Our Strengths, Our Challenges, and Our Commitment

Carleton in 2023

Carleton embarks upon this strategic direction from a position of great strength. Nationally recognized as one of the country’s top liberal arts colleges, we have maintained a steady focus on the key elements that contribute to that distinction, with academic excellence as the North Star guiding our efforts.

We have seen record applications for admission in recent years, with continued high quality and increasing diversity within the student body. The caliber of our faculty continues to be outstanding: in addition to maintaining their strong reputation for excellent teaching, they have garnered record amounts of grant funding, reflecting their strong research profile and creative accomplishment. The extraordinary dedication of our staff enables a rich co-curricular experience and peer-leading levels of participation in high-impact activities such as study abroad, service learning, and academic support.

The robust learning environment Carleton provides leads to strong outcomes for students, with extremely high retention and persistence, and high reported levels of student satisfaction with instruction, sense of community, and the success of the College in generating intellectual excitement.

The College’s financial position is equally strong, with an endowment that topped $1 billion following the successful Every Carl for Carleton campaign that concluded in 2021. That campaign brought many visible benefits to the College, including the creation of new scholarships, the Music and Performance Commons addition to the Weitz Center for Creativity, the construction of Evelyn M. Anderson Hall in 2020, and the opening of the renovated building now known as Hasenstab Hall in 2022.

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“The robust learning environment Carleton provides leads to strong outcomes for students, with extremely high retention and persistence, and high reported levels of student satisfaction with instruction, sense of community, and the success of the College in generating intellectual excitement.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hard work and dedication of our faculty and staff, the responsibility and resilience of our students, and the support of the extended community allowed us to return to campus quickly and maintain a safe environment for learning. At the same time, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 generated important self-reflection within the Carleton community about racism and equity not just in our world, but on the Carleton campus. The completion and approval of the Community Plan for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (IDE Plan) in April 2022 reflects significant and ongoing effort and commitment to principles of equity throughout our community.

The Challenges

Balanced against these strengths, however, is our recognition that we undertake this plan at a critical time for higher education, in the context of a world with many political, economic, and social challenges.

Though we managed well through the unprecedented stresses of the pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that those stresses have by no means disappeared. The continued impact of the learning loss experienced by students who are reaching college age, and the anxiety and disruption experienced by this entire generation, will be felt for years to come. More broadly speaking, a negative trend in student mental health that predated the pandemic has only worsened during this time. In April 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called youth mental health needs “the defining public health crisis of our time.”

The changing demographics of the country, and a projected decline in the number of high school graduates, have already begun to depress college and university enrollments nationwide. The influential research of Carleton economics professor Nathan Grawe, in his 2018 book Demographics and Demand in Higher Education, highlights the likely impact of these changes on the higher education marketplace, and the resulting increase in competition among schools for a dwindling number of students.

The high cost of providing a quality education continues to be a barrier for many students, and a concern for families, lawmakers, and the general public. Colleges and universities rely on the contributions of highly educated and skilled employees, whose salaries are the largest item in most colleges’ budgets. Increased expectations for student support services, rising costs of technology, greater compliance demands, and competition among schools to provide cutting-edge academic, residential, and recreational spaces have all contributed to tuition and fee costs that have risen more rapidly than wages in other sectors. Federal and state tuition support for students in the form of Federal Pell Grants and state grants have also not kept pace with inflation. Hence, all but the wealthiest families must look carefully at college costs when making decisions about where — or even whether — to send their students to college.

In this context, it is not surprising that a recent Gallup poll shows confidence in higher education down sharply in the last few years, with only 36 percent of Americans expressing “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Legislative support for colleges and universities continues to decline across the political spectrum.

While questions about the practical value of a liberal arts degree are not new, a new narrative about college degrees as a costly barrier to employment is reflected in programs such as a recent executive order in Pennsylvania eliminating four-year degree requirements for the majority of state jobs. A 2022 study of employment trends notes that some 46 percent of middle-skill and 31 percent of high-skill occupations reduced degree requirements between 2017 and 2019.

The rapidly expanding role of technology in every sphere of life has strengthened assumptions about the superior relevance and value of STEM degrees, a perspective reinforced with articles like the Washington Post’s widely noted article on “most-regretted” college majors. Moreover, the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models like ChatGPT not only impacts teaching and learning at schools, colleges, and universities—it raises questions about whether some of the skills students develop as part of a liberal arts education, such as writing and quantitative analysis, could become less marketable in the face of a changing employment environment. 

