Episode 37: Colleges in the Southwest Region—Part I

This is our eleventh episode in our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. For those of you who have been with us since the beginning, you will recall that we launched the tour to help you find colleges that are appropriate for your child, but that are outside your geographic comfort zone. Because the majority of high school students stay in their home states to attend college, we feel that a lot of appealing—even life-changing—colleges are never even considered by most families. That is a shame.

Virtual audio tour of public colleges and universities in the Southwest Region on the NYCollegeChat podcast

So far, we have toured the Great Lakes region, the Southeast region, the Rocky Mountain region, and the Plains region. This episode takes us to the Southwest.

And, as we are fond of saying, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it in our virtual tour. These are our picks.

1. The Southwest 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 four states in the Southwest region: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

I bet a lot of our listeners here in the Northeast have never thought about sending a child to a college in the Southwest. Perhaps you will think again 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 is our custom, let’s start with this region’s flagship public state universities. Each of the four states has one, as those of you who are regular listeners know by now. And, as is typical, some of them are better known nationally than others. While flagship universities typically 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 certainly 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, usually 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. And nowhere is that truer than in the state of Texas.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Southwest region? They are The University of Arizona in Tucson (UA), The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (UNM), The University of Oklahoma in Norman (OU), and The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin)—that is, two cities that epitomize the Southwest desert lifestyle, one great college town located in Tornado Alley, and one state capital that everyone seems to be talking about these days. Let us tell you from personal experience, if you don’t already know, that Austin is a great town with lots going on, including, of course, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and interactive festivals (that’s interactive, as in digital creativity, meaning websites, video games, and new things I don’t understand). Austin has a spread-out feel, with lots of old and new neighborhoods, a beautiful state capitol building, the impressive University, strong businesses, and lots of large hotels and tiny places to eat great barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine. Albuquerque, in the Land of Enchantment (New Mexico), is in the middle of breathtaking mesas and mountains and the Rio Grande. It has an old Southwest feeling that is distinctive and memorable. The Spanish Colonial and Pueblo Revival architecture of the University fits into picturesque Albuquerque quite well. Old Town, the historic spot where Albuquerque was founded by Spanish settlers in 1706, is filled with museums and shops and places that you would really enjoy visiting.

Turning to the four flagship universities, we can put them into two groups by enrollment size, starting with the smaller universities: UNM with about 18,000 undergraduates and a total of about 26,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and OU with about 20,000 undergraduates and a total of about 30,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. By the way, UNM, a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), was one of the first minority-majority universities, with about a 45 percent Hispanic student body and an Anglo student population of just about 35 percent. While UNM and OU are smaller than the other two flagship universities in the Southwest region, they are certainly not small by anyone’s standards. Any new freshman is going to feel that an undergraduate student body of 18,000 or more is huge.

So what about UA with about 33,000 undergraduates and a total of about 42,000 students and UT Austin with about 39,000 undergraduates and a total of about 51,000 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 and The Ohio State University, and there are still more gigantic universities in the episodes coming up—UA and UT Austin would, without a doubt, seem enormous to almost any freshman walking onto those campuses. Of course, with many students, come many opportunities.

Each of these four flagship universities attracts students nationally and internationally. Nonetheless, at UT Austin, about 90 percent of students are Texas residents, and there is a good chance that freshmen will make the trip to Austin with at least a handful of their smartest high school friends—because, for many bright Texas high school students, UT Austin is at the top of their list. Similarly, UNM also has a student body that is about 90 percent home grown. Students will find a bit more geographic diversity at OU and UA, where just about 60 to 65 percent of students are state residents.

In our episodes so far, we have often said that colleges love geographic diversity and that students might be able to get into a better college by looking a bit farther afield at a college that is lacking, but is seeking, that diversity. That is usually true. However, I think it is more difficult than usual for out-of-state students to get into UT Austin—a highly respected public institution, like the University of Virginia or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or the University of Michigan, all of which we have talked about in previous episodes. In fact, Texas law almost guarantees that many of its best students stay in the state for college by mandating that public colleges automatically admit a certain percentage of each high school’s top graduates (last year, for UT Austin, that was any student who ranked in the top 7 percent of his or her class at the end of the junior year). I have to believe that the 10 percent of the UT Austin student body that comes from out of state is made up of pretty bright kids, too. Of course, if your teenager is bright, then UT Austin is a fabulous choice.

Each of these flagship universities was founded in the mid- to late 1800s, with UT Austin first in 1839 and the others around 1890. All were founded before statehood—three by their territorial legislature and UT Austin by order of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. This trend, which we also saw in the Rocky Mountain and Plains regions, continues—that is, pioneers and early settlers giving a college education a high priority.

