Episode 38: Colleges in the Southwest Region—Part II

In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the four states of the Southwest region: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. We talked about public universities—both the flagship state public universities and other public universities in those states. Today, we will continue our tour of the Southwest states by focusing on private higher education institutions.

Virtual audio tour of private colleges and universities in the Southwest Region on the NYCollegeChat podcast. Episode and show notes available at http://usacollegechat.org/38We are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a few small liberal arts institutions. Almost all of them happen to be located in Texas. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Southwest that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

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

1. Private Universities

Let’s start with a relatively small, academically prestigious university—that is, Rice University, located in Houston, our nation’s fourth-largest city, but situated on a beautiful tree-lined campus in a residential neighborhood that makes you feel like you could not possibly be just minutes from downtown. Established by businessman William Marsh Rice in 1891, the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art first held classes in 1912. According to the charter, students went to Rice tuition free (until 1966).

Today, Rice enrolls about 4,000 undergraduates and just over 2,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of just about 6,500 students. Rice is on everyone’s list of top 20 or so U.S. universities and has an acceptance rate of about 15 percent. Incoming freshmen have average SAT scores well over 700 on each subtest. In 2014, about half of the freshmen from the U.S. were from Texas and half were not.

Rice is serious about its academics and boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 6:1—a shockingly low ratio and the lowest we have seen in our tour or are likely to see anywhere. This means, of course, that students have incredible access to faculty in class and a real chance of having meaningful interactions with faculty members. Undergraduate students study in 50 majors across six schools: music, architecture, social sciences, humanities, engineering, and natural sciences. Rice also has a graduate school of business, among other graduate programs.

Undergraduates at Rice are randomly assigned to one of 11 residential colleges—each with its own dining hall, public rooms, dorm rooms, and competitive website. About 75 percent of undergraduates live in their residential college throughout their time at the University. Each residential college has a faculty master, who lives in an adjacent house and encourages a rich intellectual and cultural life and a plan for self-governance at the residential college. Rice offers its students over 200 student organizations and seven men’s and seven women’s Rice Owls sports teams (as well as club sports and intramurals). The baseball team has earned 19 consecutive conference titles, and the football team has gone to bowl games in four of the last eight years.

At $42,000 in tuition and fees annually, Rice is certainly not cheap—but neither is any other world-class private university.

Moving north from Houston, we come to Baylor University in Waco. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas and first opened in Independence, Texas, Baylor is an “unambiguously Christian” institution—and, specifically, a Baptist institution—though it welcomes students of all faiths (including students with no faith at all) from more than 85 countries. The mean SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1231, so a pair of scores in, let’s say, the mid-600s might get a student into Baylor, especially a student from a faraway state.

Baylor offers its almost 14,000 undergraduate students about 140 bachelor’s degree programs, housed in eight colleges and schools—arts and sciences, social work, engineering and computer science, business, nursing, health and human sciences, education, and music. The University, which enrolls another approximately 2,500 graduate and professional students, also has a graduate theological seminary and a law school, among other graduate programs.

Students can participate in 260 student organizations, including a slew of fraternities and sororities, and Baylor is the home of the first college chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The University fields 19 varsity sports teams and has won 50 Big 12 Conference titles. You will get an idea of the level of school spirit (believe me, it is high) by watching the virtual campus tours on the Baylor website—and you will also see how really lovely the campus is.

At $41,000 in tuition and fees annually, Baylor’s costs are about like Rice’s—again, not cheap. Even so, I feel as though Baylor might be one of those universities that bears a close look from good students in other parts of the country. While Baylor does have intriguing programs for top-notch students—like its combined eight-year bachelor’s degree/M.D. in cooperation with highly respected Baylor College of Medicine—the University also seems to be in reach for good, if not perfect, students.

Let’s move about 100 miles north of Waco to Dallas to take a look at Southern Methodist University (SMU), located in the residential neighborhood of University Park, minutes from downtown Dallas. Technically an urban university, SMU’s campus seems more suburban in style, and it is one of the prettiest campuses ever—gorgeous red brick buildings with white trim, some placed around a huge quadrangle, anchored at one end by the Meadows Museum, which houses one of the most impressive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain and which has an interesting partnership with Madrid’s famous Museo del Prado. Founded in 1911 by what is now The United Methodist Church and opened in 1915, SMU does not operate as a faith-based institution today.

SMU enrolls about 6,500 undergraduate students and almost 5,000 graduate and professional students. About half of its students come from outside the State of Texas, including from almost 100 foreign countries, and about 25 percent are minority students. The average SAT score (for the Math and Critical Reading subtests) of entering freshman in 2014 was 1308, and that score has increased significantly over the past decade.

