THE BLOG

Save the Small Liberal-arts College

04/06/2015 11:09 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

"Sweet Briar's planned orderly retreat starts to look more like a mad dash for the door.''

- Travis LaCouter, in "Sweet Briar Fails to Keep Up,'' March 13 Philanthropy Daily

That fiscally anxious Sweet Briar College, in rural Virginia, will close demonstrates the challenges facing liberal (in the nonpolitical sense) higher education in our harsher, more competitive times.

Of course, every college has different strengths and challenges (thus avoid the promiscuously misleading U.S. News & World Report rankings); colleges can't be compared with precision.

Sweet Briar, founded in 1901, is a women's institution that has an outdated reputation as a finishing school for affluent young ladies who like horses. For many years it has strenuously sought out applicants from many backgrounds to benefit from the highly regarded, small-class teaching on its bucolic campus.

But it has found it increasingly difficult to compete with co-ed, larger, richer and mostly urban or suburban schools in general, let alone the eight Ivy League colleges, MIT, Stanford, Duke, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and perhaps a dozen other "brand-name'' establishments, public (to wit, the very prestigious University of Virginia) and private. And Sweet Briar's cutting its tuition (thus revenue) to try to stay competitive may have been a mistake.

Even elite schools say they worry about their fiscal futures because of free college courses on the Internet. But they'll be okay: Their national name-dropping appeal will keeping drawing many students, especially from rich and powerful families. On their campuses students will cultivate the relationships that will keep them on top of the self-perpetuating American aristocracy/plutocracy.

Whatever the college, being "liberally educated'' within an academic residential community is a strong foundation for an interesting and productive life. And while courses in, say, history and literature might not initially seem "practical,'' if absorbed they can in fact be very useful -- in developing critical thinking, clarity in expression and in dealing with life's innumerable and often ambiguous issues. A more "vocational'' course might teach you how to write software for social media that might get you a first or second job, but as with all techno courses, its value will swiftly shrink as new technology comes along amidst the corporate drive to maximize profits by laying off more people.

Someone broadly educated in the liberal arts (including what we used to call "general knowledge,'' which seems scarce among too many of us) is well positioned to deal with what life unpredictably throws at us.

Students also benefit from being in a residential community from whose relationships they can draw lifelong career and emotional support.

Many argue that taking free or very cheap courses online offers the same value. Wrong! Actually being in the same room with a teacher and other students is a much richer experience in retention of learning and in developing long-term intellectual and social relationships. (And neurologists have shown that retention of material is considerably greater in reading on paper than on a computer screen.) The social atomization and superficiality associated with living online decays civil society.

None of this is to say that some liberal-arts colleges aren't partly to blame for some of their own woes. They cost too much, in part because they hire far too many overpaid administrators. And too many of them don't demand that graduates demonstrate the sort of general knowledge that citizens of democracy should have.

Further, the silly idea pumped up by politicians and others that "everyone deserves the right to get a college degree'' should be dumped. For plenty of people more vocationally focused post-high-school education is appropriate.

Still, for those with the desire to energetically participate as leaders in our society you can't beat a good liberal-arts education. The decline of the small, intimate colleges that have been exemplars of this education is troubling. Many of those who think that a very specific vocational education will serve them better are likely to find their skills obsolescent in a surprisingly short time after graduation.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a partner at Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), overseer of newenglanddiary.com, a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune.