I am debating accepting a full time tenure-track position at a rural SLAC. The college seems excellent but I'm worried about whether SLACs can really confidently offer tenure. I read a few things on the Chronicle about the decline of the liberal arts and the trouble that many of these schools have staying afloat financially. What do people think about the future of small rural SLACs? Are they sustainable or do you think they are likely to decrease, especially with the influx of online learning?
Tenure-track positions are on the decline everywhere; just look at how Wisconsin basically got rid of them for faculty at state institutions. More and more institutions, SLAC or not, are going toward multi-year renewable contract system rather than tenure. That said, I concur with The Chronicle articles about liberal arts colleges and budget situations. I've seen plenty of SLACs in bad budget situations. The risk in taking a position at such a place is a lot less about tenure and more about salary plus resources. At cash-strapped SLACs, faculty might not get merit raises each year. Lab space, software licenses, administrative assistants, copy machines, professional organization dues, and conference travel all take money. With a poor budget climate, these things could all be minimally funded, if at all.
Instead of going down the path about all of the factors for and against SLACs, I'll instead share some practical advice for those on the job market. Before you commit to a position, ask about the institution's enrollment trends during the past 5 years. Ask about the endowment and budget surplus versus deficit. These are things to talk to an administrator about. If the enrollment has been stagnant or dropping and if the budget has anything of a persistent deficit, I'd be wary.
Agreed, only the top institutions will offer tt jobs in the near future. Incidentally, WI did not eliminate tt positions nor tenure, they are slowly stripping away tenure protections. Which is also terrifying and almost as bad. The most elite and well-funded SLACs and tier 1s will be okay, as well as most of the R1 and the really good R2 places. Not sure about other SLACs, because I have no experience in that world. As DocJ says, salary and resources are commensurate with the type of place. I am at a place that was R2 and recently became R1. We have high salaries, start-up and reduced loads, but the goalposts for tenure have been moved and I am getting out of Dodge as even if I make tenure, post-tenure review has become even more precipitous. Part of this is the pressure to maintain R1 even though we don't have the resources and infrastructure of a real R1 or tier 1. Basically, things are tough all over…good luck!
I agree with DocJ that it's not so much SLAC vs. everyone else, but something to look at on an individual school basis. In general, more prestigious schools will have bigger endowments and a better long-term outlook financially. And this cuts across all school types. More prestigious schools = R1s and elite SLACs (and most R2s are quite safe as well depending on what constitutes this category of school.)
Where it gets muddy are the very many schools that aren't that elite. These include large universities as well as small colleges, private and public.
While I agree that rural schools tend to have more trouble moving forward in recruiting students as compared to suburban & urban schools, the schools in urban/suburban areas also have higher costs to contend with due to their locations. One thing to know about a rural school is that they will use far fewer adjuncts, and will staff their gap courses with visiting professors (with full loads) instead. Or they'll strong-arm faculty into teaching overloads. This is good for the students—having lots of adjuncts is very bad pedagogically due to issues of continuity, face-to-face interactions, etc. It's also good for faculty in terms of sharing service and advising duties. But a school with the ability to switch to adjunct mode in a crisis (i.e. temporarily not replace retiring/leaving faculty) is in a more flexible situation than a school that will never find local adjuncts under similar circumstances and has to pay someone a real salary to be there. One reason small rural schools are vulnerable is that they don't have much flexibility if they hit a hard patch. But to be clear — large schools sometimes are suffering heavily with financial issues. It's something to look into on an individual school basis.
In terms of your decision, you say the college seems excellent. If it is really excellent then it might not matter that it's also rural.