Turning to academics, these flagship universities have from 13 to 21 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 and mass communication, fine arts, architecture, and agriculture and life sciences. All of them have a law school and elaborate medical schools/health sciences centers. They are truly one-stop shopping at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.

Perhaps related to its location in Tornado Alley, OU has a College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, with a well-respected School of Meteorology. UA has an impressive College of Optical Sciences, with research in optical engineering, optical physics, photonics, and image science.

UT Austin does something different with its freshmen by putting all of them into the School of Undergraduate Studies, where they explore their interests through a liberal-arts-and-sciences core curriculum of 42 credits. In their freshman year, students take UT’s Signature Course, which is actually an array of 150 course offerings for students to choose from, all of which provide college-level experiences in thinking and writing and speaking and research. Students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zone when choosing from the Signature Courses, which are often interdisciplinary, like Astronomy and the Humanities. UT students leave the School of Undergraduate Studies by the end of their second year to pursue their major course of study. This structure is a comforting idea, given the uncertainty that most entering college freshmen have about their futures.

These four flagship universities offer from about 120 to more than 200 undergraduate degree programs across their numerous undergraduate colleges and schools. The opportunities are almost limitless.

Like all other flagship universities, each of these four has hundreds of student clubs and organizations, including fraternities and sororities—actually more than 1,300 at UT Austin. 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 large campuses like these.

Of course, there are also plenty of varsity sports teams—from 19 to 21 women’s and men’s teams. OU and UT Austin play in the Big 12 Conference and UA plays in the Pac-12 Conference—where sports are taken seriously. The winner in national championships and conference titles is UT Austin, with 51 national championships since 1949 and 507 conference titles. Can you say “Hook ’em Horns” or sing “The Eyes of Texas”? As we have said before, participating in intercollegiate sports and, just as much, attending wildly popular sports events are a big part of campus life at schools like these.

Need something more cultural? Each of these flagship universities (like many others) has museums right on the campus. UNM has the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, which has a “special emphasis on 11,000 years of cultural heritage in the Southwest” (quoted from the website). UA has the Arizona State Museum (an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution), founded in 1893, which houses the world’s largest collection of Southwest American Indian pottery and basketry. UT Austin has the LBJ Presidential Library, an amazing collection of papers and memorabilia from LBJ’s political career and from the civil rights work he championed.

David L. Boren became president of OU in 1994, after a political career as governor of Oklahoma and U.S. Senator from Oklahoma—the only person to serve in all three jobs. Impressively, he teaches a freshman-level political science course each semester. Here is a paragraph from his website Welcome to OU:

OU’s Fred Jones Museum of Art ranks in the top 5 university art museums in the United States. It received the Weitzenhoffer Collection, the largest gift of French Impressionist art ever given to a public university in the US. The Sam Noble Museum of Natural History is the largest university based museum of its kind in the world. OU’s Bizzell Memorial Library features one of the three largest history of science collections in the world, and is the only place in the United States where you can hold a book with Galileo’s handwriting in your own hands.  (quoted from the website)

In addition to the cultural sites on campus, these universities offer study abroad programs, sometimes with hundreds of choices and certainly all kinds of cultural benefits. OU has its own campus in Arezzo, Italy—The Italian Center of the University of Oklahoma. It offers semester-long and year-long programs, and, if you have ever been to Arezzo, you know how fantastic it would be to study there.

Admittedly, out-of-state tuition in these flagship universities is not cheap, running from about $17,000 to $22,000 per year—two or three times what a state resident would pay. But that is still lower (and sometimes way 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.

As is getting more and more typical, there are a couple of attractive tuition programs at these universities. UNM has a Finish-in-Four initiative, in which the university will pay any tuition that the student is responsible for in the final semester if the student graduates in eight or fewer semesters. UA guarantees its tuition rate for entering freshmen for eight consecutive semesters. OU offers a flat tuition at 15 credits, with additional credits taken for free (thus encouraging students to take more credits each semester and finish sooner, saving even more money). UT Austin offers a fixed tuition rate, providing rebates if a student enrolled in the program graduates in four years. So, graduating in four years or even sooner—which is good for the university and good for the family—is the theme we see here.

Additionally, UA and UNM are members of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE), a program of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). WUE allows students who are residents of WICHE states to request a reduced tuition rate of just 150 percent of resident tuition at participating colleges outside of their home state (as we discussed in Episode 33). WUE effectively broadens 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 94 percent who say they believe their degree prepared them for their career or further education, send your child to UNM.

In leaving the flagship universities, let us just say a word or two more about Texas (perhaps because everything is bigger in Texas). While all of the universities we have discussed so far have branch campuses, we should point out that the University of Texas System is actually made up of nine universities and six health institutions, all of which are more like institutions in their own right. UT has huge campuses at Arlington, El Paso, San Antonio, and Dallas, and it is currently merging two of its campuses (Brownsville and Pan American) into a new institution opening this fall as UT Rio Grande Valley. These campuses all have student bodies larger than many flagship campuses in smaller states.

