05/21/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Why Public Liberal Arts Colleges?

Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

The stories and trend projections are by now familiar to most of us. The residential liberal arts college, cherished centerpiece of American higher education from the colonial period to the end of the Second World War, has for the past half-century suffered a slow but inexorable decline. Unable or unwilling to meet the demands of students with increasingly diverse and explicitly career-oriented interests, enrollments have faltered, fiscal resources have declined and campus identity has been shaken.

Especially in today's climate of economic uncertainty and public upset over the high cost of post-secondary education, the future seems fraught with peril for those small to medium-sized institutions, church related and non-sectarian alike, clinging to an educational model that seems increasingly out-of-date.

In such an unpropitious demographic and fiscal environment, why would anyone support a public liberal arts sector? Indeed with most states now facing sizable budget shortfalls and painful funding choices, isn't it imprudent to support small to medium-sized campuses that champion liberal arts education?

The answer, I believe, is rooted in a particular history and vision of what post-secondary public education in a healthy democracy ought to look like. The initial formation of a public liberal arts sector predates the current economic downturn and the enrollment dilemma faced many private liberal arts colleges. More than 25 years ago, a number of presidents from small-to medium-sized public universities gathered to align their campuses as a reference group for purposes of benchmarking and strategic planning. The group continued to meet on an annual basis for mutual support and sharing of best practices, until in 1992 it was decided that a formal consortium should be established, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges or COPLAC.

Surprisingly, during the very decades when a number of private liberal arts colleges were losing students or, worse still, closing their doors, the public liberal arts sector experienced quiet but sustained enrollment growth. Leaders of small to medium-sized state institutions with an emphasis in the arts and sciences sought to position themselves within their respective state systems by making explicit their commitment to the residential liberal arts model.

The argument in favor of public liberal arts colleges was and remains simple and straightforward: In every great state university system at least one campus should embrace the vision of the residential liberal arts college to meet the needs of students whose academic potential is best realized in a smaller learning environment, what we might call "learning on a human scale."

Since the 1950s the growth imperative in the public sector, in terms of enrollment, program offerings, and campus size, captured the imagination of higher education leaders in every state.

As a result, state flagship campuses became very large and research-driven, while regional comprehensives expanded in alignment with the economic development needs of their service areas. State funding formulas for public institutions typically developed around the principle of student credit-hour generation; the larger the student body, the greater the fiscal resources for campuses to hire more faculty, build new facilities and offer a more diverse array of specialized majors.

But in the rush to boost enrollments, expand physical plant and grow programs, important questions of scale and the nature of academic communities were sometimes overlooked. COPLAC colleges sought to engage these questions. Like their counterparts in the private sector, public liberal arts colleges continue to find value in smaller learning environments, both in terms of class and overall campus size. Today, undergraduate enrollment at COPLAC member institutions averages in the neighborhood of 3,500. Again like their private peers, the public colleges focus on undergraduate teaching and advisement, and evidence that commitment in the way that resources are allocated and outcomes achieved. They encourage close working relationships between students and their professors, endeavor to maintain low student-to-faculty ratios, and promote the principles of access and affordability.

Faculty and professional staff at some public liberal arts colleges do face challenges that are less pronounced on prestigious private liberal arts campuses. Advising and mentoring are of greater import in an environment where a significant number of entering freshman are first-generation college students. Student affairs professionals must work creatively to engage commuters and part-time undergraduates in campus co-curricular life. Writing centers, math labs, peer tutoring and career services must offer consistent, high quality support for students through every stage of their academic journey.

But with great challenges come even greater opportunities. The potential value-added of a liberal arts education at a small to medium-sized public institution can be enormous, especially for that tentative, first-generation college student who might not succeed in a much larger campus environment, but who cannot afford a private liberal arts college. There is the community-college transfer who finds her passion in undergraduate research, working one-on-one in the biology lab with a professor who is also her academic advisor. There is the returning veteran who focuses his mind on the history and culture of countries where he served recently on active duty. And there is the mother who, having supported her own children through college, now has the chance to pursue her own life-long dream of a baccalaureate degree.

The public liberal arts college enlarges the range of learning formats for deserving students like these, affords them access to a model of higher education that for most of America's history was only available to a select few. The steady growth of the public liberal arts sector, even as states decrease funding for public universities and pundits declare the irrelevance of a liberal arts degree, suggests that thoughtful individuals and families of modest means have a different view of what matters in education for the 21st century.