Liberal Education

Where Are They Now? Revisiting Breneman's Study of Liberal Arts Colleges

In 1990, David Breneman asked the provocative question, are we losing our liberal arts colleges? More than twenty years later, it is time to ask Breneman’s question again: in 2012, what is the position of liberal arts colleges in the landscape of American higher education?

The liberal arts college, a distinctively American institution, has been a core element of the US higher education system since the colonial era. Historically, its defining attributes have included a curriculum based primarily in arts and science fields; small classes and close student-faculty relationships; full-time study and student residence on campus; and little emphasis on vocational preparation or study in professional fields. At its best, the liberal arts college has provided a distinct and highly valued model of undergraduate education. Pascarella and Terenzini (1991, 596), for example, noted that the “supportive social-psychological context” that promotes institutional impact on students is characteristic of many liberal arts colleges. These attributes include “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty” (Pascarella et al. 2005, 12).

Other researchers have identified valuable attributes of liberal arts colleges. Astin (2000) reported that liberal arts college students, as compared to peers in other types of colleges and universities, reported higher satisfaction with teaching and general education programs. Hu and Kuh (2002) learned that students in liberal arts colleges tend to be more engaged in their college experience, as compared to their counterparts in research universities and larger, more comprehensive colleges. Collectively, this research evidence supports the belief that liberal arts colleges provide a distinctive and highly beneficial form of undergraduate education.

However, Breneman’s (1990) research showed that many liberal arts colleges were gradually evolving into career-oriented “professional colleges” where a large percentage of students major in professional fields (e.g., business, nursing, allied health) rather than arts and science disciplines (e.g., English, history, chemistry). The consequences of this academic evolution for the mission and intellectual coherence of the liberal arts college were among Breneman’s chief concerns.

The challenges for liberal arts colleges

Many powerful threats to the liberal arts college have been active in recent years. These include the cost of residential education; competition from new education providers, including online and for-profit educational programs; and a job market in transition to a knowledge and service-based economy. Another threat is posed by vocationally oriented students who are more concerned about being well off financially than with such common liberal arts goals as developing a meaningful philosophy of life or helping promote tolerance and understanding among diverse groups (Liu, Sharkness, and Pryor 2008). Many of these challenges are at work throughout higher education, and responding effectively to them is a concern across all types of colleges and universities. However, Breneman’s (1990) research indicated that liberal arts colleges may be disproportionately affected by the changing educational environment, and indeed that the very existence of this educational model may be at stake.

The diversity of US higher education is widely regarded as one of its strengths. At the same time, the hierarchy of institutional prestige and the dominance of the research university model plus growing competitive pressures push higher education institutions to emulate the practices of more prestigious and more vocationally oriented institutions. If liberal arts colleges move more closely to the career-focused mission of comprehensive universities and community colleges or closer to the research mission of elite universities, then the system may lose an important educational option that historically has served many students and the larger society very well. As a consequence, US higher education may become less flexible and less able to meet the educational needs of an increasingly pluralistic society.

Many liberal arts colleges (e.g., Antioch, Reed, Colorado, St. John’s) have been sources of innovation in undergraduate education. Due to their small size, emphasis on undergraduate education, and private control, they have been free to experiment with alternative curricula and pedagogies, unencumbered by the influence of powerful practitioner groups or the fixed requirements of professional licensure. If the liberal arts college as an educational alternative dies out or morphs into another type of higher education institution, an influential “test kitchen” for innovation in undergraduate education will disappear or, perhaps, become too peripheral to play a leadership role.

In recent years, many liberal arts colleges have worked to update their educational strategies in order to remain competitive in an aggressive market for new students. While continuing to value the traditional goals of a liberal arts education, such as “breadth of awareness and appreciation, clarity and precision of thought and communication, critical analysis, honing of moral and ethical sensibilities” (Shoenberg 2009, 56), many liberal arts colleges have experimented with ways to adapt their educational model and to connect it more directly with the world beyond campus and with career opportunities. Freeland (2009) described a challenge to the version of liberal education that is based predominantly in arts and sciences fields, which has been the defining version for many educators and college students since the early years of the twentieth century. More recently, many liberal arts colleges have chosen to supplement traditional classroom learning strategies and exclusively arts and sciences–based curricula with more vocationally oriented fields and associated experiential learning opportunities. Examples of these activities include off-campus work placements related to students’ career interests, service learning, undergraduate research, and study abroad aimed to broaden the educational experience (Freeland 2009) and connect it more explicitly to life beyond campus.