3. Other Public State Universities

In each of these Southwest states, there are also other public universities—not branches of the flagship campus or campuses within the flagship system, but universities in their own right. We would like to focus on two that we think are most likely to attract out-of-state students—one with a long history and one that has seen a lot of changes and increased national visibility in the past decade.

Let’s start with the one with the long history—that is, Texas A&M University, which those of us outside of Texas might think of as one university (Go, Aggies!), but which those of you in Texas know to be a gigantic 11-university system (plus health science center) in cities throughout the state, serving a total of more than 125,000 students. The well-known flagship campus of the Texas A&M University System is in the twin cities of Bryan and College Station, and it was established in 1876.

Established at the same time—that is, during Reconstruction—was Prairie View A&M University, a separate state-supported college for African-American students, which started out as Alta Vista Agricultural & Mechanical College for Colored Youth and later merged with the Prairie View Normal School for training African-American teachers. Today, Prairie View A&M is part of the Texas A&M University System and is one of nine HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) in Texas, three of which are public. Prairie View has about 7,000 undergraduates and another 1,500 graduate and professional students; about 85 percent are African American, and about 95 percent are Texans. Prairie View offers students both liberal arts degrees and degrees in architecture, education, engineering, agriculture, business, juvenile justice, and nursing. Incidentally, the other four-year public HBCU in Texas is Texas Southern University in Houston, with almost 10,000 total students in 11 colleges and schools. It is one of the largest HBCUs in the country and is the alma mater of much-admired U.S. Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan.

Texas A&M’s flagship campus in College Station serves a total of about 42,000 undergraduate students and another approximately 10,000 graduate and professional students, drawn nationally and internationally. About 95 percent of A&M undergraduates are from Texas. It has 16 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges, including the only college of veterinary medicine in Texas (and one of the largest nationally). A&M offers more than 120 undergraduate degree programs.

About 25 percent of students in A&M’s freshman class are first-generation college students. Students can participate in more than 800 student organizations and 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. About 25 percent of students participate in intramural sports. Interestingly, A&M was originally a military institution, and today its voluntary Corps of Cadets is second only to the U.S. military service academies in the number of officers commissioned each year.

By the way, Texas has four more public systems of higher education, with the next most widely known likely being the Texas Tech University System. Its main campus in Lubbock serves a total of about 35,000 students. Again, everything is bigger in Texas.

Now let’s turn to the public university that has seen a lot of changes in the past decade, and that is Arizona State University (ASU), with its main campus in Tempe. ASU serves about 50,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in Tempe, about 80 percent of whom are undergraduates—again, a massive campus. Only about 60 percent of ASU students are Arizona residents, and a truly impressive approximately 40 percent are first-generation college students.

ASU’s president, Michael Crow, who came to the University in 2002, has made a successful effort to increase enrollment, especially of Hispanic and black students, and has made it possible for more low-income students to attend ASU by increasing ASU-supplied financial aid to them. Furthermore, he works hard at providing whatever extra help low-income minority students need in order to graduate. President Crow has also increased the number of out-of-state students (especially from California), who pay about double what state residents pay in tuition (about $22,000 compared to $10,000). He encourages innovation among his administrators and is moving forward in using technology to get students through courses faster and more conveniently. (And I have to believe that he is even more dynamic than this paragraph makes him sound.)

Founded as a territorial school in 1885, ASU is now a university known for its Innovation Challenge competitions, a Startup School and a Startup Accelerator for new ventures, an Entrepreneurship Outreach Network, and the Furnace Technology Transfer Accelerator. It offers nine undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and schools on the Tempe campus, including the nation’s first School of Sustainability, established in 2006, with 99 percent of that School’s bachelor’s degree graduates currently employed or pursuing graduate degrees. And, in the midst of all that, it offers nine men’s and 12 women’s Sun Devils sports teams and more than 1,000 student organizations.

Perhaps to sum up President Crow’s vision, “ASU is a comprehensive public research university measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed…” (quoted from the website).

In closing our look at public universities, we would like to mention one more public HBCU, and that is Langston University in Oklahoma, with its main campus in Langston, just north of Oklahoma City, serving about 1,800 students. Its mostly undergraduate students study in 47 undergraduate degree programs and nine graduate degree programs in six schools, including liberal arts and education, business, health professions, and agriculture. About 80 percent of its students are black, and just about 60 percent are Oklahoma residents. Its tuition is very reasonable, in case you are looking for an HBCU in the Southwest.

As we have said before, all of these public universities (and there are many more in these states than those we mentioned here, especially in Texas) 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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