Hidden Gems, V: South Central Plains
The South Central Plains region is, if anything, even more rural than the North Central Plains/Upper Mid-West region. Yet the educational investments and opportunities vary widely, and this is as much due to political culture as it is to population. There are exceptions, but, generally, there are less educational opportunities in this region than in any section of the U.S. we’ve yet covered. The states I’m including in this section are Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
1. Arkansas: Arkansas regularly competes with Mississippi over who has the least educated populace in the nation, including the most illiteracy, the most high school drop-outs, and the lowest percentage of the population going beyond high school to college or university. Some of this improved during the Bill Clinton’s years as governor of AR (1979-1981; 1983-1993), but since that time, things have regressed. (This also happened in my adopted state of KY. We made great improvements in the ’90s under Gov. Paul Patton, even became a nationwide model for public school reform, but have regressed since that time.) The “usual suspects” in Arkansas higher education are pretty bland, too. There is no national-level, comprehensive, private research university. The public institutions including the University of Arkansas system (6 campuses, flagship at Fayetteville) and the Arkansas State University system (5 campuses, flagship at Jonesboro) are fairly pedestrian in quality. The same could be said for the other four (4) state-supported universities. The one real bright spot, and it is a genuine bright spot, is the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, a graduate school in Little Rock training leaders in public and civic life. All of the private colleges and universities are church-related and most of those are just as mediocre in quality. Hidden gems:
Hendrix College (Conway). Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a private, 4-year, college of liberal arts & sciences, closely affiliated with the United Methodist Church. It combines a rigorous academic community with an open, warm, atmosphere and strong attention paid to students as individuals. It’s strong commitment to the liberal arts is evidenced by its chapter of the national honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. One of the 40 Colleges That Change Lives, Hendrix is known for its outstanding and innovative curriculum known as “Odyssey,” which combines serious faculty-student collaboration with independent research and hands on-experiential learning. Funding is made available for student experiments and student publication in outstanding journals. Hendrix is part of Project Pericles which stresses community and civic leadership from students. 100% of students receive some form of financial aid. Hendrix is 28th in the nation for alumni going on to earn PhDs within 6 years of graduation. Acceptance into law school is at 90% (national avg. is 55%) and medical school acceptance is twice the national avge. No sororities or fraternities to divide the campus into cliques.
University of the Ozarks (Clarksville). Not to be confused with the similarly named College of the Ozarks in Missouri, the University of the Ozarks is a private, 4-year undergraduate institution founded in 1834 by Cumberland Presbyterians, but today affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is the oldest institution of higher education in AR and one of the oldest West of the Mississippi River. In 1875, “Ozarks,” as the school is known, became the first institution of higher education in Arkansas to admit women. In 1959, Ozarks became the first historically white college in Arkansas to admit African Americans. Ozarks is consistently ranked highly among college in the region. It also has one of the most LGBT-friendly campuses in this region or for church-related colleges.
2. Kansas: Kansas is in a similar, but slightly better, condition as Arkansas. Probably because of the heavy military presence in the state, which has increasingly meant higher technology, the KS public schools have been much better–but this was before the anti-evolution crusade of Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS). Like Arkansas, Kansas has no national-level comprehensive private research university. It actually has fewer public universities, but most are a cut above the ones in AR. The “usual suspects” in Kansas higher education: Kansas has 6 state-supported public universities led by the University of Kansas, a space grant university, and Kansas State University, a land grant university founded during the Civil War. There is also a municipal public university, Washburn University (Topeka) which is ranked high academically for this region. Hidden Gems:
Baker University (Baldwin City). Founded in 1858, the oldest university in Kansas, Baker University is named for Osmond Cleander Baker, a bishop and biblical scholar with the Methodist Episcopal Church. Today, it is closely related to the United Methodist Church. It is regularly ranked among the top universities in the Midwest. Alumni include a Pulitzer Prize winner and 4 Rhodes Scholars. With a total enrollment of about 4,000 members, Baker’s several schools concentrate on undergraduate teaching, but offer a number of masters’ degrees as well.