Our review of relevant literature has revealed a historical trend toward more professional education and less study of traditional liberal arts fields throughout American higher education. Delucchi (1997, 414) reported that “the curricular trend in higher education since about 1970 has been toward studies related to work… Enrollment concerns in recent years have compelled many liberal arts colleges to abandon or sharply scale back their arts and sciences curriculum in order to accommodate student preoccupation with the immediate job market.” As Breneman (1990) documented, many traditional liberal arts colleges have added programs in professional fields in order to attract vocationally oriented students. Delucchi argued that many of these colleges may have passed the tipping point at which they relinquish their liberal arts college roots and become a different type of institution. While these transformed colleges may work to maintain the “liberal arts” college myth, Delucchi contends, “the retention of a liberal arts claim in the academic mission statement of these colleges becomes inconsistent with their professional curriculum” (1997, 414–15). Consistent with the findings of Brint et al. (2005) and Morphew and Hartley (2006), many colleges may seek to maintain legitimacy with key constituents by emphasizing traditional liberal arts education in their mission statements and some curricular offerings. In reality, however, they may gradually be altering their curricular emphasis and institutional purpose.

In a time of transition, it is important to determine whether liberal arts institutions have adapted their academic programs and pedagogies while preserving their core educational mission. Alternatively, are they becoming a different type of higher education institution altogether? Are we witnessing the gradual demise of the liberal arts college? Or, are we merely seeing a normal evolutionary response that may lead to new or perhaps alternative (e.g., hybrid) models of a liberal arts college education?

Are we losing our liberal arts colleges? (2.0)

In order to understand the current state of the liberal arts college and the role it now plays in American higher education, we replicated Breneman’s 1990 study. We employed Breneman’s methodology for classifying liberal arts colleges. We included Liberal Arts I (now Baccalaureate Arts and Sciences, as defined by the Carnegie Foundation) and Liberal Arts II (now Baccalaureate Diverse Fields, as defined by Carnegie) institutions. Liberal Arts I institutions award more than half their undergraduate degrees in the arts and sciences. Liberal Arts II institutions are less selective and award less than half of their degrees in arts and sciences, but are too small to be categorized as comprehensive colleges as defined by the Carnegie classification system that Breneman used. When categorizing institutions as Liberal Arts I institutions, we removed any liberal arts college that was a mini-university or a “liberal arts plus,” as described by Breneman (1990). These institutions offer an array of graduate programs, sometimes including law and even doctoral programs. When classifying Liberal Arts II institutions, we used Breneman’s 60 percent rule, meaning that any institution that awarded 60 percent or more of its degrees in professional fields was removed from the list of liberal arts colleges entirely.

We used data from the Integrated Post-Secondary Educational Survey to calculate the percentage of professional degrees awarded. We used Breneman’s (1990) published results as a baseline to assess changes among liberal arts colleges over the past twenty years. We collected figures from the 2008–9 academic years for comparison with Breneman’s data. For each of the 212 institutions Breneman classified as liberal arts colleges, we collected data on degrees awarded—including first major, total degrees by category (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral), and total degrees by discipline—in order to complete an analysis of professional degrees awarded versus degrees awarded in traditional liberal arts disciplines for each of the academic years noted above. Fields considered “traditional liberal arts” include history, psychology, the sciences (natural and social), foreign languages, religion, the arts, and English. Professional fields include business/management, communications, education, engineering, nursing, and computer sciences.

Based on our analysis, 130 institutions remain as “true liberal arts colleges” out of the 212 Breneman identified in 1990. Of those 130 remaining liberal arts colleges, ninety-one (70 percent) can be classified as Liberal Arts I, thirty-nine (30 percent) as Liberal Arts II. Nine institutions were originally Liberal Arts I, but are now classified as Liberal Arts II based on either the 50 percent rule (awarded more than 50 percent, but less than 60 percent, of their degrees in professional fields) or the percentage of graduate degrees awarded.

What is the current status of the liberal arts college?

Our study focused on two primary questions: Have liberal arts colleges continued the trend away from their historical emphasis on arts and science disciplines? Are liberal arts colleges disappearing from the higher education landscape, or are they redefining what it means to be a liberal arts college in the twenty-first century? Our findings enabled us to answer the first question quite definitively. However, the answer to the second key question is less certain.

Based on the classification criteria that Breneman described over twenty years ago, the answer to the first question is yes. As stated previously, Breneman (1990, 1994) found that 212 institutions met the criteria for classification as true liberal arts colleges. Our current findings show that only 130 institutions meet Breneman’s classification criteria. 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.

The answer to the second question is less clear. Our research revealed that, while many colleges still meet Breneman’s classification criteria, many others are no longer categorized as liberal arts colleges. Moreover, within the latter group of institutions, we saw three patterns that indicate continuing evolution. As expected, we saw a number of institutions increase the number of degrees awarded in professional fields. We also saw a smaller number of institutions experience no change in the percentage of professional degrees awarded. However, our research also revealed that, for a subset of institutions, the percentage of professional degrees awarded actually decreased, which was unexpected.

