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Advancing the Liberal Arts in the Face of Demographic Change
For much of the past century, scholars have questioned the viability and sustainability of liberal arts colleges,1 and empirical research suggests that the number of liberal arts colleges has declined in recent decades. In one study, of 212 colleges identified as liberal arts colleges in 1990, only 130 continued to serve primarily a nonprofessional mission by 2008–9.2 Scholars suggest several explanations for this trend: the high costs associated with providing a traditional liberal arts education, technological innovation that decreases costs of alternative forms of teaching and learning, and the shift toward a knowledge-based economy.3 In recent years, demographic shifts—both away from the Northeast in general and toward greater shares of Hispanic young people—have persistently nudged the market toward subgroups with historically lower attachment to higher education.4
As a practitioner of the “dismal science,” perhaps it is natural that my work suggests that over the next decade liberal arts colleges will face a new demographic challenge. The financial crisis that wreaked such havoc on institutional budgets over the past ten years isn’t done as far as colleges are concerned. In response to the financial uncertainty of the crisis, young people chose to have fewer children (see the fertility-rate graph below). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 2007 to 2010, the total fertility rate (a measure of the total number of children a woman will have over her life cycle) fell by 9 percent. As the economy recovered, however, the total fertility rate did not. In fact, it continued to slide down so that by 2017, fertility was about 17 percent lower than the precrisis peak.5 As a result, today the total fertility rate sits well below the rate required to replace the population—particularly in the Northeast quadrant of the country. As these young people grow older, we can anticipate a sharp decrease in the number of eighteen-year-olds beginning in the year 2026.
In my recent work, I refine the message of these demographic trends by combining population surveys with estimates of college attendance rates conditional on demographic characteristics.6 Current data provide a basis to estimate future matriculation rates: we know that some students are as much as ten or even thirty times more likely to attend college as others. Because the National Education Longitudinal Study data used to estimate the likelihood of going to college also include detailed information on the type of postsecondary institutions attended, my work produces distinct forecasts for two-year and four-year institutions. The results—called the Higher Education Demand Index (HEDI)—provide a more nuanced picture of how higher education demand might be expected to develop in the decade ahead.
The maps below present HEDI projections of potential demand for four-year institutions by state and major metropolitan area from 2012 to 2029. Separate forecasts show expected changes for institutions that U.S. News & World Report ranks among the top fifty national colleges or universities, a total of one hundred “elite” institutions; “national” schools ranked from fifty-one to one hundred on those two lists; and “regional” colleges and universities ranked outside the top one hundred. The resulting picture points to deep challenges for most institutions. Regional institutions can anticipate few growing markets, and the Northeast is uniformly dismal, with each state and metropolitan area projected to see a decline in potential demand of at least 15 percent, with an average loss of more than 20 percent. Even this summary of the model’s forecasts for regional schools arguably understates the coming threat to institutions’ viability. First, some submarkets are even worse off. Contractions are projected to be particularly large in nonmetropolitan New England (down 29 percent), Cleveland (24 percent), Pittsburgh (27 percent), and Detroit (31 percent). Moreover, the echo of the financial crisis creates an abrupt contraction: in the four years from 2025 to 2029, the forecasted number of students from the Midwest, the Middle Atlantic, and New England attending regional four-year schools falls by 18 percent.
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By comparison, the forecasts for elite schools are much more optimistic (with those for national schools somewhere in between). However, even though the number of students with demographic markers associated with attending elite institutions is expected to increase through most of the country, the Northeast will still likely see fewer such students. What explains the relatively more positive projections for elite schools? The answer lies in the successes of higher education in recent decades. Over the last forty years, the share of students who attend college after high school graduation has increased from 49 percent to 70 percent.7 As a result, future generations of parents will be more educated than those in the recent past. And parents’ educational attainment is a strong predictor of going to college in general and going to elite colleges in particular. As a result, the rising trend in parent education portends increasing demand for more selective forms of education in the future, a force that will buoy demand for elite education up to the mid-2020s, when the weight of the birth dearth driven by the financial crisis will offset some of the elite institutions’ demand growth.
The HEDI can also tell us about the projected characteristics of future students. For example, the rise in parents’ educational attainment mentioned above means that we might expect first-generation students to make up a smaller share of the student body at all institution types. At regional schools, the share of students with two parental bachelor’s degrees is expected to rise by more than 10 percentage points, while the share of students with no parental bachelor’s degree falls by more than 5 percentage points (though “no parental bachelor’s degree” will remain the plurality status, accounting for almost half of all students). Moreover, while institutions of all types should expect increased ethnic/racial diversity, this diversity will largely be represented by a rising share of Hispanic students at two-year and regional four-year schools (up almost 5 percentage points), while diversity growth on elite and national campuses is likely to reflect increasing numbers of Asian American students.
Taken together, HEDI forecasts of regional schools—the largest share of institutions—suggest deep contraction in total demand, particularly in geographic regions with the largest numbers of schools, even as the demographic makeup of those students continues to evolve toward previously underrepresented groups. There is some reason to believe that private liberal arts colleges may face a particularly difficult future recruiting the students who remain in recruitment pools. In the recent past, Hispanics have disproportionately enrolled in public institutions and as part-time students.8 These enrollment patterns suggest that many liberal arts colleges will need to overcome barriers if they are to attract students from this increasingly important subpopulation. (Fortunately, Hispanic enrollments in general and at four-year schools in particular have surged in the last decade, with the overall attendance rate achieving parity with the national average.)
