Right turns

Liberal arts colleges navigate tough terrain

Ten seconds.


That’s about all the time that a college admission representative likely has to influence a potential student at a high school college fair, estimates Gail Berson, Wheaton’s vice president of enrollment and marketing, who has been in the field for 35 years.

“Students and parents stroll through crowded high school gyms or convention centers overwhelmed by choice and choked by the thought of what college costs,” she says. “In a tight economy, parents are increasingly concerned about what we call ‘the value proposition.’ It’s incumbent upon us to make the case clearly and convincingly that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for life, regardless of career choice.”

Berson and her team repeatedly have made the case so convincingly that this academic year Wheaton welcomed its largest first-year class in the college’s history. Not only are the 480 students in the Class of 2016 a testament to the success of the college’s intensified push to attract students in a highly competitive market, but also a vote of confidence that the liberal arts are still valued, says President Ronald A. Crutcher. 

“We set very ambitious enrollment goals this year. This class represents a great achievement for us, precisely because increasing our enrollment is critical to Wheaton’s long-term institutional strength,” he says. “Wheaton, and all of higher education, face significant economic and societal challenges that pose an existential threat, particularly to liberal arts colleges. Our stepped-up, multidimensional recruitment and marketing effort on the part of many staff members and faculty is just one of the varied ways in which we are dealing with that threat.”

President Crutcher and other leaders in higher education who are working at the national and state level are expressing the same sentiment—the terrain is tough to navigate: The cost of higher education has grown faster than median family incomes over the past two decades. The recession that began in 2008 has exacerbated the growing gap between college cost and family income by weakening the financial positions of families and of colleges and universities. The college search and selection process is now approached by students and their families with a sharp consumer focus on the value they will receive for education and greater motivation to find “bargains.”

And public discussions of higher education, in politics and the media, reflect a consumer mind-set by emphasizing high costs, growing student indebtedness and questions about the value of a college education.

Never before has making the case for the liberal arts been so challenging and at the same time so very critical, not only to the livelihood of institutions, but to the future of the country as well, according to those interviewed. In fact, the question “what is the future of liberal arts colleges?” has become a common one pondered publicly by administrators and experts in the field nationwide.

Chart: The more your learn, the more you earnSign of the times

Last spring, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania presented a three-day national conference titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World.” More than 200 administrators, including 50 college presidents from top national liberal arts institutions, attended.

In his opening remarks at the conference, Lafayette College President Daniel H. Weiss explained the reason for presenting the event. “The world is changing around us, and we wanted an opportunity to step back and reflect on that,” he said. “We have a sense that what we bring to higher education is of enduring importance. We don’t do a good job of telling that story nationally. We are on the defensive more than we should be about that. So we want to reclaim a space where we can articulate what our values are and what we do so effectively. And we hope that in this conference we can refine that vision together and articulate that vision more compellingly to the external world.”

President Crutcher, who served as a panelist at the conference, has been articulating that message as often and in as many places as he can. In the fall, he traveled to Toronto to present a talk on the future of liberal arts colleges to a group of high school guidance counselors.

At Wheaton, Crutcher plans to bring a variety of higher-education leaders to campus for public talks on the subject to introduce new ideas and possibilities for thriving into the future. Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), is one of the invited speakers. (Since 2005, the organization has sponsored a national initiative called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), designed to address the evolving nature and value of liberal education in the 21st century. President Crutcher serves as the chair of the National Leadership Council for this initiative.)

The broader national context of the financial challenge facing many institutions “is the new reality that society—and employers in particular—are demanding much more from college graduates,” Schneider notes. “There’s a lot of attention to the need for more college-educated people, but there’s also an expectation that today’s college graduate simply needs more knowledge—global, cross-cultural and science knowledge (whatever their majors)—and higher levels of skill. The employer surveys we have commissioned as part of the LEAP initiative make this point very clearly.

“It’s in this context, I believe, that liberal arts colleges have a decided comparative advantage. Because of their mission, size, strong faculty, residential community and intellectual heritage, they are much better positioned than many other kinds of institutions to help their students build both strong knowledge and adaptive intellectual skills—the capacities that graduates need for success in work, life, global engagement and citizenship. They also are far better positioned than other kinds of institutions to help students reflect on civic, ethical and global challenges that we face as a society.”

Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM), points out that, given the national attention on outcomes-based education, gainful employment and work-force based education, it is important for all to really reflect on what employers are looking for in new hires and what society needs from its citizens.

“Employers want creative thinkers, good writers with a worldview who can collaborate and innovate. That is exactly what a liberal arts education produces and as long as we live and promote that reality, liberal arts colleges should thrive,” says Doherty.

