Easton, Pa.—On Monday morning, a group of accepted applicants heard Daniel H. Weiss, president of Lafayette College, describe the virtues of residential liberal-arts institutions. He spoke of his college’s commitment to teaching, of its power to prepare students for both work and life.
Hours later, in the same auditorium, dozens of college presidents and provosts heard Mr. Weiss deliver a sobering talk about the challenges facing institutions like Lafayette. “We are surrounded by changes whether we embrace them or not,” he said. “The market is happening to us.”
Mr. Weiss’s remarks came during a wide-ranging speech that opened a three-day conference—called “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World"—sponsored by Lafayette and Swarthmore Colleges. The conference, which has attracted institutional leaders from across the nation, was billed as an opportunity to discuss the sustainability and evolution of the very colleges that are often described as the dinosaurs of higher education, ambling into extinction.
These days, more students and parents, as well as pundits and politicians, are questioning the value of a college degree. In this environment, Mr. Weiss said, the leaders of liberal-arts colleges must do a better job of describing their sector’s strengths and distinctiveness. “We often find ourselves on the defensive,” he said. “We want to reclaim a space where we can articulate what our values are.”
Mr. Weiss identified four major themes that will greatly affect liberal-arts colleges in the years to come. The first is affordability, the issue for more and more families drifting through an uncertain economy.
In recent years, many colleges have drastically increased their spending on financial aid, which Mr. Weiss described as laudable but fiscally unsustainable. Over the last 25 years, the discount rate at Lafayette has more than doubled. “When,” Mr. Weiss asked, “does the discount rate become unsustainable?”
Other challenges transcend finances. A wave of public skepticism about higher education, Mr. Weiss suggested, threatens all types of colleges. Reports of athletics scandals, student debt, and unsatisfactory outcomes all can further the perception that postsecondary institutions are failing: “There’s all kinds of attention in the media about what higher education is getting wrong. ... [This] erodes trust and makes it very difficult for us to do the hard work that we do.”
Another challenge: shifting demographics. Within 10 years, nonwhite children will make up more than half of all children in the United States, rising to 62 percent by midcentury, according to projections Mr. Weiss cited. More and more students will grow up in regions other than those where most of the nation’s liberal-arts colleges are located.
“The challenge for us is not that diversity is not a great thing—it’s a great thing,” Mr. Weiss said. “Our challenge is that for many liberal-arts colleges ... the decrease in enrollments in traditional areas of strength requires us to develop our story and a new way of reaching out.”
And then there’s technology. In short, tomorrow’s students will be plugged in like no creatures on earth have ever been. “If we’re not figuring out a way to tie into that, we’re going to lose them,” Mr. Weiss said.
On the heels of those warnings, Eugene M. Tobin offered some practical advice: start working together.
Mr. Tobin, a program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a former president of Hamilton College, said that liberal-arts colleges tend to suffer from a “remarkable degree of self-absorption.” Collaboration among liberal-arts colleges, he said, must become commonplace to meet various challenges, including faculty development, globalization, civic engagement, and staffing less commonly taught languages.
There are also plenty of opportunities, he suggested, for liberal-arts colleges to collaborate with research universities. Collaboration, he said, “is the most under-utilized resource in the liberal-arts college toolkit.”
Mr. Tobin also reminded the audience of one relevant fact: For as long as liberal-arts colleges have existed, people have been predicting their imminent demise. “No segment of American higher education has had more epitaphs written about it than this sector,” he said.