Liberal Arts Colleges Buck Pandemic Downturn

Nina Johnson
Lewis & Clark's class of 2025 pose for new student orientation last August.

Once thought to be on the verge of extinction, some Oregon liberal arts colleges are succeeding where many universities are floundering. 

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Colleges and universities are still struggling to attract and retain students, but surging enrollment at some Oregon liberal arts colleges — Lewis and Clark College, Reed College and George Fox University — suggest reports of the death of the liberal arts education may be exaggerated. 

Lewis and Clark College, a liberal arts university in Portland, for example, welcomed the largest class in school history this fall. With an 87% retention rate, 677 new students and 41 transfers, the college will have the biggest class size in school history at a time when other schools are struggling to recruit and retain students. 

Before the pandemic, conventional wisdom held that struggling liberal arts colleges would have to adapt to survive. The onset of COVID-19 set off even more alarm bells, but by then liberal arts schools had already begun adapting. But, for now, some schools with a liberal arts are bucking the current downward trend of college enrollment.

New curricula, a growing respect for liberal arts degrees among innovators and an environment where small class sizes can mean better academic and health outcomes have some liberal arts colleges poised to thrive, rather than just survive. 

Students participate in a virtual dissection at George Fox Univeristy. Credit: George Fox University.

On February 20, 2020, Concordia University announced it would close its doors forever, putting an end to 115 years of history. Its decline was gradual. A year prior, the college shut down its humanities department to put a bigger focus on STEM education — something many students applying to colleges and their parents wanted in a college education, due to higher-paying jobs available in those fields after graduation. 

It also wasn’t the first. Marylhurst University closed abruptly in 2018. A year prior, the Oregon College of Art and Craft closed its doors. 


With increasing costs and debt associated with college, liberal arts degrees, which prioritize critical thinking and creativity instead of competitive job skills, were less appealing to students looking to repay student loans in a timely fashion. 

And colleges are still struggling financially. With half of institutions reporting fall enrollment numbers, data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows enrollment fell 3.2% in the U.S. in 2021, for a two-year decline of 6.5%. If trends hold, it would be the biggest dropoff in 50 years. The steepest decline is being felt at private for-profits schools, whose enrollments have tumbled nearly 13% for 2021. 

This spring, Lewis and Clark began offering a data science minor. It has also opened a Center for Community and Global Health, and began offering a minor in health studies. Eric Staab, vice president of admissions at the school, says the pandemic has increased interest in studying health. 

Milyon Trulove, dean of admissions and financial aid at Reed College. Photo: Reed College.

In addition to the popularity of public health, Lewis and Clark had spent the two year leading up to the pandemic expanding financial aid opportunities. Currently, the average debt load for a student graduating from Lewis & Clark is $21,500, according to’s 2020-2021 college rankings, — $16,000 lower than the national average of $37,693, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The school also offers flexible degree paths in conjunction with its graduate schools of law and teaching, allowing students in those programs to shave a year or two off their graduate degrees. 

While it does not market the return on investment of their degrees, the college has been able to market its safety protocols and its ability to hold 85% of its classes in-person in 2020, despite the pandemic. 

“The college managed the pandemic really well, and we made sure our prospective students were informed of that,” says Staab. “They knew they would be able to have a good social experience at school.”

Christian liberal arts college George Fox University in Newberg also welcomed a record class size this year of 4,295 students. Last year, the university had to end several of their low-enrollment majors and lay off some faculty. Lindsay Knox, vice president of enrollment and marketing at the university, says reaching people online has opened up new opportunities, including short digital campus tours. 

“We learned a lot about how to engage students in short, meaningful digital experiences.” says Knox, who adds that keeping the college affordable has also been a priority. “We already were one of the more affordable private colleges in Oregon, but we froze traditional undergraduate tuition last year because of all the uncertainty around the pandemic.” 

Like Lewis & Clark, George Fox has seen increased interest in its graduate programs, especially in health care. The school expects those programs to continue expanding. The university launched a physician’s assistant program this year and plans on launching an occupational therapy school in 2024. 

“For a while it looked like liberal arts were going out of style,” says Milyon Trulove, dean of admissions and financial aid at Reed College, which also had a significant uptick in applications this year: 7,010students applied. That’s a 27% increase over 2020.

“But now more than ever students are looking for the flexibility offered by liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts result in higher satisfaction, and ability to move around in their careers.” 

Milyon described the collegiate landscape as a “buyer’s market.” He says the declining number of college-age students overall means colleges will increasingly have to compete for their attention. But the increased popularity of online meetups and digital events has put small liberal arts colleges on a level playing field with larger schools with bigger recruitment budgets. 

“Sometimes no one would attend these events when they were in person. Now we get 20 or 30 prospective students showing up. Online has helped us tell our story better. It has helped us increase our visibility and talk to more people,” says Milyon. 

From the applications he is already receiving from prospective students, Milyon says students are interested in an education where they will be able to live out their values. This gels with a liberal arts education where the goal is for students to graduate with the ability to figure out what they want to do with their lives, rather than being trained for it from the beginning.

For Staab, a liberal arts education has become more appealing because COVID-19 proved how quickly things can change, and that real-world problems have complex layers. 

“Now more than ever students need a broader way of thinking about and understanding the world. Solving COVID-19 wasn’t only about developing a vaccine in a timely period. Solving climate change isn’t just about science. It’s also about public policy, human behavior, public health and economics,” says Staab. 

“Liberal arts experience teaches you to assess a problem and solve it.”

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