The Purge of Higher Education

What do we lose when small colleges close?
By Eva-Maria Swidler

A cluster of old desks with layers of dust and debris.

We’ve all read about the shrinking number of traditional-age college students, about the reluctance of students to take on ever-increasing levels of educational debt in uncertain economic times, and about what the practical, career-oriented goals of students mean for enrollment in liberal arts majors, especially in the humanities. We’ve probably also read about the threats to the academy from for-profit companies, which often offer easy access through online degree programs. We might have read about the drop in returning adult students following the Great Recession. But among the almost endless predictions about closures, mergers, restructurings, and bubble collapses, a few key questions are less frequently asked: What kinds of colleges and what kinds of education are most at risk in today’s turmoil, and why? And what might the new landscape of higher education look like when the decimation is done?

The litany of small colleges that have closed in just the last three years is chilling: Burlington, Green Mountain, Mount Ida, and New Rochelle Colleges are among those that have closed in the Northeast alone. State college systems in Alabama, Georgia, Vermont, and Wisconsin have shuttered or merged smaller campuses; other systems, including the Pennsylvania State system, are threatening to do so. Hampshire and Goddard Colleges teeter on the brink, searching for “partners” and rallying their alumni, while Marlboro seems set to be absorbed into Emerson College. Antioch and Sweet Briar are hanging on, but only barely.

The proportion of students who are liberal arts majors is falling, so it is no surprise that colleges focused on the liberal arts are under immense pressure. Simultaneously, small colleges are in a situation that might be described as a higher education version of the admonition to “get big or get out.” Finally, some colleges that are respected but not prestigious are discovering that storied histories and good reputations aren’t enough to keep them viable. All these trends are forcing a growing number of liberal arts colleges to close. But why? Why are so many institutions going under now, at a time when the drumbeat in favor of virtually universal college education is increasing?

Let’s briefly look at three pieces of common wisdom. The most frequently offered explanation for the panic in higher education is that there just aren’t enough students to go around. Numbers of high school graduates are falling, especially in some areas of the country; public skepticism is growing about taking on the high levels of student debt that are often required; and fewer adult students have been returning to college since the recession ended. All of these observations are true enough, but they don’t explain why nonelite liberal arts colleges should be the ones to bear the brunt of the damage. Another familiar explanation for the struggles of liberal arts colleges is the preoccupation of students and parents alike with marketable job skills. Although the beating that teachers have taken in the press has notably reduced the number of education majors, other degree programs that yield certifications and easy job eligibility are doing well, as are at least some of the STEM majors that the public has been assured will be in demand by employers, although those graduates don’t do particularly better than anyone else in the long term. In a society with little confidence in the job market, the liberal arts are facing tough times.

The politics of funding is a third frequently cited issue. State allocations for public colleges and universities have been shrinking for decades. Posing a newer threat are the performance-based funding systems now operating in a majority of states. These funding systems, which mirror No Child Left Behind in penalizing colleges for poor outcomes, bring to mind the analogy of awarding the first-round draft pick to the best rather than the worst team. They reward only perceived efficiency, defined as money spent per degree produced or perhaps, as in the case of the Delaware Cost Study, as direct instructional cost per credit hour.

Less examined are the economic difficulties of being a small college today. Institutions without extravagant resources are pitted against marketing juggernauts, and colleges with small endowments are scrambling to compete with those that have large and well-invested endowments that grow every year and can underwrite new buildings and amenities. Student recruitment costs a lot of money, and it functions like an arms race: when rich schools increase marketing spending, less wealthy institutions are forced to follow suit—but they are unable to play the game nearly as well.

Beyond the narrow economics of enrollment lies another set of pivotal issues. Educational commentators have noted that highly selective colleges and universities are swimming in applications, often as a result of energetic marketing and the aggressive solicitation of applications in an effort to minimize acceptance rates and thereby secure high rankings in national listings. But elite college enrollment also benefits from larger social forces. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out in their best-selling book The Spirit Level, when a society polarizes economically, status-seeking looms larger among citizens of every social level as people scramble to secure and assert their place in an increasingly pitiless hierarchy. Predictably, interest today in the Ivy League universities booms, while worthy state universities or small liberal arts colleges without high name recognition are pushed to the side.

Simultaneously, elite institutions are increasing their wealth in what Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, has called higher education’s gilded age. Colleges and universities are beginning to divide into two groups: those with increasing prestige and growing endowments and those that struggle and sink. Higher education’s polarization of resources mirrors, or might in fact be ahead of, the widening inequality in society at large. As small colleges, both private and public, struggle to recruit students, eliminate majors, and cut programs, we see “an increasing concentration of wealth and prestige among a small group of elite institutions and a growing disparity between those colleges and the rest of American higher education,” Rosenberg says. In short, the middle class of American colleges is disappearing just as the middle class itself is. Or, as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it in its 2019 Almanac, “The rich get richer while the poor get poorer seems to hold for colleges as well as people.”

