Episode 35: Colleges in the Plains Region—Part I

This is our ninth episode in our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. We started the tour to try to broaden your horizons about colleges that might be appealing to your child, but are outside your geographic comfort zone. You might recall that we have discussed the fact that the vast majority of high school students—say, about 70 percent—go to college in their home states. While there is nothing really wrong with that, we would like you to know that there are a lot of great colleges out there—ones that you have never heard of and even ones that we had never heard of—and we would like you to consider whether one of them could make all the difference for your child.

So far, we have toured the Great Lakes region, the Southeast region, and the Rocky Mountain region. Today, we head just east from the Rocky Mountains to look at the Plains region.

Virtual tour of public colleges in the Plains region on NYCollegeChat, a weekly podcast about the world of college

As we say in every one of these episodes, no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are entirely our own choices.

And to repeat: First, when we talk about the universities in this episode, we are going to be talking about the main campus—that is, the one that most people associate with that institution. Second, because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or large.

1. The Plains Region

As we have said, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s covering from four to 12 states. In this episode, we will start our examination of the seven states of the Plains region: Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

If you have never considered any college in this north central part of our country, maybe this is your wake-up call. Perhaps you will reconsider after today’s episode about public colleges in these states or next week’s episode about private colleges in these states.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

As we always do on our tour, let’s start with this region’s flagship public state universities. Each of the seven states has one, as those of you who are regular listeners know by now. And, as always, some of them are better known nationally than others. They are all good schools, and some are great schools. While some of these universities have smaller branch campuses in other locations in their states, it is the main location—that is, the flagship of each state’s public system—that we will talk about here because that is the campus that is most respected and most widely recognized, both in the state and outside the state.

Let us remind you of what we have said in other episodes about flagship campuses: They are the place to be, if you graduated from high school in that state. Why? Because they are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, super-competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for high school classmates.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Plains region? They are the University of Kansas in Lawrence (KU), University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), University of South Dakota in Vermillion (USD), University of North Dakota in Grand Forks (UND), University of Missouri in Columbia (commonly referred to as Mizzou), University of Iowa in Iowa City (UI), and University of Minnesota Twin Cities—that is, in the “twin cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul (U of M). These universities are located in different kinds of settings—from ideal small college towns (or as U.S. News and World Report once called Columbia, Missouri, “the quintessential college town”) to substantial cities (including two state capitals). The cost-of-living is attractively low in most of these locations. Despite being in the center of the country, there is water quite close by some of these campuses—the Missouri River and the Mississippi River, for example—and there are winter sports opportunities not far off.

We can put these universities in three groups by enrollment size, starting with the smallest: USD with about 7,500 undergraduates and a total of 10,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and UND with about 11,500 undergraduates and a total of 15,000 students. While relatively small for the flagship public state universities in the Plains regions—and, indeed, in most regions—they are not actually small. Any incoming freshman is going to feel that an undergraduate student body of 7,500 or more is really pretty large.

Next in size come KU with about 18,000 undergraduates and a total of 23,000 students, UNL with about 20,000 undergraduates and a total of 25,000 students, and UI with about 22,500 undergraduates and a total of 30,000 students. Any incoming freshman is going to feel like these undergraduate student bodies are truly large.

And finally we come to Mizzou with about 28,000 undergraduates and a total of 36,000 students and U of M with about 32,000 undergraduates and a total of 49,000 students. Though we have already mentioned in our virtual tour some universities with even more undergraduate students than that—namely, the University of Central Florida, The Ohio State University, and Michigan State University, and there are still more huge universities in the episodes coming up—it is safe to say that Mizzou and the U of M would seem gigantic to almost any freshman we can imagine. With that said, both universities offer so much to students that a moment of being overwhelmed upon arrival on campus is likely worth it.

Interestingly, about 25 percent of students at U of M and at UI are first-generation college students; for students whose parents had little or no college education themselves, these very large campuses could seem imposing to the whole family.

Each of these flagship universities was founded in the mid- to late 1800s, with Mizzou first in 1839 and UND last in 1883. Three were founded before their territory even became a state: UND, USD, and U of M (and UI was founded just two months after statehood). This trend, which we also saw in the Rocky Mountain region, continues to impress me—that pioneers, just establishing themselves, would give a college education such a high priority.

Mizzou was established in 1839 by 900 citizens who pledged both money and land to win the competition for where to locate the new state university; it became the first public university west of the Mississippi River and the first state university in the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase, which Thomas Jefferson had made back in 1803. KU was founded in 1866 by abolitionists, who had come to Kansas in 1854 to make sure that Kansas entered the U.S. as a free state and not as a slave state. UND was founded as a College of Arts and Sciences, plus a Normal School for the education of teachers—not as an agricultural school or only a normal school, as other colleges were typically being established.

UNL was founded in 1869 as an institution open both to women and to students of all races from the first day—at a time when many colleges were not open to either. When UI started holding classes in 1855, 41 of the 124 students were women—fully one-third of the student body, which had to be very unusual for that time in our nation’s history. Some years later, UI was the first public university to award a law degree to an African American (in 1870) and to a woman (in 1873). And it was the first public university to allow an African-American athlete to play on a varsity team (in 1895). That is a lot of history and pioneering spirit to be proud of.

