Liberal Education

The Public Liberal Arts Sector and America's Promise

One of the more familiar trends in American higher education in the decades since the end of the Second World War has been the growth 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 (AAC&U) 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, however, 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 four-year 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." COPLAC institutions have worked hard to blend the goals of liberal learning with applied skills in the professions out of a conviction that there is no incongruity between liberal education and practical studies. Indeed the habits of critical inquiry and problem solving that are at the core of liberal education are the very skills that employers have called for in a wide range of professions.

As public institutions, COPLAC colleges and universities have a special obligation both to justify their atypical size, as the cost of delivering the curriculum may be higher than at much larger public institutions that practice economies of scale, and to explain the benefits of a liberal arts experience to students (many of whom are first-generation) and their families. Thanks largely to the thoughtful support of state legislators and system-wide governing boards, a number of COPLAC schools (the most recent being Midwestern State University in Texas) have received official designation as their state's public liberal arts college, while one, St. Mary's College in Maryland, has been named the state's public honors college.

These designations, together with less formal acknowledgments of the special mission of COPLAC institutions, reflect the commitment of many state university systems to address persistent inequalities and afford students the option of a liberal arts campus experience in the public sector.

Public liberal arts and civic engagement

A dozen years ago, historian William Cronon suggested that one of the essential goals of liberal education was freedom—the freedom to explore and grow, the freedom to fulfill the promise of one's highest talents. But he also maintained that "education for human freedom is also education for human community" and that the two cannot exist without each other. The connections we have with other people remind us that we have to use our knowledge and power in a responsible, humane manner. Cronon demurred from classical liberalism's focus on the autono­mous individual, on doing or saying what we will. He argued instead for using our freedom "in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves" (1998, 79).

Service and community-based learning have been identified as high-impact educational practices, and the idea of giving something back as an important college outcome is enacted in different ways in public liberal arts colleges. The following three illustrations of this self-conscious effort to integrate academic and public purposes—to empower students with core knowledge, transferable skills, and habits of social responsibility—capture the spirit of the COPLAC mission.

At the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), a regional initiative begun in 2005 called the Berkshire Compact for Education studies the educational implications of the economic and demographic shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. In partnership with legislators, business leaders, educators, and public officials, the college has committed to provide opportunities for every resident to achieve the minimum sixteen years of education so essential to success in a new economy. The college now welcomes third- and sixth-grade students to campus to spend time with student-mentors and attend classes and demonstrations, all with the goal of helping young children begin to understand the value of a college education. The college also offers some dual-enrollment classes, affording high school juniors and seniors in good academic standing the opportunity to take introductory college-level courses that are team-taught by an MCLA professor and a high school teacher.

The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, has long been recognized for its commitment to environmental sustainability. Few were surprised when Sierra magazine ranked the college sixth on its 2009 list of the greenest colleges and universities or when the Princeton Review chose Evergreen as one of the fifteen colleges included on its 2010 Green Honor Roll. Still, what makes Evergreen truly distinctive is its effort to reach beyond campus to create positive change in its surrounding region through community service. Evergreen is deeply involved in efforts to improve the state's correctional system. Washington's Department of Corrections is the third largest employer of Evergreen graduates, and when Evergreen's president, Les Purse, signed an agreement for the college to lead a Department of Corrections–Evergreen sustainable prisons project at four western Washington prisons, faculty and students responded. Psychologist Mark Hurst and his students have been working with prisoners since 2004, studying the efficacy of treatment models emerging from positive psychology, a relatively new field in psychotherapy. The innovative "Gateways" program, founded by faculty emerita Carol Minugh, has turned college into a reality for incarcerated youth for the past fourteen years. The full-time academic program brings Evergreen students and faculty to detention facilities as mentors, tutors, and instructors to the young men held there.

And at one of COPLAC's newest member institutions, the University of Illinois at Springfield, public affairs and citizen engagement serve as unifying themes in teaching, scholarship, and service. With its location in the state capital, the university has always emphasized the importance of the public sphere.
A new general education curriculum requires every undergraduate to complete a core program called The Engaged Citizenship Common Experience, with interdisciplinary coursework in U.S. communities and global awareness. The core also requires a credit-bearing engagement experience, often related to the student's major, that generally takes place off campus with the coordination of the Office of Experiential and Service-Learning Programs. The engagement experience prepares student to integrate knowledge, practice, and reflection in the context of active, community-based learning.


The history of post-secondary education in America since World War II has been in many ways a success story, with greater student access a signature feature of the many changes witnessed on campuses large and small. Much work remains to be done in the area of access and affordability, especially in the financial aid system and in standardized testing, as Peter Sacks reminded attendees at AAC&U's 2009 annual meeting.

But in realizing America's promise for the twenty-first century, in the work of enrolling undergraduates and then empowering and preparing them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change, we must continue to champion and defend the value of different learning environments, from research-intensives and large comprehensives, to small and medium-sized private—and public—liberal arts colleges. Just as we have come to dispute the notion that liberal education is only achieved through studies in the arts and sciences, it is time to enlarge our understanding of the liberal arts college to include the public sector.


Cronon, W. 1998. "Only connect . . ." the goals of a liberal education. American Scholar 67 (4): 73-80.

Sacks, P.2009. Tearing down the gates: Confronting the class divide in American education. Liberal Education 95 (3): 14–19.

Schneider, C. G. 2009. In defense of a liberal education. Forbes, August 10. /liberal-arts-education-curriculum-degree-opinions -colleges-geary-schneider.html.

Bill Spellman is director of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

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