Bethel College (North Newton). Founded by Mennonites from the Russian immigration wave of the 19th C. in 1887, Bethel College is the oldest institution of higher education in North America associated with Mennonites, founded at a time when many Mennonite groups were still suspicious of higher education. It is a private, Christian, liberal arts and sciences college in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition and closely associated with the Mennonite Church, USA. Bethel’s first president, Cornelius H. Wedel, was one of the earliest theologians or scholars among North American Mennonites. The college’s student body is mostly Mennonite, but is open to students of all faiths. It’s campus culture is rooted in the Christocentric Mennonite culture of service, simple living, peacemaking and reconciliation, and nonviolent struggle for justice. All students must engage in some off campus cross-cultural experience, mostly outside the U.S., but with some offerings in the U.S. in very different cultural settings. The core curriculum, called Common Ground, is rooted deeply in the liberal arts and in shared experiences which not only enhances the academic value of Bethel’s education, but also aids in student retention. Bethel is home to the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) and offers a minor in Peace, Justice, and Conflict studies to be added to any major. A Templeton Character Building College, Bethel is one of only 8 schools to be listed in Mother Jones as combining “good values with good value.”
Ottowa University (Ottowa). A private, co-ed, 4-year liberal arts college founded in 1865 by Baptists and still closely connected to the American Baptist Churches, USA. Ottowa’s beginnings stemmed from a desire to provide education to Native Americans and this idealism has always characterized the campus. (As of 2008, the university still provides free tuition, room, and board to any enrolled member of the Ottowa Nation, but, as acknowledged on the university website, not all of the actions of the early university leaders were noble. In the 1880s, some members of the board of trustees swindled the Ottowas of land and ran the school for white people, violating a treaty signed by Pres. Lincoln himself. There have been efforts to correct this over the years.) The university mostly concentrates on undergraduate teaching, but has some masters degrees and expects to expand these in the near future.
3. Missouri: Missouri may be the home of the last U.S. president to not have a college/university education (Harry S. Truman), but it has built a very credible system of higher education, especially for a rural state. The “Show Me” state has 2 national-level private research universities: The non-sectarian Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University, which is a Catholic, Jesuit institution. There are 13 state-supported universities, including The University of Missouri system (4 campuses with the flagship at Columbia) and several regional state universities. Hidden gems include:
Truman State University (Kirkwood): Founded in 1867 as a private college for training teachers, it became state-supported by 1870 and renamed Northeast Missouri Teachers’ College in 1919. The school continued to grow and achieved university status in 1970. In 1985, the legislature again expanded the school’s mission so that it became the state’s only public, state-wide, liberal arts and sciences university. In 1995, the name was changed to honor Harry S. Truman, the only U.S. President from Missouri. Since Truman himself was too poor ever to attend college, part of TSU’s mission is to make academic excellence affordable to all. TSU is regularly ranked at or near the top of Midwestern public universities in terms of academic rigor, but it is also noted for its affordable cost (even for out of state students) and extremely generous financial aid, combining merit and need based aid for nearly 100% of students. It is also ranked high for “service to the wider community,” and for “social mobility” among students. Admissions is highly selective based on high school transcript, class standing, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and a mandatory application essay. A core program in Liberal Studies grounds all majors and minors as TSU works to become the nation’s premier public liberal arts and sciences university. TSU’s “McNair Program” actively works to increase the number of Ph.D.s among minorities and underrepresented groups. Has a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa as well as several other national honor societies in specific fields of study. I predict that if TSU stays on its path, it will not long remain “hidden,” but will rank as one of the “public ivies,” i.e., places where one can get an Ivy League caliber education for a public university pricetag.
