Everybody’s Worried Now

EASTON, PA. — A year ago, the notion that Smith College — with a $1 billion endowment, high student demand, and frequently cited educational quality — was raising existential questions, particularly about its economic model, seemed a fairly radical notion.

But an idea that seemed striking in the past  — that elite liberal arts colleges might have to make significant changes in the next few years if they are to remain relevant (or present) in the current educational market — is now the hottest topic in the sector.

A conference this week here at Lafayette College entitled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World,” drew more than 200 college administrators, including about 50 college presidents, out of an invite list of U.S. News and World Report’s list of top national liberal arts colleges. Judging by the turnout, the discussion, and the fact that several other conferences addressing these questions are scheduled over the next few months, it’s clear that the questions are on everybody’s mind.

But even among the fairly homogeneous group represented here, there was significant disagreement about how pressing the economic challenges are and the best ways to tackle them. And liberal arts college administrators still seem reluctant to adopt some major ways of cutting costs that other sectors of higher education have adopted.

And the solutions administrators did offer, many of which have high up-front capital costs, such as increased collaboration through technology, might not be options for the many less-wealthy liberal arts colleges (generally not represented here) that are facing some of the most immediate threats.

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