Small Liberal Arts Institutions Should Export Their Values and Practices

By Jose Herrera

There always will be a place for Small Liberal Arts (SLA) institutions absconded in rolling hills and bucolic valleys throughout the United States. They will be the bastions of good education, with integrated active learning experiences that will allow for students to understand how science is done. These institutions will continue to be the places where many of our doctoral STEM candidates and medical school attendees will start their training. With notable exceptions, these institutions, however, will NOT mirror the changing demographics of the United States and will be unattainable to more than handfuls of students from lower socioeconomic strata. If left unchallenged, such a trajectory risks deepening the economic divide and widening some of the most pernicious educational inequalities that continue to divide this, and other countries. As a society, we have managed modest successes to provide ALL students access to SLA institutions, yet as the value (and cost) of a college degree has grown, we still have few sustainable or scalable models that provide the resources to allow students access to the SLA experiences. More realistically, I argue, we need to focus our efforts on offering a larger (and more diverse) set of students’ access to liberal arts values, competencies and practices at many more institutions. This plan, however, cannot be blind to the expectations and needs of our changing demographics. Our system of liberal arts education was designed to serve students that existed more than 100 years ago. We need to reimagine why and how the liberal arts education of today must change its value proposition to an increasingly larger and more diverse community of learners.

What is the value proposition for most SLAs?
SLAs are not monolithic. They are diverse along many vectors and provide different value propositions based on their business model, location and students served. I have worked in (what was then) a highly selective, small public liberal arts institution in Missouri that is almost exclusively residential (and white), a small regional, public, open-enrollment “applied liberal arts” Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) in New Mexico, and, currently, at a private, moderately selective Minority Serving Institution (MSI), in New York. In all cases, the value proposition, ethos, and mission of these three institutions is palpably different. That said, most SLAs (including the aforementioned three) generally espouse efforts in developing “timeless” competencies in their students that include critical thinking, communication, leadership, ethical decision making and engaging diverse communities of learners. In part, the lasting success of most SLAs has been exactly because they focus on helping their students master these enduring and career-boosting competencies. At many SLAs, STEM faculty are teacher-scholars that work with students in small collaborative research teams in a very traditional apprenticeship model of science that has been practiced successfully for hundreds of years. Well, “successful” for those who are given the privilege and access to these schools and mentors.

Many of us successfully navigated the apprenticeship model so it would be hard (at least for me) to claim it does not work. So, in my opinion, the problem is not the model, the problem is scaling this model to reach those students who are interested but do not have the economic or social connections to benefit from such privileged experiences. True, there are now models like CURES (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences) that are starting to make some important differences, especially with underrepresented students (e.g., Rodenbusch et al., 2016). However, scalable models like CURES are only now gaining some traction in a few institutions.

Why is scaling SLA competencies necessary in the near future?
In short, because our economy needs so many more STEM students that practice these competencies, and because so many more students should have access to the training, previously only available to select groups. Until the late 1940s, access to higher education, generally, and a liberal arts education, specifically, was only possible for those students whose family had the means to make this dream a reality. The GI bill revolutionized how our country and our society saw higher education. Large numbers of (mostly) men began the process of attaining their modest educational goals and providing the changing labor market the “hands” and trained neurons necessary to understand the increasingly sophisticated supply chain manufacturing processes and developing service industries. The resulting explosion of college-bound students and culture has, until recently, led to an increase of the size and number of institutions (from 3,231 in 1980-1981 to a high of 4,706 institutions in 2011-2012; NCES, 2019).
However, college enrollment has dropped from its high of about 21 million in the fall of 2010 to less than 19 million this past fall (2019). Moreover, the demographic data suggest that the ethnic shifts in high school graduates, the current pandemic and other social and political factors will continue decreasing college enrollment in the near and mid-term. At many SLAs the demographic shifts of student populations are already in full swing, and many institutions are finding themselves in competition for the dwindling supply of socioeconomically advantaged students. Particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, where enrollment declines of high school graduates are expected to precipitate additional closures of SLAs in the next five years (Hussar and Bailey, 2018; Eide, 2018), increased competition for these students has forced traditional SLAs to enroll different combinations of students or close their doors while trying. My own institution, Mercy College, was able to offer about 1,800 students from The College of New Rochelle (CNR), a once proud Ursuline SLA, a pathway to a degree when CNR declared bankruptcy in 2019. The numbers of these small liberal arts institutions are expected to rise and the number of mergers, acquisitions or closures has already started to escalate–as evidenced by the recent notice of the negotiations over the future of the University of Bridgeport.

Currently, several SLAs are coalescing around a smaller number of working business models, including the use of contingent faculty members who are increasingly taking on a larger proportion of the instructional burden without benefits. Although this model is usually only available to those institutions who reside in geographical areas where talent in diverse disciplines is available, the pandemic has made these institutions realize that adjunct faculty can be “zoomed” in from any part of the world. Normally, to recruit enough STEM instructional talent, institutions have resorted to increasing the salaries or providing other perks to faculty in difficult to fill positions like engineering or professional programs that are competing with placements in hospitals, clinics, companies and other such facilities.

