An Education Debate for the Books

Wednesday was move-in day for freshmen at St. John's College in Annapolis, one of many liberal arts schools that have taken a hit in applications and enrollment because of the downturn. Freshman Graham Gallagher discusses why he chose to attend the estimable Great Books school. Video by Daniel de Vise/The Washington Post
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2009

It was move-in day at St. John's College. Within the thick walls of 106-year-old Randall Hall, a father and son teetered along a hallway carrying a refrigerator. Another pair emerged from the stairwell with a rack of shirts hanging from a crutch. And everywhere, books. This was, after all, the Great Books school.

For freshman Graham Gallagher, arriving at the historic Annapolis campus Wednesday, admission to St. John's is destiny fulfilled. Here, he said, learning "is a journey, instead of a competition."

Yet, applications were down 15 percent this year at St. John's, and this year's freshman class of 137 is about 20 students smaller than last year's.

The experience at St. John's is representative of many small, private liberal arts colleges across the country, according to presidents and admissions officials interviewed. Several schools reported a falloff in applications because of the economic downturn, and some struggled to fill the freshman class.

Liberal arts colleges have had to defend the marketability of a philosophy major for as long as competing public and private institutions have offered degrees in engineering and business, often at a lower cost. But never, perhaps, have families weighed the value of a liberal education more carefully than in the 2009-10 admissions cycle, which found the nation mired in its worst recession since the 1930s.

"People all think that in a bad economy, they need skills for a job," said Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's. "What they don't realize is that a liberal arts education will give them skills for life, and that will get them a job."

Applications to St. John's dwindled from 460 last year to about 400 this year. College leaders raised the financial aid budget to $8 million, up from $7 million last year and $6 million in 2007. Even so, enrollment declined, chiefly among families who had applied for aid and did not receive any. A dozen families appealed for more aid over the summer after one or both parents lost their jobs.

"We'd just never seen anything like that before," said John Christensen, admissions director.

St. John's is one of a handful of American colleges that offer a curriculum built upon great works of literature, art, science and mathematics. Students read and discuss texts by Homer, Euclid, Chaucer and Einstein. There are no majors; students graduate with broad knowledge in several disciplines but a specialty in none, and without anything approaching vocational skills. Investing in a St. John's education requires a leap of faith.

Admissions numbers are down, too, at the other Great Books schools. Applications declined by 30 percent at Thomas Aquinas College in California. The freshman class at Shimer College in Chicago dropped to 36 this year, from 45 last year.

Much like students at a traditional liberal arts school, St. John's freshmen generally assume that they will learn their eventual trade in graduate school: Twenty percent of St. John's graduates end up in business, 10 percent in law, 7 percent in medicine. Majors, they say, are overrated.

"If you go to school and you learn to do one thing and then you change careers down the line, you know nothing that will help you," said Tim McClennen, 19, a freshman from Cutler Ridge, Fla.

Gallagher, McClennen's roommate, said he had to convince his parents and his grandfather -- who lived through the Great Depression -- that the $40,000 tuition would not go to waste.

"I think there's nothing more practical than a hard-core liberal arts education," said Gallagher, 18, who hopes to study law and enter politics after four years at St. John's.

Although the full effect of the downturn on college admissions is unclear, admissions experts say many private colleges and universities had smaller applicant pools this year. They also admitted slightly larger classes than usual, for fear of further attrition over the summer. As a result, many private schools were somewhat less selective this year, and applicants had a somewhat easier time getting in -- although not to the extent, college officials say, that the academic caliber of their students has suffered. Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Reed College in Oregon and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania had fewer applicants this year than last. At Reed, the acceptance rate for freshmen rose to 39 percent this year, from 32 percent last year.

"Certainly, a lot of families are asking about the value of a $50,000 price tag in this economy," said Barbara Fritze, vice president for enrollment and educational services at Gettysburg College, where applications were down about 7 percent.

Andy Hastings, 18, of Columbia is attending St. John's against the advice of his friends at Wilde Lake High School, who told him that four years from now, "you're going to be really smart, and you're never going to earn any money." He has been reading books from the St. John's curriculum since middle school and hopes one day to teach at the college.

"What I really want," said his father, Alan Hastings, "is for him to find out who he is and what job he was meant to do. And I can't think of any better place to do that than here."

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