In his 2011 book “Liberal Arts at the Brink,” former Beloit College president Victor Ferrall calculated that in 1986-87, just 30 of 225 liberal-arts colleges awarded 30 percent or more of their degrees in vocational subjects. By 2007-08, 118 did so. Even at a consortium called the Annapolis Group, comprised of the supposedly purest liberal-arts colleges, the percentage of vocational degrees jumped from 6 percent to 17 percent.

“What’s new in the past few years,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, “is people are beginning to wonder in the places that have remained liberal-arts colleges whether that’s enough.” Schools like Adrian that already had shifted to a more vocational approach “are asking whether the balance is right, whether they need to tip more to the professional side.”

Adrian was weed-strewn, demoralized, and down to its last 840 students when Docking arrived in 2005.

“We borrowed 30 million bucks and said, ‘if this doesn’t work out, we’re done,'” he recalled.

First, Docking built up facilities and added teams, notably in sports like hockey and lacrosse that tilt toward more affluent students. No niche market was too small: Adrian started one of the country’s only synchronized skating teams. At the nearby University of Michigan, almost nobody walks onto the football team or even the marching band, but you can at Adrian. And everybody recruits. Docking’s band director has to bring in 20 kids a year, the symphony director 10. He has fired coaches who don’t meet their quotas.

(This year, about 700 of Adrian’s 1,756 students play varsity sports, more than 40 percent. At the University of Michigan, there are 881 student-athletes—or 3 percent of the 27,500 undergraduates.)

Docking worried that Adrian would become a “jock factory,” and the number of students wearing team gear on campus is striking. But, he said: “They come in as hockey players, and they leave as chemists and journalists and business leaders.” Michael Allen, a longtime theater professor, says the athletics culture has turned out better than he feared, saying most athletes who persist are (or get) serious academically.

Pre-professional programs weren’t new to Adrian, but it’s recently added athletic training and sports management. The two most popular majors are business and exercise science. So is Adrian still a “liberal arts college?” Some would scoff, but Docking say yes. He notes the top minors include chemistry, English, and religion/philosophy. He talks up “institutes” on campus—devoted to ethics, study abroad, and other areas—that try to inject liberal arts-style learning around even the pre-professional curriculum. That curriculum still includes liberal-arts distribution requirements, and he insists that liberal-arts skills can be taught in other types of classes, and even through extra-curricular activities.

Vicki Baker, a professor at nearby Albion College, who co-authored the recent study tracking the 39-percent decline in liberal-arts colleges since 1990, also thinks these colleges can retain their value even as they evolve. Her Albion business classes include debates, presentations, and other teaching techniques that were impossible when she taught 400 students at Penn State.

Liberal-arts colleges “appeal to a certain kind of student who really flourishes in that environment,” and who otherwise might not succeed in college, Baker said. “It would be a loss to see that vanish.”

Senior Kyle Cordova chose Adrian half for the chance to play baseball, half for its small size. He was leaning toward a liberal-arts degree but ended up in criminal justice to prepare for a law enforcement career. He’s had the same half-dozen or so professors year after year. “They know me, they know how I work, what I’m weak in, what I’m strong in, how to help me better,” he said. “That’s better than going to Michigan State.”

Communications major Garrett Beitelschies said his professors meet with him on every paper, and “you’re actually talking in front of the room, having to defend your stance.” He’s also partaken of an extracurricular feast unimaginable at the bigger schools he considered: president of his fraternity and the senior class, radio, theater, homecoming king, and even dressing up as Bruiser the Bulldog mascot at football games. With financial aid, Adrian ended up costing him less than some state schools.

Both students said they’d learned broader skills—Cordova cited the complex skills involved in learning to interview witnesses.

But neither said they’d taken a class where the syllabus entailed reading, say, a set of novels.

Liberal-arts colleges talk constantly—and perhaps with more urgency lately—about better pitching their case to the public. But until they do, they’ll have to respond to what that public wants.

Docking says the survival recipe will vary (hockey helps here, but it wouldn’t for Florida colleges). But the basic formula is the same.

“You need to be able to offer more than simply strong academics, or you’re going to have difficulty attracting students,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition. You’d better have something to distinguish yourself.”

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