In the changing landscape, all institutions will need to adapt their value proposition.
The pandemic also has disrupted many models in several different ways but has offered many SLA an opportunity to rethink how education and engagement happens—forcing many to adapt to a different “dance floor.” STEM faculty have started using different online tools to convey concepts and engage students at a distance. For many SLAs that serve the underserved, the uncomfortable move to online education during the pandemic has facilitated the re-examination of how STEM can (and should) be taught and has called into question many of our assumptions about online education and the needs of our students. In a world without as many geographic limitations, SLAs—in my opinion—will increasingly rely on contingent faculty and online instructional innovations to remain solvent.

To complicate matters, students (and their families) are increasingly viewing college as an expensive (though necessary) pathway to a career and are beginning to vote with their feet by choosing institutions with clear programmatic lines and support to professional programs and associated careers. True, this choice is based, at least in part, on a lack of understanding of the diverse career pathways available, particularly to those students who have mastered many of the competencies available at SLA institutions. For example, data will support my assertion that CEOs at major companies are just as likely to come from disciplines in the liberal arts as just about any other discipline (Carnevale, 2020). I am not advocating that SLAs become technical colleges. Rather, I am advocating that technical colleges (or any college) imaginatively integrate core SLA competencies in their programs’ curricular pathways.

At many institutions, the General Education program is tasked with this notion but at most places the general program is seen (in theory and in practice) by many of the students as a buffet-style selection of courses that is not intentional, sequenced or integrated into the disciplinary competencies. Relevancy, especially for students underrepresented in the sciences is tantamount to importance. What I suggest here is that we tilt the competencies espoused in most General Education programs to a more disciplinary-based structure. How does English in general, and writing specifically, play a role in Nursing, Biology, Computer Science? Similarly, History has much to teach us in science but often the students see and experience these courses without any connection to other disciplines or the process of providing the critical thinking skills that naturally potentiate scientific methods. We need imagination, perseverance and good leadership in re-envisioning General Education–and SLAs models should lead the way.

Second, we should make the Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) competencies more visible in the career pathways within all STEM disciplines. For example, formulating career outcomes that include internships in all STEM would help students understand the value of these skills. To make the LAS majors viable, you have to expose students to the diversity of career pathways available to them within the LAS majors and provide examples of how, say, a biology major with a chemistry minor can become a Provost or a CEO of a manufacturing company. Exposure for all students will help them understand that their career aspirations and the contributions to society are narrow and our world needs more Fortune 500 CEOs trained in Ecology or Philosophy.

We also need to work diligently to adapt the value proposition for the students we serve (not the ones we wish we had). Implicit in this statement is the need to experiment with the SLA instructional competencies that will improve learning (Herrera, et al., 2020) by YOUR students at YOUR institution and NOT some theoretical students you aspire to recruit. The educational landscape is changing at never-before-seen levels and it will require iterative experimentation to formulate adaptive strategies to align instructional delivery to meet SLA competencies. SLA institutions are now in the early stages of adapting and I have full confidence that many of the good ideas about how our educational system will change over the next two decades will come from these nimble and persevering institutions. Many are unbundling the SLA experience (e.g., Hope, 2018), partnering with employers to provide Last Mile Training (e.g., Craig, 2019), using educational analytics to identify and intervene with struggling students (as is being done at several SLAs, including Mercy College but more well-known at places like Georgia State University) and addressing the career needs of their student well before graduation (e.g., Denison’s Launch lab: ).

As our scientific training prescribes, STEM faculty need to practice the iterative process of testing educational interventions, rigorously assessing their results and implementing any changes to improve learning. Where else will our educational system glean these much-needed improvements than from SLA STEM faculty who care deeply about instruction and learning.

Literature cited
Carnevale, A. P., Cheah, B., & Van Der Werf, M. (2020). ROI of liberal arts colleges. Value adds up over time.

Craig, R. (2019). Last-mile training and the future of work in an expanding gig economy. TechCrunch. Retrieved November 10, 2020.

Eide, S. (2018). Private colleges in peril: Financial pressures and declining enrollment may lead to more closures. Education Next, 18:34-42.

Herrera, J., Haskew-Layton, R. E., Narayanan, M., Porras-Alfaro, A., Jumpponen, A., Chung, Y. A., & Rudgers, J. A. (2020). Improving Instructional Fitness Requires Change. BioScience, 70:1027-1035.

Hope, J. (2018). Unbundle the degree to increase opportunities for students. The Successful Registrar, 17(11), 5-5.

Hussar, W.J., and Bailey, T.M. (2018). Projections of Education Statistics to 2026 (NCES 2018-019). U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Digest of Education Statistics, 2018 (NCES 2020-009), Table 105.50.

Rodenbusch, Stacia E., Paul R. Hernandez, Sarah L. Simmons, and Erin L. Dolan. (2016). Early engagement in course-based research increases graduation rates and completion of science, engineering, and mathematics degrees. CBE—Life Sciences Education 15, no. 2:ar20.

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