Liberal arts colleges forced to evolve with the market

For today’s increasingly career-focused students, a liberal arts education is a tough sell. So, many small liberal arts colleges such as Adrian in Adrian, Mich., are shifting toward a pre-professional curriculum. Enlargephoto

Adrian College, Matt Gaidica Photography/Associated Press

For today’s increasingly career-focused students, a liberal arts education is a tough sell. So, many small liberal arts colleges such as Adrian in Adrian, Mich., are shifting toward a pre-professional curriculum.

ADRIAN, Mich. – They’re the places you think of when you think of “college” – leafy campuses, small classes, small towns. Liberal arts colleges are where students ponder life’s big questions, and learn to think en route to successful careers and richer lives, if not always to the best-paying first jobs.

But today’s increasingly career-focused students mostly aren’t buying the idea that a liberal arts education is good value, and many small liberal arts colleges are struggling. The survivors are shedding their liberal arts identity, if not the label. A study published earlier this year found that of 212 such institutions identified in 1990, only 130 still meet the criteria of a “true liberal arts college.” Most that fell off the list remained in business, but had shifted toward a pre-professional curriculum.

These distinctively American institutions – educating at most 2 percent of college students but punching far above their weight in accomplished graduates – can’t turn back the clock.

But schools like Adrian College, 75 miles southwest of Detroit and back from a recent near-death experience, offer something of a playbook.

First, get students in the door by offering what they do want, namely sports and extracurricular opportunities that might elude them at bigger schools. Offer vocational subjects such as business, criminal justice and exercise science that students and parents think – rightly or wrongly – will lead to better jobs.

Then, once they’re enrolled, look for other ways to sprinkle the liberal arts magic these colleges still believe in, even if it requires a growing stretch to call yourself a liberal arts college.

“We’re liberal arts-aholics,” said Adrian President Jeffrey Docking, who has added seven sports and two pre-professional degree programs since arriving in 2005 – and nearly doubled enrollment to about 1,750.

But he’s also a realist.

“I say this with regret,” said Docking, an ethicist by training. But “you really take your life into your own hands thinking that a pure liberal arts degree is going to be attractive enough to enough 18-year-olds that you fill your freshman classes.”

In ancient Greece, liberal arts were the subjects that men free from work were at leisure to pursue. Today, the squishy definition still includes subjects that don’t prepare for a particular job (but can be useful for many). English, history, philosophy, and other arts and sciences are the traditional mainstays. But these days, some prefer a more, well, liberal definition that’s more about teaching style than subject matter.

“I refer to it as learning on a human scale,” said William Spellman, a University of North Carolina-Asheville historian who directs a group of 27 public liberal arts colleges. “It’s about small classes, access to faculty, the old tutorial model of being connected with somebody who’s not interested only in their disciplinary area but culture broadly defined.”

Does it work? It’s true that research tying college majors to salaries can make the generic liberal arts degrees look unappealing. But technical training can become obsolete, and students are likely to change careers several times. These schools argue you’re better off, both in life and work, simply learning to think.