The curriculum at UNC-A emphasizes the process of learning almost as much as the substance.
“What we stress in our liberal arts program is a method of inquiry in which students have a responsibility for the construction of knowledge,” said Edward Katz, associate vice chancellor for university programs in academic affairs.
“We emphasize a lot of active learning in our classrooms.”
Many students, Katz said, choose to apply those skills in graduate schools.
“The liberal arts tend to be a solid foundation for graduate studies or for professional studies later,” he said.
Providing a broad educational experience in a smaller, more personal setting has been the university’s mission since 1969, when it joined with UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Charlotte in what would become the UNC system.
Originally founded in 1927 as Buncombe County Junior College, UNC-A since has evolved into a nationally recognized institution.U.S. News & World Report ranks it fourth in the nation among public liberal arts colleges, and Princeton Review named it a “best value” in 2004.
“You’re getting a lot of value for your money,” said Jeanne McGlinn, director of UNC-A’s humanities program.
“Our students wanted a small liberal arts college experience, and it is so affordable at a state institution like this.”
UNC-A is very much a statewide institution — about 45 percent of its students hail from outside western North Carolina.
In making a national name for itself, the school is bolstered by a strong academic reputation — the university boasts an average SAT score of 1166, the third-highest in the UNC system — and nonresident tuition of less than $13,000.
“Most of the liberal arts institions in the country are private,” Fry said, noting that this makes UNC-A an especially unique asset for the state.
“There are only a few public liberal arts colleges in the United States, so it’s tough to find peer institutions when you’re doing comparisons between UNC-Asheville and other public universities.”
In setting itself apart from public and private colleges alike, UNC-A has put a great deal of effort into its undergraduate research program.
Students work closely with faculty members on intensive research projects, often publishing their results alongside professors.
“It gives a student an opportunity to really work with faculty as mentors and colleagues,” Mullen said.
Next year, the university will host the 20th National Conference on Undergraduate Research, an event the university kicked off with the first ever conference in 1987.
“Asheville took a leadership role in the nation in developing that program in undergraduate research,” Mullen said.
Among the university’s strongest selling points, McGlinn said, is its commitment to keeping class sizes small. The school boasts an average of about 20 students per class.
“I think the expectation when students come here is that it’s going to be much more personal,” she said.
“There’s a lot of time for a lot of personal attention and conversation.”
Mullen said close interaction between students and faculty is key to the school’s mission. And many students seem to find this relationship one of the most rewarding aspects of academic life at the university.
“I can’t imagine being able to confront a professor at a larger school like Chapel Hill with the ease that I do here,” said Jeffrey Vaughn, a senior economics major from Winston-Salem.
Smaller classes, he said, enable him to get positive feedback from instructors.
Like many, Vaughn said he came to UNC-A initially unsure of where he wanted to take his academic career.
“I’d kind of been tired of going along with the crowd in high school and wanted to do something different,” he said.
“This place attracts those kind of people.”
Like the community surrounding it, Mullen said, the university has worked hard to bring in an eclectic mix of students from around the state and across the country.
“I think what we have done is work to create a sense of being a place where creativity is valued,” he said.
“I believe UNC-Asheville is a very special place in American higher education.”
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