Research points to broader benefits of studying liberal arts in small settings, in areas like leadership, lifelong learning, and civic engagement.

They’re the places you think of when you think of “college”—leafy campuses, small classes, small towns. Liberal-arts colleges are where students ponder life’s big questions, and learn to think en route to successful careers and richer lives, if not always to the best-paying first jobs.

But many of today’s increasingly career-focused students aren’t buying the idea that a liberal-arts education represents a good value, and many small liberal-arts colleges are struggling. The survivors are shedding their liberal-arts identity, if not the label.

A recent study found that of 212 such institutions identified in 1990, only 130 still meet the criteria of a “true liberal-arts college.” Most that fell off the list remained in business, but had shifted toward a pre-professional curriculum.

These distinctively American institutions—educating at most 2 percent of college students, but punching far above their weight in accomplished graduates—can’t turn back the clock.

But schools like Adrian College, 75 miles southwest of Detroit and back from a recent near-death experience, offer something of a playbook.

(Next page: How Adrian College has nearly doubled enrollment while preserving its liberal-arts identity)