Magazine article Liberal Education

The Public Liberal Arts Sector and America's Promise

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Public Liberal Arts Sector and America's Promise

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MORE FAMILIAR TRENDS in American higher education in the decades since the end of the Second World War has been the gtowth of very large, comprehensive institutions. Prior to the Civil War, virtually all American colleges were small, private, and parochial. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did larger universities, both public and private, make their appearance on the higher education landscape.

Today, of course, large institutions with undergraduate and graduate programs in distinct colleges and professional programs are commonplace. Like so many areas of American culture, where growth is associated with progress and the enhancement of human life, universities expanded in response to public need, a desire to improve access, and a sense of institutional pride. Today's large universities offer students a wide range of disciplinary majors, faculties with expertise in multiple areas of specialization, and a diverse array of cocurricular programming.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAGSdJ) has affirmed that a liberal education can be achieved at all types of colleges and universities, including very large ones. There is no simple correlation between institutional size and educational outcomes. For many college-bound students, howevet, a smaller campus learning environment is an important factor in their ability to develop the type of communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills that are essential to meeting the global challenges of the twenty-first century.

Private and public liberal arts

Historically, this smaller environment has been provided by America's private liberal arts colleges, which, despite recurrent predictions of their inexorable demise in the face of competing models of postsecondary education, continue to attract outstanding students who understand the value of a liberal - and liberating - education. And the private liberal arts colleges are no longer alone.

Over the past two decades, a new sector of public liberal arts colleges - all members of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) - has taken its place as another option for students seeking a college experience where the focus is on undergraduates, where classes are small, and where collaboration and civic engagement are deeply embedded in campus culture. With the addition of COPLAC institutions, the health of the liberal arts college and its attractiveness to students - even in challenging economic times - belies the recurring narrative of decline.

Why public liberal arts?

In one respect, the growth of the public liberal arts sector reflects a wider trend in contemporary society to revisit the virtues of smaller, more personal institutions, living spaces, and relationships. From the "new urbanism" in the field of architecture, to local food co-ops and family-owned businesses, to neighborhood public schools and community projects, a deeper environmental awareness and desire for inclusion has guided the life decisions of a growing number of citizens. Private liberal arts colleges have always been committed to the value of campuses on a human scale, to a residential community of learners where faculty members are teacher- mentors, all in an educational environment characterized by rigor and a strong sense of personal and social responsibility.

Another, perhaps more compelling reason for the rise of public liberal arts colleges over the past twenty years involves the issue of access or affordability. A college education is an expensive investment, and as families struggle to meet the rising costs associated with a fouryear baccalaureate degree, it is little wonder that many are prioritizing the practical and vocational side of postsecondary education. But as AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider (2009) cautioned recently, such programs "provide technical training and job skills, but little insight into the larger issues of science, society, human community, global cultures or the values and institutions that provide the foundation of democracy. …

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