Episode 41: Colleges in the New England Region—Part I

This is the fifteenth episode in our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. We are coming into the home stretch of helping you find colleges that might be perfect for your child, but that are outside your geographic comfort zone. So far, we have toured the Great Lakes region, the Southeast region, the Rocky Mountain region, the Plains region, the Southwest region, and the Far West region. This episode takes us all the way back across the country to the New England region, which is likely inside the geographic comfort zone of many, but certainly not all, families here in the Northeast—because, as we know, about 70 percent of high school students will stay in their home state—not even in their home region—for college. So, listen carefully, those of you in the Northeast, because there are some interesting colleges relatively nearby in some very small New England states.

Virtual #college tour of New England Region on NYCollegeChat #podcast. Available at http://usacollegechat.org/41

Keep in mind that we are discussing only four-year colleges in our tour, reasoning that students who plan to attend two-year colleges are highly likely to go to the closest one, which makes a certain amount of sense for a two-year college. We think it makes less sense if your teenager is headed for a four-year college, as we have said many times.

And, once more, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it in our virtual tour. These are our own choices.

1. The New England 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 six states in the New England region: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

I am sure that our listeners out in the Rocky Mountain or Plains regions think that these states seem both far away and quite small—compared to Montana, for example. But remember that some of them are densely populated, and that leads to lots of colleges being established over many, many decades. So this week, we will be examining public colleges in these six states; and, next week, we will be taking a look at a variety of very well-known and not-so-well-known private colleges in these six states.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

As we usually do, let’s begin with this region’s flagship public state universities. Each of the six states has one, as those of you who tune in regularly know by now. And, as usual, some of them are better known nationally than others (probably as a result of some great basketball playing). While state public college systems and flagship universities typically have smaller 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 one more time 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.

As I have said before, I think that great flagship campuses in other states are the hidden jewels of the college search for lots of students who never consider them.

With all that said, I also want to say that I do not believe that flagship campuses in New England are nearly the draw that they are in almost all of the other parts of the country (except in the Mid-Atlantic states, which we haven’t talked about yet). In other words, I think that it is much more likely that a high school senior in Texas is dying to go to the flagship campus of the University of Texas in Austin than that a high school senior in Massachusetts is dying to go to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For high school seniors in Mississippi, the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, is the very best place they can imagine going. For high school seniors in Connecticut, the University of Connecticut is likely not the very best place they can imagine going—no matter how good it actually is. It is a cultural thing, not an academic thing. Perhaps there is just a longer or more entrenched tradition of private higher education in the Northeast than there is in other parts of the country.

Now, with all that said, let me also point out that applications to some of these flagship universities in New England are really on the rise—by a lot. So maybe things are beginning to change.

What are these flagship campuses in the New England states? They are The University of Maine (UMaine) in Orono, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in Durham, The University of Vermont (UVM, from the Latin phrase for “University in the Green Mountains”) in Burlington, The University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston, the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst).

Let’s look at their locations first. I think of these locations as slightly off the beaten track. In other words, these locations are not the famous cities of these states. These flagship universities are not in Boston, Providence, Portland, or New Haven, for example. These locations are more like small towns—maybe great small towns and maybe even great college towns.

Burlington, Vermont, for example, is the nation’s number 1 college town, according to Travel + Leisure magazine. The University of Vermont is located on beautiful Lake Champlain (personally, I always think that Lake Champlain should be one of the Great Lakes), just 90 miles from Montreal, its closest big city. Burlington is recognized for its outdoor life, the arts, safety, and its overall quality of life.

Or take Orono, which is 140 miles from Portland, Maine’s biggest city. Orono is between the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers and not too far from Acadia National Park, Mt. Katahdin, and Bar Harbor—all well known spots to native Mainers and regular vacationers to the state, of which there are swarms (just try to drive up there on a summer weekend). Or look at Amherst. A lovely small New England town—admittedly in the middle of nowhere—it is in spitting distance of a handful of first-rate private colleges (listen in to hear about them next week) as well as the home of the Commonwealth’s flagship campus. For many people, these New England spots—sometimes close to the water and sometimes close to the mountains—are simply idyllic places to go to college.

