Unique mission is focus of University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma's plan

Sunday, November 20th 2005, 12:12 pm
By: News On 6

CHICKASHA, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma's only public liberal arts college is working to reverse a decline in graduation rates and an increase in part-time enrollment.

The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma has a unique mission to provide a cross-disciplinary education that focuses on critical thinking and broad-based learning.

But only three out of 10 incoming freshmen graduate from USAO, despite smaller class sizes and an emphasis on student mentoring.

USAO President John Feaver believes students may not understand the liberal arts mission that sets the campus in Chickasha apart from other state schools.

Instead of offering occupation-focused degrees, USAO offers only a few dozen majors and all have a broad-based core curriculum intended to prepare students for any job that requires analytical thinking and communication skills.

Students learn about how perspectives from different fields, such as history, philosophy or math, relate to each other on a given issue.

``Some students find the demands rigorous and strange, and we have higher dropout rates,'' Feaver said.

USAO is refocusing its unique role with a mission enhancement plan intended to draw a different kind of student to the campus.

The college hopes to lure students from private colleges in and around Oklahoma with a comprehensive liberal arts education at public tuition prices.

``A lot (of students) leave the state to go to private universities,'' Feaver said. ``We are trying to be an affordable public alternative to that.''

USAO plans to raise admission standards and by 2010 will have the highest criteria of any state institution. The university is also lowering the faculty ratio from one professor for every 19 students to one for every 16.

The university hopes to enroll 1,400 students, with nearly all students full-time, and will launch an ambitious fund-raising effort for capital needs and merit-based scholarships.

``The best and brightest are getting major scholarship offers from out of state,'' Feaver said.

The state Regents for Higher Education awarded the university grants totaling $2.2 million over five years to help USAO with its plan.

``Its core curriculum is like none other in Oklahoma, aimed entirely at producing creative, entrepreneurial graduates who think critically, globally and resourcefully,'' said higher education Chancellor Paul Risser.

Regents also paid $26,000 for USAO to join the Council on Public Liberal Arts Colleges, which will elevate USAO's image nationally by ranking it among the other three dozen public liberal arts colleges in the nation.

The campus received national recognition when it was recently ranked the top undergraduate public comprehensive college in the 16-state western region by U.S. News & World Report.

But the real test for USAO and its mission will be its graduates and their success in the work force and life, said Patti Rogstad, a 1993 graduate and member of USAO's board of regents.

``A lot of people confuse liberal arts with liberal politics,'' said Rogstad, who owns her own business that designs and welds decorative lights.

``But it has nothing to do with politics. It was a very well-rounded education that prepared me for business and life,'' she said.