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Like harness makers in the age of automobiles, it was said traditional colleges of arts and sciences were out of date: uneconomical, elitist, separated from the practicalities of the contemporary world, preoccupied with reading, writing and arithmetic rather than vocational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.