Culver-Stocton College (Canton) Founded in 1853 by ministers in the Stone-Campbell movement and today related to the more liberal branch of that movement, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The mission of Culver-Stockton College is to provide students of promise a superb education within an active learning community founded upon integrity and the best values of faith and the human spirit. The typical 15 week semester is divided into 12 week and 3 terms, in the latter of which students generall take only one intense course or they can use this pattern for internships, clinical training, or courses that involve travel domestically or abroad. The college is known for interdisciplinary majors and for self-designed majors. It also has a Guided Pursuit for Success (GPS) program to help undecided majors decide their paths of study. Has a well-regarded Honors Program, too.
Drury University (Springfield). Founded by Congregationalists in 1873 on a model of Northern liberal arts colleges, Drury officially became a university in 2000, though it continues to focus most of its efforts on the education of undergraduates in the liberal arts and sciences. It is officially related to both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but the campus ministry is multi-faith and the atmosphere and curriculum non-sectarian. Drury’s core curriculum, called Global Perspectives 21, combines professional training with broad grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, engaging diverse cultures, communication skills, critical analysis and reasoning. More than 94% of Drury students receive some form of financial aid and Drury brags that its students incur less debt than do most students at MO’s public universities, including Truman State U.
William Jewell College (Liberty): Founded by Baptists in 1848 and named after William Jewell, M.D. (a Baptist layperson and philanthropist), who donated the initial funding and led efforts to get the institution started, William Jewell College is a church-related liberal arts and sciences college with rigorous academics. It is deliberately Christian in identity, but open to persons of all faiths or no particular faith–and there is a support network for interfaith dialogue on campus. It has a an Oxbridge Honors program centered around the Great Books of the Western World, with tutorials and seminars modeled after those at Oxford and Cambridge and which includes a semester in Britain, as well as a rigorous Senior Capstone course. Jewell is also strong in study abroad and internship programs generally. Jewell’s Harriman-Jewell program brings world class performing arts to campus which are open to the general public. Jewell’s Core curriculum +3 program allows many students to double major. The campus’ Center for Justice and Sustainability works to transform both the college and the world to social justice and environmental sustainability.
4. Nebraska: The very rural state of Nebraska has a fairly good public school system, but it’s population is simply too small to host very many colleges and universities. The University of Nebraska system has 5 campuses anchored by the flagship campus at Lincoln. There are 3 other state supported baccalaureate colleges. While there is no national-level comprehensive private research university, Nebraskans are well-served by Creighton University (Omaha), a Catholic and Jesuit university with an excellent law school and medical school, excellent masters’ level programs, and a few doctoral degrees. Hidden Gems:
Doane College (Crete). Founded by Congregationalists in 1872, Doane was the first liberal arts and science college in Nebraska and is today related to the United Church of Christ. It is a private, independent, co-educational college nationally recognized for innovative programs and a results-centered approach to marriage. It focuses on forming ethical leaders and its four-year graduation guarantee makes it a good buy. For 4 years, Doane has made the President’s Honor Roll for colleges and universities which give back to their communities in volunteer service. Doane pioneered the idea of integrating internships into 4 -year liberal arts education curricula. It has produced more than 600 All-American student athletes over the years and more Fulbright winners than any other college in Nebraska. Doane provides a $1000 travel scholarship for study-abroad opportunities in junior and senior years.
Hastings College (Hastings). Founded in 1882, Hastings is a Presbyterian-related, private, co-ed, residential college of liberal arts and sciences. Hastings students have two curricular options: The standard, rigorous core in the Liberal Arts, or an equally-rigorous, individualized and interdisciplinary curriculum. The campus is coterminous with an award-winning arboretum. Hastings offers 3 degrees: the B.A., the B. Mus., and the Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.). For the B.A., Hastings offers 64 majors in over 30 areas of study w2ith 12 pre-professional programs.