Turning to academics, these flagship universities have from 8 to 16 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—from liberal arts and sciences to every kind of career-related field, including, at the undergraduate level, engineering, education, business, journalism, fine and performing arts, architecture, and agricultural sciences and natural resources.

UNL has a fascinating and highly selective program that is part of the University Honors Program: the Jeffrey S. Raikes School of Computer Science and Management (the average entering freshman SAT critical reading and mathematics score is 1480 and average ACT score is 33.5). The School draws on the resources of several UNL colleges and offers an interdisciplinary, project-oriented curriculum, including a year-long capstone project for seniors in cooperation with an actual business.

Mizzou opened the world’s first journalism school in 1908. The school is still operating and is one of the finest in the nation. It offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees and is known for its Missouri Method of placing students in real media outlets—television, radio, and newspapers)—to learn their craft.

UI was the first university to create a college-level department of education, which became the birthplace of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (you might have taken these standardized tests as a child yourself), the GED as an alternative to a standard high school diploma, and the ACT for college admission.

These flagship universities offer from about 85 to 190 undergraduate majors across their numerous undergraduate colleges and schools. So, clearly, more than one of these universities have whatever major your child wants to study in whatever college or school is of interest within the university.

And don’t forget UI’s famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop (based in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), which offered the first creative writing degree in the U.S. in 1936. At the graduate level, the program leads to a Master of Fine Arts in English and admits 25 students in fiction and 25 in poetry each year. The good news for undergraduates is that the program offers undergraduate courses during the year and summer courses as well. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners, five U.S. Poets Laureate, and a bunch of other winners of impressive awards.

Like other flagship universities we have talked about in previous episodes, each of these seven has many student clubs and organizations, typically including fraternities and sororities—in fact, from about 120 student organizations (which already sounds like a lot) to more than 800 at U of M. It would be impossible for your child not to find some organizations he or she would like to join—which is especially important for students on one of the larger campuses.

Of course, there are also plenty of varsity sports teams—from about from 15 to 23, with women’s teams sometimes being more numerous than men’s teams. UNL and U of M play in the Big Ten Conference, where sports are taken pretty seriously. KU’s first basketball coach in 1898 just happened to be the guy who invented basketball: James Naismith, who invented the game in Massachusetts in 1891. By the way, KU is proud of its five national basketball championships—and its five national debate championships.

Plus, there are club sports and intramurals to choose from. At UI, 60 percent of the students participate in these non-varsity sports.

Each of these flagship universities is well enough known to attract students from virtually all 50 states and from as many as 60 to more than 140 foreign countries; nonetheless, most of the undergraduate students are home grown—ranging from about 55 percent to 70 percent of the students, with only UND falling to just about 40 percent of students being from North Dakota. In fact, at UI, about 75 percent of students come from either Iowa or Illinois; at U of M, about 80 percent come from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Wisconsin (you will see why in a minute). UI and U of M are two excellent universities that are not pulling in many students from most states in the U.S.

A solid application from outside of the state would be viewed with interest at likely all of these flagship universities. As we have said before, colleges like to have geographic diversity in the student body.

Furthermore, your child could get a great education at a cost lower than most private colleges in your home state—that is, before any financial aid package is figured in. More important, as we have said before, these flagship universities are better academically and more widely recognized than many private colleges in the U.S., and there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public university. And you have several great public universities to choose from in the Plains states.

In wrapping up, let’s look at a couple of interesting tuition programs. KU fixes students’ annual four-year tuition when they enter their freshman year; for parents, it is certainly nice to know that the tuition will not get any higher year by year. (KU is not the only college that does this, so look for others that do.) One thing that might save on tuition is that UNL guarantees the availability of all courses required for a degree or reasonable substitutions so that a student can finish in four years and graduate. Because not graduating in four years costs money!

USD permits children of its alumni/alumnae to pay the in-state tuition rate—no matter where the children live; and, USD gives Minnesota students a tuition rate that is just barely higher than the in-state rate. UND also has quite a few deals in place: It is a member of the Western Undergraduate Exchange and the Midwest Student Exchange Program (both of which provide substantial tuition breaks to students from member states, as we discussed in Episode 33), and it has a very attractive Contiguous Residency rate for students from South Dakota, Montana, and especially Minnesota. Finally, the U of M offers in-state tuition to students from North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin as well as free tuition for credits in excess of 13 per term.

These deals seem outstanding to us, and they effectively broaden a student’s opportunities to look at first-rate public institutions in nearby states, without any substantial financial consequences. As these colleges carefully advertise on their websites, these tuition deals and reciprocal arrangements with other states are not automatic. You have to apply for them, and you sometimes have to apply to your home state first. And, again, space is limited. So look hard at any public universities your child is interested in to see whether there might be similar programs in place for you and, if so, apply early.

By the way, if you want your child to be among the 97 percent who get a job or an acceptance to graduate school when he or she graduates from college, send your child to USD. Or, if you want your child to be one of the 9 out of 10 graduates who say they would attend their college all over again, send your child to UND.

