Hill defends liberal arts in wake of Sweet Briar closing

President Catharine Hill recently discussed the future of liberal arts education on “The Diane Rehm Show,” asserting that although some think otherwise, liberal arts offers benefits other schools do not. Photo By: Office of the President
President Catharine Hill recently discussed the future of liberal arts education on “The Diane Rehm Show,” asserting that although some think otherwise, liberal arts offers benefits other schools do not. Photo By: Office of the President
President Catharine Hill recently discussed the future of liberal arts education on “The Diane Rehm Show,” asserting that although some think otherwise, liberal arts offers benefits other schools do not. Photo By: Office of the President

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…”

One Comment

  1. Dear Ms. Hoffman,

    thank you for covering the importance of liberal arts and single-sex education. Please do note that Sweet Briar has not yet closed and whether it closes is still an open question as indicated by the lawsuit filed by Amherst County on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the tens of thousands of alums behind the http://www.savingsweetbriar.com movement who beg to differ with the Board’s conclusions on our beloved college’s viability and future.

    The Sweet Briar College Board of Directors blindsided its stakeholders – its alumnae, their spouses, families, all with an intense, passionate interest in the prosperity of their college – with their abrupt announcement of our beloved Sweet Briar’s closing. This is a premature decision we are fiercely fighting and intend to reverse. President Jo Ellen Parker left in August of 2014 with a press statement saying Sweet Briar is in great hands and has a bright future (http://sbc.edu/news/uncategorized/letter-community-jo-ellen-parker/). We believe her exact words were that Sweet Briar is poised to “flourish.” That statement is just 6 months before the Sweet Briar college Board decided they need to close the college. What happened in just 6 months? Or was something happening long before then which the Board and President deliberately chose to not communicate to its stakeholders?

    For years, dedicated alumnae who make meaningful contributions annually, heard in closed door meetings how great the college is; how record amounts are being fundraised; and that we should pat ourselves on the back for being so supportive. I know because I sat in those meetings, and heard such praise first hand, sitting only but a table away from the podium from which President Jo Ellen Parker was speaking. While perhaps a hint about “today there are changes in education” was dropped here or there, nobody said the house was on fire. No one even said the house “may” catch fire! While the Board argues that had they said such things, students would flee and it would have only accelerated any decline, colleges and universities governed by Boards and Presidents with vision and strength, frequently embark on fund raising campaigns years ahead of time to raise funds their institutions need. Why did the Sweet Briar Board of Directors and President, not engage in a focused campaign?

    The Board also stated on an alumnae call that “they turned over every stone.” That “admissions are significantly down” because “when you are 30 minutes away from a Starbucks” young people don’t want to be near you.

    Sweet Briar did not have a Director of Admissions for 2+ years. Is it a coincidence that enrollment dropped? The question must be asked: Why didn’t President Jo Ellen Parker hire a new Director of Admissions? And why did the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors allow that? Or, Board, please answer to your alumnae, do you need to concede you were asleep at the switch? Moreover, one cannot know what connections and resources thousands of passionate alumnae have and can bring to the table, if someone just asked for help because of a significant need. As Anne Wilson Schaef is noted for saying “Asking for help does not mean that we are weak or incompetent. It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence.”

    Tens of thousands of alumnae, their spouses, their families, their personal and professional networks, can help, could have helped, and are now stepping in to clean up and to help. As dedicated, committed alumnae, we shall step in and act because the Board of Directors, our previous President Jo Ellen Parker, and our current Interim President James F. Jones who came full of controversy from his Trinity College past, all failed us in Governance, Leadership, and Creativity. Its alumnae with a vision for a future will correct that. We ask everyone with an interest to join us at http://www.savingsweetbriar.com; #SaveSweetBriar or contact us behind the scenes through our website, if confidence and discretion is requested.

    One simply does not shut down a college with 3,250 acres and 25+ buildings, many of them historic. We will investigate until truly all stones have been unturned to ensure there are no ulterior motives in play. Such as, for example, a large hotel developer seeking to turn our esteemed women’s institution of higher learning into a resort; or an esteemed public personality in Government who would love to, after closing, come in and “Save the day” and “Save the jobs” in the community by turning it into The “[Name of Person] International Center for this or that purpose” etc. Even if that was the possible intent, with 3,250 acres, there is enough room for Sweet Briar College to lease part of its land for such a purpose and for such “resort” or “esteemed international center” to gain from the stellar academia and bright minds that would surround it in such a bucolic setting nestled amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

    For anyone that believes women’s higher education is on the decline, I refer you to a most excellent opinion piece by Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University which she penned this March 10, 2015. You can see her piece here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patricia-mcguire/. For another excellent piece by another college President on the matter, we also refer you to President Michael A. Miller of Northland College and his opinion as to why liberal education at small colleges can not only exist, but truly thrive, even when a Starbucks is not nearby: http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/3696310-college-presidents-view-reinventing-liberal-arts-business-model-—-sans-starbucks.

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