There are two main questions about the future of liberal arts colleges. The first focuses on relevance, and wonders whether in an increasingly technological and career-centered world, there is any room for a major that doesn't lead directly to a particular job. The second frets about cost, and wonders whether, in the future, students will be able to afford to enroll in a liberal arts college, most of which, being private, are very expensive.
These are important and useful questions, both of which I have written about in the past. But there is another question we ought to be asking, one which, if schools get the answer right, can help them respond to the first two queries. It is this: Where is the future of liberal arts colleges?
You can start to understand the importance of the question by asking where the present of liberal arts colleges lies. The answer is, by and large, in rural communities east of the Rockies. This is true of top liberal arts colleges like Dartmouth and Middlebury and Grinnell. But it is equally true of little known liberal arts colleges, which are sprinkled by the dozens through the towns of New England, the Midwest, and the upper south.
Those towns were important population and cultural centers when their home colleges were founded, mostly in the 19th century. And for much of their histories, the small colleges mostly enrolled students from the local region. But today, the population of those regions has dwindled, and large public universities have swallowed up much of the enrollment in the state. A a result, small, rural liberal arts colleges struggle to either raise their profiles by competing with nationally known liberal arts colleges on amenities and cost, or they struggle to stay alive. (The parallel with mainline protestant congregations is instructive. Those congregations often planted colleges in the farming towns of the New England diaspora. Now those churches struggle to stay alive in places where the population is aging and shrinking.)
You might also ask where liberal arts colleges are not. They are not east of the Rockies, by and large, with the exception of pockets in Seattle, Portland, and California. And they are not in the burgeoning cities of the sunbelt and West. There is one liberal arts college in Salt Lake City--Westminster College. There is one in Denver--Colorado Christian. There are none in Phoenix, or Las Vegas. There are only a handful in the cities of Texas, Georgia, and Alabama.
This matters for two reasons. First, students enroll in colleges close to home. If the vast majority of the American population lives in or near cities, the vast majority of students will pick urban institutions. Second, cities contain both the employment opportunities and the amenities that make it possible for students with liberal arts degrees to find employment, and for colleges to keep costs low. If you run a rural college and want to attract students interested in theater, and athletics, and restaurants, you have to build them. But if you run an urban liberal arts college, those opportunities are within walking distance of campus.
In fact, if I had to build a new liberal arts college right now, I would build one in the heart of a city. Instead of erecting a gym and a library and a cafeteria and taking on those costs, I would make arrangements with the local Gold's gym, and the public library, and surrounding restaurants for my students to use their facilities at a cost. The college supports local economic development, and connects deeply with the local community, reduces its own costs, and heightens the range and diversity of the learning experiences of its students.