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The Evolution of Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal art colleges aren’t exempt from the changing demographics and declining enrollment affecting other higher education institutions. But studies show that a liberal arts education is still valuable—it’s just up to these colleges to communicate why.

The modern learner demographic is changing, and all institutions are having to shift their traditional processes and strategies—including liberal arts colleges. In this interview, Debra Humphreys discusses how liberal arts colleges evolved in recent years, the challenges that still linger and what higher ed leaders need to focus on to provide a more holistic approach to education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has higher education changed over the past few years when it comes to student enrollment and expectations, especially for liberal arts colleges?

Debra Humphreys (DH): The story of shifts in student enrollment across all sectors includes long-term trends—demographics and shifting expectations and concerns—that the pandemic exacerbated. Especially for liberal colleges, traditional populations are declining. Certain regions are taking a bigger hit more than others, and there’s a concentration of liberal arts colleges in those regions. This is a critical concern for these colleges because the demographics are shifting at a high rate.

The other challenge is the drop in student enrollment across the board. No one knows if that will bounce back despite some promising data. This means student enrollment and success needs are changing. Students today are adults facing more challenges and responsibilities. The traditional liberal arts education model is no longer aligned with today’s students’ lives and needs.

The changing racial ethnic demographics are another component. We continue to have huge gaps in both student enrollment and student success rates by both race and income levels. For years now we’ve continued to see a decline in enrollments that is steeper for some students, especially Black students. It’s an issue that all institutions are grappling with. Liberal arts colleges need to look carefully at the ways in which they’re attracting and serving today’s students.

Evo: What are some other challenges liberal arts colleges are facing?

DH: In terms of expectations, there’s an increasing skepticism about a bachelor’s degree—and particularly arts and sciences degrees—despite the strong evidence showing the value and return on investment for BA degrees. There’s no evidence that there’s a diminishing ROI. It’s important for institutions to focus on the ROI, however, because of increasing skepticism. They really must be more focused specifically on employability and professional success. And it’s a challenge, especially for liberal arts colleges who haven’t thought about it in such explicit terms to date.

We know the skills and capabilities a good liberal education provides and the value of those skills in the labor market. But institutions must be explicit with students and employers about those skills and capabilities. They must paint a clear picture of the educational experience they’re offering. It’s no longer reasonable to assume people know of the pathways from college to career. They need help from advisors and faculty to understand the pathways.

The other challenges are alignment with employment, retooling the educational experience to match today’s learners and reexamining the business model. It’s all about employability and student experience, then reflecting that within business models.

Evo: Is it fair to say there’s a need to refresh higher education’s messaging?

DH: Absolutely. We’re seeing a communication problem, but bigger more than that, we’re seeing a problem with the actual education model. We must rethink how we provide academic and career advising to students. How do we integrate their work into the curriculum in a more concrete way? We must be creative about the next generation of work-integrated learning.

Evo: Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on quality and equity when it comes to transforming their institution?

DH: We run the risk of reducing quality in our pursuit of efficiency, particularly for students we haven’t traditionally served well. It would be tragic to not think about these reforms and retool our programs to better serve them. With every decision we make, we must ensure we’re enabling our students to have quality, affordable educational experiences. 

Quality and equity are the two issues higher ed leaders must address when developing new approaches. For the sector in general, we have to stay true to what makes a quality learning experience. Then we have to look at the opportunities students have once they graduate from these learning experiences. All of this still has to be looked at through an equitable lens.

We need to get better at measuring the quality of credentials and see who’s benefitting from them. Liberal arts colleges have an advantage here because evidence shows that a well-designed curriculum filled with experiential learning opportunities and mentoring works well for student success and for employment preparation.

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit leaders can explore when it comes to delivering more equitable, high-quality programs and experiences?

DH: Over the past couple of years, we’ve learned what we can do with online learning to engage students more efficiently in those environments. It’s a low-hanging opportunity. We take what we learned and invent the next generation, which I believe is more likely to occur in hybrid environments. Many institutions are well positioned to start implementing those options at scale.

We have a lot of research on what effectively engages students. It’s about engagement, mentorship and relationships with faculty and peers. Learning practices must be integrative and engaging. As we learn more about student needs and mental health challenges, how do we review our model to adapt to meet those needs as well? 

We don’t have all the solutions, but we do have a better understanding of who our students are and what they need. With that understanding in mind, higher ed leaders can then look at what they’re good at and see how they can build upon it.

Evo: What are some trends you expect to see among liberal arts colleges over the next five years?

DH: There’s a glass half-full and a glass half-empty answer to that. The demographic and business model challenges are real and will be acute for some, leading to closures or mergers. Leaders who are thinking about the broad question of who they currently serve and who they can be better serving will be the ones to reinvent themselves in exciting ways.

Nearly 40 million Americans have some college credit but no credential—that’s a huge market. Bringing these students back won’t be easy, since many of them likely left due to a bad experience. But building on-ramps can be done. We can’t be locked into one model, and we need to build more and better on-  and off-ramps to quality programs—even if they are smaller, more modular programs. So, liberal arts colleges really must rethink how they will evolve their model.

There’s no reason evolution can’t continue. Evidence suggests jobs of the future will prioritize people with human skills who are adept at doing things machines don’t do well—things like understanding, empathy, contextualizing and problem-solving. That’s what a liberal education does best and, if it can do that for more of today’s students, it will continue to have great value to both students and our society. We must first figure out more flexible paths from quality educational experiences to credentials that prepare students for today’s and tomorrow’s workplace, then help students get on those pathways and get to the finish line. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Debra wrote a chapter on this topic, along with Mary Dana Hinton from Hollins University, in the book New Models of Higher Education. To learn more, click here.