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)