College of the Ozarks has a long history stretching back to the early 1900s. Today, in the first of a three part series on faith-based colleges in the region, KSMU’s Bailey Wiles looks at C of O’s heritage and how it’s changed and adapted over the years.
On the campus of this school of about 1600 students in Point Lookout, Missouri, it’s easy to recognize a sense of community. Students walk in groups of two. Along the roadside, they can be seen working together to rake leaves or trim shrubbery. In the offices, students are answering phones, filing paperwork, and are more than happy to guide me, a lost tourist, to my destination.
Much like the enthusiastic students of today, Marci Linson says she’s grateful for the work ethic the school taught her while attending in the late 80s.
“You must do a good job and you must work hard and I feel like I really learned that here.”
She also loved how the school was Christian-minded and taught her to properly network with others.
Fast forward to present day. Linson is dean of Admission of the college, a position she has held for 26 years.
After spending so much time at C of O, Linson developed a fascination for its history. She spoke about how the college was founded, and like other religious colleges in the area, how the early years brought hardships.
“Pre-1906, there was a Presbyterian missionary by the name of James Forsythe who noticed there was no education on a grand scale for students in the area. So, he felt led to establish a school for students of this region. He was providing education for students who just didn’t have the means to go out and get it,” Linson said.
The school was originally located in Forsyth, Missouri, but shortly after its founding, disaster struck.
“Somewhere after it was established and had been going a few years, Mitchell Hall burned, which devastated the school.”
Shortly thereafter, the school was able to purchase Dobyns Hall for the exact same amount of money as the insurance claim, which was seen as a divine intervention from God. But, in 1934, this hall was also burned to the ground. However, the school fought on.
Dr. John Schmalzbauer, a professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University, thinks that today College of the Ozarks has also done a good job establishing a brand of faith and patriotism.
“You can see that with the kind of speakers that they bring to campus, a lot of distinguished politicians often representing the conservative side of American politics. They bring in someone like a Bill O’Reilly or a Ben Carson and then if that person says something about College of the Ozarks in a book or in the media then that is amazing free advertising. This school has done really well in terms of attracting students in a time when a lot of privates are struggling,” Schmalzbauer said.
“And also it’s free to go here,” Grogan said.
That’s Alana Grogan, an Elementary Education major and a senior at C of O, explaining why, in addition to its Christian atmosphere, she decided to attend.
Grogan is describing the school’s popular program which allows students to work in exchange for free tuition. This program, which has earned the college the nickname Hard Work U, started out as ordinary farm work, but has adapted over time to include work such as nursing, running the on-campus lodge and restaurant, The Keeter Center, and theater programs, to name a few.
C of O has also adapted its rules of students. Again, Marci Linson.
“The stories that some of the older alums use to tell me was about the green line. Guys had to walk on one side and girls had to walk on the other. The same alumnus use to tell me that she led a campaign on campus to where girls could wear ankle socks, because panty hose were required,” Linson says.
Paige Arnett majors in Conservation and Wildlife and seeking a minor in Business. Arnett’s weekly work schedule includes giving bus tours to visitors and working in the Public Relations office. This work pays for over $17,000 of tuition and fees for Arnett, which will leave her debt free upon graduation.
“We work 15 hours a week and then once a semester we do a 40 hour work week. We get to be a part of work programs that are going to help us in the real world. We do get that working experience of are we really going to like this? Is this really our calling?” Arnett asks.
As I make my way deeper into the heart of the campus, I notice the spired tops of the intricately fashioned college chapel. It’s become a staple of the C of O campus, but wouldn’t have been possible without the students of the 1950s. During that time, they helped truck limestone to the construction site and cut wood for the building’s interior.
“Our chapel took about 50 years to get to where we are now; it took 12 years to build it. What’s really neat about that is that students built it. So you go and see how beautiful our chapel is and you’re like ‘there’s no way!’ but it’s so amazing the kind of work ethic that they expect,” Arnett said.
In the mid-1980s, Linson believes that C of O struggled to stay within its mission of providing students an education in the Christian environment that defines it today.
“We began to look like any liberal arts college might look. The big difference between when I was here and what I see now is that I feel like students today that come to this institution are more intentional about their walk with Christ than they were when I was here.”
Under the leadership of current President Dr. Jerry Davis, the college has maintained its commitment to a Christian education. And the school’s enrollment and finances have remained strong.
Again, Dr. John Schmalzbauer.
“376 million dollar endowment, that’s quite impressive. Of course, that has to underwrite the tuition of students. But it dwarfs the other religious colleges in the Springfield area,” Schmalzbauer said.
Another aspect that makes C of O unique is its mission to serve students from the Ozarks region, with over 85 percent area natives. Arnett, from Salem, Missouri, is one of those students.
“One of the really cool things is the Christian values because I come from a small town where that’s a huge thing. But, as you get older, you realize that everybody has different opinions, but here at College of the Ozarks, I feel like they really equip you for the real world and having a strong Christian foothold in that as well.”
Arnett is thankful for the relationships she’s built with fellow students and her professors. Consider her among those that recognize and appreciate the sense of community that’s evident on the C of O campus.
On Thursday afternoon, we examine the history of Evangel University in Springfield.
See our entire 3-part series on faith-based schools in the Ozarks here.