Abraham Unger writes for the Martin Center about reversing a negative trend for liberal arts colleges.

The loss of public trust in universities that has risen to front page news did not suddenly emerge in 2020. In 2018 the non-partisan Gallup organization found that, for the first time, less than half of Americans have “a lot of confidence” in higher education. Even more pointedly, Gallup reported that “No other institution has shown a larger drop in confidence over the past three years than higher education.”

The loss of civic faith in higher education has been building for a while.

American liberal arts education has lost its moorings. A 2012 article in Inside Higher Ed crystallizes the debate into one between the “crisis in the humanities and…the task of making them relevant in the 21st century.” Should college be a professional trade school preparing students for white-collar vocations such as accounting, or is its purpose a purely academic exercise?

This foundational question has immediate budgetary repercussions as universities, having avoided dealing head-on with the reality of ongoing revenue shrinkage since 2008, are now facing a moment of fiscal reckoning. The Chronicle of Higher Education has projected there is a chance that universities may “lose 25 to 50 percent of their revenue in 2021.”

For a path forward, we need to look beyond the liberal university. The Harvard Business Review reminds us that solutions are often found in models outside of a particular industry. There is indeed a living, breathing, under-the-radar example of what our universities should be doing.

It is called conservatory.

Here is how a place such as the Juilliard School of Music or any similar kind of arts institution can inform the reorganizing of the American liberal arts college. They don’t follow the standard liberal arts prototype most Americans think of when conjuring up an academic and social image of college. That’s precisely why conservatories might be one of our best resources at this sink-or-swim moment in higher education.