Office of Planning and Budgeting

New Study Suggests Liberal Arts Colleges Are Disappearing

A landmark study from 1990 classified 212 US institutions as liberal arts colleges, but new research shows a 39 percent decline in that number—only 130 institutions currently meet the original study’s classification criteria. Of the 82 institutions no longer classified as liberal arts colleges, a handful were subsumed by larger institutions, while about half had shifted their mission away from the standard liberal arts definition.

Historically, definitions of liberal arts colleges (including Carnegie Classifications) have highlighted their focus on undergraduate studies; selective admissions; small class sizes; emphasis on nurturing diverse perspectives and personal growth; and de-emphasis on cultivating professional skills. According to the more recent study, however, many liberal arts institutions are now offering more “professional” programs and incorporating more research into their curricula. The authors speculate that liberal arts colleges may be making this shift away from their standard definition in response to economic pressures. For example, schools may be attempting to:

  • Offset dwindling revenue streams by attracting new segments of the market;
  • Remain competitive in a market flooded by online and for-profit institutions; or
  • Accommodate students’ increased focus on vocational preparation.

To expand on that last point, recent federal and state-level preoccupation with graduates’ potential earnings has put liberal arts colleges in a difficult position as degrees in traditional liberal arts fields (i.e. social sciences and humanities) may be less lucrative for graduates than other degrees (i.e. professional or STEM degrees). For example, according to CollegeMeasures.org, the average first-year earnings of a graduate with a four-year degree in the State of Virginia are about $30,000 if the degree was in sociology or about $46,000 if the degree was in civil engineering.

A widely-regarded strength of the US higher education system is its diversity. However, if liberal arts colleges shift their missions to include the research and career-preparatory goals of other schools, the system may become more homogeneous—leaving students with fewer educational options.

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