Symposium Entry

Survival of the Liberal Arts Colleges: Perhaps it’s time for an audit of revenue growth strategies.

March 18th, 2015

The debate around the value of liberal arts is really about the desired outcomes of a college education. Should a college education, as the AAC&U stated in 1998, foster in students “a well grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward life-long learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions.”  Or is the point of a college degree gainful employment?


Rather than taking sides, I prefer to embrace the power of the tiny but powerful word “and.” Students of all ages and in all stages of their lives and professional careers should have choices between jobs outcome based education and a well-rounded liberal arts education. There could be room for both – if we focus on the sustainable viability of the institutions – especially the liberal arts colleges.


Frank Mussano and Robert Iosue, co-authors of the book “College Tuition: Four Decades of Financial Deception” argued in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, for colleges to do business productivity audits. A great idea, but I believe it is only part of the solution.


While I most certainly agree that controlling costs is a critical aspect of financial health and business productivity, I am equally concerned that colleges have turned their attention to controlling costs at the expense of the time-tested maxim that “it takes money to make money.” College administrators who focus exclusively on controlling costs often do so at the expense of controlling the creativity of their faculty members and administrators—the very people who have the opportunity to develop and create the ideas and implement the programs that will generate future revenue.


At heavily tuition-dependent schools (typically, of course, the liberal arts colleges), there are very few levers to pull on the revenue-generation side of the ledger. Therefore, it is crucial that each of these levers be closely and creatively assessed and examined for untapped opportunities to reach new populations and create new revenue opportunities.


Colleges have the traditional levers at the ready: raise tuition, increase enrollment, admit an increased percentage of full-paying students. And of course they can cut costs. But these levers merely touch the surface of the opportunities that can arise when colleges turn their focus to the creative consideration of revenue growth strategies.


So let’s take a look at two such solutions to preserving the value of a liberal arts education by bridging the skills gap while adding sustainable revenue.


The first is the blended use of technology—especially for the purposes of extending the footprint of the institution by reaching non-traditional populations of students seeking access and flexibility. Needless to say, this is not a new idea. Many schools have turned to technology as a critical tool for building community across traditional barriers, facilitating access, and enabling affordability for students and for colleges seeking to preserve the benefits of a strong liberal arts education.


But there are quite a few schools across the country that have yet to assess their current capabilities for blending technology into their curriculum delivery. These schools are not only looking inward at cost cutting (rather than resource-investing strategies), they are decades behind in their assumptions that technology inhibits the creation of communities and the strengthening of faculty-student relationship. Done poorly, they are right. But done correctly, the research done over the past two decades will prove them wrong. Michael Horn’s recent book Blended covers this topic quite thoroughly.


Limited thinking about technology can close the door to very important revenue-producing options such as reaching the underserved bubble of aging baby boomers seeking personal enrichment and second or third career advancement.


The second opportunity for revenue growth that I would like to introduce is one that truly embraces the power of “and.” It is an idea that may not only be a revenue generator (especially for small liberal arts schools), but it may also have the added advantage of building a valuable bridge to the skills gap.


The suggestion is for a BA/MA degree program to which an incoming freshman is admitted at a single institution. Parents, federal and state governments, and others who are financing college degrees would be assured from the outset that a student would be pursuing a joint degree at a single institution that would be the blending of the BA—teaching vital skills such as critical thinking, writing, and quantitative reasoning—with an “applied” MA degree. With a well-intentioned program design at the sponsoring institution, the BA/MA model could even be achieved in 5 years (with significant added value for the workplace).  For models that also include internships and other partnerships and cooperative efforts with companies and organizations, a joint-degree program could, perhaps, be the opportunity for industry to step up and provide financial assistance to students who offer potential candidacy for positions in their firms.


Much would be required to provide high quality blended learning environments and effective institution-specific BA/MA programs that would be also be revenue producers. But imagine the faculty, administrative leaders, students, parents, government, and corporate America all being on the same side of the discussion to audit the revenue growth strategies in a creative, forward-thinking fashion. That is a plan that I believe would lead to getting past the pros and cons of a liberal arts education and offer win-win solutions that embrace the power of “and.”


Dr. Sarah B. Steinberg is the principal consultant at Frogstone Strategies LLC and former Executive Vice Provost at Johns Hopkins University.