College of St. Mary (Omaha). Founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1923, the College of St. Mary is a Catholic liberal arts college for women, the only all-women’s college in the South Central Plains region. Many studies over the years confirm that women who attend all-female colleges: Achieve higher career levels and earn higher salaries; Develop measurably larger amounts of self-esteem; Are more likely to choose and succeed in male dominated fields such as law, medicine, and engineering; Have more opportunities in leadership positions; Participate more in classroom discussions; Are 6 times more likely to be on the boards of Fortune 1000 companies; Are more likely to receive doctoral degrees; Tend to more involved in philanthropy after college. CSM is a small school of about 1000 students. Among CSM’s notable programs include award winning nursing programs at both the Associate’s and Bachelor’s levels, including a program to train bi-lingual nurses to serve the growing Hispanic-Latino population; A 2+3 engineering program in conjunction with the University of Nebraska in which students earn two degrees–a B.A. in science or math from CSM and a University of Nebraska engineering degree in civil engineering, electronics engineering, architectural engineering, or computer design; the region’s only approved 4-year Paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association; A Master in Leadership program dedicated to exploring and strengthening the unique leadership qualities of women.
Nebraska Wesleyan University (Lincoln): Founded by Methodists in 1887 and closely connected today to the United Methodist Church, Nebraska Wesleyan is a Christian university of liberal arts and sciences which has a select few masters programs to add to its concentration on undergraduate teaching. Experiential learning and service learning are at the heart of Nebraska Wesleyan’s personalized educational focus. Offers an “Honors Academy” for bright and highly motivated high school students.
5. Oklahoma: The “usual suspects” in Oklahoma include a medium-sized state university and state college system anchored by the flagship University of Oklahoma (Norman). Although there are no national-level comprehensive private research universities, Oklahomans are well served by the Presbyterian-affiliated University of Tulsa a masters-level regional university with an excellent academic reputation. Hidden Gems:
University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (Chickisaw). Founded in 1908 by order of the Oklahoma legislature at the leading of then-Gov. George Haskell (D), the first Gov. OK after it became a state. Initially a technical institute for women, by the 1930s, USOAO had evolved into the state’s only public institution devoted entirely to an undergraduate liberal arts education. It functions as the public honors college of Oklahoma. It has won awards for its interdisciplinary core and for giving bright and creative students an excellent and unique education at a great price. If I lived in Oklahoma, this is the school to which I’d advise my daughters to apply.
Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee). Founded by Baptists in 1910, and still owned by the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Baptist University is a private, co-ed, Christian colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Although it’s conservative cultural atmosphere would not be for everyone, OBU has an excellent academic reputation has many notable alumni: William R. Pogle (’51), Col. USAF (Ret.), NASA astronaut and pilot of 4th and last Skylab mission; Dr. Sunday O. Fadulu (’64), Professor of Microbiology and Chair of Biology @ Texas Southern University; Patent holder of a drug that treats sickle-cell anemia; David E. Garland (’70), New Testament scholar; Dean, Truett Theological Seminary; Interim President, Baylor University; Molly T. Marshall (’72), theologian; President, Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Offers 10 Bachelor’s degrees with 84 majors. 2 Masters degrees: a Master of Business Administration and Master of Science in Nursing. More than 95% of all students receive some form of financial aid.
Saint Gregory’s University (Shawnee). Founded in 1910 (with a prehistory as the Sacred Heart Mission School to Native Americans that dates to 1875) by Catholic missionaries, Saint Gregory’s University is a Catholic university in the Benedictine tradition. Originally a junior college, it’s name was changed in 1997 when it became authorized to award Bachelors’ degrees. SGU has a College of Arts and Sciences and a College of Working Adults. About 50% of SGU’s students are Catholic, but the university welcomes persons of all faiths. There is a Benedictine Monastery adjacent to the university and it’s Abbey and Chapel are also integral to the university. “St. Gregory’s University promotes the education of the whole person in the context of a Christian community in which students are encouraged to develop a love of learning and to live lives of balance, generosity and integrity.” SGU’s Common Core Curriculum focuses on Four Ways of Knowing: Faith and Reason; Creative Expression; Social Knowledge; Behavioral Science, Mathematics, & Natural Science. This Core Curriculum is built around the Great Books of the Western World in a series of seminars known as “Tradition and Conversation.” Small learning communities meet each week to debate and discuss the likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. The 25 majors in five (5) academic departments build on this Common Core Curriculum.