When we attended the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s college fair in New York City in April, we spoke with Suzanne Sholes, Assistant Director in the UND Office of Admissions. Suzanne offered the following audio pitch for her alma mater for NYCollegeChat. (Be sure to listen to it in our recorded episode.)

At the same college fair, we spoke with Laura Goddard, a University of Iowa Senior Admission Counselor, whose recruiting territory is New York and New Jersey.   Laura did the following audio pitch for UI for NYCollegeChat. (Be sure to listen to it in our recorded episode.)

3. Other Public State Universities

In these seven Plains states, there are also other public universities—some are branches of the flagship campus, but others are universities in their own right. I think the two that are most likely to attract out-of-state students because they are probably better known nationally than many of the others are Iowa State University (ISU) and Kansas State University (commonly known as K-State).

Founded in 1858 as Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm, Iowa State is located in Ames, which is a great college town, according to many rankings of these things: great public schools, safe community, clean air, and lots to do. Actually a bit larger than the University of Iowa, Iowa State has an undergraduate student enrollment of about 29,000, with another 5,000 or so graduate and professional students. Undergraduates choose among about 100 majors spread over six undergraduate colleges. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has an almost 97 percent career placement rate and is the alma mater of famed scientist George Washington Carver—ISU’s first African-American student and later faculty member. The College of Engineering is one of the largest in the country and offers more than 60 student engineering organizations. ISU’s graduate College of Veterinary Medicine was the first public veterinary school (1879). With over 800 student organizations and 18 varsity sports teams, Iowa State is a well-rounded place to be for the students it draws from all 50 states and more than 100 foreign countries. About 60 percent of its students are Iowa residents. When you read the website, you will see a list of accomplishments in science and technology that I can barely understand, but are certainly impressive.

Kansas State University officially opened in 1863 as Kansas Agricultural College. It was the second public college to admit men and women equally. Located in Manhattan, a classic college town, K-State enrolls about 20,000 undergraduates and another 4,000 or so graduate and professional students, drawn nationally and internationally; it is just as large as the University of Kansas. It offers its undergraduates a choice of 250 majors and options. K-State has nine colleges, including a College of Veterinary Medicine and a College of Technology and Aviation at its Salina campus. With more than 475 student organizations, 16 varsity sports teams, more than 20 competitive club sports, and 40 intramural sports, there is plenty to do at K-State. An important part of its undergraduate curriculum is the “K-State 8,” which are eight areas of study that are required of all students and are designed to broaden students’ perspectives beyond their major. The eight are aesthetic interpretation, human diversity within the U.S., ethical reasoning and responsibility, global issues and perspectives, and the more standard math, science, social sciences, and history. It’s a real liberal arts education, which students get prior to any specialization in a major. K-State has rolling admissions, so that could be a plus in your child’s college application process.

Though they don’t have the national visibility of Iowa State and K-State, both North Dakota State University (NDSU) and South Dakota State University (SDSU)—as large or larger than the flagship universities in those states—have plenty of students, majors, student organizations, and varsity sports teams to be appealing choices. Though they draw students nationally and internationally, about 60 percent of SDSU students are South Dakota residents and about 40 percent of NDSU students are North Dakota residents (though just as many students come to NDSU from Minnesota as from North Dakota).

In closing our look at public universities, we would like to mention two HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) in Missouri: Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. Harris-Stowe State University evolved from its beginnings as two normal schools for educating teachers—Harris Teachers College for educating white teachers (founded in 1857) and Stowe Teachers College for educating black teachers (founded in 1890), named for abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Originally operated by the Board of Education of the St. Louis Public Schools, the two teacher education schools were merged in 1954 as public schools were beginning to integrate. In 1979, the merged college became part of Missouri’s state system of public higher education. Though broadening its offerings beyond education, Harris-Stowe does have a unique undergraduate degree in Urban Education, designed to prepare non-teaching staff to work on education issues in urban settings. In addition to its College of Education, Harris-Stowe has a College of Arts and Sciences and the Anheuser-Busch School of Business, and it offers 14 undergraduate programs, mostly in education and business. With just over 1,500 undergraduates, Harris-Stowe offers a much smaller alternative to a large public university.

Lincoln University was founded as Lincoln Institute “by the men of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries and their white officers, for the special benefit of freed African Americans” (quoted from the website). It became a Missouri public institution in 1879, offering primarily education, industrial, and agricultural courses. Lincoln now offers 50 undergraduate degree programs spread across the College of Arts and Letters, College of Behavioral and Technological Sciences, College of Agricultural and Natural Sciences, and College of Professional Studies (for business, education, and nursing). It also offers master’s degrees in business, education, and the social sciences. Lincoln has an undergraduate student enrollment of about 2,800, with a couple hundred more graduate students. The undergraduate students on the main campus are about 45 percent black and about 45 percent white, and about 80 percent of them are from Missouri (with most of the rest from surrounding states).

As we have said before, all of these public universities (and there are many more in these states than those we mentioned here) would cost an out-of-state student more than a public university in his or her own state, but less than most private colleges. So, consider looking at public universities beyond just the flagship university, for the special programs or the appealing locations or the sense of history and tradition that they offer.

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