Amid Financial Woes, Colby-Sawyer College Cuts Five Majors

Dec 16, 2016

Credit Photo via MeritPages

New Hampshire’s Colby-Sawyer College plans to eliminate five majors. The cuts come amidst declining enrollment and financial concerns at the school. 

For the past two years the college has been operating at a loss of more than $2 million.  This year that loss is projected to be at $2.6 million. 

The decision to cut was based on money, but how did the school decide to cut these programs? And what does that decision say about where liberal arts education is headed?

NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Colby-Sawyer President Susan Stuebner on these cuts and the future of liberal arts education. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How did the college decide to cut these five majors: English, Philosophy, Accounting, Health Promotion, and Healthcare Management?

We basically spent the fall semester taking a look at all of our programs and… I’m in my first year as the president, so it was kind of a logical time for us to ask the question, “In what ways can we distinguish ourselves?” And with some challenges we also wanted to take a look at where we might not be able to deliver things quite as well as we’d like.

So our interim academic vice president Laura Alexander worked closely with the academic department chairs as well as others in the faculty government process and put out a lot of data, had a lot of conversations about where our strengths are and where we felt we maybe wouldn’t be able to deliver as high quality as we wanted, and came to the tough decision that those were the five programs at the major level that we would discontinue. But it is important that several of those programs will continue at a minor level, and we certainly will have courses in almost all of those areas.

Right. It might be hard to distinguish yourself as a liberal arts college without official majors in English and Philosophy, which tend to be cornerstones of liberal arts education.

It’s a great question, and it’s one that we really had to ask the question, “What does the liberal arts mean here at Colby-Sawyer?” Our niche is really the intersection of the liberal arts and sciences with the pre-professional. Really though that intersection of hands on and experiential learning and, you know, I was a creative writing senior project as an undergrad myself, and so I certainly have great appreciation for English.

However, all of our students will still have rigorous writing courses. They’ll still have options for literature courses. But when we looked at student interest and Department of Labor statistics and future demographics, and in our model and where we thrive, we felt while English is certainly important and we have some gifted English faculty, there were some other areas we felt our limited resources had to be devoted first.

What are those areas?

Just really our niche again: we have a very strong nursing program, very strong business program, exercise and sport science. We have resources already devoted to our Windy Hill Lab school, and so the social sciences and education.  And so it’s not that the humanities are not important to us – they absolutely are – but in terms of where we felt we could produce and still stay viable that was the way we wanted to go.

And the fields you just described tend to be, at least anecdotally, the kinds of fields that students with degrees in them have less trouble relatively speaking in finding a job than, say, an English major. Is that part of the decision making as well, students able to find a career after leaving Colby sawyer?

I think that absolutely. I this market place we have to be able to I think do two things. One is help students and parents understand the investment that they’re making will lead to that first job. But again I think one of the things Colby-Sawyer does well is that we’re not just preparing our students to be professionals for that first job, and that’s really where the liberal arts component comes in. Our students are really becoming leaders.

Our nurses for example are known in the Dartmouth-Hitchcock network of being strong nurses that care about the whole person, and that’s because they take that liberal art core that we offer. So they kind of get the whole package in terms of they have the credentials to get that interview for the first job, but they also have critical thinking skills, the writing, the problem solving, working with people that hopefully will help them be successful throughout their careers as well.

Tuition at Colby sawyer is north of $50,000 a year. Are you seeing students or perhaps parents doing a cost-benefit analysis to decide that certain majors aren’t worth investing that amount of money in?

I think, sadly, the cost of education these days really requires families to take a really hard look.  When I went to school probably the best advice I got was study what you’re passionate about, and no matter what you go into that will enable you to have the skills you need.  But I think with the need to take student debt and the investment the families are making, even though the college puts forth over $30 million in financial aid, it’s still an incredible investment for families.  And there are unfortunately fewer positions out there for some of those folks that are interested in humanities. 

And I don’t mean to single out Colby-Sawyer as one college where liberal arts is changing. This is not just a statewide, but a  nationwide issue. From your perspective, what do you think is the future of a liberal arts education, both at your school and more broadly in American colleges and universities?

I still think it’s incredibly relevant, and I think each school has to ask the tough question of, “what can we deliver and deliver well?” As a small school with a modest endowment, we would love to be able to offer the full array of all types of liberal arts and science courses here, but we’re trying to be prudent of our resources, and really do what we do and do it well.

That said, I think that there truly is… the number of times students are projected to be changing careers in the future, or at least changing positions, it’s going to require them to have those liberal arts skills, and there’s lots of data and research that show even though there’s a lot of focus on the pre-professional majors, that the kinds of skills that employers are looking for are precisely the ones that you get from that liberal arts core. 

So I think it will still be relevant, but we as institution have to continue to work hard to explain the value of it, and probably highlight our alums who are really exceptional role models of the liberal arts in action everyday.