This article (pdf) on “The Threads to Liberal Arts Colleges” by Trustee Paul Neely ’68 is an interesting read. It is part of a 1999 symposium in Daedalus. Although dated in some respects, the article summarizes the problems faced by liberal arts colleges, some of which have come to pass. Selections and comments below.

In 1998, A POLL OF UNIVERSITY OFFICIALS conducted by U.S. News & World Report ranked the University of Arkansas fifty-third in academic reputation among the fifty-four schools of the nation’s five major athletic conferences. Also in 1998, the University of Arkansas increased the number of first-year students scoring in the ninety-fifth percentile on standardized entrance tests by 42 percent. It used a heavy marketing campaign, but the key difference was an increase in the scholarship budget from $1.8 million to about $4.4 million. Approximately $1.5 million of the increase came from the family of the late Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. The funds were earmarked for full scholarships targeted specifically at academically superior, not economically poorer, students. University officials have reported success. Many students who would have gone to out-of-state schools are now staying in Arkansas. And the quality of these students has added new vitality to academic life at the university. There is little doubt that the university’s academic reputation will rise, since at heart it depends most heavily not on history, faculty, or facilities but on the quality of the students.

Nealy does not like this sort of merit aid. He sees, correctly, the it will impact the bottom line of liberal arts colleges like Williams which will feel compelled to compete on the basis of price. The main reason that spending by Williams on financial aid has almost tripled since Nealy wrote these words is not that the folks in charge of the College (both trustees and administrators) are more generous now than they were a decade ago nor that they feel more keenly the constraints that debt places on graduating Ephs nor that the College is admitting more poor students. The fundamental cause is competition among schools. Nealy saw this coming and come it has.

Hooray! I think that Williams ought to compete for the very best students. If Arkansas is going to charge a “rich” student only $10,000 to attend, and Williams wants that student, then Williams needs to cut its prices.

Merit scholarships alone will not undermine the rich history of the nation’s more selective liberal arts colleges, but the issues behind them reflect the risky economics, aggressive competition, and eroding purpose that threaten the future of those schools. As a trustee of Williams College, I am at the tail of a long line of thoughtful, devoted board members. They have had many concerns over the years, but surely none had to worry about competition from the University of Arkansas. We worry about such things now.

Good. I want the Trustees to be worried. I want them to compete for the very best students. I want them to lower prices even to rich families. Collusion among elite schools to keep prices high, as occured for decade under the Overlap regime, was a blight. If this means that Williams needs to spend less money on other things, than so be it. If this means that other liberal arts college close because smart students would rather spend $5,000 at Arkansas than $25,000 at Gettysburg, then so be it. Human institutions should rise and fall on the basis of free choices made by informed individuals. Neely is correct to see price competition as a threat to the future of liberal arts schools. But if they can’t meet the threat of fair competition, they deserve to fail.

Outside of financial aid, Neely provides a somewhat conservative critique.

There are, however, serious problems in today’s curriculum. Not every course in the catalog should discuss every permutation of race, gender, and sexual preference. Not every professor specializing in an obscure corner of scholarly life needs to teach a course reflecting his singular interest, as if to replicate the thickest university catalog. Again, though, these are widespread issues, clearly not restricted to selective liberal arts colleges.

Correct. I don’t quite know why Neely is not a fan of my writing on EphBlog since we clearly agree about many things. The tyranny of small differences, perhaps? The problem is that, as best I can tell, he has not led the charge to do much about this at Williams. (Corrections welcome!). For starters, it would be nice to see the College make public decent data on course enrollments over time. (Yes, the College does make some data available, but I was ignored in my last request to access data on tutorial enrollments.) The first step to fighting these problems is alumni knowledge about their existence. Related discussion here.

Likewise for the impending doom threatened by various forms of electronic teaching. In terms of convenience and cost, but probably not effectiveness, the prospect of going to class by television or computer is an attractive one. If such teaching is to displace the traditional forums, though, it is likely to follow a clear order: first, professional and vocational courses that are required as part of employment, thus addressing the many motivational problems of distance teaching; second, the colleges and universities where teaching modes most closely resemble television watching, namely, large lectures before passive students; and third, and only then, the colleges where the educational process and campus life are heavily based on the personal interaction of students and faculty.

Correct again. Although getting rid of lecture at Williams would be good in and of itself, it would also serve as a way to differentiate the College from its peers.

There is much more interesting material in the article. Read the whole thing. Perhaps we should run an on-line seminar on it? I wonder if Neely would join us . . .

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