On Thursday, March 19, Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill appeared on the radio show “The Diane Rehm Show” for a segment entitled “Worries About the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges.” The show discussed the implications of the recent closure of Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in Virginia. Sweet Briar’s $84 million endowment was not enough to keep the college in business with declining enrollment. Other guests on the show included Richard Ekman, President of the Council of Independent Colleges; Victor Ferrall, President emeritus of Beloit College and author of “Liberal Arts at the Brink”; and Jeffery Selingo, contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, contributor to The Washington Post and author of “College Unbound: the Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students.”
While Sweet Briar College ended up closing down earlier in March due to low enrollment, the guests all agreed that this was a unique case. Sweet Briar’s low enrollment can be attributed to its restricted endowment, rural location and single-sex commitment. Hill noted that Vassar enrollments are as high as ever and that there is still a high demand for liberal arts. However, other guests argued that while top end schools like Vassar can maintain a liberal arts education, lower tier schools facing financial pressures have had to become more career oriented.
Hill, along with other guests, agreed that the pressures put on higher education are a result of income inequality in America. Many of the financial stresses put on colleges come from the discounting process in tuition. According to Ekman, discounting tuition first started in the 1970s, when in an effort to attract students from low-income and first generation families, colleges needed to award more financial aid.
After the show, Hill elaborated on the role of income inequality in higher education: “Income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing since the 70s, and inter-generational income mobility has been declining. This is creating a variety of challenges for higher education. Low and middle income families haven’t done very well over the last few decades, and that makes affording access to higher education difficult. And getting a higher education is more important than ever. At the same time, high income families have done very well, and they are willing and able to pay for an expensive education. I’ve done some work that shows that the increased income inequality has pushed up costs, tuition, and financial aid needs. That is challenging for colleges and universities, as well as families.”
However, many believe that a liberal arts education is worth fighting for. In an Inside Higher Ed article entitled “Shocking Decision at Sweet Briar,” Hill expressed her disappointment with Sweet Briar’s decision: “The economics are challenging, but I wish they could have figured out a way to make them work. Perhaps this involved too big a change in the way they have done things historically, and they couldn’t see their way forward. But closing works exactly against what we need to be doing in America. I wish they had experimented and innovated to address the challenges, demonstrating to others how to productively make education available at lower cost.”
Dean of the College Christopher Roellke also commented, “While I acknowledge the challenges that small liberal arts colleges are facing, I would argue that the kind of education Vassar and many of our strongest peers provide is critically important to preserve and enhance as we prepare the next generation of leaders for an increasingly interdependent and complex world.”
Financial challenges also bring up debates about the value of a liberal arts degree in comparison to a vocational degree. Guests on the show were asked which they think an employer would prefer. Ekman asserted, “If you ask CEOs at major companies they will say they want employees with skills that correspond directly to what liberal arts teach. The difficulty however is that the hiring doesn’t get done by the CEO, it gets done by people in an HR office who are looking for a correlation between the things a person studied in college and the exact duties of the job of the new employee.” Cappy echoed these statements, emphasizing that vocational degrees may become obsolete in the future, but that certain aspects of a liberal arts education make graduates much more capable in their future endeavors.
Vassar Student Association President Carolina Gustafson ’15 weighed in on this topic as well, drawing attention to the stigma against graduates of liberal arts institutions pursuing a “vocational career.” “I do not necessarily believe that Vassar should move to the model of hosting undergraduate programs in more traditionally vocational fields, as I believe that there is a unique role that liberal arts colleges play in exposing students to a wide variety of subjects,” she commented. “I do believe however that a shift in the semi-elitist mindset on campus that vocational work is beneath those educated at Vassar would be tremendously beneficial for both Vassar students and for the careers traditionally viewed as vocational…”
She continued, “Many graduate schools of nursing are increasingly opening programs to specifically enroll students with non-nursing undergraduate degrees, recognizing that creating a workforce with a more diverse set of backgrounds can tremendously benefit the field of nursing as a whole. I think Vassar is increasingly moving towards the trend of acknowledging the benefits of exposing liberal arts students to fields traditionally seen as vocational…”