Selective residential liberal arts colleges, which bring together disciplinary scholars dedicated to undergraduate teaching and excellent students, are a uniquely American invention. Despite their accidental roots, on a statistical basis, students at such schools vastly outperform their peers at other institutions, even after controlling for factors such as class, family wealth, and social capital.
The achievements of our students suggest that residential liberal arts colleges are scaled correctly to maximize the human interactions, student-student and faculty-student, that create social and intellectual capital. This same small scale means, however, that our schools do not enjoy the economies of scale afforded larger institutions. Moreover, our small market share renders us almost invisible in an increasingly toxic national discourse about the worth of a college degree.
We are at a difficult juncture where some of our institutions may need to retrench or change mission, precisely when our very complex, specialized, global society most needs our graduates and the soft, nimble, integrative skills they bring. That need for our graduates is one of our most important assets, as are our faculties and campuses, but they are not enough to ensure that the type of education we offer will flourish. We will need to be smart, to work to continue to ensure access for students regardless of family background, and to use new technologies to leverage our generous student-faculty ratios and lovely campuses to create unmatched educational opportunity and outcomes for students.
Put differently, in addition to the books, studios, and laboratories that we cherish, virtual communities, online tools, and MOOCs are potential new friends that we must cultivate.
Donal O’Shea, President, New College of Florida