Outsiders and Alternatives

Colleges that serve special purposes or are meaningfully experimental are, almost by definition, lower in status than mainstream elite institutions. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are one such category of relative outsiders whose suffering has garnered at least some public attention in recent years. Less discussed is the current predicament of alternative colleges, a group that includes institutions with a focus on alternative content—the environment, for example—as well as those that have adopted alternative pedagogical practices, perhaps a John Dewey–inspired progressive education or an experientially based model. Such colleges have chosen, by and large, to step outside the competitive rankings race. But in an economically anxious era marked by high levels of competition and status sensitivity, college marketing campaigns heavily showcase the very conventional success of their graduates, and students worried about repaying loans and social mobility (or even just getting work) gravitate toward institutions that maximize the chance of admission to increasingly competitive graduate and professional schools or those that appear to guarantee secure social standing upon graduation. In short, status looms large both in colleges’ self-presentation and in students’ application decisions.

Several faculty members I spoke to at experimental or unconventional institutions, including Prescott College, now-defunct Green Mountain College, New College in Florida, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, talked of decreasing student interest over the years in alternative pedagogies. Some students at colleges known for using narrative evaluations rather than grades have begun to request grades, concerned that they need a GPA to get into competitive professional schools. And some students have simply stopped applying to colleges that, in keeping with the changing cultural zeitgeist, are no longer seen primarily as alternative, path-breaking, or bold but rather as eccentric or kooky.

The faculty’s own commitment to alternative pedagogy at these heterodox institutions, too, is affected by larger social and academic trends. Research and publication pressures have become stronger in an academic job market with a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs, and for some professors, time spent teaching has become a chore to be dispatched rather than a core activity. But as education scholar Peter Taubman argued in Teaching by Numbers, the rhetoric of standards and accountability has added a new element. Writing in 2009, Taubman warned, “None of us who teach, regardless of the educational level, are immune to the effects of the transformation taking place. It reaches into the corners of our practices, constricts our daily life in schools, and influences how we think about what we do in our classrooms. It dictates how we spend at least some of our professional time, how our work is evaluated, and how we determine the meaning of our work. Other than working in an independent school or private college or private university, there is currently no way to escape the effects of the transformation.” More than a decade ago, he foresaw today’s death struggle: “Even those institutions of privilege are not immune.”

Accompanying the disappearance of small liberal arts colleges in general, and of colleges distinguished by progressive pedagogy in particular, is a trend toward educational standardization in those institutions that remain. Goddard College was formerly organized around intensive, semester-long tutorial relationships but now is moving toward three-credit “units” and reduced faculty-student ratios. Institutions like Empire State College and the University of California, Santa Cruz, which for decades used narrative assessments instead of grades, have jettisoned that system for conventional transcripts. Pass/fail options have decreased at many colleges and universities, and even highly prestigious institutions like Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have over the years moved away from some policies minimizing the importance of grades. Private and often pricey universities have begun to roll out so-called flipped classrooms or blended-learning models with significant online components and are spinning off online schools. The University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies, for example, which opened more than a century ago to offer working adults access to Ivy League faculty and Penn’s campus resources, went fully online this past year.

What kinds of education are at risk in the face of such forces? Nonvocational and noncommercial education, learning not only for joy or self-improvement but for citizenship and critical thinking. Nonstandardized education, education that does not, cannot, or will not produce generalized “student learning outcomes.” Education that meets students where they are and helps them to grow toward their own goals, that does not bend to their employers’ demands. Intimate, personally meaningful education.

Small liberal arts colleges often pride themselves on their attachment to these embattled values. Many use syllabi or create paths of study that are responsive to student needs and abilities rather than a teacher-determined agenda, focusing on active understanding and intellectual synthesis rather than retention of information, and prizing cultivation of intrinsic motivation rather than pursuit of extrinsic rewards. Colleges based on such progressive pedagogy are overrepresented in the list of institutions that have closed, are closing, or are under threat.

Diminishment of the Faculty

A high faculty-to-student ratio and strong mentoring relationships between faculty members and students are keystones of the kind of education that is currently most endangered, whether in traditional liberal arts institutions or self-identified alternative colleges. Yet faculty compensation, which already represents less than one-third of a typical college’s budget, is seen today as just another expense rather than an investment in the core mission of a college; academics have for decades been pushed to standardize and automate their job functions to reduce labor costs. Fewer and fewer students attend colleges that have a stable faculty with the protections of tenure. More than 70 percent of college instructors are neither tenured nor on the tenure track, and administrators and business consultants openly recommend employing adjuncts as a strategy to reduce labor costs and free up money for other uses.

Face-to-face instruction, too, is at risk. Online education is cheap, profitable, and booming; almost 20 percent of current students are enrolled in predominantly online programs, and for-profit colleges and universities are now largely online. For-profits use some of the savings from low expenditures on faculty for marketing and to generate further profits, while nonprofit colleges and universities often underwrite other programs with the proceeds from their online offerings. Real human encounters, and the personal and open-ended possibilities for learning and transformation that they engender, are endangered.

The erasure of faculty presence is a logical result of the commodification of education, but it might also be the result of a direct attack on college faculties. Disdain for faculty governance abounds. In a 2006 issue paper prepared for the Department of Education, the consultant Robert C. Dickeson, after expressing shock that “colleges are not managed with efficiency as the primary value,” goes on to say, “To understand the management of a college one must understand the unique culture and extraordinary power of the faculty. To many faculty, they are the university. This tenet explains a number of practices that distinguish college management from most other forms of management. Among these practices are: the keen importance of process in undertaking decision-making on campus, a factor that explains the slow-moving pace of change that characterizes most institutions; the assumption that the faculty ‘own’ all curricular decisions, and the concomitant reluctance to challenge that authority when meaningful reform is indicated.” The American Council on Education, in a 2016 report titled Evolving Higher Education Business Models, announced that under the favored new regime, “faculty and staff become empowered to make decisions guided by financial data, with the ability to unbundle and re-bundle program delivery and services in ways that align with their costs in accordance with established network performance indicators. The network approach, in essence, shifts shared governance from an emphasis on institutional dialogue and coherence towards institutional performance based on agreed-upon metrics” (italics added).

Whether hostility to faculty has driven a vision of professorless universities or financial ideas of efficiency have created negative attitudes toward professors, faculty members are coming to be seen as outmoded and expensive, best replaced with “unbundled” deliverers of content. To the dangers facing liberal arts and alternative colleges—accreditors demanding unattainable college finances, a preoccupation with prestige and pursuit of career credentials, “teaching by numbers”— we must add the danger of administrators who not only are actively hostile to faculty governance of the academic life of institutions but also seem hostile to the existence of a faculty at all.

Daniel Greenstein writes in the fall 2019 issue of Daedalus that we may be on a track toward a dramatic bifurcation in the US higher education system, with students at wealthy, selective institutions enjoying personal, face-to-face learning experiences and the rest of the population enrolled in online college programs. The liberal arts are in danger of following a similar polarized pattern, remaining strong at elite colleges while vanishing at working-class institutions; less privileged students may be driven to focus on what they hope are practical courses of study, but they too thirst for more than just vocational education. Aside from the inherent injustice of such a scenario—a scenario I suspect most Americans would find unacceptable in K–12 education—this kind of educational system would increase social inequality.

Great dissatisfaction already exists among students and parents in K–12 education with standardized curricula and testing, with “teaching to the test.” As teachers and students have less and less influence over educational curricula, the dissatisfaction grows. Simultaneously, in recent decades there has emerged what Henry Giroux (following French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman) has called a “disimagination machine,” a set of cultural apparatuses that work to erase any unexpected memories and histories that might give evidence of past dissent and struggle. These erased histories could have shown and reminded us of possibilities and paths not taken, but instead the disimagination machine’s sanitized account of the past undermines critical thinking and amputates the imagination, so that alternatives to today’s state of affairs become unimaginable. The result is an educational version of what cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to as “capitalist realism,” or “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”

Similarly invoking a loss of broader vision in contemporary educational thinking, Peter Taubman has argued that a reliance on numerical data in assessing education results in loss of context, a vulnerability to changing conventions, and, most important, a loss of utopian energies as citizens become customers and vocabularies of imagination are replaced by languages of money and markets.

What Will Be Lost

John Dewey scholar Kathleen Kesson recently told me a story about a class in education she taught. When she asked her students to create a utopian school project as an exercise to develop their educational imaginations, the teachers-in-training came up with ideas like, “I’d make the class period for history be only fifty minutes long instead of fifty-five.” Even when given free rein to recreate education from the ground up, her students were unable to imagine an alternative educational structure.

It might be argued that the loss of old-fashioned liberal arts institutions—with their close mentoring and apprentice-like relationships, open-ended and exploratory course structures, and skepticism toward rubrics and grades—will affect only a few Americans. Alternative colleges, which emphasize the essential role of democracy in education and cultivate interdisciplinary understandings that allow us to engage with the environmental and social issues that threaten life on Earth itself, enroll even fewer. But the very existence of these models, with their structures, long histories, and successes, bears witness to other possible worlds.

Perhaps a silver lining in today’s crisis lies in a new awareness of how instrumentalism—education as a mere means to something else—has permeated our consciousness. After describing the instrumental view of education, Taubman asks us, “What if the aim of education is not learning? What if there is no aim to education other than the brief coming together of teachers and students to question, explore, study, compose, create, and experience a kind of life that most of us will rarely experience again in our market-driven world? . . . What if the obsession with learning keeps us on track but keeps us from being educated?”

The education provided by the colleges that are now most imperiled is interactive, responsive, emotional, intimate, and potentially transformational. These colleges make imaginable a world different from the one we are hurtling toward: they shatter the disimagination machine. They are worth fighting for.

Eva-Maria Swidler is a world environmental historian with an interest in alternative pedagogy. She taught at Goddard College for ten years. Her email address is [email protected].