public liberal arts colleges

True Values in Public Education

Consumers Digest in 2011 published its list of Top 100 college values; it included real values.

Number one on the list is Truman State University (TSU) (Kirksville, MO), followed by the University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM) (Morris, MN).  Both have out-of-state costs comparable to Cal State’s in-state costs, yet they offer substantially higher graduation rates, smaller class sizes, and a load of major selections that are not impacted. To this duo of public values add FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. FIT in Manhattan is one of the top five fashion design schools in the world (it includes Calvin Klein among its alumni), and has a COA under $30,000. This is a serious value.

Both TSU and UMM are public liberal arts schools with a dazzling array of majors to select among, but with core curricula that ensure students gain the foundations of liberal arts prior to graduation. The label of “Public Liberal Arts College” might be off putting to some. Yet, the best known public liberal arts colleges offer superb educations with graduates who are driven, innovative life-long learners and actors. A prime example of a public liberal arts college, which many public liberal arts model themselves on, is Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater William and Mary College (Williamsburg, VA).  

TSU is Missouri’s only public liberal arts college. Ironically, the oldest part of the campus, which dates back to 1873, was modeled on the University of Virginia, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson. Academically, TSU boasts a strong set of general education courses coupled with an interdisciplinary writing course junior year. The most popular major is business/accounting, yet it offers degrees in Russian, nursing, and even Athletic Training. TSU’s strategic plan is to “provide a liberal arts education that is financially accessible,” for all its 5,800 undergraduates while still maintaining a respectable 17:1 student to faculty ratio. Its out-of-state COA is under $25,000. Moreover, with an 89% retention rate, and a 74% four-year graduation rate, TSU is a screaming value.

UMM is about a third the size of TSU, only 1,690 undergraduates. Each student gets an academic advisor, enjoys a low student to faculty ratio of 13:1, and has 2/3rds of classes with fewer than 19 students. UMM’s six-year graduation rate is 60%; its retention rate is 81%. The curriculum includes five courses in “Skills for the Liberal Arts” covering writing, foreign languages, math, and art, and eight courses in “Expanding Perspectives,” covering history, social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. Its strongest programs include biology, education, psychology, English and management. Most impressive, over the last decade UMM has produced, per capita, the seventh most PhD graduates in chemistry in the country. All for a COA of just over $23,000.

Far from the remote Great Plains is Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) located in the Chelsea neighborhood on West 27th Street in Manhattan. The nine building campus includes TV and radio studios, design workshops, exhibition galleries, multiple computer labs and incredible special facilities that encompass numerous student displays along with the Annette Greene/Fragrance Foundation Lab, and the design research Lighting Lab, containing over 400 lighting fixtures. The school enrolls over 10,000 students FIT offers a range of associate’s (2-year) and bachelor’s degrees in Advertising, Fashion Apparel/Design, Fashion Merchandising, and Commercial Photography. Best of all, FIT is an affordable learning environment within the bustle of New York.

If you seek to gain a solid foundation in the liberal arts while gaining a degree in accounting, chemistry, nursing or even creative writing there is TSU. UMM provides an affordable intimate campus for the academically driven across dozens of disciplines. For the aesthetically inclined there is the design bastion of FIT in Manhattan. All have COAs less than the UC campuses, and comparable to the CSU campuses, while offering campuses quite different from those in California. Explore them. 

The Liberal Arts Alternatives- Public Liberal Arts Colleges

The most discriminating purchasers of college services, college professors, are keen on sending their kids to liberal arts colleges. Why? Liberal arts schools are usually small, smaller than many high schools. Most are composed solely of undergraduates, meaning accessibility to professors is unmatched: professors know this.  

Consequently, liberal arts colleges encourage and deliver many undergraduate research opportunities, even compared to major ‘research universities.’ Moreover, at the liberal arts colleges, professors teach introductory courses, with many interacting frequently with their students—and have countless informal meetings, which according the late Steve Jobs, are the most fruitful and memorable.

Regardless of all this professor access, many believe that attending a liberal arts college- to learn, read, write, analyze, communicate and think clearly will land students squarely in the unemployment line. Not according to Paul D’Arnieri , dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at University of Florida, “…liberal arts major can go into education, public policy, law, intelligence, as well as business--let’s not forget that many, many business leaders have liberal arts degrees.” (Fox Business 27 January 2012) Okay, but won’t the costs of these colleges saddle students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt? Certainly the sticker price of Swarthmore, Amherst, Pomona College, or Williams is over $50,000 a year, but there are alternatives.

Beyond the brand name private liberal arts schools there are a number of public liberal arts colleges. Many are a part of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) which consists of 27 public colleges spread among 24 states and a Canadian province. A full list can be found at Four of these public liberal arts colleges are included in Fiske’s Best Buys of 2013, which is based on “the quality of their academic offerings in relation to the cost of attendance.” (Fiske Guide, 2013)  These include the College of Charleston (SC), Evergreen State (WA), Truman State, (MO), and University of Mary Washington (VA). Two other public liberal arts colleges for those wanting to be closer to home include Sonoma State University, with a cost of attendance (COA) of just over $23,000 and Southern Oregon University (which is part of the Western University Exchange program, WUE), with a COA of $25,000.

Yet another public liberal arts college, University of Minnesota, Morris, which for some odd reason did not make the Fiske list, is truly an exceptional value. The college is located in the middle-western portion of Minnesota, fairly close to the North Dakota border. The 125-year-old campus has a 42-acre historic district set in the middle of its 130-acre campus. Equally interesting is the campus is well on its way to becoming carbon neutral, as it obtains over half its power from a municipal level wind turbine (another liberal arts school in Minnesota, Carleton, just installed its second wind turbine generator—a popular energy alternative in the land of 10,000 lakes).

Academically all students begin with a first-year seminar featuring a five-course core under the name of ‘Skills for the Liberal Arts.” Eight courses are then required spread among history, fine arts, social science, natural sciences, and ‘international perspectives.’ Over two-thirds of the classes have 19 or fewer students, and all are taught by professors. Students find the academics competitive but highly collaborative.

The best news is that Morris does not charge non-residential fees. The annual tuition, room and board for a non-resident is under $20,000. For the right type of student, Morris represents a superb undergraduate value, as do many of the public liberal arts schools.

Only 3% of students coming out of high school go on to liberal arts colleges. In all likelihood of the students who even learn that liberal arts schools exist, most dismiss this alternative as too pricey, unprofessional, and small. That’s a shame because there are a lot of choices and opportunities for those bold enough to stray off the well-worn UC or CSU admissions path. Liberate your search and survey the great public liberal arts school opportunities.