Tradition and Innovation at Small Liberal Arts Colleges: Part II—To Stand Still is to Go Back

I will begin by quoting Florence Nightingale, (I heard the full quote at all three of our Nursing Pinning ceremonies over the past week and a half), “to stand still is to go back”. As we look at the strategies that different institutions are using to respond to the challenges that are facing small colleges today, and that I outlined in part I of this two part series, in many ways the quote from Nightingale rings true.

In summary, my earlier post reviewed three challenges facing small, regional liberal arts colleges, the reduced number of students graduating from high school in many regions of the country, the impact of the economy, increasing tuition and reluctance to take on debt, which together is affecting the ability of students to afford a traditional residential college experience, and the increased competition from out of region public institutions.


Embracing tradition can be looked at two ways in the context of this post. First, the need for institution’s to look toward the mission, core values and vision statements of the school as a guide during strategic and operational planning, including as current academic programs are reviewed, and especially as new programs are being considered as part of enrollment planning.

Second, if we consider students who have recently finished up at high school, are financially dependent on their parents, and have come for a full-time residential experience as the traditional student population, it is essential that academic affairs, student affairs and enrollment management work together to maintain the academic and co-curricular programs specifically geared for this population, while simultaneously working to grow, or at least maintain, enrollment levels.

This is the challenge. Maintaining enrollment levels of this traditional population in many parts of the country, in particular the northeast, is getting more difficult. But, there are many way to respond to the challenge.

For small liberal arts colleges, continuing to make the case to prospective students and their parents about the value of a liberal arts education, especially in the context of having a foundation of skills that prepares a student for many careers, even future careers that have not yet been invented, (remember a time before mobile app development, big data, data analytics and forensic accounting, and social media marketing, management and content creation), will be essential.

The need for this continuing education campaign, as we continue to shift from the one career to the multiple career model, may diminish over time as it becomes clear that strong foundational skills in conjunction with discipline-specific knowledge gives individuals the ability to be nimble as they move from job to job.

Enrollment management is part admissions and part retention and student success. Data indicates that as the number of high school graduates decrease over time, the diversity of the graduates will increase. The WICHE Knocking at the College Door report projects that “…45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates will be non-White by 2019-2020, compared to 38 percent in the class of 2009…driven most obviously by the rapid increase in the number of Hispanics completing high school”. The WICHE data reflects national trends indicating increased diversity in every state.

What this trend means is that small liberal arts college must look at their admissions and retention processes to ensure that they are meeting the needs of a diversifying student body, (and not only ethnically diverse, but first generation as well), and ensuring that all students are appropriately supported. If an institution’s overall retention or six-year graduation rates are acceptably high, but some of the disaggregated rates by race/ethnicity or first generation status are significantly lower, than a review of student success initiatives is warranted.


Looking beyond the traditional residential student population, small liberal arts colleges must embrace the non-traditional adult learner, or really any individual who is not looking for a residential college experience (an article in today’s Chronicle, reviewing a report by Ladd and Reynolds, labels these students career accelerators, industry switchers and academic wanderers, depending on their motivations to attend college.)

The number of transfer and adult students looking to continue their education will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Louis Soares has referred to these students as Post- traditional Learners, and many (1, 2, 3) consider them the traditional student of the future. Programs must be designed specifically for the adult and transfer student who has a need to obtain a certification or a bachelor’s degree to reach personal or professional goals, but cannot take the time, or cannot afford, the traditional college model for receiving a degree.

At my home institution, we have developed high quality academic programming that meets the needs of the transfer and adult student by stressing accessibility, affordability and an accelerated format, with classes either at convenient (for the student) non-main campus locations, or in an online/hybrid format. Partnering with healthcare facilities and community colleges has been an important component of the development of our adult learner programming. We bring value to the partner by offering programs that help employees or students continue their education, and ultimately move closer to their career or life goals. The partnerships are a win-win for both institutions.

As small liberal arts colleges navigate present and future challenges, I believe it is a given that it will be necessary to nurture and develop the traditional residential student experience, while at the same time developing academic programs that will be attractive to the non-traditional adult learner. Accessible, accelerated and affordable programs that an individual, already busy with work and family, can look at and conclude, “I can fit this program into my busy life. And completing this program will change and improve my life”, will be an essential part of the future small liberal arts college.

Florence Nightingale’s message rings true. In this day of changing demographics, hyper- competition, and the necessity of accessibility and affordability, to stand still is to go back.

One thought on “Tradition and Innovation at Small Liberal Arts Colleges: Part II—To Stand Still is to Go Back

  1. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: May | The Academe Blog

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