What Distinguishes a Public Liberal Arts College?

Throughout most of America’s history, the overwhelming majority of colleges were small by design, privately funded, and often affiliated with major religious denominations. Today these small, student-centered campuses are typically associated with private liberal arts institutions. Much larger public universities only began to make their presence felt on the higher education landscape after World War II. Many Americans now associate all public, state-supported universities with sprawling campuses, large classes, enormous lecture halls, and minimal interaction between faculty members and students.

But small to medium-sized campuses that focus on the liberal arts and sciences are a dynamic part of public higher education. Over the past 20 years an emerging sector of public liberal arts colleges, all members of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges or COPLAC, has taken its place alongside America’s best small private institutions. These unique public liberal arts colleges are committed to the value of campuses on a human scale, to cultivating a community of learners where faculty members are teachers, advisors, and mentors. If your learning style is one that flourishes in a setting where community matters and where faculty and professional staff know you by name, you may wish to consider the public liberal arts option.

The Public Liberal Arts Community

Today there are a total of 26 COPLAC colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Most of the campuses are located in small towns and cities, while others are to be found in attractive rural areas. The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and the University of Illinois at Springfield, for example, can be found located in their respective state capitals, while Georgia College & State University is situated in Milledgeville, the historic antebellum capital of Georgia. Southern Oregon University in the town of Medford, Oregon, is adjacent to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while the University of Mary Washington is sited in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which features an attractive downtown filled with historic properties and easy access to major Civil War battlefields.

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Public liberal arts colleges and universities range in size from fewer than 800 students at New College in Florida to just over 7,500 at Sonoma State University in California. Seven of the campuses enroll fewer than 2000 students and many have no graduate programs whatsoever. Taking the entire group of 26 campuses, the average size of the undergraduate student body at COPLAC colleges and universities is 3,500. This means that class size rarely tops 30 students, and upper-level seminars and labs in the major often have fewer than 20 students enrolled.

Because of their size and predominantly residential population, public liberal arts colleges and universities promote student involvement in, ownership of, and responsibility for their education. Each campus offers an intimacy in the intellectual experience that is difficult to replicate in large, comprehensive universities. You will not be lost in the crowd on a COPLAC campus.

As public entities, COPLAC colleges and universities are committed to providing a transformative and student-centered education at an affordable price. In an era of escalating costs for a college degree, the liberal arts experience needs to extend beyond the private college sector. Because COPLAC is dedicated to the idea that post-secondary education in the tradition of arts and sciences is the best preparation for a meaningful life and successful career, every member institution seeks to provide access to academically and artistically talented students who meet the admissions requirements.

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The Public Liberal Arts Mission

The main focus at every COPLAC campus is to instill core knowledge and develop the critical and creative thinking skills that will prepare undergraduate students for the challenges of the twenty-first century, for social responsibility and civic engagement. Broadly defined, a quality liberal arts education focuses on the big questions through an innovative and demanding curriculum. Interdisciplinary and team-taught courses abound. Faculty members at public liberal arts colleges typically have knowledge and interests that go well beyond their specialized fields of graduate training to include interdisciplinary subjects. They are interested in connections between disciplines and in working one-on-one with students.

Faculty members and professional staff at member institutions have been working in partnership for years, attending COPLAC professional development institutes and summer meetings. Now students at public liberal arts colleges are being encouraged to explore semester and year-long exchange opportunities at other campuses. A number of COPLAC colleges have opened up their summer study abroad programs to students at every member institution. Many public liberal arts colleges send students to the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Beginning fall semester 2009, regional undergraduate research conferences will enable students to present their creative work to a larger audience within the public liberal arts sector. The best student work is published in a new electronic journal of research and creativity called Metamorphosis.

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