Do Small Liberal Arts Colleges Have a Future?
The news is not good for many small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). I’m not talking about the Williamses of the world, or the Swarthmores, or the Amhersts—all of which have endowments of over $2 billion. I mean tuition-driven schools like Bennett College and Hampshire College, both of which face problems with accreditation due to fiscal anemia, among other factors. Already this year, several SLACs in the Northeast have announced closures, including the College of New Rochelle, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph. In one high-profile case, Mount Ida College attempted to merge with UMass, a deal that fell apart. There’s even well-publicized speculation that half of all US colleges—not just SLACs—won’t survive much longer.
It’s worth asking what this trend means for the student population these schools serve, as well as the faculty who commit to them. I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is another tuition-driven private SLAC. Its endowment now stands at $112 million, with a total undergraduate enrollment of about 1,400. It’s (still) one of the most expensive schools in the country, with tuition plus room and board at about $69,000. But the college is considerably more inclusive of students who don’t fit its “rich kid” stereotype than I would have guessed based on my own memories of the place: about 17 percent of students receive Pell Grants, a standard proxy for class status.
At a time when anxiety about the future and student-loan debt (totaling $1.5 trillion nationally) make the value of a liberal arts education harder to articulate, small colleges have tried emphasizing their mission and character in strategic plans and marketing to parents and students. The uniqueness of Bennett (one of two historically black colleges for women) and Hampshire (where students design their course of study in consultation with faculty), however, can’t by itself fight the larger forces at work. Though its finances are more stable, Sarah Lawrence resembles Hampshire in particular, with self-directed inquiry at the heart of its academic structure. Its small seminars require independent studies, called conference projects; each course feels like two rolled into one. For faculty, this means concentrated interaction with a relatively small group of students and a great deal of intellectual nimbleness. For students, it requires self-direction and intellectual self-confidence.
While Sarah Lawrence would have you believe that individual inquiry is a form of liberation, more often, what feels like liberation at such institutions is being part of a specific community. Sarah Lawrence students (and some faculty) tend toward the eccentric and accepting. When I was there, there was a highly visible queer population, which in the early 1990s was rare. The College of New Rochelle was one of a dwindling number of Catholic women’s colleges. Bennett women, like students at other historically black colleges and universities, describe feeling “safe” within their college community, certainly a sense that’s hard to maintain in today’s political climate.
Can small private colleges weather the storm? Projected demographics don’t favor tuition-driven regional colleges, especially in the Northeast, where the population of traditional students is expected to shrink dramatically in the near future. We have supposedly recovered from the great recession, but with wages stagnant and debt on the rise, more middle-class families are skittish about committing money to an education that’s not linked to preparation for a specific career. But when colleges close, communities do, too. I send Bennett and Hampshire sincere hopes.
Allison Miller (Sarah Lawrence Coll. ’95) is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.