured out how to do” is not a plan.  I’ve yet to hear any of them say, “Here’s how we sell the liberal arts ideal better,” and as far as I can tell none of them have taken the Apollo 13 there-ain’t-any-other-option approach and buckled down to looking at what we actually have available and figuring out to fit those pieces together in a way that achieves our goal. While they’re hoping for a miracle to keep out spaceship college from crashing, somebody else needs to be taking concrete action to save it.

And that’s what our current president did, even if we don’t like how he’s gone about it. Pre-professional programs aren’t the only tactic he’s used. He also borrowed large–perhaps even frightening–amounts of money to invest in facilities to give the place better curb appeal to prospective students. And he increased our number of sports teams, since each new team brings in students who otherwise would probably have gone elsewhere. Our ice arena, for example, has resulted in 7 teams–four men’s hockey teams (NCAA Division III, American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division I, and 2 ACHA Division III teams), 2 women’s hockey teams (NCAA Division III and ACHA), and women’s synchronized skating. That’s 130 or so students, which for proper context needs to be compared to our pre-turnaround enrollment of ~840.

But we also have to give them the type of education they want, and lots of them–athletes and non-athletes both–want a pre-professional focus. For example, a good number of our Canadian hockey players are interested in geology because a knowledge of petrology can be useful in the Canadian petrochemical industry.

My department (political science) has adapted to this…to some extent. We realized that we weren’t doing a good job of preparing students for the transition once they left here, so we created our Career Seminar course, in which they learn to write a resume, develop their interviewing skills, hear from people in relevant careers (the State Department rep we bring in has, in particular, had a great impact on our students), and learn some of the prospects for and realities of grad/law school.  We also require each student to do an internship or the equivalent.  In my Research Methods class I emphasize not only the value of methods to developing real knowledge, but also the practicality of them for career purposes outside academia, and even outside politics, such as doing market research. And because my Environmental Politics class also counts for the Environmental Studies and Environmental Sciences majors, I am planning to change its structure for next year to give more focus to understanding the details of major environmental laws, which is more valuable to people who may end up dealing with those laws as part of their careers.  I have even considered adding a course in public administration, which is very much a pre-professional course (I’ve not acted on that due to logistical problems

I am very comfortable with those adjustments to pre-professional education. I think they add net value for my students.  And I haven’t abandoned a more traditional liberal arts approach. If anything, I think I’m doing a better job with the liberal arts now than I used to. However these adaptations may be as far as I can comfortably go–I don’t like the prospect of abandoning non-career related courses for pre-professional ones. For example, I think it would be a near tragedy if my colleague had to drop his courses on Democratization and on Democratic Theory and replace them with, say, Budgeting.

But for colleges like mine, the dream of being a true liberal arts college is over, and we liberal arts profs need to accept that. We need to target our efforts at working effectively within the world as it is, not as we wish it was. And independently of anything our colleges do, we need to think about this on our own, as departments, because in addition to the closure and merging of colleges, there is also the more immediate danger of the elimination of departments, even–horror of horrors–political science.

Specifically, we need to figure out how to effectively incorporate pre-professional considerations into our liberal arts ideals. But we also need to figure out how to incorporate our liberal arts ideals into an increasingly pre-professional approach to education. In other words, for liberal arts departments to survive, they’re going to have to figure out how to synthesize the two concepts. How to do that is the subject of my next post.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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4 Responses to Saving the Liberal Arts, part I

  1. Murali says:

    While they are closing liberal arts collegs in the US, they are opening one up in Singapore. Yale is opening one in conjunction with NUS (which is where I’m at).

    AFAIK pol science, philosophy and history grads in singapore have career options in the civil service. For example, for some reason, the ministry of foreign affairs likes philosophy graduates. Not to mention that we have a good public policy grad course going on that wuld take in people from philosophy, pol science, history and economics.

    I do know that a number of universities offer Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a cross disciplinary course. It seems to embody both a liberal arts ideal and seems to prepare a good grounding for work in think tanks which are more common in the US than in Singapore

  2. Matty says:

    The idea of liberal arts sounds great to me, don’t know of anything equivalent in the British system. My first degree was biology and only biology. I think it may have been possible to do a dual course but certainly the idea of getting a broad education at university wasn’t about. By that stage we were expected to have learnt the basics in school and decided what to specialise in.

  3. jwk1101 says:

    Matty, surely Oxbridge still has plenty of liberal arts opportunities?

  4. Matty says:

    Tricky to say, I can only find one course listed as liberal arts at an Oxford College http://www.stclares.ac.uk/liberalarts/academic_staff.php. On the other hand both universities are still very active in Classics, which seems very similar with its mix of history, philosophy and language.

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