There is a classic “death spiral” for a liberal-arts college. Enrollments decline a bit, so programs or services must be cut. That makes the school a little less appealing, so the college puts more money toward financial aid to attract the entering class. In the biz, this is known as “raising the discount rate,” that is, maintaining the tuition rate, but raising the number or size of financial aid grants. But applications keep declining, so the college cuts programs and services more; the quality declines further; more money goes to financial aid. That’s the death spiral.

Putting money toward financial aid, making college more accessible for folks of limited means, sounds like a very good thing. Financial aid can be seen as enacting social justice, like progressive taxation; the rich pay the full tuition, and the not-rich get financial aid appropriate for their needs. It’s impossible to argue against financial aid. One institution might target its financial aid to help it get the most well prepared students. Another institution might target its financial aid to help it get strong student athletes. Another might use its financial aid to help it build the ethnic diversity of its student body. Whatever the values of any particular liberal-arts college, reduction in programs or services to raise the discount rate drives the death spiral.

Enrollment in classical languages is way down all over, and classical antiquity has lost much prestige as an object for scholarly inquiry. Liberal-arts colleges looking to cut programs to help financial aid naturally think to trim low-enrollment courses, especially when those subjects no longer lend prestige. STEM subjects are the most reliable draws for applicants, so those can’t be cut, even though the institutional costs for STEM instruction, labs and equipment, are much higher than for, e.g. Philosophy. The arts have high instructional costs, but liberal-arts colleges are expected to provide experiences in art, though the number of majors tends to be low. The Social Sciences are a mixed bag; some disciplines are doing well with enrollment, others not. But the Humanities are hurting at many liberal-arts colleges, though that’s the broad area most associated with the liberal arts. Languages are difficult for liberal-arts colleges, for they require lots of resources for staffing. If a college offers the beginning level of a language, it is obligated to keep offering that language through all four years. Language instruction is also labor intensive, with many language classes meeting more frequently in a week than other subjects. Dead languages are an especially hard sell, for they don’t directly help with communication in the global marketplace, and they are just plain difficult.

There’s a liberal-arts college that is expanding its STEM curriculum dramatically and cutting its humanities offerings, all in an effort to resist the pull of the death spiral. It makes sense. Insofar as colleges must cater to the educational preferences of their clientele, building STEM and diminishing Humanities may be the best way to go. I wonder if that will be enough to resist the death spiral. I wonder if diminution of the Humanities will make a liberal-arts college more desirable or less desirable to applicants. I’ll be curious to see whether this particular liberal-arts college will go down the drain of the death spiral or transform into a successful technical college.

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