There are 4,000 degree-granting colleges and universities in our nation: community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, regional and urban public universities, and graduate research centers. I have taught within each type; each has its strengths and makes distinctive contributions to society.
Yet I have a soft spot in my heart for the liberal arts college, of which there are 700-800 in the U.S. With 500-2,000 students each, the schools offer a personal approach rarely found elsewhere. Rather than specialize the mind, these schools broaden and enlarge the mind.
Illinois has more than its share of these colleges, from Rockford down to McKendree in Lebanon. They were often started in the 19th century by Yankee ministers who believed in the civilizing influence of higher education, and before the development of public colleges.
Faculty often invite students into their homes for supper and talk during a term. Ditto for informal chats among faculty, staff and students over coffee between classes in the student center. Athletes who are not big or fast enough to play in the Big Ten can pursue their love of the game at these schools. And fellow students cheer on these true student athletes, whom they actually know.
Professors are there to teach and mentor. Most are devoted to their students, even though the pay is often less than many high school teachers pull down. Many such schools are like a big family, and the hot-house environments often lift graduates into top-flight graduate, medical, law and professional schools.
Yet I fear many liberal arts colleges are in peril, the drip-drip of closures over recent decades turned into a steady stream, exacerbated by the coronavirus. The 30 or so top-ranked such schools and the few others with big endowments will be fine, yet most liberal arts colleges have measly treasuries.
Many, maybe most liberal arts colleges have been struggling for decades. Many reasons:
· relatively high cost, and parental skittishness over taking on heavy debt, which has helped keep many liberal arts colleges afloat in recent decades;
· declining numbers of high school graduates;
· location often in small, out-of-the-way cities and hamlets, which never grew;
· dramatic expansion of lower-cost public universities and community colleges, the latter supported by both state appropriations as well as property tax dollars, and located close to their student markets;
· elimination long ago of direct Illinois state aid for private colleges, as well as sharp reductions in the past decade in the state’s need-based scholarship programs, and
· online education, which doesn’t require “the college experience.”
The coronavirus may now push many liberal arts institutions over the edge. One in Illinois, MacMurray College in Jacksonville, announced last month it is closing after 174 years at the end of the semester. Predictions are that uncertainties about how college will be conducted this fall might drive higher education enrollments down by 20 percent. Whatever the decline, it may be worse at ol’ Siwash (a fond to me, out-of-date term for the typical liberal arts college).
After all, say parents and students, why should we pay relatively big bucks for the personalized college experience, if there may not be so much of an on-campus experience this coming fall, or even into the future?
Of course, every private college alum and trustee believes, though with knitted brow, that his ol’ Siwash will survive, as others succumb. And planning for alternative futures, the trustees fret, would send the worst of signals to the larger world.
What to do? Possible options, among others, I’m sure:
· Cooperative colleges. Share foreign language, geology, classics, environmental science and other small department faculty.
· On-campus “Academies of Advanced Excellence” — for talented high school students in the college’s region, who can’t get enough physics, computer science, foreign language, advanced music or whatever from their limited high school programs.
Similar to the “dual credit” courses offered to high schoolers by community colleges, “advanced excellence” could be, like AP courses, more rigorous than dual credit, and possibly accepted by top private colleges and universities.
These academies would augment the continuing, traditional liberal arts college program.
· If staying open is not an option, maybe transform a campus into a Hope Meadows. Former University of Illinois professor Brenda Eheart converted a closed military base near her university into a community that brings oldsters together with foster care families in a mutually supportive living environment. Hope Meadows has been replicated in nine places across America, or similarly,
· Reconfigure a campus into a senior living complex with rich social, educational and performance opportunities.
I would hate to lose a single ol’ Siwash. We would be the poorer for it. Creativity is obviously required to sustain and strengthen the viable liberal arts colleges, and transform those that aren’t.
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via Effingham Daily News
May 29, 2020 at 09:19PM