Can a liberal arts college (LAC) be large?

Most liberal arts colleges (LACs) commonly mentioned here are around 2,000 students, though some public LACs may be larger, like around 8,000 students.

Can a LAC be significantly larger (up to the size of a large state flagship university) and still maintain typical LAC attributes?

  • No or minimal graduate programs.
  • No or minimal overtly pre-professional majors.
  • Small faculty led classes at all class levels.

If it is at least theoretically possible for a LAC to be that large, what would be the reason why LACs are generally small in practice?

Please do not digress into the usual arguments about whether LACs are better or worse than other types of colleges.

If an LAC has adequate resources, I do not see any reason why an LAC cannot enroll 10,000 or more students if there is sufficient demand.

To the best of my knowledge, the largest schools categorized as LACs enroll about 3,500 undergraduates (Bucknell University) but tend to offer non-LAC pre-professional programs such as engineering & business.

Whether or not LACs can grow depends in large part upon consumer demand. I googled:

“Are liberal arts colleges changing their mission ?”

and

“Can liberal arts colleges survive ?”

Dozens of articles appear. The article below shares that a survey revealed that 40% of liberal arts graduates would change their major if they could. This, of course,suggests that LACs might be shrinking rather than expanding.

I recently read a news release that St. Lawrence University in upstate New York is adding majors such as finance, data analytics, and business in the liberal arts. Interesting twist is that students who major in either finance or data analytics must also choose a second major in the liberal arts.

Based on the articles that I saw, it appears that the best ways for LACs to expand is either through mergers or by offering non-liberal arts courses of study such as business & engineering.

While the most elite LACs can remain highly selective due to the number of applications received each year,most LACs are in need of more students in order to sustain the school.

If the change in MBA programs is any indication of future demand at the college level, then technology will be the primary growth area in higher education at the expense of less technical course offerings.

Competition from China may also be a factor that raises demands for pre-professional undergraduate courses of study, but that is a topic deserving of its own thread.

STEM seems to be the fastest growing area of higher education.

P.S. The simple answer to OP’s question: “If it is at least theoretically possible for an LAC to be that large, what would be the reason why LACs are generally small in practice ?”

Simple answer: = Lack of demand by consumers & by employers.

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Using the USNWR grouping, which is based on the Carnegie classification of *Baccalaureate Colleges: Arts Science Focus", I believe the largest LACs are federal service academies like West Point and US Naval Academy. They have close to 5000 undergrads. They tend to have a lot of engineering students, but more than 50% arts and science. so they still meet the Carnegie classification criteria.

Aside from the large engineering presence, the federal service academies also meet ucbalumnus’ other criteria. There are no or minimal graduate programs and small class sizes. For example, West Point’s CDS, shows 0 classes with >29 students, and >96% of classes with <20 students. In theory, I expect that the colleges could be larger and maintain similar class sizes, provided they increased faculty.

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I think it’s along the lines of the organizational philosophy that says that the best run organizations or groups have no more than ~212 members. That’s the maximum number of people that can successfully and efficiently interact in a meaningful way to make decisions that best run the group. When an organization grows beyond that size, it begins to split into new discrete groups that run different aspects of the larger organization … then grow and split again and again, as the larger organization grows. And as it does so, the sense of union is weakened and diffused as the allegiance of the leadership groups begins to lie more with their piece of the pie rather than the entire pie.

At a LAC of 1500-3000 students, the group in charge (Chancellor, Trustees, BoD, Deans, Department Heads, etc) total less than 200 people. Having an efficiently functioning group helps an LAC set a personality that becomes its signature to students and families. Be artsy and funky like Sarah Lawrence, or be focused on sciences like Juniata, or set up a quarter system with 1 class per quarter like CO College.

Larger universities with 20,000 students are not structured as if they were giant LACs - to whatever extent large unis may resemble LACs, they are structured as if they are a collection of LACs. There is no signature personality or central calling card for Texas Austin or Boston University or Wisconsin. Large universities have members in the overall governing body who have absolutely no idea what’s going on in each and every school - the Chancellor at Austin probably doesn’t even know the names of all the 12 deans and 12 assistant deans at UT. In fact, the College of Arts & Sciences at UT has 9000+ students, and probably has more decision makers at the top than any 3 combined LACs.

I think it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for a school with 15,000+ to have an identity or philosophy that infuses the campus. Without that identity, that sense of belonging, I’m not sure an institution can have the spirit of a true LAC.

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I see at least of a couple of problems with a very large LAC:

  • Students who choose an LAC tend to be more undecided about what they want to major in. What happens if a significant portion of students at the large LAC later choose a popular major (say, CS)? Swarthmore has this problem. Imagine the problem magnified 5X or 10X for a hypothetical large LAC without the loss of one of its characteristics.