Pursuing new ways

The map of the future

The measures taken so far are varied:

  • The faculty endorsed three important new and enhanced minors for this academic year—business and management, public health, and Jewish studies—which help make Wheaton more attractive to prospective students.
  • Marketing, which plays a critical role in reaching potential students, has been expanded.
  • Through the Filene Center, the college is offering students real-world experiences through jobs, internships and research opportunities, and building a strong data base of evidence supporting the fact that Wheaton graduates find their way to terrific jobs across many sectors.

Future measures approved by the board of trustees include:

  • Faculty and administrators collaborating on a plan to add a new major.
  • Intensifying outreach to international students in key markets.
  • College officials negotiating a new partnership to bring summer programs to campus.

To survive and thrive, institutions like Wheaton are working to figure out the best way forward.

The cost of operating colleges—and thus tuition—has steadily increased nationwide over the past two decades, while family incomes have not kept pace. And because the value of real estate has plummeted, a source for helping some families to finance a college education through home equity loans has dried up. So families need more financial support than in previous years.

Average family incomes in 2011 were lower in inflationadjusted dollars than they were a decade earlier, according to the “Trends in College Pricing 2012,” an annual report by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. The report points out that the cost at colleges and universities has risen more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services. And while tuition prices have increased, only about one-third of full-time students pay the full published tuition price without grant assistance.

Wheaton is particularly challenged by these industry-wide trends because it is highly tuition dependent. Approximately 85 percent of the college’s revenue comes from tuition payments. In recent years, the percentage of tuition revenue that the college must return to students in the form of financial aid has increased dramatically, placing the college under considerable pressure.

Wheaton officials have responded to the increased need for financial support for students while trying to hold down costs and making budget cuts where possible. However, Wheaton trustees stress that they have to find other ways of dealing with the challenges to maintain the high level of education offered, including creating new sources of revenue.

“In one way or another, all colleges and universities are working to reexamine their financial model or their market position,” notes Wheaton Board of Trustees Chair Thomas Hollister. “Fortunately, Wheaton can draw upon its strengths. The school has a history of embracing and flourishing in times of change. It has transformed more than once over the years, from its beginnings as a women’s seminary to its position today as a leading residential coeducational liberal arts college.”

Schneider adds: “No institutions can survive without adapting, and liberal arts colleges have adapted many times before. There’s a world of difference between the colleges founded in the 18th century and the strengths of the contemporary liberal arts college. I am confident that those that are led by thoughtful, creative thinkers will continue to adapt. As long as they see clearly what is of enduring value about their educational model and always have those values drive their change process, I definitely think that they will not only survive but flourish.”

At Wheaton’s opening convocation in August, the title of President Crutcher’s address was “Inspiration, Adaptation, and Evolution: Charting a Path to the Future.” Innovation, flexibility and an openness to possibility will continue to be the driving principles propelling the college forward, he told the gathering of students, faculty, staff and administrators.

“These are tough problems. Wheaton has taken a number of steps to address the issues, despite the fact that it has required us to make some very difficult decisions,” Crutcher says. “We will continue to work on controlling and reducing costs, in every way possible.

“What we will not do,” says Crutcher, “is take actions that impact the quality of the education and experience that we offer to our students. We will continue to find creative ways for making our case and demonstrating that a liberal arts education is the best way to prepare students, not simply for entry-level positions, but for a life of learning and active citizenship, as well as professional advancement.”

Schneider says these moves are ones that all liberal arts institutions would benefit from as they map out their futures in the tough economy. She also says that colleges should join together to make the case for liberal education as a global necessity and for liberal education as the key to Americans’ competitive advantage in the world.

Doherty says that he is seeing AICUM member colleges taking many approaches to recalculating their futures in this economy. “In recent years a number have gone co-ed—something Wheaton was ahead of the curve on. Many of our schools are using online and hybrid education to reach new populations (for example, working adults) and new geographies,” he says. “Collectively, colleges have to do a better job communicating their value to the individual student and their value to the broader society. A higher-educated citizenry is more involved in civic affairs, votes more, is healthier, earns more [see chart], and is therefore a high taxpayer—all good for society.” 

At Wheaton, Hollister says he applauds the college community, including alums, faculty, staff and trustees, for pulling together and contributing to remarkable progress, and he is looking forward to a vibrant future.

“Wheaton has benefited from a vibrant capital campaign, including donations from loyal alums to the Wheaton Fund, and careful stewardship of the endowment. The curriculum has been broadened and repositioned. A new state-of-the-art turf field is under construction, which will help with student recruitment. Improved marketing and enrollment strategies resulted in the largest incoming freshman class in over 10 years,” says Hollister.

“With respect to the course ahead, the trustees are proud of, and committed to, sustaining the college ethos that President Crutcher spoke of during convocation: adventurous, flexible and open to possibility. A liberal arts undergraduate education has never been more essential to professional and personal success. I believe that will remain true, but the how, when and where of teaching and learning will continue to evolve, and always with Wheaton at the forefront.”