College Admissions

Public Liberal Arts Colleges Can Offer a Private College Education

When you think of public higher education, you’re probably not picturing small classes and accessible professors. Big public universities like Penn State and University of Michigan are not known for providing a personal touch. But there are some smaller public colleges where you can find the kind of intimate academic experience more typically found at private colleges, and the cost, even for nonresidents, can be much less than a private school.

Before the University of Virginia started accepting women in 1970, smart young women in Virginia headed for the University of Mary Washington. The beautiful campus is in the historic city of Fredericksburg, about an hour south of Washington. The 4,000 students pledge to live by the Honor Code. In addition to a full slate of liberal arts majors, including historic preservation, UMW offers a bachelor’s degree in business administration. UMW has received some good press in recent years, and more than 20 percent of the students come from out of state. Tuition and fees for the 2010-2011 school year will be just under $20,000 for nonresidents.

The University of North Carolina at Asheville is located in a small, artsy city that has a fun downtown area and offers great hiking, rock climbing and kayaking in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. Fewer than 15 percent of the 3,500 students come from outside North Carolina, and there are some commuters, but two thirds of the students live on or within a mile of campus. UNCA offers a full range of liberal arts programs as well as accounting and management majors, and a health and wellness major. Students who are interested in weather can earn a degree in atmospheric sciences. Motivated students can apply to the school’s honors program, which offers challenging, interdisciplinary honors courses and requires students to complete a service-learning project. Nonresident students can expect to pay less than $20,000 in tuition and fees at UNCA.

Despite the name, St. Mary’s College of Maryland is not a religious school, but the state’s public honors college. The name comes from the location in St. Mary’s City. A true liberal arts college, with fewer than 2,000 students, SMCM has a lovely riverfront campus. The somewhat isolated location contributes to the strong sense of community on campus. While the school doesn’t offer the excitement of city life, students who enjoy the water can walk down the hill to the boathouse and check out a kayak or sailboat. About 20 students each year join the Nitze Scholars Program a four year program for highly motivated students with a strong interest in service and leadership. More than 15 percent of SMCM students are from outside the state. Tuition and fees for nonresidents total about $25,000 and merit scholarships are available.

New College is the public honors college of Florida. This nontraditional school is for students who are intellectually curious and enjoy independent study. Students work closely with professors to design an individualized curriculum, and their progress is assessed by narrative evaluations rather than grades. All seniors write a thesis in their area of concentration. Students who are successful at New College are bright self-starters who have the maturity to see projects through to completion. With only about 800 students, New College offers a more intimate learning community. The waterfront campus is two miles from downtown Sarasota, and there are many beaches in the area. The school does not offer competitive sports teams, but students can check out canoes, sailboats and scuba diving gear. While tuition and fees at New College are more than $27,000, students who have submitted all required application materials by February 15 are guaranteed a scholarship, ranging from $1,000 to $12,500 a year.

At 5,000 students, The College of New Jersey is bigger than a liberal arts college, but small enough to focus on undergraduate education. With more than fifty programs, TCNJ’s seven schools offer majors in liberal arts as well as business, education, engineering and nursing. The lovely tree-lined campus is an hour from both Philadelphia and New York.

These are just a few of the public liberal arts colleges around the country. The application process at public liberal arts colleges is similar to private colleges, with admissions officers typically looking beyond grades and test scores to consider essays and recommendation letters. Learn more about public liberal arts colleges at the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges: