Look Before They’re Gone: RIP Alma Mater U

Barnard College, 1913  (LOC)

It’s autumn; college football games have started another season, and the leaves will soon be turning on campuses across the country.

Catch a good look; for any number of liberal arts colleges this year will mark the start of their demise. Those people working in the space who are early in their careers need to think about changing careers. Those later in the careers need to figure out a way to hold on (if lucky) or repurposing themselves.

Like glaciers quickly fading with the advent of global warming (e.g. Oops – where’d they go?) the signs are all around us. You just need to know where to look:

  • Tuition at liberal arts colleges continues to outpace inflation – 5% for many schools last year – pushing strapped families to the limits of what they think can afford (Sallie Mae/Ipsos report here.) Tuition (excluding room and board) per year at places like Dartmouth ($43,782) or Kalamzoo College $45,984) is simply unsustainable for many. 
  • A still slowly-recovering economy has put further strain on the value of a liberal arts education (NPR report here). A tough premise in the age of applied specialization (do you get a science degree and find a job or do you get a history or english degree and stay unemployed while continuing to live at your parent’s house?), it’s hard to justify a liberal arts education if you can’t do much with it. The argument for the “well rounded” person falls flat when you can’t find a job that will pay you to buy food. Many of the types of degrees that liberal arts college provide are, according the a recent US News and World Report article, the ones that are least employable. 
  • The advent of massive online open courses (MOOC) for credit – like the masters degree in computer science being offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology – mean significantly cheaper tuition costs for students.  MOOC courses have the ability – like the advent of online self service travel buying – to fundamentally shift the cost structure of higher education. MIT, Cal-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Duke, and Harvard all have free online courses; degree programs are logically next.
  • While all that leafy grass and gorgeous brick buildings (my alma mater Willamette U here) look great, maintenance costs have got to be high. Throw in faculty and staff salaries and as California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said this week, it’s not scaleable and needs to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Classrooms today, he notes, look like they did 200 years ago. According to report from Venture Beat from this week’s Disrupt Conference where Newsom mad his announcement, “Fifty percent of young people are not sure that their post-secondary education has improved their chances of finding a job, and almost 40 percent of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.
  • There is no research that supports the argument that liberal arts education prepares you better for the world in which we live. There is some suggestion that the nature of the curriculum (less vocationally focused, high cost which may lead to high debt) may do a worse job of preparing you for the future.

I really relished my undergrad time at Willamette: it was instrumental in forming who I am. Without that experience many of the qualities that I think are valuable (critical thinking, perseverance, independence of thought) would likely be less developed. But in today’s world that sort of experience and all that comes with it is going to be restricted to a few liberal arts colleges, not the many that still dot the landsape.

So take a good look at those small liberal arts colleges that dot the landscape. The top ones (see rankings list here) will survive just fine for the select few that can afford the experience but many others, if not most, won’t be around for long.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

Barnard College, 1913 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)






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