Of the eighty-two institutions that are no longer classified as liberal arts colleges today, we saw some noteworthy trends. We identified a handful of institutions that were subsumed by other, larger institutions. Hawaii Loa College is now part of Hawaii Pacific University, for example, and Barat College is now part of DePaul University. This type of change was largely due to fiscal challenges and the threat of closure. We also saw thirty-six institutions change their mission dramatically, a phenomenon referred to as mission creep or upward drift, which is defined as “the tendency of institutions to introduce higher-level programs” (Aldersley 1995, 51). For example, Goddard College in Vermont and Mary Baldwin College in Virginia are now classified as Master’s Universities. While the reasons for these changes are not easily identified (e.g., via institutional websites), some former liberal arts colleges obviously consider it desirable to move toward the model of a more comprehensive institution offering a broader range of academic programs.

Research on curricular changes among liberal arts colleges has revealed “a significant increase in [curricular] heterogeneity” (Kraatz and Zajac 1996, 83) resulting in adjustments that compete with the “traditional” mission of the liberal arts college. Our research confirms that these changes are still occurring. The challenging conditions that are buffeting liberal arts colleges are leading to varied responses, depending on each institution’s context and resource base (Kraatz and Zajac 2001). Although we documented a strong general trend toward more professional program offerings, there is also evidence that colleges are developing ad hoc responses consistent with their unique circumstances.

Many liberal arts institutions are gradually transforming their mission and programs but continue to define themselves as liberal arts colleges. They do this in spite of the fact that the liberal arts label, as Morphew and Hartley (2006) found, is less precise and meaningful than it once was. Given our research findings and the questions concerning the status of liberal arts colleges that remain unanswered, we hypothesize that there may no longer be one dominant model of liberal arts college education. Instead, we may be seeing the emergence of multiple ways to achieve a liberal arts college education that are driven by a variety of factors, both external and internal to this sector of higher education. As this evolution continues, an obscured liberal arts college identity may become problematic for prospective students, recruiters, and educators.


The question of the current condition and future prospects of the liberal arts college is complex and engenders vigorous debate among stakeholders who represent different perspectives. Writing in an issue of Daedalus devoted exclusively to the liberal arts college, Neely (1999) painted a worrisome scenario according to which second-tier liberal arts colleges become more like small comprehensive colleges and universities as they continue to add vocational programs. In contrast, he envisioned the well-endowed elite liberal arts colleges as potentially becoming an educational anachronism, centers of economic privilege too few in number and too isolated to influence higher education in general. Neely’s picture may be the worst-case scenario, but nonetheless it describes a phenomenon that is well underway. On the other hand, Spellman argues that liberal arts colleges have always adapted to the demands of their time and continue to do so today. In his view, the essence of the liberal arts college “is about small class size, close faculty-student interaction, an innovative and interdisciplinary common core in the arts and sciences, undergraduate research experiences, senior capstone projects, service learning and community engagement, and a rich and diverse co-curricular life” (2009, 1). Spellman, who has little concern about the growth of professional programs at liberal arts colleges, may be describing a new paradigm of liberal arts college education that is broader and more flexible than the old standard.

Throughout the history of American higher education, liberal arts colleges have played an influential role. Breneman’s research alerted the higher education community to a major transformation that is underway in the liberal arts college sector. For quite some time, a competitive market, students’ growing vocational orientation, and precarious finances have been eroding the clear purpose of liberal arts colleges (Neely 1999). Some liberal arts colleges have transformed themselves into “research colleges” in order to attract students and faculty who value the mission of the research university. Other colleges have become “professional colleges,” implementing more academic programs in professional fields in order to compete for students who see higher education primarily as a path to a career and financial success. Some appear to have integrated liberal and professional education intentionally and crafted a new model of liberal arts college education. As this process has unfolded, the focused mission of the liberal arts college has expanded and become more diffuse, which has led to less consensus on what a liberal arts college is or what type of education it delivers.

The trend Breneman first pointed out more than twenty years ago is continuing. Some liberal arts colleges are disappearing, while others are changing their curricular focus and approach to undergraduate education. An increasingly smaller number of these institutions have been able to maintain a dominant arts and sciences emphasis in their curricula. Liberal arts colleges have played an important role in US higher education in spite of their small size and the percentage of students they enroll. The influence of this sector may be diminishing, however, as their numbers decrease and their educational focus becomes less clear.

American higher education will be diminished if the number of liberal arts colleges continues to decline. We urge academic leaders, foundations officials, and public policy makers to take note of the trend David Breneman brought to our attention two decades ago. We encourage these leaders to take steps to renew and reinvigorate these valuable institutions before liberal arts colleges disappear from the higher education landscape or shrink to the status of a minor educational enclave that serves only the academic and socioeconomic elite.


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Vicki L. Baker is associate professor of economics and management at Albion College. Roger G. Baldwin is professor of educational administration at Michigan State University and a trustee of Hiram College. Sumedha Makker, a graduate of Albion College, is a certified public accountant at Ernst & Young. The authors wish to thank Donna Randall and Marie Kendall Brown for their assistance and advice during the completion of this study.

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