Imagining The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges

By: Meggan Arp, Marketing Coordinator

In light of Moody’s Investors Service’s ominous forecast that closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple and that mergers will double by 2017, many are questioning the future of small, liberal arts institutions.

A recent article by Kellie Woodhouse in Inside Higher Ed identifies the main struggle for many small colleges (i.e., private colleges with operating revenue below $100 million and public colleges below $200 million) as declining enrollment.

Since small colleges often are tuition dependent, they face financial challenges when enrollment declines or remains flat, which, in turn, adversely impacts colleges’ ability to invest in academic programs, student life and facilities, thus making it difficult to meet the demands of prospective students.  As a result, an increasing number of students are enrolling in larger colleges.

Small colleges need to think creatively about how to adhere to liberal arts values while meeting the ever-changing demands of prospective students so that they do not face a dire fate as predicted by Moody’s report and as endured by Sweet Briar College.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, describes Moody’s predictions as “grossly overstated” because ultimately “these small, private institutions have this unbelievable ability to be imaginative” and “their ability to be proactive is much better than [that of] larger, more cumbersome institutions.”

This ability to be imaginative is the very quality exemplified by the alumnae of Sweet Briar College who rallied to form an organization, Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.,  that raised more than $13 million in cash in just over 120 days after the former President and Board decided to shut Sweet Briar College’s doors.

Alexander Haas enjoyed the distinct privilege of providing fundraising counsel and campaign management to Saving Sweet Briar.  Now, new leadership is distinguishing Sweet Briar College in imaginative ways, e.g., such as offering Explore Engineering events for high school students.

Sweet Briar will need to continue to distinguish itself in imaginative ways as other small colleges have accomplished in order to flourish for years to come.

For example, Mary Baldwin College, a small women’s school in Virginia, has focused on developing nontraditional programs and specific areas of study, leading to strong enrollment.  Mary Baldwin joined with Augusta Health Hospital to open a health sciences school and a new undergraduate nursing program.  Developing such clear niches that help attract students generates revenue growth according to Moody’s report.

I have full confidence that Sweet Briar College and other small, liberal arts institutions will thrive for years to come if their leaders “think, create, calculate, communicate, collaborate and solve hard problems,” among other hallmarks of a liberal arts education.