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Are The Liberal Arts in Trouble?

by Lawrence Baines - November 05, 2021

The idea that liberal arts colleges are skirting on the edge of oblivion has been around for decades. Yet, recent data confirm the vitality of liberal arts colleges that prepare students for modern life and the unpredictable world to come.

Moody’s Corporation, the organization that rates the financial health of public institutions, private colleges, and corporations, famously declared in 2015 that as many as one in five liberal arts colleges would encounter severe financial stress in the near term (Cohn, 2019). Initially, Moody’s gloomy outlook appeared prescient, as several liberal arts colleges announced their closure during COVID-19 (Aspegren, 2021; O’Carroll, 2019). Are liberal arts colleges in trouble?

Predictions of doom for liberal arts colleges have appeared with regularity over the past hundred years (Pfnister, 1984; Witze, 2020). In The Future of the Liberal Arts College, a book published in 1938, Norman Foerster predicted that most American liberal arts colleges would be bound for oblivion in only “a few years.” In 1963, The French-American historian Jacques Barzun announced the death of the liberal arts college in an interview with the New York Times. During the interview, however, Barzun acknowledged that savvy employers still favored graduates of liberal arts institutions because they possessed the skills needed for the future: “general intelligence, literacy and adaptability” (Barzun, 1963). Astin and Lee (1972) characterized private, liberal arts institutions with low enrollments, high acceptance rates, and problematic funding as “invisible” and announced that 491 institutions were in imminent danger of closing. In a follow-up study almost a half century later, Tarrant et al. (2018) found that 413 of the 491 colleges, or around 84% of the most troubled, “invisible” liberal arts colleges pegged for extinction by Astin and Lee were still in operation. In contrast to institutions of higher education, only about 6% of all businesses managed to survive over the same 46-year time period. Indeed, the survival rate for businesses after 10 years is only about 30% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).


While there is some agreement that the liberal arts can be considered “a broad integrated education that includes coursework in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences” (Kleinman, 2015), there is less certainty concerning what constitutes a liberal arts college. The current Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education lists only 241 of America’s 4,313 institutions of higher education as belonging to the category Baccalaureate College: Arts & Sciences Focus (Carnegie, 2021). Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates the number of liberal arts colleges to be even smaller, with only 210 institutions fitting its definition (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2020). However, if the definition of a “liberal arts college” could extend to institutions that also have master’s or doctoral programs, their number would be much greater. In fact, most of the institutions that regularly inhabit the controversial, annual U.S. News “best of” rankings of colleges and universities (U.S. News, 2021) proclaim that they are, at heart, liberal arts colleges.


Princeton, #1 in the latest U.S. News rankings, asserts that it offers a liberal arts education that “challenges you to consider not only how to solve problems, but also trains you to ask which problems to solve and why, preparing you for positions of leadership and a life of service to the nation and all of humanity.” According to Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber, a “liberal arts education is a vital foundation for both individual flourishing and the well-being of our society” (Princeton, 2021). Harvard, #2 in the rankings, asserts that “commitment to liberal arts & sciences is at the core of Harvard College’s mission: before students can help change the world, they need to understand it. The liberal arts & sciences offer a broad intellectual foundation for the tools to think critically, reason analytically and write clearly” (Harvard University, 2021). Columbia, #3 in the rankings, offers a “core curriculum” that involves the study of “philosophy, history, politics, literature, art, music, science and writing” and “provides every student with a comprehensive and truly transformational understanding of modern civilization” (Columbia University, 2021).

These declarations from Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia align well with recent prognostications from Shell Global (2021), Bushnell & AAI Foresight (2016), and economists such as Frey and Osborne (2013) concerning the imminent transformation in the nature of work in which rote tasks and simple decision-making are handled by machines. The mid-21st century requires “general intelligence, literacy and adaptability,” to be sure, but also a creative disposition, the ability to work in groups with diverse fellow-workers, and a talent for just-in-time, astute decision-making (Accenture Consulting, 2021; McKinsey & Company, 2018),


The mission statements of most liberal arts colleges tend to valorize the accumulation of knowledge, not the accumulation of money, but knowledge and money are not incompatible. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, the top 10 percent of graduates from private, liberal arts institutions earned “$200,000 or more ten years after starting school” while the top 10% from other schools earned less than $70,000 (Ingraham, 2015; U.S. Department of Education, 2021). In a report entitled The ROI [Return-On-Investment] of liberal arts colleges, Carnevale, Cheah, and Van Der Werf (2020) found that the mean ROI of graduates from liberal arts colleges after 40 years was $918,000; the ROI of graduates from the top 47 most selective liberal arts colleges was even higher, at $1,135,000. Meanwhile, the ROI of graduates from other kinds of colleges was considerably lower: $723,000. In addition to increased wealth, a liberal arts education is also positively associated with engagement (Hu and Kuh, 2002), well-being (Reid et al., 2014), and social responsibility (Seifert et al., 2008).

Because students today are inundated with unceasing streams of emails, texts, videos, phone calls, and online postings, information has lost its allure (Pew Research Center, 2018). Harari (2018) argues that

Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products—you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

While COVID-19 has shaken some institutions of higher education to the core, the consensus among experts is that worse disasters await on the horizon (Friedman, 2021). In the future, “catastrophic events will grow more frequent but less predictable” (Nauck et al., 2021).

The liberal arts colleges that help students flourish during times of emerging technological disruption, political instability, global warming, and sociological change are poised to not only survive, but thrive (Williamson, 2009; Williamson, 1967). Perhaps only those liberal arts colleges who prepare students for lives that are no longer viable are the ones who will find themselves in trouble.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 05, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23894, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 9:50:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Lawrence Baines
    Berry College
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    LAWRENCE BAINES, Ph.D., is director of teacher education at Berry College.
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