Can Christian Liberal Arts Be Affordable and Sustainable?

As much as I talk about blogging as “thinking in public,” I’m rarely so incautious as to do such contemplation in the heat of a moment. But every once in a while, I decide that I ought to record a thought that I hold intensely, if transiently. I did that in the wee hours after Donald Trump won the 2016 election with that 81% of white evangelical voters. And I did that last week, after months of responding to a budget crisis and hours of participating in a board meeting. I asked if former Reed College president John Kroger’s recent thought experiment in Inside Higher Ed could be duplicated for my sector higher ed: could we reverse-engineer what we do at a place like Bethel and reimagine a Christian liberal arts college that costs only $10,000 a year in tuition?

I think I had five separate long conversations with colleagues about that post the next day, plus the most extensive comment thread I’ve ever hosted on Facebook. And that’s the value of a thought experiment: it gets people thinking, and talking, about matters that we don’t necessarily examine day in and day out. Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk to me last week, or to share their thoughts on Facebook!

Several people were drawn to the premise, both because they had struggled themselves with student debt and because they regretted how the liberal arts were becoming the province of the affluent. But there were plenty of valid objections to Kroger’s notion and my proposal that we think about it for Christian higher ed. I just wanted to work through a few of them:

Such a “stripped-down” model would be like a community college.

It does sound that way in many respects. And that’s not a bad thing. One of my uncles was the dean of a community college out west; such institutions have long played an important role in American higher education, though their collective enrollment is currently in decline.

But even setting aside the fact that public two-year colleges could never host the particular religious mission and curriculum that I had in mind… I think people may have missed the core of Kroger’s argument: we’re trying to reverse engineer a liberal arts college. There was a lot of attention paid to his regretful decisions to cut the fine arts and experimental sciences (more on that to come), but few noticed what else was missing from his list of disciplines: the professional, technical, and vocational programs that are not only indispensable to community colleges, but increasingly the drivers of enrollment at supposed “liberal arts colleges.”

Rightly or wrongly, he was imagining something very different from a two- or four-year institution whose primary purpose (at least as students see it) is to prepare graduates for a particular kind of work.

Now, as one fellow historian pointed out, actually implementing this experiment means that we’d learn just how much American high school graduates value the liberal arts. Even if you dropped the price point to $10,000, he wondered, is there really enough demand for this kind of education?

I’d like to think that students would line up around the block, but I’m not sure that the demand exists. (The problem with a thought experiment this drastic is that unless it becomes an actual experiment, it’s almost impossible to verify or falsify its premises.) And in any event…

Can you really get to $10,000?

Several of my academic friends thought that Kroger’s goal was both admirable and impossible. Maybe $15,000 tuition, one proposed, but not $10,000.

And the more I ponder it, the less I think that you could actually dispense with some of the supporting expenses that Kroger quickly eliminated in his single-minded focus on the liberal arts core. As I hinted in my initial response, it seems impossible to do away with counseling/mental health services and academic tutoring (even with an 1100 SAT cut-off). What about disability services? Could you actually cut the library altogether without eliminating student research? (Maybe some kind of an arrangement with a local research university, but…)

And then there’s the cost that will remain sizable no matter how much you strip any college down: what you pay the faculty whose work is at the heart of the whole enterprise. Given that academic labor accounts for the single biggest share of most all colleges’ budgets, Kroger’s fellow IHE columnist, Joshua Kim, wasn’t convinced that you could get to $10,000 a year. Of course, that mostly depends on what kind of compensation you offer. All I could glean from Kroger is that professors at his reimagined liberal arts college would receive more than overloaded adjuncts but less than what his former faculty at Reed were paid… But the average assistant professor at Reed makes approximately what I make as a relatively new full professor at Bethel, and Reed’s most senior academics earn at least four times what an average full-time adjunct earns in a year.

So within this range, and given the incredibly tight constraints of this institution’s budget (and the high cost per living in Kroger’s presumed urban locale), could you arrive at salaries and benefits that attracted and retained high-quality faculty?

Maybe not. But I do think it’s worth emphasizing here that Kroger would privilege academic disciplines that tend to be less expensive to teach than many of those he would omit. It’s a complicated question, but there are several studies finding that the humanities and social sciences are considerably less expensive to offer than most STEM and health science programs. Disciplines like economics and history, for example, not only need minimal, flexible, simple space that can be used efficiently, but they can be taught well through a mix of seminars and large lectures. That’s usually not true of, say, biochemistry and studio art.

No experimental sciences?!? No fine arts?!?!

I know, I know. But just hold that thought a second…

No dorms?!?! No sports!?! No campus ministry?!?!?

Yes, the natural and behavioral sciences are important to the educational model I want to preserve. So too are performative and creative arts like sculpture, music, and theatre. I’m not sure that you could get rid of all but artistic appreciation and non-experimental sciences and still call it the liberal arts. And in a world of lazy rivers, it’s easy to lose sight of how much actual emotional, physical, spiritual, and even intellectual development takes place beyond the classroom. I’ve written before, for example, about the distinctive contributions that athletics make for a sizable minority of college students. I’m not certain that you could dispense entirely with the co-curriculum and adequately educate however many students would actually want to attend that kind of college.

So let me make clear: I think the Christian liberal arts college as its alumni of the last half-century have known it is a wonderful thing. It’s where I wish I had gone for college. It’s where I’d prefer my kids go to college. And it’s where I want to spend my career teaching.

But I’m not sure it can survive as is.

Apart from those rare examples of the type where a large endowment or some other distinguishing feature makes it less susceptible to enrollment pressures, most Christian liberal arts colleges are utterly dependent on tuition (and room and board) to make their budgets. But even if they’ve been able to control costs enough to slow the growth in tuition, they’ve simultaneously needed to fund growing financial aid packages out of their own budgets in order to buy as many matriculants as possible from their equally desperate competitors.

And if those trends aren’t worrisome enough, an economist working down the road from me (at a more Reed-like institution) predicts we’ll see the college-going population shrink by 15% between 2025 and 2029.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that twenty years from tonight I’ll be able to pull up this post and shake my head in chastened disbelief at my shortsightedness, as I prepare for an Advising Day full of appointments with my legion of history major advisees who all play sports, act in plays, or discuss Plato and Fanon with their dorm mates.

But if I’m not wrong, then I think we need to prepare to reconsider the notion that all of these undeniably good things are all equally essential to the Christian liberal arts college. I think we’ll need to ask if the combination of all these academic disciplines with co-curricular programming on a residential suburban or rural campus with extensive amenities is essential, or a product of historical contingency — subject to historical change over time.

If each of these elements is actually indispensable, then we should try to press on… I’m just not sure how many schools featuring that complicated, expensive combination and recruiting from a shrinking demographic will actually survive the next 10-30 years. The best case scenario I can come up with is that an institution like mine will survive a terrible winnowing process, as some of the residential, full-service, Christian liberal arts colleges attempting to maintain that status quo go under… handing their competitors temporary boosts in enrollment.

But if they’re not equally essential, then doesn’t it make sense to have an honest, albeit painful reexamination — either within an existing institution, or in the process of developing a new one?

I’ve long since given up on blog commenting. But if you see more light at the end of the tunnel than I do at the moment, please email me your thoughts. I’d be grateful to be at once corrected and encouraged.