Turning to the six flagship universities, we can put them into three groups by enrollment size, starting with the largest universities, which are UConn with about 23,000 undergraduates and a total of about 31,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students and UMass Amherst with about 23,000 undergraduates and a total of about 29,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. These enrollment figures are substantial—especially given the size of the states—about on par with the University of Iowa, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to name a few.

About 80 percent of students at UConn and UMass Amherst are state residents, which I think is a surprisingly high percentage since I would guess that these are the two New England flagship universities that are the best known outside the region. At each university, the average SAT score of incoming freshmen is a pair of scores in the low 600s. At UMass Amherst, the high school GPA of incoming freshmen is an impressive 3.78—higher than you might expect with average SAT subtest scores in the low 600s.

But let me tell you the most arresting statistic: Applications at UMass Amherst have doubled in the past 10 years (that is, there were 37,000 applications for just 4,650 seats in the Class of 2018). In the past 20 years, applications at UConn have tripled at the same time as SAT average scores have gone up a combined total of 200 points on two subtests and minority student applications have increased. Currently, UConn undergraduates are about 29 percent minority students, compared to UMass Amherst’s 21 percent. We can say, with certainty, that admission to these two flagship universities is more competitive than it has ever been.

Next in size are URI and UNH, each with about 13,000 to 14,000 undergraduates and a total of about 15,000 to 17,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—just about half the size of UConn and UMass Amherst. Each university draws just about 50 to 55 percent of its students from its own state, and UNH draws another 25 percent from Massachusetts. Incoming freshmen at both URI and UNH have an average high school GPA of a 3.4, with average SAT subtest scores hovering around 550. So these two might be just a bit easier to get into from out of state than UConn and UMass Amherst.

Not too far behind, enrollment-wise, are UMaine and UVM, each with about 9,000 to 10,000 undergraduates and a total of about 11,000 to 12,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Incoming freshmen at UMaine are academically about like those at URI and UNH, while incoming freshmen at UVM score a bit higher, more like those at UConn and UMass Amherst.

Each of these flagship universities does, in fact, attract students nationally and internationally. And let us say one more time that colleges love geographic diversity and that students might be able to get into a better college far from home if that college is lacking, but wanting, that diversity in its student body. Any of these universities would likely be interested in a student from the other side of the country if that student posted a decent high school GPA and some decent college admission test scores—though those grades and scores will have to be better than decent if the student is interested in the top flagship campuses in New England.

UVM is, by far, the oldest of these institutions. Founded in 1791, it is the fifth oldest college in New England (after four Ivy League schools), and it, too, began as a private university. The Marquis de Lafayette, the French officer who fought with us during the American Revolution, laid the cornerstone of a building that still stands on the campus. UVM also claims to be the first college with a charter that said it was nondenominational. Then, almost 75 years later, along came the Morrill Act:

The Morrill Act of 1862 provided for the sale of public lands. Income from these sales was to be used to create at least one college in each state with the principal purpose of teaching agriculture and mechanic arts. From this grant of land comes the term “land grant,” which applied to the national system of state colleges. In a later adaptation of the concept, federal funds given to colleges for marine research and extension are called “sea grants.” (quoted from the URI website)

By the way, “space grants” and “sun grants” for additional types of research followed. Both UNH and UConn have land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant designations.

So, the Morrill Act added a State Agricultural College to UVM, thus making it a public-private blended institution, and it gave rise to UMass Amherst in 1863, UMaine in 1865, UNH in 1866, UConn in 1881, and URI in 1888. They all grew into the full-fledged universities that they are today from their beginnings as “A and M’s.”

Turning to academics, these flagship universities have from 6 to 14 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—from liberal arts and sciences to many career-related fields, including, at the undergraduate level, engineering, education, business, fine arts, nursing, agriculture, forestry, environment and natural resources, information and computer sciences, and public health and health sciences.