  • Students, and their families, also choose LACs for certain cachets. Being small and “intimate” is one of them. A large LAC would turn those students away.

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If the answer is “demand”, then it might be helpful to understand demand by reviewing the most impacted majors in the UC system.

It might also be helpful to determine the least in demand majors in the same system.

As small schools, LACs offer two main advantages over larger schools:

  1. Small first year introductory class sizes &

  2. Better opportunities to participate in ECs such as sports.

Additionally, a third aspect that may be attractive to some is the ability to know almost all of the students on campus. Gives an inclusive, cozy feel to the school.

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So your comment about Swat is interesting, because what happens there runs against the STEM and business focus many LAC’s are adding to remain relevant. If you look at the class of 2021 for Swat, from 9,382 applications they admitted 960 students, of which 393 arrived on campus. The most popular intended major…Engineering. My recollection is that about 25% of all admitted students are “pre-engin”.

Fast forward to graduation in May of this year…Engineering graduates = 23.

My daughter graduated a few years ago, and there were probably 50 engineering students. I have no data on the “other” majors they eventually graduate with degrees in, but the school has to know that those who fall off the engineering bandwagon will land in another STEM area. I’m sure there are a few econ or psych majors along the way, but it’s not chaos…it’s managed.

A larger school would have more resources and greater options, but there would be trends and cycles that leadership would be able to plan for changes in direction.

I think your point about size and “feel” are the primary attraction to most students.

Interesting discussion. @EconPop’s response makes sense to me. Also a lot of areas such as the Midwest are facing demographic pressures that are shrinking the pool of available high school graduates. So significantly increasing the undergraduate population may not be feasible.

Hope College has 3100 students, and in addition to the traditional LAC majors it offers majors in Engineering (ABET accredited), Nursing (BSN degree), Education (with teacher certification in MI), Exercise Science (preparing for training in jobs like physical therapy), Business and Accounting. I believe it has offered those majors for a long time.

Hope’s traditional “rival” is Calvin. Calvin College became Calvin University in 2019. Calvin has about 3200 students and is now offering masters and other graduate programs (some online, some in person) including MBA, MPH, data science, speech pathology, audiology. Masters Programs - Academics | Calvin University. Seems like Calvin decided that their path to growth and survival involved adding graduate programs, not increase the size of undergraduate enrollment.

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Two attributes I see common in many LACs (if not most) are residential and undergraduate focus. Most large schools have a significant graduate focus which draw a lot of resources away from the undergraduate world (including research). Part of the intimacy of your typical LAC stems from the residential experience where most students live on campus for a good portion of their time away at college. The larger schools simply don’t have the resources (housing) to do that. Once you get the majority of kids living off campus, you lose that residential college feeling full of heavily participated campus events. Large state schools may have housing for roughly 25% of the student body. They assume most will move off campus sophomore yr and certainly by junior yr.

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With LACs having a larger portion of their students undecided on and less committed to their majors, they face a bigger issue with resource allocation, however well resourced and anticipatory they are. They can’t dynamically reallocate resources from their humanity department to CS department, for example. This problem obviously isn’t limited to LACs, but LACs tend to be more constrained in their abilities to deal with such issues. Stanford, for example, can scale up its popular CS classes dramatically to accommodate their demand, but an LAC wouldn’t ever consider such an option.

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Swarthmore provides some stats for major switching at Majors :: Institutional Research :: Swarthmore College . A summary is below for the most recent available year. It doesn’t look like the natural science / engineering grouping as a whole has an especially large number of persons who switch out. And more students switch in to this grouping than switch out. However, I suspect that it’s largely people switching in to CS, which is Swarthmore’s 2nd most popular major at graduation after economics. I expect many engineering students switch to CS for a variety of reasons including higher anticipated salary, limited engineering offerings/majors, and difference in workload + grades. Many other highly selective private colleges show a similar pattern (not just LACs), with lots of kids switching to CS and econ, which are usually the 2 most popular majors at graduation.

  • 12/116 = 10% of anticipated interdisciplinary majors graduated as interdisciplinary major
  • 53/126 = 42% of anticipated humanities majors graduated as humanities major
  • 107/157 = 68% of anticipated nat science / eng majors graduated as science / eng major
  • 105/150 = 70% of anticipated social sciences majors graduated as social sciences major

Comparing totals among all kids including those who switched majors

  • Interdisciplinary decreased by 59% from 116 → 47
  • Humanities decreased by 16% from 126 → 106
  • Nat Science / Eng increased by 23% from 157 → 193
  • Social Sciences increased by 59% from 150 → 239

I don’t think it can insofar as the term in its common usage implies a “small college or university”. The real question should be, “When does a LAC become too big?”

