In a recent entry I wrote about Hampshire College, a small, progressive institution located in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, one that is in deep financial trouble. It’s no secret that many other small colleges face similar problems today; some such as Green Mountain College (Vermont) have already closed, others like Castleton have laid off many employees, and many others are in danger of going into a death spiral. For its part, since I wrote that entry two months ago, Hampshire’s president and some members of its Board have resigned, and the college has dropped its attempt to partner with another institution. It’s now desperately trying to raise enough money to stay afloat.
Vermont seems to be especially hard hit. Besides Green Mountain and Castleton, Goddard College (another Vermont progressive liberal arts college) was placed on accreditation probation in November for failing to meet requirements on finance and governance, and the College of St. Joseph also is in financial trouble. It’s not only the progressive schools that are in trouble; so are the many liberal arts colleges and the smaller branches of the state universities. For now, the top- tier colleges and universities appear safe, but second-tier schools also are facing higher costs and lower numbers of applicants, reflecting downward college-age population trends coupled with over-expansion in the previous century, while ballooning student loans pressure students (and their parents) into making financial cost-benefit decisions about colleges, majors, and careers. No wonder the liberal arts are suffering.
Sterling College in Vermont seems to be an exception to this rule. I’ve blogged about Sterling before. It’s not only got a progressive curriculum, but it specializes in agriculture and environmental studies (including science), and the campus is coupled to a farm raising livestock and produce. Under supervision, students operate this farm and supply food for the college population and others. Although it has a liberal arts curriculum, it has relatively little depth outside of environmental studies, partly because it is so small—only 18 faculty members and 110 students, and compared with other colleges and universities, a much smaller proportion of administrators. Students are required do a lot of the work that staff does at other colleges--like Berea College in Kentucky, it is a work college. Also unlike Hampshire and some of the other small liberal arts colleges, Sterling has been very successful at fund-raising, and relies on tuition for only about 75% of its income, rather than the 90% typical of the others. Also atypical, they maintain almost no long-term debt. And although the food the students eat is fresh, wholesome and plentiful, it is without the upscale attributes of the food at some of the expensive colleges competing for students partly on the basis of the creature comforts they can offer them. And speaking of creature comforts, I can testify on personal experience that dorm living at Sterling is very spartan—bunk beds, small bedrooms, nails in the wall to hand your clothes on, shared bathrooms, and so forth. Their niche appeals to philanthropists and granting agencies. Recently they received a $2.5 million grant to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College, not in Vermont but in Henry County, Kentucky, where Berry lives. Students spend two years in Henry County and graduate with a degree in sustainable agriculture.
Sterling's appeal is to a very small and idealistic segment of the student population, one that wants to combine hands-on farm work with environmental studies in a small, intense community of like-minded people. So small and concentrated is this group that the College admits 94% of those who apply. Only about 60% of those who start the program graduate, compared with 75% at Hampshire, 55% at Goddard, and 75% at the University of Vermont. Sterling offers majors in only a few areas: ecology, environmental humanities, outdoor education, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable food systems, along with self-designed majors. Careers that make sense for Sterling graduates often involve work for government, scientific, or non-profit organizations, many with a global footprint; but as major international corporations expand their commitment to environmental stewardship, Sterling graduates are in demand there as well. Unlike Hampshire, which offers a liberal arts curriculum with depth in many subjects, Sterling College serves to prepare a small group for a comparatively few kinds of careers.
Many of the smaller universities—regional branches of state universities, mainly—are beginning to shrink their liberal arts offerings in exchange for program development that more directly prepares students for careers in areas where there is strong demand, such as information technology, or nursing. Advocates of the liberal arts are crying foul, charging that these institutions are giving up on education and becoming vocational schools instead. But that is a subject for another blog entry.