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Liberal arts vs. the bottom line

Despite faculty objections, Wisconsin's oldest college is fast-tracking professional programs

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Many small liberal-arts colleges, faced with an economic model that no longer seems viable, have strayed into the area of career-specific majors – everything from computer programming to mortuary science – sometimes creating a sort of split personality in the process.

Carroll College wants to go a step further, and just plain split. The oldest college in Wisconsin, situated west of Milwaukee on the edge of the state's dairy country, will still be one campus with one name and one president. But beginning this fall, it will be administratively divided into two parts: Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Graduate and Professional Studies. The administrative split, though, is also causing a fissure in the faculty.

It's a case study of the challenges liberal-arts colleges are facing as pressures threaten the approach many have adhered to for a century or more. Small classes cost big bucks. But "there simply isn't enough demand for their style of education," says Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding director of its Institute for Research on Higher Education.

Liberal-arts students at small colleges constitute an ever-decreasing percentage of total enrollment, Professor Zemsky says, because these schools offer fewer choices of courses and majors.

"There's a kind of seam in the market," Zemsky says. "Colleges that are above the seam are doing very well and can maintain their direction, perhaps forever. [These] colleges ... send 60 to 70 percent of their students on to some form of graduate school. Below the seam, most of their graduates go right to work, so professional courses are much more attractive."

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