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Des universités d’élite s’interrogent sur la viabilité de leur modèle économique et financier : "Starting to Worry", Kevin Kiley, Inside Higher Education, October 10, 2011

lundi 10 octobre 2011, par Bobby

If you glanced at Smith College’s "Futures Initiative," you might think the college, like a number of liberal arts colleges in the current economy, was in serious financial trouble.

The report — which outlines a series of studies the college is undertaking — talks about reconsidering not only the financial model of the institution, but also the types of students the women’s college attracts, ways it can move beyond the residential campus model, and how it goes about delivering instruction.

But Smith isn’t exactly struggling. While it faced some budget cuts as a result of the recession, the college’s endowment is more than $1 billion. It is regularly cited for the quality of its undergraduate experience. For the fall of 2011 it accepted fewer than half the students who applied, and it attracts some of the top applicants in the country.

"Because we’re in that position is exactly why we thought we could ask those questions," said Smith College President Carol Christ. "We aren’t worried about what’s going to happen next year."

And Smith isn’t alone. In the past year, presidents of several elite liberal arts colleges have questioned whether the financial model underpinning their institutions – one relying on high tuition costs and student aid paying for expensive instruction and residential life on beautiful campuses — is sustainable over the long term. They have also begun to question whether the education they offer, with small classes, relatively rigid schedules, limited course and major offerings, and intense academic rigor, is going to continue to appeal to students.

"The model – if it’s not breaking – it’s showing signs of age," said Richard Kneedler, former president of Franklin and Marshall College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and a consultant with Ann Duffield and Colleagues, a presidential consulting firm. "The price has been pushed up at a number of the top institutions. It’s gotten to the point where people are asking a lot of questions about it, and this high price is creating a sense in part of the public that higher education is becoming a commercial exercise."

Private colleges without large endowments or prestigious reputations have already been rushing to add preprofessional or online programs or find a new niche that can attract students. And public colleges and universities haven’t been able to avoid questions about how efficiently they’re using public money as state appropriations per student have declined. But elite liberal arts colleges such as Smith do not face the kind of immediate financial strain affecting other sectors. They have high student demand, large endowments, high rates of giving, and strong cash flows and credit ratings. But that relative security hasn’t stopped some presidents from wondering whether tuition is too high, whether they will still be able to attract and support diverse student bodies, and whether they are too dependent on “full-pay” students, an increasingly hot commodity as other sectors of higher education look to bolster their own revenues.

And some are doing more than wonder. The president of Middlebury College announced last year that the college would cap tuition increases at 1 percent more than the rate of inflation, as well as expand other revenue-generating enterprises. The vice chancellor (the equivalent of president at most institutions) at the University of the South announced in February that the university would cut tuition by 10 percent and shift focus from merit aid to need-based aid. In a column last month and in his convocation talk this semester, Bowdoin College’s president questioned whether there was something the college could learn from Clay Christensen’s book The Innovative University, and whether it needs to enhance the role of technology in a liberal arts education.

Smith College’s effort might be the most comprehensive. Christ characterizes it as a thought exercise to identify what challenges the college could face in the future. On the financial front, the college will commission groups to study strategies to increase both high-paying and low-income students, to increase or decrease the amount the college spends on student aid, to identify new sources of revenue, and assess the size of the student body. On the educational side, the review will look at ways to broaden global initiatives, assess the market for enrolling non-degree students and online instruction, consider pathways to reduce the time required to get a degree, and explore post-baccalaureate programs. Faculty members said moving away from single-sex education was discussed, but is not an issue the college is seriously considering. At many institutions, such questions would hardly be revolutionary, but elite liberal arts colleges have defined themselves by the four-year residential experience and an undergraduate focus.

"It’s an exercise so that the board can come to at least a consensus of what the questions are, even if we disagree about what the answers are,” Christ said. "Part of the purpose is for the board to arrive at a consensus view of the future."

While each college’s initiative is noteworthy on its own, collectively they paint a picture of a sector of higher education that, while financially secure at present, is concerned about the future. The outcomes of these colleges’ experiments will offer insight into not only their own future potential, but also that of other liberal arts colleges.

In total, liberal arts colleges teach about 5 percent of all undergraduate students, and include hundreds of institutions, some of which are struggling financially.

A Costly Education

A residential liberal arts education is expensive to deliver. It requires highly trained faculty members, small classes, significant academic resources, and a residential environment with amenities.

Pour lire la suite sur le site de Inside higher Education