Here are some of the schools and colleges that seem perfectly appropriate to the settings of these institutions. UNH’s School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, an interdisciplinary school focusing on today’s complicated ocean and coastal issues, offers undergraduates a couple of interdisciplinary degrees and minors in marine and freshwater biology, wetland ecology, oceanography, and coastal-zone-related engineering.

Similarly, URI has a Graduate School of Oceanography, which also offers undergraduate courses and an undergraduate minor. Professors mentor undergraduates in lab- and ship-based independent study courses and internships. There are also 10-week summer programs, but all of this is actually at the Narragansett Bay Campus of URI and not on the grounds of the flagship campus in Kingston.

UMaine’s College of Natural Resources, Forestry, and Agriculture has a School of Marine Sciences (with facilities in Walpole, on the coast rather than in Orono) as well as a School of Forest Resources, which offers five different bachelor’s degrees, including one in Forest Operations, Bioproducts, and Bioenergy and one in Forest Ecology. And at UVM, undergraduates can study the environment in about 20 majors across five schools and colleges—majors like Green Building and Community Design, Wildlife and Fisheries Biology, Sustainable Landscape Horticulture, Environmental Engineering, Ecological Agriculture, and Sustainable Business.

These flagship universities offer from about 80 to 120 undergraduate degree programs across their undergraduate colleges and schools. When students cannot find exactly what they want to study at the public university in their own state, the New England Board of Higher Education Regional Student Program kicks into action. This program allows students to study at a public college in another New England state if the program they want is not offered at a public college in their own state—at least for many majors. For example, Massachusetts residents can study in 110 different bachelor’s degree programs in other New England public colleges—like Ocean Engineering or Pharmaceutical Sciences or Textile Marketing at URI. Sometimes students even have a choice of more than one public college in more than one state for a particular program. And, of course, a nice tuition discount goes along with the deal so that out-of-state students in this program do not pay the full out-of-state tuition costs.

Like all other flagship universities, each of these six has more than 100 student clubs and organizations—and sometimes more than a couple hundred and, at UConn, more than 600. And there are lots of outdoor recreation opportunities in or near many of these locales, along with club sports and intramurals.

There are also varsity sports teams—from 15 to 22 women’s and men’s teams. While UMaine has done some damage in the men’s ice hockey NCAA national championships (winning two), it is fairly clear that the NCAA national titles most associated with these flagship universities are those won by the UConn Huskies in men’s and women’s basketball—three for the men and nine for the women since 2000.

As we have seen in some other regions, out-of-state tuition and fees at these flagship universities are not cheap, running from about $28,000 to $33,000 per year, but with a remarkably high $39,000 at UVM —about two to two-and-a half times what a state resident would pay. On the low end, that is still lower than many private colleges in your home state—that is, before any financial aid package is figured in. On the high end, I have to admit the tuition is not much of a bargain. Nonetheless, these flagship universities are better academically and more widely recognized than many private colleges where you would pay as much or more, and, as we are fond of saying, there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public university.

Here are just a few additional fun facts:

  • In the category of famous alumni, brilliant educator and philosopher John Dewey graduated from UVM and popular best-selling author Stephen King graduated from UMaine.
  • UMass Amherst boasts the W.E.B. Du Bois Center—with the tallest library at the time it was completed in 1973—named for the famous civil rights activist, educator, and writer, whose boyhood home is in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
  • Freshmen at URI are assigned to the residential Living and Learning Community for their college or major or program, where they can live with students who have the same interests, form study groups, work with Residential Academic Mentors, and attend faculty-sponsored programs.
  • UMass Amherst is part of the Five College Interchange, which allows students at five colleges near Amherst to take courses at no extra charge at the other four colleges.       More about that next week since the other four are private!
  • UVM has banned the sale of bottled water on campus in favor of making Burlington’s good local tap water very accessible to students.
  • UMaine’s campus was designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City (it seems that Olmsted and his firm were responsible for a surprising number of beautiful college campuses, as we have learned in our virtual tour).
  • UVM was the first college to admit women and African Americans into its chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
  • UMass Amherst has the Commonwealth Honors College, a residential honors college with its own dormitory and classroom buildings, founded in 1999 (where the average high school GPA of entering freshmen is 4.21).
  • UMaine’s Museum of Art has original pieces by Pablo Picasso, Winslow Homer, and Andy Warhol—quite a range of well-known artists.
  • URI has a great website—one of the easiest to use that I have run across.

