There are a few folks still alive who remember the small four-year college as a finishing school for social graces and intellectual elitism. Liberal Arts was the major purpose, refining ideals, philosophy and social insight. Of course there were more pragmatic subjects in the sciences, engineering, medicine and the like but most of these subjects required advanced degrees beyond the small liberal arts college.
Things changed after World War II. The GI Bill financed college for veterans. Slowly as the 1900s passed, social grace was displaced by the opportunity to have a better paying job; certainly the intellectual purpose still existed but people with four-year college degrees clearly had a better chance in life. At the end of the century things began to shift again.
The issue is the imbalance of the workforce. In the 1990s the economy expanded through investment opportunities rather than manufacturing. The number of manufacturing jobs dropped dramatically between 1997 and 2010 – to the tune of 5.7 million jobs. The net effect was that a college degree was the sole strategy for getting a better paying job; and colleges grew.
Further, by 2030 automation will reduce the number of all jobs by 73 million. While college degrees may be valid for a narrow group of post graduate studies, the four-year degree, at the moment, is not providing the better future it has promised in the past. Statisticians who follow these studies suggest far too many students are entering college than there are jobs to accommodate them.
The lack of trained labor employees that would be needed for a recovery of manufacturing has caught the attention of Congress. Conservatives already are looking for ways to redirect Federal funds that support four-year colleges in order to improve trade schools, community colleges and training offered by businesses.
Given the increased complexity of artificial intelligence and integrated computer processes, and robots of every description, a manufacturing job indeed needs more training and comprehension today than the old school, labor intensive environment. But Liberal Arts is not required.
What all this means for small liberal arts colleges is not good. Already dozens of colleges have had to revamp their majors to include service work like nursing, criminal justice, and business accounting. Still, too few students are registering for liberal arts majors. Today, there are too many service workers who have four-year degrees; the market for students is no longer growing. College mergers are frequent and reflect a changing student environment that is a cross between subjects requiring labs and in-person attendance combined with internet-based classes taken at home.
Today, college tuition is out of whack similar to the health industry. There are certain sectors of the economy that should not be driven by maximized profit. Given the fact that there are too many college students and the cost is astronomical, it is likely that elite universities and state universities may be all that survives. Yet again, smaller colleges could redefine their purpose toward two-year programs. The honing of one’s civility will not be one.