An Undiscovered Gem: The Public Liberal Arts College

Some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in this country are liberal arts colleges. Yet while the education you receive at liberal arts colleges, such as Swarthmore, Amherst, Williams and Pomona, can be incredible, just a teeny tiny percentage of students end up at one.

According to the latest figures from The Chronicle of Higher Education, a mere 3% of college students attend liberal arts school. That’s 527,533 students out of 17.5 million college kids.

A lot of teenager and families don’t consider these schools because they assume they are too exclusive and expensive. There is, however, an obscure, but wonderful alternative: the public liberal arts college.

State liberal arts colleges can be far cheaper and your child doesn’t have to be an Einstein clone to gain admission.

Because public and private liberal arts colleges offer few if any graduate degrees, the faculty is more focused on teaching undergraduates. And here’s another welcome reality: There are often few, if any, graduate students teaching classes. One of the biggest draws at these schools are the professors, who are not as likely to be consumed by research commitments.

Many private liberal arts colleges have less than 2,000 students. Public liberal arts colleges typically have enrollments under 5,000, which is, of course, far less than many state universities. In contrast to students at state universities, undergrads at public liberal arts colleges are more likely to attend smaller classes and develop working relationships with their professors.

State liberal arts outposts are less well known. For instance, while most people have heard of Rutgers, which is the state university in New Jersey, few outside of the Garden State know about The College of New Jersey, which has been called a “budget Ivy.” The College of New Jersey, which possesses a higher four-year graduation rate than UCLA (66% vs. 59%), attracts students with impressive academic records and standardized test scores that you routinely see at selective private schools.

The test scores are also noticeably higher at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo, which is the state’s only public liberal arts college, compared to the University of Missouri in Columbia, which is the state’s flagship institution. Truman’s focus has also been to become a public Ivy through quality teaching and challenging academics.

Some public liberal arts schools can be tough to get into. The College of New Jersey, for instance, turns away 56% of its applicants. Another gem, St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s, MD (a public school despite it’s name), rejects 44% of its applicants.

Plenty of these schools, however, don’t erect high barriers. Southern Oregon University in picturesque Ashland, OR, which is known for its Shakespeare studies and theatre, accepts 93% of its applicants. Among the many schools with high acceptance rates are Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA (80%) and the University of Minnesota, Morris (80%).

To get a list of public liberal arts schools across the country, visit the website of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

You’ll learn more about public and private liberal arts colleges in my book, The College Solution.

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