Best Kept College Secrets

Colleges for Real People


Maine is celebrated for its rocky coastline, fisheries and lobster traps, and ruggedly stunning islands, one of which, Mount Desert Island, has famously welcomed families of enormous wealth and power. Much of Acadia National Park on the island was donated by John D. Rockefeller whose elaborate summer home is among those built by J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Astors. The town of Bar Harbor and communities of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor, located on Mount Desert, have long been a refuge for the most prominent families from the steamy confines of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In what might have seemed a curious impulse, Mount Desert is also the home of College of the Atlantic, a remarkable educational innovation, unique in its mission and uncommon in its ambition.

COA was founded in 1969, one of the last of the wave of experimental colleges that swept the end of the decade and one that has remained true to the vision of its founders. Today, almost four hundred students live and study on a thirty-seven acre campus overlooking Frenchman’s Bay; they are all engaged in the study of human ecology, the college’s only major. Well, that’s not entirely true, or at least not completely true. COA describes itself as a liberal arts college in which all students design their own major… but every student majors in human ecology.

Confused? This is one instance in which you might actually get the best of both worlds.

Imagine a college that takes ecology seriously – I mean REALLY seriously. The extraordinary setting and natural resources make the place a living laboratory and a superior learning environment for those who think it is great to work in Acadia or take an hour-and-a-half boat ride to Duck Island, one of the college’s research stations, a twelve acre preserve protecting the largest breeding ground of Leach’s Storm Petrels and Black Guillemots. If marine mammals are your preference, you can scoot twenty-five miles to Mount Desert Rock which offers a window into the world of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. If you don’t know the difference between dolphins and porpoises, you probably need to enroll right away. Any description of resources available to students at COA has to include the world-class biological research facility, the Jackson Laboratory, one of the leading areas of research in geonomics, mammalian genetics, cancer research, and neurological and sensory research.

So, to make the picture a bit more complex, COA is a small (375 students) college located in a fabled Maine holiday destination next to one of the nation’s most powerful research facilities. My own impression of the COA experience leads me to describe the college as an intensive professional school with considerable interest in the liberal arts.


The complete description of the College of the Atlantic will appear in the Third Edition of America’s Best Kept College Secrets 


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