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To survive, small colleges are rethinking the liberal arts (Goucher College & St. John's College)

Education Dive

March 29, 2019


Hiram College, located in a historic northeast Ohio village whose 1,200 residents are in equal numbers with the student body, has long had a progressive tilt.

It admitted women and black students soon after its 1850 founding, tried scheduling innovations in the 1930s that earned national attention, in the '70s became one of the first institutions in the Midwest to offer "weekend college" for working adults and has partnered with community colleges for several years. And it mostly thrived — once called "the happiest college in the land" by the Saturday Evening Post.

But when Lori Varlotta took over as president in the summer of 2014, like many happy small colleges, Hiram was struggling.

Hiram and its peers were dealing with a string of now familiar problems: lingering recession-era gashes in endowments and state funding, competition online, locked-in faculty levels despite falling enrollment, and prospective students swamped with messages of ballooning college debt, rising tuition prices and the questionable value of higher education.

To give Hiram a shot at successfully addressing those challenges, Varlotta worked with teams from across the campus to develop a broad series of reforms. They called them "The New Liberal Arts," a theme the college now prominently displays on its website.

"Colleges don't think (the liberal arts) resonates with 18-year-olds, but we didn't want to abandon liberal arts," Varlotta said. "We just know they aren't the same (today) as they were in the 18th (century)."