The Coming Armageddon in Private Liberal Arts Higher Education

Waller Hall at Willamette University in Salem,...

Waller Hall at Willamette University

It’s back to school time across the nation. Kids (and adults) ranging from preschoolers to people doing post-graduate work are packing their backpacks and heading to class.

For alumni and students of private liberal arts colleges, schools that number in the hundreds across the United States, it’s a time time though before the perfect storm wave of tidal change hits; a wave that will obliterate much of a part of higher education that’s been with the nation since its founding. Most of these schools, like the bison that were thick as they roamed the North American plains, will be gone the next time you look, reserved like their buffalo counterparts to a few scattered locations and folklore memory.

I’m an alum of one of those schools. And I even started my professional career working in higher education administration. My undergrad alma mater Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, traces its origins to Methodist circuit riders and cherishes its history as one of the oldest private universities west of the Mississippi River. Its slogan, “First University in the West, touts that rich history. But Willamette, like many of its fellow schools, probably fails to either hear the loud ticking clock of change or underestimates the profound impact impending changes will have on its existence.

There was a time, if you wind the clock back a few decades, where communities across the country had a main street that thrived, local newspapers, their own hospital, and even travel agents who took care of your vacations. They might have even had a school like a Willamette in their midst. Those times have come and gone, transformed by technology, globalization, and the business practices of how best to make a buck or at least not lose one. To crib a line from James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, “America has been rolled like any army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.” And what still remains is the private liberal arts colleges stuck with a high tuition cost, little market differentiation, technology that is vastly different, and an economy that has fundamentally shifted.

The warning sirens have been clanging, most visibly in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This summer’s piece – Are Colleges Worth the Price of Admission? – lays out the case that most schools are simply not providing value for their cost. Private liberal arts institutions, which tend to be at the high end of the cost range, are no exception.

We are now at a point where students (and any bill paying parents) will start demanding schools that can provide evidence based research that shows. The same parents who run the math on performance in grade school (NY Times: The Littlest Redshirts Sit Out Kindergarten), will do the same in spades for college. People want evidence based research that informs decisions; there simply isn’t much out there that suggests the high costs of most private liberal arts colleges get you a different result than the other options.

Any number of serious schools (UC Berkeley is one) are heading down the path of granting full-on undergraduate degrees via online learning. When that happens the financial math, time, and ease will lead to a host of other schools to follow the model or seriously risk being slammed.

Sometimes you know the what but not the how as in what will cause some private liberal arts to survive versus how will some schools make it? This is one of those times, and here’s my sense of the few types of liberal arts colleges that will be around in 25 years. I’m not psychic, but I did call the end of most newspapers, the demise of most independent retailers, and the consolidation of hospitals and airlines.

Maybe I’ll be prescient again; here’s who I think will survive the upcoming onslaught:

  • School’s that provide access to education and training that no one else provides. Call it the RSDI factor, but liberal arts schools that provide educational experience or training (think mastering Shanghaiese, the Naval Academy, or exchange programs to Iran) will survive quite nicely if the audience is big enough. They survive be a clear, sellable point of differentiation on their offerings.
  • Schools that consistently effectively leverage engaged alums in the world of careers. The dirty little secret of going to Harvard or to working at Goldman Sachs is not so much what you learn, but who you get to know. Sure people from both camps are smart but so are a lot of other people. The advantage is you get credentialed into a network of very interesting people who frequently are glad to open a door or two for you. Schools that think alums are only for asking for money or for an occasional bone of sitting on an every five year reunion planning committee (listening Willamette?) have no idea what real alumni engagement looks like. These schools survive by the access they provide.
  • Schools that are highly rated. Schools at the top of the rankings heap (think Williams and Pomona) should do well. Prestige sometimes counts, and should continue to be a draw (think Tiffany, not Zales). Schools down the list (Willamette: We’re number 59!) won’t do so well. Schools that are highly rated survive by their cache.
  • Schools that have some geographic protection. Sometimes it simply helps to be in the right school. Parents sometimes just want to send their child away to a private liberal arts school but don’t want to send them too far away. Schools that have that sort of geographic position just may survive – it’s worked in a host of other types of businesses. These schools survive by the luck of location, and drawing area.

So that’s my take. And in my lifetime of work in business (as well as my early career start in higher education), if I learned one thing is that money talks.

And for the numerous liberal arts colleges across the nation, that talking is suggesting that massive change is about to hit.

[Update: September 9, 2010] M. Lee Pelton, President for over a decade of my alma mater Willamette University, announced yesterday that he had informed the Board of Trustees that 2010-11 will be his final academic year at Willamette, and that he had have accepted an offer to serve as president of Emerson College  beginning July 2. Pelton had recently returned from a sabbatical at Willamette.

[Update: September 13, 2010] The Wall Street Journal featured an article Path to Profession: Cream of the Crop which features the schools that recruiters identified as “best.” Penn State tops the rankings. Many of the schools are public, and the comments below are illustrative of the types of challenges that private liberal arts colleges face in a world that is markedly changed.

“Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms.”

“The impact on students is significant. Steve Canale, head of General Electric Co.’s recruiting efforts, said it is critical for prospective students to ask which companies recruit on campus before deciding where to matriculate.”

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 above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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