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Two things come to mind, for me. The first, if a LAC puts an emphasis on the humanities (which I think it does), how many STEM/engineering majors actually want that? In our HS, most of the students focused on STEM only wanted STEM classes. They dropped foreign languages and generally took less challenging humanities classes in order to double or triple up on math and science APs. There tended to be a double standard that it was OK for STEM kids to drop Spanish but not OK for history nerds to drop math. Anecdotal information, for sure, but many of those kids think a LAC isn’t a “real” school and wouldn’t stoop to apply. Conversely, I’m not sure how well a student who didn’t take a literature course (in favor of a sci-fi short story elective) would do in the core classes where D20 reads 600-1000 pages a week per class. Probably the same as she would do on a MVC problem set… terrible.

My second thought - most students choose a LAC because of the more intimate setting, making personal connections with professors and the feeling that they matter. How many students can you have before the students who chose a school with that point in mind start to feel like their experience is not meeting their expectation? I mentioned in the other LAC post that the “large enrollment” sections at D’s school are 60 students. To her, they feel large and impersonal and she feels anonymous, not in a good way. When you only have to take one big class like that over 4 years, you can make do. What is the breaking point when more classes become “large enrollment”? How many “large enrollment” classes make a student feel unsatisfied with their experience?

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Do LACs have a problem with efficiency especially in the face of rising costs of tuition & overall COA ?

As college COA becomes more expensive & less affordable for most families,consumers want more immediate returns regarding job skills & career placement. This is one reason why many LACs are expanding their offerings to include pre=professional, technical, and STEM options.

We are now in a global economy. One point of view may see a liberal arts education as a luxury which necessitates further training beyond a bachelor’s degree in the humanities.

The answer still seems to be based on consumer demand & employer demand which has shifted dramatically into STEM & pre-professional areas.

It would be interesting to see a study of the growth of US college & university students by areas of study & by type of school (LAC or National University) in order to understand trends.

Also needed is a current definition of what constitutes an LAC and whether or not that definition should be refined in the face of a changing marketplace.

I understand the focus on small class size, but liberal arts colleges (at least the smaller ones) offer more than that. In a school of 1500 students there is a greater probability of multiple interactions between any two members of the community, including student, professors, and administration. Arguably, this creates a more personal and collegial learning environment.

@EconPop explained this in terms of organizational philosophy, and focused on the size of campus administration. I don’t have the studies, but I suspect something similar happens with the other interactions on campus.

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@mtmind: I agree.

Can a large LAC retain the intimate characteristics if it expands ?

Actually, it’s the opposite. Consumerism is one reason LACs are so loathe to expand. For example, Wesleyan has barely budged by a few hundred students since 1981 despite the fact that the general college student population has nearly doubled since then. LACs are fully aware that they are not for everyone.

And, I’m absolutely flummoxed by how often people confuse the liberal arts with majoring in the humanities. One of Wesleyan’s oldest departments is Astronomy; one of its most renowned alum is Wilbur Atwater, the inventor of the first calorimeter (a science building at UConn is named after him); Amherst has four Nobel Prize winners to its credit, two of them for medicine and physics.

So, I’m not even sure I accept the premise of your question.

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I expect the trends are generally similar between highly selective LACs and highly selective private colleges, with open major enrollment. These trends typically include an explosion in CS majors, a smaller increase math and engineering (when eng is offered), a lot of econ majors (2 most popular majors are usually econ and CS), many pre-med bio majors, and a noteworthy decline in humanities majors and majors related to politics. Some specific numbers are below using the Swarthmore link above and comparing to Harvard .

Swarthmore: Comparing Class of 2011 to Class of 2021*
CS – Increased from 2.5% to 13.5% of students
Math – Increased from 5% to 8% of students
Engineering – Increased from 3% to 5% of students
Bio – Remained steady at 10% of students
Economics – Declined from 15% to 14% of students
Psychology-- Declined from from 5.5 to 5% of students
History – Declined from 4.5% to 2.5% of students
English – Declined from 7% to 4% of students
Political Science – Declined from 10% to 5% of students
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Total of Groupings Above = 67%* of students in 2021
*corrected for double majors

Harvard: Comparing Class of 2011 to Class of 2020
CS – Increased from 2% to 10% of students
Math/Stats – Increased from 6% to 10% of students
Engineering – Increased from 4.5% to 5% of students
Bio – Remained steady at 12% of students
Economics – Declined from 12.5 to 12% of students
Psychology-- Declined from 5.5% to 4% of students
History – Declined from 9% to 6% of students
English – Declined from 6% to 3% of students
Government – Declined from 11% to 5% of students
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Total of Groupings Above = 67% of students in 2020

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