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How Small Colleges Can Thrive

Liberal arts institutions must commit themselves more fully to the unique tradition that sets them apart from other schools.

Many American colleges are doomed to close in the near future. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, experts were predicting that a quarter, a third, or even half of small colleges in America could close due to demographic change and financial failure in the coming decade. The pandemic has certainly escalated that concern. Why would students continue to pay significant money for an education delivered online, especially when they can get a similar Zoom education much cheaper from nearby state universities? 

Large state universities may limp by on taxpayer money; certainly, prestigious Ivies and research institutions will glide through on the strength of that prestige and their sizable endowments. Smaller private colleges, however, are often nearly entirely dependent on student tuition, and thus they live and die by enrollment numbers. Even before the pandemic, as many as six out of ten colleges missed their enrollment goals for 2020. Everybody knows that the little colleges that dot the nation are in trouble.

Except, Christendom College reports record applications and campus visits ahead of the next academic year. Except, Hillsdale College has seen a 110 percent increase in applications from transfer students. Except, as decline was setting in elsewhere, the University of Dallas set an institutional record for enrollment in 2018 and has not declined significantly since then, despite the pandemic. 

What do these small colleges have in common? They are all committed to teaching the Western tradition with depth and rigor. The honors program at Oklahoma Baptist University, a great books and big ideas curriculum in which I teach, had its biggest enrollment ever in the fall of 2020. These are early signs of coming success for colleges that are willing to double down on their identity as liberal arts institutions unashamedly teaching the Western tradition. It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the path to stability and even growth for small colleges is the road less traveled of traditionalism. 

By traditionalism, I mean a faithfulness to the liberal arts tradition, including a commitment to teaching the history, art, and thought of Western civilization. While many schools still claiming the liberal arts mantle are dropping programs in humanities and cutting their core curricula to appeal to a broader spectrum of students, there is little reason to suspect that the general population of students will be lining up to pay more for the same watered-down education they can get at state universities or online. 

Gutting the liberal arts certainly has not saved institutions like the University of Tulsa from increasing financial woes. Such compromising colleges are, of course, right that the vast majority of Americans are not interested in rigorous, deep education in the liberal arts tradition. But they are dead wrong in thinking that the key to survival is appealing to the majority of Americans. Small liberal arts colleges can thrive with a fraction of the market share. But, ironically, many are missing out on the small percentage of students they need by attempting to cast a broad net to catch the general populace. 

The major trend in America may be, as always, toward dumbing down and bland mass culture, but there is a strong minority trend emerging as a quest for meaning and depth. Some people are sick of being spoonfed from an endless buffet of triviality and sordidness. The popularity of neo-Stoic gurus like Jordan Peterson suggests a sizable number of Americans are looking about for some sense of purpose and meaning. Stoicism is trending. The sacralization of politics, so evident in our public life, might also be slight, sad evidence of this search for significance; those with no real eschaton will find something already immanent to take its place. And the wise small college will focus on the niche market of classical education.

The best indication of the spreading desire for a deeper vision is the rapid expansion of classical schools in K-12 education. “Classical education” is a growing movement in pre-college education in which educators, students, and parents reject the utilitarianism governing modern education and seek a return to traditional liberal arts principles. Often modeling their curricula on Dorothy Sayer’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” classical schools focus on the trivium of the medieval university: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. While they do not neglect science, classical schools strongly emphasize the humanities, particularly classical languages, history, and literature. Classical schools generally share a commitment to human dignity, an insistence on the existence of objective truth, and a sense of stewardship for the Western tradition of thought and culture.

And there are a lot of them. In 2015, John J. Miller reported in National Review on “the resurgence of classical education.” It is a story of rapid expansion, indicating a widespread desire among parents to give their children an education more meaningful than what most public schools can provide. According to the Gospel Coalition, between 200,000 and 300,000 American students from kindergarten through high school were receiving a classical Christian education by 2017. And the classical explosion is not only a Christian phenomenon. Bobby Goodrich is a national recruiter for Great Hearts Academies, a network of classical charter schools in Texas and Arizona. He says that Great Hearts has grown over the last 14 years to 29 schools with 17,500 students in Arizona and Texas; they have as many students on their waiting list as they have currently enrolled and expect continued high rates of growth. Thales Academy, a private and secular school with campuses in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, has over 3,600 students and continues to grow. 