SMU offers 104 bachelor’s degree programs across five colleges and schools: humanities and sciences, business, engineering, education and human development, and the excellent Meadows School of the Arts, with especially good music, dance, and theater programs. Along with many other graduate programs, SMU also has a school of theology and a law school, where pro bono legal work is a graduation requirement.

SMU fields 17 Mustang varsity teams and offers 180 student organizations, along with fraternities and sororities that count about one-third of undergraduates as members. I think it is fair to say that the social life at SMU is a real plus for students.

Interestingly, SMU has a site in another of our Southwest states, New Mexico. SMU-in-Taos offers summer credit courses in 28 buildings in a variety of subject fields, including an annual archeology field school. The site of the campus holds a pre-Civil War fort and the remains of a 13th century Native American pueblo.

SMU’s tuition and fees for an academic year are about $44,000, unfortunately high and in keeping with the cost of attending either Baylor or Rice.

2. Colleges That Change Lives

As we have said in several earlier episodes, Colleges That Change Lives is a nonprofit organization that was founded after the publication of the book Colleges That Change Lives, by Loren Pope, a retired New York Times education editor. There are now 44 colleges and universities profiled in the book and on the organization’s website. Those that are included are not necessarily famous institutions. Most are smaller colleges and universities that have proved to be successful at developing students both personally and academically so that they can succeed in life after their undergraduate college years.

Three of the 44 institutions profiled are located in our Southwest region. You should read about them in the book or on the website to learn more about them. They are Austin College in Sherman, Texas; Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas; and St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Let’s focus on St. John’s for a minute because it is one of the most unique colleges we have looked at in our virtual tour. Though called St. John’s, it is not a faith-based college. To start with, it is one college with two campuses: St. John’s Annapolis in Maryland and St. John’s Santa Fe in New Mexico, both located in picturesque and charming state capitals. St. John’s was founded in Annapolis in 1696 as King William’s School and was chartered in 1784 as St. John’s College. The Santa Fe campus was established almost two centuries later in 1964. While it is not unusual, of course, for a college to have two campuses, it is unusual for a college to have two campuses almost across the entire country from each other and to have two campuses that allow students to transfer back and forth between the two. Many students do spend a year at the campus they did not start at.

But the real unique idea at St. John’s is its liberal arts curriculum, based on collaborative inquiry in small class discussions, with the professor acting as a tutor and mentor—all based on the original texts of great authors in almost every subject field. The Seminar, as St. John’s calls it, is the foundation for the curriculum, and it is described this way:

Students participate in far-reaching and free but disciplined conversations about major works of literature, philosophy, political theory, theology, history, economics, and psychology from Homer and the Greek historians, playwrights, and philosophers in the freshman year, through the Renaissance in the sophomore year and the Enlightenment in the junior year, to the contemporary world in the senior year.

Students are also required to take four years of mathematics, three years of laboratory science, two years of music (including singing in the Freshman Chorus together), and four years of a second language (two years of Ancient Greek and two years of modern French). Clearly, this is one remarkable liberal arts curriculum.

Each campus enrolls between about 450 and 475 undergraduate students (there are also a couple of graduate programs), drawn from all 50 states and about 20 foreign countries—tiny student bodies, to be sure. The student-to-faculty ratio is an enviably low 8:1—much lower than most colleges, but not actually as low as Rice’s 6:1, our all-time winner.

Students at St. John’s Santa Fe can take advantage of the hiking, skiing, and camping options in the nearby mountains and in Santa Fe National Forest, and the school’s Search and Rescue team trains students to serve the community. The campus also has the usual array of student organizations, including intramural sports. Of course, to many people, Santa Fe is a dream location, full of artists and culture and natural beauty and plenty of things to do.

Students interested in St. John’s are expected to have taken a rigorous course of study in high school and must complete a “short set of reflective essays” (quoted from the website) as part of the application procedure. SAT and ACT scores are optional, though students are encouraged to provide them.

Undergraduate tuition is, not surprisingly, quite high at about $48,500 per year. But you can see why. I believe that it is probably worth it, which is not true of some colleges charging that much.

According to the website, St. John’s “is in the top 2 percent of all colleges in the nation for alumni earning PhDs in the humanities, and in the top 4 percent for earning them in science or engineering” (quoted from the website), which seems remarkable for a tiny college with a liberal arts curriculum. You can see why this college changes lives.

Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region (for example, about 90 percent of students at Southwestern University are from Texas), it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why you might like the new Houston, a great place to be
  • What is so great about Dallas
  • How appealing Santa Fe might be

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