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Originally published Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Using liberal arts to reverse the decline at public universities

What small colleges have accomplished over the past 50 years could help large public universities regain their footing as models of education, writes guest columnist Robert Allen Skotheim.

Special to The Times

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A gradual and subtle reversal of fortunes has occurred in American higher education during the past half-century. Public universities in 1962 were creating a new model to be envied by the entire world. By contrast, independent colleges of arts and sciences were being overwhelmed in every respect.

Now public universities find themselves besieged by criticism about giving out assembly-line degrees and failing to graduate students on time. Small liberal-arts colleges have achieved a reputation for quality education, diversified student bodies and financial sustainability. What small colleges have done could help public universities regain a position as a model for education.

Fifty years ago, legislative support allowing inexpensive tuition, coupled with federal support for graduate and professional school research, funded expanded student bodies, faculties and new campuses. Liberal-arts colleges, which were miniature versions of each university's college of arts and sciences, received little or no state or federal support. They were dependent upon tuition pricing, which was 10 to 20 times that of public college tuitions. Fundraising from private sources was small overall at that time, but more important for independent colleges.

Like harness makers in the age of automobiles, it was said traditional colleges of arts and sciences were out of date: uneconomical, elitist, separated from the practicalities of the contemporary world, preoccupied with reading, writing and arithmetic rather than vocational training. Higher-education observers predicted economies of scale, a research-oriented faculty attracting the most able students, tax-supported low tuitions and federal funding would fuel the growth of public universities and doom the small liberal-arts colleges by the beginning of the 21st century.

What, in fact, did happen and what is the higher-education landscape today? Some of the quantitative predictions were accurate. Public universities dominate the landscape. Ninety percent of postsecondary students attend public institutions. Only 2 percent attend independent colleges of liberal arts and sciences.

Qualitatively, however, the situation is more complex. Today's wholesale blitz criticizing the quality of undergraduate education is aimed at public institutions almost exclusively. Studies citing lack of undergraduate developmental skills in critical thinking are based on public-college populations. Criticism of undergraduate courses as too big, impersonal, ineffectively taught, extended graduation rates, increasing employment of adjunct part-time faculty exploited by discriminatory compensation, exorbitant intercollegiate sports expenditures, is aimed mainly at public institutions.

The college of arts and sciences is the heart of undergraduate education, and the faculty its lifeblood. It is the teaching, and other interactions with students, by the arts and sciences faculty which primarily determines the quality of the student experience and ultimately how the public values its need to support the university. The professional schools and graduate programs have their own separate rationales for support. While the current financial stringencies at the universities, the economic recession and popular preoccupation with employment opportunities will threaten support for traditional arts and sciences, it is important that this heart of the university not be weakened.

The example of small colleges since the 1960s should offer courage to deans of arts and sciences, provosts and presidents to defend the traditional disciplines energetically and visibly. Faced with predictions of their erosion and eventual demise 50 years ago, the leading small colleges did not change their character, but strengthened their faculty and support services, which facilitate education in and out of the classroom.

The result today is that these colleges have the largest applicant pools, the greatest selectivity of students, as well as the highest rates of diversity in terms of class, family wealth and ethnicity. Small private colleges have the highest retention and graduation rates in history.

Critical to this success has been the continual focus upon the small college mission of educational development of students, and reduced support for activities peripheral to educational mission. The challenge to the University of Washington and Washington State University is to reinforce support for the undergraduate arts and sciences. It is an educational investment in the younger generation, which will help shape our future. The public should expect the flagship universities to lead the way.

Robert Allen Skotheim, a Port Angeles resident, is president emeritus of Whitman College and Occidental College. He received his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in history at the University of Washington.

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