These numbers may be small compared to the number of students in regular public education around the country, but a liberal arts college with 500 to 5,000 students needs to capture only a small number of the young people graduating each year. A smart small college can capture all the tuition it needs by appealing to classical schooling families and to families that may have stuck with conventional public education through graduation but been left with a sense that there must be something more. Almost every little college or university in the country is telling potential students that their indistinguishable institution is the path to a great career, an exciting social life, and self-fulfillment. Any college with the courage to offer students an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves will stand out. 

Any college willing to stand for something more than instant gratification and stylish activism will distinguish itself like a thoroughbred in a field of donkeys. Leading with a statement like, “Every student at this university will leave it with a knowledge of Athens, the Federalist Papers, and the American constitution,” might turn off the hoards looking for a place to drink and riot their way through four years of debauchery, but little colleges are already losing those students. Those are the students leaving anyway, to get the always cheaper, always easier education from regional state schools. The small college with the guts and faith to stand for something clear and particular will draw sufficient numbers seeking something more than run of the mill training and thus will be able to sustain the college while institutions offering the same watered-down education, however much they speak of “excellence,” will fail.

Many will come to these schools seeking a haven from the radical madness that reigns at American universities. That so many on today’s college campuses don’t want students to read Shakespeare or learn about Churchill might just inspire a small but significant number of prospective students to seek out those places still offering such topics. At the very least, students will be looking for places where they won’t be required to take re-education credits on the fluidity of gender or the ubiquity of empire. 

When many American colleges seem too preoccupied with placating the Jacobins to bother with any actual education, sanity may be the best marketing strategy of all. That may be why Grove City College begins its recent video ad by touting their placement on the Young America’s Foundation Top Conservative Colleges list, and have also recently run Facebook ads noting their designation as “Top Conservative College” by StoppingSocialism.com and the Heartland Institute. Colleges such as Hillsdale and New Saint Andrew’s know that parents, and even many students, would like to find a school that doesn’t condition its students to want to “eat the rich” or “smash the patriarchy,” but rather to live a life shaped by virtue and wisdom.

Such a clear statement of values and commitments will not only draw students but will also draw donors. St. John’s College, perhaps the best known of the “Great Books” liberal arts colleges, is betting on that. In 2019 St. John’s cut tuition from $52,000 to $35,000. This reduction naturally increased applications, but the college is hoping that they will be able to make up the difference primarily through donations. Their fundraising efforts seem to be paying off. A university aiming, at best, to pass students along to high paying jobs and, at worst, to indoctrinate students with a kind of lunacy rarely sustainable beyond campus is less likely to attract the generosity either of philanthropists or of small donors. A college that seeks to preserve the best in Western civilization and pass on a heritage of reason and virtue, however, may find itself in a stronger position for fundraising. Such colleges can offer more than a write-off; they can offer a cause. They provide the donor with a reason to give sacrificially.

Such robust and vocal traditionalism will require a great amount of courage on the part of administrations at small colleges. Conventional wisdom will tell them to follow the crowd, to ape the curriculum and values of the surrounding public institutions and elite private schools. But small, private colleges can no long afford the blandness and mediocrity of massive, tax-subsidized public education. Nor can they coast on an elite past. They have to offer an alternative. 

Just as a local mom and pop store will never compete with Walmart, much less with Amazon, by attempting to out-generalize the big guys, so, too, must the little college distinguish itself. And the clearest distinction comes in the ethos of the college. What does the school stand for? Is it possible to tell by looking at the college website and at various promotional materials that the school stands for anything in particular? If little colleges want to stay open, they should ask themselves if there is anything at stake regarding their continued existence, beyond simply continuing to pay the faculty and field a football team.

Small colleges simply do not have the luxury of milquetoast commitments. For many years institutions of higher education were covered by the broad, vaguely Protestant consensus that determined the morality and culture in America. One assumed that the universities stood for the same broad consensus on values as other institutions in American life. But that broad consensus has broken down. In the resulting cultural chaos, it is a fantasy to think that a small college can be “above” the fray and coast by on bland commitments to “critical thinking” or career preparation. To attract students, the small liberal arts college will need to be vocal about what it stands for. Boldness is required for survival. Small colleges will need to fight against the current by doing things like revitalizing or resurrecting their classics departments and adding hours to their core while other universities are cutting back. It will be hard swimming upstream, but going with the flow is the path to oblivion. 

Benjamin Myers has written on education, literature, and culture for First Things, The Imaginative Conservative, The Gospel Coalition, and various other journals. He is also a former poet laureate of Oklahoma and the author of three books of poetry. His first book of non-fiction, A Poetics of Orthodoxy, is forthcoming from Cascade Books. He has a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from Washington University in St. Louis, and teaches in the Western Civilization sequence at Oklahoma Baptist University.