Compounding this general uncertainty, attacks on academic freedom have become part of the political landscape, with legislators in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere seeking to limit or ban course content related to race, gender, and other topics at colleges and universities, while undermining norms of academic governance that protect the independence of academic research and teaching. This movement represents an enormous threat to the very mission of colleges and universities and is part of an alarming diminution of respect for science, education, and knowledge more generally.

The Commitment

These challenges, while significant, do not diminish our confidence in Carleton’s mission. On the contrary, they lead us to conclude that Carleton must be even more explicit about the critical value of the liberal arts education we offer. Indeed, the broader challenges facing society as a whole, such as slowing climate change, reducing economic inequality, sustaining democracy, or managing the impact of AI, can only be addressed through precisely what Carleton seeks to provide: a combination of STEM and humanistic thinking, a willingness to explore linkages between social science and art,  and an emphasis on the kind of collaborative problem-solving that takes place within an engaged and committed community.

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“The goal of this plan is to set in motion ongoing processes of experimentation and change that will ensure that Carleton continues to grow in the decade ahead.”

Carleton as an institution has an important role to play in this complex landscape. However strong we may be as an individual college, we cannot succeed without a strong higher education ecosystem around us, and without public confidence in the value of a broad liberal arts education. While some colleges and universities are of necessity inwardly focused as they struggle with enrollment declines or significant financial challenges, a college of Carleton’s strength and reputation can afford to be a leader in countering some of these trends.

This strategic direction positions Carleton to serve as not just an exemplar but as a champion of the best of liberal arts education. It defines the distinctive elements of excellence that make a Carleton education exceptional, and invites Carls to be part of an active journey of exploration and discovery that lasts a lifetime.

The goals and actions outlined here reflect three core values that distinguish Carleton: community, curiosity, and impact. These in turn shape the nine primary goals of the plan, and the twenty-seven recommended actions that will turn those goals into reality. Together, these values chart a lifelong course for Carls, one that leads from admission, through transformative academic and social development, into a future of continued growth, engagement, and impact on the world.

While our values remain constant, the strategies that make Carleton excellent in 2023 are not the same as the goals and actions that will lead to excellence in 2033. The goal of this plan is to set in motion ongoing processes of experimentation and change that will ensure that Carleton continues to advance in the decade ahead.

How will these values shape the Carleton of 2033?

First, we will ensure that all Carleton students feel welcomed into a community that is grounded in equity, inclusivity, and respect. At a time when we seek to attract students from a wide range of backgrounds, and with the mental health and wellness of all students a high priority, an equitable and supportive community is a critical foundation for success at Carleton. We will work to expand financial aid and provide resources to ensure that all students have access to the distinctive opportunities that Carleton offers.

Second, we will foster continued academic excellence at Carleton by cultivating its most distinctive component: curiosity. The intellectual breadth of our faculty, and the deep and genuine curiosity of our students are the key ingredients of our academic strength. Carleton is a place where faculty love to teach and students love to learn. This strategic direction seeks to ensure the continuation of that special DNA by supporting innovation on the part of faculty and exploration on the part of students.

This focus on curiosity and experimentation will also strengthen our leadership in sustainability as we work to integrate our campus sustainability commitment with academic approaches to environmental studies and climate change, creating a living laboratory for environmental education on our campus.

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“Our location provides many opportunities for students to actively explore and learn from the issues facing our campus and local communities, while our robust programs for off-campus study encourage global engagement.”

Third, we will focus and deepen our efforts to prepare students for lives of impact and meaning after they leave Carleton. Our location provides many opportunities for students to actively explore and learn from the issues facing our campus and local communities, while our robust programs for off-campus study encourage global engagement. At the same time, integrating programs of career exploration across campus, and making better use of the connections and advice our alumni can provide, will strengthen our case for the lifelong benefits of a liberal arts education. Finding new ways to engage our dedicated alumni will also ensure their continued connection and support.

We recognize that accomplishing the ambitious goals outlined here will require energy, resources, and support from across the Carleton community. We know that everyone is already working hard toward the success of the College: our outstanding faculty; our dedicated staff; our loyal alumni, trustees, and parents; and the talented students who are the reason we are all here. At the same time, we know that Carleton is a place that is never content to rest on its laurels and is always eager to become a better version of itself.

In her commencement address to each year’s graduating class, Carleton President Alison Byerly has commented on the importance of the place where the community gathers for that ceremony, noting the Bald Spot’s storied history and its new significance as the anchor of the College’s innovative geothermal energy system. She has said: “To me, these geothermal wells make the Bald Spot a perfect image for Carleton: a pleasant, unassuming, somewhat quirky place that has enormous reserves of energy and power hidden beneath the surface.”

This strategic direction seeks to tap some of that hidden power, release some of that potential energy, and allow Carleton to become, not different, but even more fully Carleton in the years to come.