A more fundamental threat to liberal arts colleges may flow from their liberal arts missions. Michelle R. Weise argues that higher education in general, and liberal arts colleges in particular, must reconceive the connection between education and workplace preparation.9 If industry doesn’t force this conversation, prospective students might. Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace argue that students in Generation Z are particularly concerned about the relevance of their education, including how what they learn in the classroom can be applied to careers.10 The work of Vicki L. Baker, Roger G. Baldwin, and Sumedha Makker suggests that we can already see the effects of these related forces in a trend toward fewer schools with a deep commitment to a liberal arts mission.11 After all, by this accounting, in just twenty years, we have witnessed a reduction of almost 40 percent in the number of liberal arts colleges nationwide. In the late 2020s, as the number of potential students declines and multiple stakeholders increasingly press institutions to attend to workplace preparation, should we expect an amplification of this trend?
Recognizing the arguments that led some to these worries, I see reasons to hope for a vibrant future for the liberal arts. First, Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly note that we create a false dichotomy when we define a liberal arts education in contrast to workplace preparation.12 For example, those prepared with a liberal arts education match or better their professionally trained peers in employment rates and earnings. DePauw University has recently embraced the career empowerment of the liberal arts degree through the DePauw Gold Commitment. DePauw guarantees that students who take advantage of the university’s programs and graduate in four years in good standing will secure employment or acceptance into graduate school. Qualifying students who don’t achieve these outcomes can either return to DePauw for a free term of additional education or the school will secure an entry-level professional position. As DePauw notes, this commitment is made easier by the fact that nearly all DePauw students who take advantage of the opportunities of their liberal arts education already achieve these career objectives.13
But the false dichotomy also works in a second and important way. The definition of a “true liberal arts college” used by Baker, Baldwin, and Makker was proposed by David W. Breneman’s seminal essay, “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?”14 Breneman’s “60 percent rule” eliminates a large number of schools from what he classifies as liberal arts colleges: a school must award fewer than 60 percent of its degrees in professional fields like business, communication, education studies, and computer science. If a liberal arts education is intended to free students by endowing them with a love of wisdom and a capacity to learn using tools drawn from a range of disciplines, Breneman’s 60 percent rule makes some sense as a quick means to divide data in a research project.
It does not make as much sense as a tool for defining institutional identities. Surely it is possible to nurture in students the liberal arts ideal through almost any content domain. Just as it isn’t what the student thinks as much as how the student thinks, it isn’t what the professor teaches as much as how the professor teaches. For example, Washington and Lee University’s degree in business administration likely explains its exclusion from Breneman’s list of liberal arts institutions. But the program’s design and website description—teaching students to connect theory and practice using critical-thinking skills while recognizing insights from other fields “and [the] importance of serving society with vision and integrity”—would feel very familiar to many advocates of the liberal arts.15 Similarly, while Ohio Wesleyan University’s new degree in computational neuroscience might run afoul of some definitions of the liberal arts due to the subject matter’s practical value, the inherently multidisciplinary approach to complex problems feels at home in the liberal arts tradition.
While some scholars argue that liberal arts schools have declined in number as institutions re-envision the meaning of their missions,16 Melissa Tarrant, Nathaniel Bray, and Stephen Katsinas interpret the same data as evidence of the incredible resilience of small colleges as they have adapted to changing environments.17 And adapt we must. Already, schools in the Northeast are experiencing the negative effects of declining birthrates. While we are fortunate in higher education to have an eighteen-year lead time on such market forces, the front edge of the birth dearth initiated by the financial crisis is now just eight years away. Whether we articulate the value of traditional liberal arts degrees, add programs that press the boundaries of that tradition, implement radical cost savings, or have some other response, one thing is clear: the demographic challenges on the horizon are significant and call for considered actions. Doing nothing seems like a very risky strategy. By making deliberate choices today, we have an opportunity to face coming demographic forces and set our institutions on paths to fulfill our important roles within American higher education.
1. Melissa Tarrant, Nathaniel Bray, and Stephen Katsinas, “The Invisible Colleges Revisited: An Empirical Review,” Journal of Higher Education 89, no. 3 (December 2017): 341–67.
2. Vicki L. Baker, Roger G. Baldwin, and Sumedha Makker, “Where Are They Now? Revisiting Breneman’s Study of Liberal Arts Colleges,” Liberal Education 98, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 48–53.
3. Baker, Baldwin, and Makker, “Where Are They Now?”
4. Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports 67, no. 8, November 7, 2018, table 2, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr67/nvsr67_08-508.pdf ; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports 60, no. 1, November 3, 2011, table 4, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_01.pdf.
6. Grawe, Demographics.
7. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 2017), table 302.10.
8. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, table 306.20.
9. Michelle R. Weise, “Utility in the Liberal Arts in an Age of Innovation,” Clayton Christensen Institute, March 5, 2014, https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/utility-in-the-liberal-arts-in....
10. Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, Generation Z Goes to College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).
11. Baker, Baldwin, and Makker, “Where Are They Now?”
12. Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2014).
13. Depauw University, “The Gold Commitment: Details,” https://www.depauw.edu/commitment/details/.
14. David W. Breneman, “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?,” AAHE Bulletin 43, no. 2 (October 1990): 3–6.
15. Williams School at Washington and Lee University, “Business Administration Department,” https://www.wlu.edu/the-williams-school/departments-and-programs/busines....
16. Breneman, “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?”; Baker, Baldwin, and Makker, “Where Are They Now?”
17. Tarrant, Bray, and Katsinas, “The Invisible Colleges Revisited.”
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NATHAN GRAWE is professor of economics and Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences at Carleton College.