Frank Zappa said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline.” Until recently, you couldn’t call yourself a real American town unless you had a college. News that Green Mountain College will close its doors sunk my heart. What does it mean for students, staff, faculty, alumni, Poultney and Vermont?
Heartbreaking news, but not surprising news. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has preached the impending closure of over half of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities across the United States. The future of the university looks much like the recent history of the local factory, the local newspaper and the local hospital.
Small, revenue-dependent liberal arts colleges without massive endowments find themselves unable to compete. Some colleges attempt mergers. Some abandon mission and standards. Some lay off faculty and staff. Some colleges chase students more desperately than used-car salespersons. However, the grim reaper knocks.
Americans should be upset that our small liberal arts colleges are closing. A liberal education was a peculiar American approach that had students take courses in natural sciences, history, philosophy, literature and language. The goal was to prepare generalists with sharp minds rather than train specialists for jobs. The concept had intellectual origins in Europe, but 19th-century Europeans abandoned it. To Europeans, small liberal arts colleges were a cultural expression of the American democratic experiment.
Increasingly, Americans question the value of such an education. Americans have greater access to higher education than ever before in the nation’s history, but the experience of a liberal education is becoming an elite privilege again. The liberal arts are a luxury.
The question then is what should communities do to recover after small liberal arts colleges close? Across the country, colleges are anchor institutions rooted in their localities. Unlike a factory, you never expect a college to leave town in the midst of capital flight. Colleges are supposed to grow local assets and provide economic opportunity amidst economic downturns. A college is supposed to be a stable institution that can compensate for limited government resources.
The closure of a college is the social, economic and cultural equivalent of setting off an atomic bomb. Once again, small American towns pay the biggest price for structural and demographic changes.
Having a college close is different than the J.C. Penny leaving town. A college touches the soul of a community. The next generation may look with nostalgia on an age when liberal arts campuses dotted our American landscapes. What will they find when they visit those campuses? Ruins? Higher education is in a state of crisis that has implications for American lives. Colleges know the problems, but colleges don’t have the solutions. There is a moral obligation for anticipation that includes adequate federal, state and local governmental involvement. Let’s strategically plan for the future of college campuses.
Nobody wants colleges to close and campuses to become ruins. We want vibrant centers of creative activity that necessitate innovative leadership and public-private partnerships. How do we preserve jobs in communities for highly-educated and skilled people? How do we make sure the college campus at the heart of town is still an anchor institution?
Each town is unique in terms of the particular college, its character and its size. We know what happens when the local factory closes. We know what happens when the local newspaper folds. Americans must plan proactively for what happens when the local college closes. too.
Michael Mulvey is a historian and married to a Vermonter.