When we attended the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s college fair in New York City last April, we spoke with the delightful Mandy Moor, Admissions Counselor at UMaine (her primary territories are New York and California). She offered the following enthusiastic audio pitch for NYCollegeChat. (Be sure to listen to it in our recorded episode.)

3. Other Public State Universities

In each of these New England states, there are also other public universities—both campuses within the flagship system and colleges and universities in their own right. In looking at these other public options, let me say that I always think first about whether any public option is sufficiently attractive to draw a student away from the public options in his or her home state, which would likely be far cheaper.

I believe that flagship universities are very often sufficiently attractive to draw students away from public options in their own states, especially public options that are not their own flagship universities. I also believe that some states have other public options that are quite comparable to their own flagship university—like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University or the University of Texas Austin and Texas A & M University.

I am not sure that there are any such options in the New England states, but let’s look at a few that we think are most likely to attract out-of-state students.

Let’s start with the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston, known as UMass Boston. The second campus in the UMass system, it was established by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1964, about 100 years after UMass Amherst. UMass Boston couldn’t be in a more different setting from the flagship campus in Amherst, obviously—with Amherst’s small-town-in-the-middle-of-nowhere vibe and Boston’s big-city-filled-with-colleges-and-businesses-and-culture-and-sports vibe. I am sure that there are students who would rather be in idyllic Amherst, but I am equally sure that there are students who would rather be in happening Boston, where UMass Boston is the only four-year public choice among something like 100 colleges in the metropolitan area.

UMass Boston’s seven colleges and schools that serve about 12,500 undergraduate students offer about 80 undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, management, education, health sciences, the environment, and public and community service. Two more schools serve only graduate students—about 4,000 in number. UMass Boston’s students are drawn from 140 countries, though about 85 percent of undergraduate students are Massachusetts residents.

UMass Boston offers more than 100 student organizations and 16 varsity sports teams (eight men’s and eight women’s). Interestingly, UMass Boston does not have dormitories for its students. Its Office of Student Housing does assist students with finding roommates and looking for apartment housing nearby (which seems available) and dealing with landlords. However, a concerned parent or student might have some qualms about a first-year student living off campus in a big city without any college-provided supervision or safeguards.

UMass Boston’s tuition and fees are about $12,500 for Massachusetts residents and about $30,000 for out-of-state students—a good price for residents and a not-great price for out-of-staters, I would say.

Let’s turn to the University of Maine System’s three-campus University of Southern Maine (USM), with campuses in Portland, Gorham, and Lewiston. Gorham, located about 11 miles inland from Portland, is the campus with the residence halls and the sports facilities for one co-ed, 10 men’s, and 11 women’s varsity sports teams. Portland has only classroom and administrative buildings. Portland is an attractive and manageable city, located on the water, which is lovely, when it is warm enough to stand outside and look at it. However, I am not convinced that a student who wanted a traditional college experience in an urban setting would be happy commuting to the Portland campus—especially in the snow. On the other hand, a student who wanted a college experience with some campus life in a quiet setting and easy access to college activities in a city might think USM is perfect.

USM offers about 100 bachelor’s degrees in a wide variety of subject fields spread across three colleges and eight schools within the colleges—including the liberal arts and sciences, fine arts, business, education, nursing and health sciences, technology management, communication, computer science, social work, and recreation and leisure studies. At USM, Maine residents pay about $9,000 in tuition and fees, while out-of-state students pay about $21,000. That’s a better deal for out-of-staters than UMass Boston.

