Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University is one of Georgia’s top academic institutions, and it has the history and the record to prove it. The university may not possess some of the notoriety of famous institutions like Princeton or Harvard, but it is a member of the Annapolis Group, an organization of America’s most selective liberal arts institutions. In addition, it regularly finds itself among the top institutions listed in the Princeton Review and Forbes, and OU has been named to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since 2006.
Founded in 1835, OU’s enrollment totals about 1,000 students. Although most come from the Southeast, its student body represents 34 states and 36 countries. It is a residential, undergraduate liberal arts university, which also offers one masters program in early childhood education.
“We’re largely a traditional liberal arts college model, but we are blessed with our location here in Atlanta,” President Lawrence Schall says. “I think one of the things that distinguishes us is that we are located in a big city and make use of the learning opportunities that this area provides.”
Oglethorpe students all share one thing in common, and that is the university’s core curriculum. This interdisciplinary and common learning experience includes courses in narratives of the self, human nature and the social order, historical perspectives, the arts and culture, great ideas of modern mathematics and the sciences.
“The core is integrated into all of the disciplines,” Schall says. “Another thing that draws students here is how we integrate what we teach with where we are. Students have access to internships and service opportunities, and we also have options such as a robust study abroad program and a great theater program with a professional theater company in residence called Georgia Shakespeare.”
To support external partnerships, the university created two centers: the Center for Civic Engagement and the Center for Experiential Learning. The Center for Civic Engagement has built connections with the community between faculty staff. The Center for Experiential Learning is home to the university’s internship programs.
“We’ve grown the number of partnerships in last year by more than 50, and we have two or three times the number of students doing internships than in previous years,” Schall says. “A big focus of mine has been to take what was a superlative traditional liberal arts education and integrate with that deep experiential learning.”
Service learning is integrated into the learning experience from day one. At the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year, for example, Oglethorpe University’s incoming class volunteered at seven Atlanta-area nonprofits on the annual Orientation Day of Service. Previously held at one location, this was the first year the entering class reached seven nonprofits during the Day of Service. This effort has the combined benefit of giving students an opportunity to learn about an Atlanta nonprofit and how it serves a community need, possibly in a project related to their field of study.
Not surprisingly, OU is in growth mode. Enrollment is up 20 percent in the last five years, and the university has its sights set on getting to 1,500 students. To support the ongoing growth spurt, OU expanded its residential capacity by 300 beds on campus over the last seven years. It is also finishing design work for a new student center, which it hopes to break ground on in the next year.
“We’ve done some renovations to facilities that match our strategic goals,” Schall says. “We’re in a quiet phase of a capital campaign that we will really push out to the public in the next year.”
As for technology, OU’s investments have been relatively modest. Technology isn’t at the core of the university’s academic mission, however.
“Our focus at the moment is not on distinguishing ourselves based on the sophistication of technology, but on the relationships that exist here between faculty and students,” he says.
It is a challenge to continue to keep the university affordable, but Schall knows it is in OU’s best interest to do so. The university is highly tuition dependent, as its roughly $20 million endowment supplies but a thin piece of its $25 million operating budget. Still, OU’s cost per student is right around $15,000, which is impressive when compared against other small liberal arts colleges.
“We run very efficiently, and we can pass that low cost onto most of our students,” Schall says. “More than 30 percent of students here are Pell Grant-eligible, so a lot of institutional aid goes out to our students.”
This is important in a time when family income doesn’t appear to be on an upward trajectory. Schall says Oglethorpe University will continue to look for ways to deliver its education in a cost-effective way, and partnerships will remain a critical piece of that effort. It also benefits from its membership in the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education consortium, which allows students to take a course at any of the 20 schools in the consortium at no additional cost.
“Small schools like ourselves don’t have money to burn, so we have to adapt how we teach and find ways to help our faculty evolve what and how they teach,” Schall says. “Institutions like ours have been around a long time, and many of our best attributes are rooted in the past. But we can’t be so rooted that people run past us. We must maintain an appropriate balance that connects us to our mission and is attentive to a changed world.”
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