In 1990, David W. Breneman wrote a much-discussed article called "Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?" He focused on the state of 212 institutions that met his criteria (based on those of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) as liberal arts colleges.
These were undergraduate institutions with either a majority or a very large minority of students majoring in traditional arts and sciences fields - and without substantial graduate programmes.
A new article in Liberal Education answers Breneman's question in the affirmative - looking at what happened in the 20 years after the question was posed. For the article, three authors checked up on the 212 institutions and found that today, only 130 of them meet the criteria Breneman used for liberal arts colleges - a decline of 39 percent.
Only a handful of the colleges in the 1990 group have actually closed or been merged into other institutions. More common - and tracked by the article's authors - was curricular change. Thirty-six institutions changed their missions "dramatically", broadening their offerings beyond traditional liberal arts fields. And a number of others added some professional programmes while not changing their missions as drastically.
In many cases, the article says, the institutions continue to call themselves "liberal arts colleges".
"Although many one-time liberal arts colleges cling to that historical identity in their mission statements and promotional literature, our findings confirm a continuing drift away from the traditional arts and sciences-based model of a liberal arts college education," say the authors. They are: Vicki L. Baker, associate professor of economics and management at Albion College; Roger G. Baldwin, professor of educational administration at Michigan State University and a trustee of Hiram College; and Sumedha Makker, an accountant at Ernst & Young.
The authors note that liberal arts colleges have had a disproportionate impact in educating leaders in many fields, and in promoting exemplary models of teaching, and they argue that "American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal arts colleges continues to decline".
In their conclusion, the authors write: "Some liberal arts colleges are disappearing, while others are changing their curricular focus and approach to undergraduate education. An increasingly small number of these institutions have been able to maintain a dominant arts and science emphasis in their curricula... The influence of this sector may be diminishing ... as their numbers decrease and their educational focus becomes less clear."
Victor E. Ferrall Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press), said that the figures in the Liberal Education article ring true, and should be of concern to those who value the liberal arts.
"The problem is not that some places that call themselves 'liberal arts colleges' really aren't any more, but rather that the number of Americans who see the great value a liberal arts education provides is dwindling," he said via e-mail. "Yes, students and their parents still want degrees from prestigious liberal arts colleges, but fewer and fewer value the liberal arts education the colleges provide. In today's market, how is anyone going to get a job as an anthropologist or historian, let alone as a philosopher or expert in 19th-century English literature?"
Ferrall questioned whether liberal arts colleges are paying enough attention to these trends. "An increasing number of liberal arts colleges are attempting answer this question by presenting themselves as vocational, or by arguing that studying anthropology will actually lead to a good job, rather than by showing how the liberal arts curriculum as a whole leads to questioning, analytic, critical thinking that stands recipients in good stead wherever their lives may lead and on whatever career paths they follow," he said. "The liberal arts wing of the academy needs to get busy making the case for the education they provide, before it is too late."