A third institution we would like to mention is more unusual in its focus, and that is the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), “a college of engineering, management, science, and transportation” (quoted from the website), located about 140 miles northeast of Portland on the coast, for obvious reasons. It is one of six state maritime colleges in the U.S. Established by an act of the Maine Legislature in 1941, MMA is a public, coeducational school with an enrollment of about 950 students pursuing associate’s and bachelor’s degrees (there are also two master’s degree programs). About 70 percent of students are from Maine, with another approximately 15 percent from the rest of New England.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are required liberal arts and sciences courses for all students as well as electives and minors available in the Department of Arts and Sciences. A variety of bachelor’s degrees are available in engineering (including preparation for specific licenses, like the U.S. Coast Guard License), international business and logistics, marine transportation (including Vessel Operations & Technology), and ocean studies (like Marine Biology). While these degrees would not appeal to most students, they would certainly be appealing to some—very appealing. For some of these degrees, students spend time practicing their skills aboard the Training Ship State of Maine and the Schooner Bowdoin. Undoubtedly in part because of this hands-on training, more than 90 percent of graduates are employed within 90 days of earning that degree.

In spite of a highly specialized curriculum, MMA is also a traditional campus—with 14 sports teams, student organizations, and residential halls for students. Tuition for Maine residents is about $10,000 and for out-of-staters about $22,000 (with New England Regional Student Program students in between the two). Fees vary greatly by major—from about $3,000 to $10,000.

Not to be outdone, Massachusetts also has its own Maritime Academy, established in 1891. It offers seven bachelor’s degrees in engineering and maritime fields (plus two master’s degree programs). Students spend six months on international waters, gaining important hands-on training, during their four years. Here is an idea of the culture at Massachusetts Maritime Academy:

The Regiment of Cadets and regimental-style uniforms play an important role in campus life at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  It reinforces that the status at the Academy is not an entitlement based on gender, race, or socio-economic class; it is earned through hard work, honor, and integrity. Though the Academy is structured as a regimented academy designed to grow effective leaders, only cadets who volunteer for commissioning programs have military obligations during and after their time at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

While Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island residents pay about $7,000 in tuition and fees and New England residents pay just about $1,000 more, students in states all along the East Coast (“Maritime Regional States”) also get a tuition-and-fees deal of about $17,000 a year—which seems quite attractive.

As we have said before, virtually all of these public universities (and there are 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. That is still true, albeit some of these out-of-state tuition figures seem a bit high to me. So, consider looking at public universities, beyond just the flagship university, for the unusual programs or the special career focus or the appealing locations or even acclaimed sports teams they offer.

Finally, let us talk about one unique public institution in New England, and that is the U.S. Coast Guard Academy—one of the nation’s five military service academies—founded in 1876 and located in New London, Connecticut. As we said in an early episode of NYCollegeChat, the federally funded military service academies are all outstanding, academically rigorous institutions, whose mission is to build highly trained and highly ethical leaders. One of the smaller academies, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy enrolls about 900 students—about 35 percent women and 30 percent minorities. There is one faculty member (either civilian or military) for every seven students—a remarkable student-to-faculty ratio.

Though highly selective in admissions, the Academy does not require a Congressional nomination as some academies do. Its median SAT subtest scores for entering freshmen are in the low to mid-600s.

Interestingly, seven of the Academy’s 24 core curriculum courses are from its Humanities Department, so cadets are well versed in the liberal arts. Cadets may major in government (about 25 percent typically do) in addition to marine and environmental sciences and majors more directly related to maritime studies. Cadets also take strategic intelligence courses designed to help them keep their vessels and America safe.

Tuition is free, as with all federal military service academies. About 85 percent of graduates serve beyond the five-year service commitment they complete after graduating from the Academy, and about 80 percent go on to graduate school, mostly paid for by the Coast Guard. I can honestly say that you cannot read the Academy’s website without being impressed.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • What might have caused the increase in applications to these universities
  • Which students should really think hard about these universities and academies
  • What the maritime academies have to offer and how they differ

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