The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World

Lafayette and Swarthmore Colleges sponsor conference on challenges facing historic liberal arts institutions

By Eric Hoover

Easton, Pa. — Demand for higher education is up, but so, too, are college costs. The returns on investing in a bachelor’s degree have grown, yet net prices, for many families, have increased relative to their incomes. Put another way, it’s both an exciting and nerve-racking time to lead a postsecondary institution, especially a residential liberal-arts college with a big price tag.

On Tuesday morning, Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, shared her view of the economic challenges that face public and private colleges, and the students they serve, during an era of dwindling financial support from states. “Whether we like it or not, families are going to have to bear more of the costs of higher education,” she said. “We have now entered a second-best world, and I think we’re going to be there quite a while.”

Ms. Hill spoke here on the second day of a conference (“The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World”) sponsored by Lafayette and Swarthmore Colleges. She described the complex dance of costs, sticker price, and net price at institutions like her own.

Ms. Hill described the difficulty of maintaining affordability without sacrificing quality. More must be done, she said, to facilitate student borrowing, including income-contingent loan options that would protect at least some graduates from a portion of their expected debt.

At the same time, Ms. Hill urged liberal-arts colleges to take a hard look at their costs, whether it’s spending on athletics or on organic food in cafeterias. What can institutions stop doing? In the past there were not as many incentives, or pressures, to control those costs, she said, but now the market is changing: “The important question is, Why haven’t we innovated? We have, but in ways that have pushed costs up.”

Ms. Hill mused about the possibility of adding summer sessions and offering three-year degrees, which, she said, would lower “opportunity costs” for students. This might be much easier said than done, however. Asking faculty to do more could jeopardize quality, Ms. Hill said. Instead, she urged her colleagues to think about ways of allocating faculty time more effectively, perhaps rebalancing their teaching, research, and governance duties. “There’s room for shifting faculty time to high-value inputs with students,” she said.

What else could institutions do to tame costs?

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See also:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts (Series Introduction)

The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: When Education Meant Friendship and Heart

Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God

With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God

Saint Patrick and the Liberal Arts: The Missional Future of Christian Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need Revival?