Liberal arts programs face challenges in changing priorities

Liberal arts colleges and programs are facing a squeeze as schools and students shift some focus to job-training education, so their advocates are working harder to promote their value.

Students majoring in liberal arts programs has dropped by more than a third at one area college, but others are seeing more stable levels, according to data collected by the Dayton Daily News to study the current state of such programs.

Experts say the national decline is likely tied to a boost in vocational training and students’ desire the seek programs with shorter paths to degrees.

Enrollment at Wright State’s College of Liberal Arts hit a high point of 4,122 in 2010 and has declined every year since, to a current 2,632 students, according to WSU. The percentage of University of Dayton undergraduate students majoring in a liberal arts field has declined from 35 percent in 2008 to 26 percent this year, according to the school.

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The number of liberal arts majors at Miami University has remained fairly steady over the last 10 years at just under 5,000.

Antioch College in Yellow Springs closed in 2009 before reopening in 2011 while Urbana University announced in 2014 it would be sold to Columbus-based Franklin University. Wittenberg University, another liberal arts college located near both Antioch and Urbana, has seen its enrollment shrink from around 2,000 in 2006 to 1,794 this fall.

Despite Wittenberg’s enrollment dip, president Michael Frandsen said the school has rebounded and has made improvements since it cut around $6.5 million from its budget in 2015. For the foreseeable future, Frandsen said Wittenberg is on track to avoid the difficulties faced by Urbana and Antioch.

“I think one of the ways you make sure bad things don’t happen, whatever they are, is you’re aware that they could,” Frandsen said. “You don’t have to go to far. It’s a bike ride away to Antioch, a place that did close for a while, and a bike ride in the other direction to Urbana that’s gone through a transition from an independent to a branch campus. So, certainly I’m cognizant … that these things are happening.”

The liberal arts may have the humanities to blame for a recent dip in degrees, said Rob Townsend, director of the Washington, D.C. office of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The number of humanities degrees awarded dropped by 9.5 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to a 2017 report from the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The decline of liberal arts programs and colleges, Townsend said, is due to several factors, but the push toward more vocational studies in science, technology, engineering and math is major. A shift toward career outcomes was further “hardened” by the Great Recession in 2008, Townsend said.

There have been a lot of “well-intentioned” efforts over the years, Townsend said, to shorten the length of time it takes to get a degree. That has resulted in an explosion of certificate programs that often primarily include vocationally focused classes and fewer liberal arts courses.

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“My sense is there has been a convergence of a bunch of different things,” Townsend said. “There’s the sense that you have to get a job that’s vocationally oriented and they’re encouraging students to think that way too.”

The change in thinking has forced liberal arts educators to alter the way they pitch majoring in liberal arts fields to students, said Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, Miami’s director of liberal education. Educators are “not very good at talking about the long term value of a liberal arts education” and they’re trying to change that, Bromberg said.

Liberal arts educators are trying to use what Frandsen refers to as “proof points” that a degree in a liberal arts field can get students jobs and makes them more flexible in the long run of their careers.

Deliberate messaging hasn’t been the norm but is what Linda Caron, dean of Wright State’s College of Liberal Arts, said will help boost liberal arts majors over time. Now, area liberal arts educators said they’re doing more outreach to potential students and advocating internships and career placement services too.

“We’re doing everything that we can think of to remind and ensure students that a degree in liberal arts is a good investment of time energy and resources,” Caron said. “I think people are starting to realize that one piece of the puzzle alone is not going to give you a complete picture.”


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The Dayton Daily News examined a decade’s worth of college enrollment data to report this story. Count on us to continue our in-depth look into higher education issues.

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