Episode 45: Colleges in the Mid-Atlantic Region–Part I

Virtual tour of public colleges in the Mid-Atlantic on NYCollegeChat Podcast, brought to you by Policy Studies in Education

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This is the eighteenth episode in our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. We are starting the final group of episodes designed to help you find colleges that might be perfect for your child, but 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, the Far West region, and the New England region. This episode takes us just down the road to our final stop: the Mid-Atlantic region, which you might think would be inside the geographic comfort zone of many of our listeners who live right here in the Mid-Atlantic states. However, we know that about 70 percent of high school students stay in their home state—not just in their home region—for college. So, we are going to have to see if we can convince even our nearby listeners to check out colleges in some neighboring states.

As we have said before, 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 sense for a two-year college. We think it makes less sense if your teenager is headed for a four-year college, and we will try to persuade you about that in our episodes.

Finally, as we often have said, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it in our virtual tour. These are our own choices.

1. The Mid-Atlantic Region

One more time: 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 what the Bureau calls the Mideast region, but which I simply have to call the Mid-Atlantic region, probably because I grew up in Pennsylvania and that’s what I have always called it. So, with apologies to the Bureau: In the Mid-Atlantic region, we will be looking at Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York—that is, four states, one commonwealth, and one district. However, we are going to put off a discussion of New York because it is the home state of many of our listeners and we know that they will be especially interested in it (though we kind of wish they were not). New York will get its own episodes in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

This week and next week, we will be examining public colleges in most of the Mid-Atlantic region and, after that, we will be taking a look at a variety of private colleges here. As always, I hope we will have a few surprises for you. Let me say that I do not like giving more air time to the Mid-Atlantic region than to many other parts of the country; but, I do believe that many of our listeners live here and might be persuaded to go just barely outside their comfort zone to a nearby state if we can motivate them to do so in these episodes.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

As we usually do, let’s begin with the flagship public state universities in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Some of them are better known nationally than others (likely because of some serious football playing—can you say, Nittany Lions?). While state public college systems and flagship universities typically have smaller campuses and branches 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 the Mid-Atlantic states are quite as appealing to their residents as flagship campuses in much of the rest of the country (except New England) are to their residents. In the Mid-Atlantic region, Pennsylvania State University (commonly referred to as Penn State) is probably the one exception to that statement. As we discussed a few weeks ago, it is likely a cultural thing, not an academic thing. Perhaps there is just a longer or more entrenched tradition of private higher education in the Northeast, including in the Mid-Atlantic region, than there is in other parts of the country.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Mid-Atlantic region? They are the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD); University of Delaware in Newark (UD); Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick; and Pennsylvania State University, University Park, in State College. We will discuss the University of the District of Columbia separately later in this episode because it is so different in size and history from these other four.

First, let’s look at the locations of these flagship universities in a wide variety of communities. Newark, Delaware, and State College, Pennsylvania, are both small towns; College Park, Maryland, is virtually a suburb of Washington, D.C., right over the northeast border of our nation’s capital; and New Brunswick, New Jersey, is truly urban, sitting in the heavily trafficked corridor between New York City and Philadelphia. These communities couldn’t be more different—or, as we might say, something for everyone.

Turning to the four flagship universities themselves, we can put them into three groups by enrollment size, starting with the largest university, which is Penn State. At the University Park main campus, Penn State enrolls about 40,000 undergraduates and another 6,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of about 46,500 students. These enrollment figures put Penn State in the same category as the big Midwestern flagship universities discussed in our Great Lakes episodes.

Only about 60 percent of students at Penn State are state residents—not surprising, given that I believe it is the flagship university in this region most likely to attract out-of-state students, though it also seems likely that the university is seeking some geographic diversity in its student body. Penn State now draws students from all 50 states and over 100 foreign countries. (We should also mention that there is a huge Commonwealth system of 23 more campuses to serve other Pennsylvania residents as well as 14 state colleges in their own statewide system.) The average SAT scores of incoming freshmen at the main campus in State College last year were a pair of reading and writing scores in the high 500s and a mathematics score in the low 600s. The average high school GPA of incoming freshmen is a commendable 3.6—a bit higher than we might expect, given the average SAT subtest scores.

Rutgers and UMD are next on the list, according to enrollment size. Rutgers serves about 32,000 undergraduates and about 8,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of about 40,500 students. About 45 percent of its undergraduates identify as Caucasian/white; about 25 percent identify as Asian. Rutgers draws from about 45 states and 65 foreign countries. Just a bit smaller than Rutgers, UMD serves about 27,000 undergraduates and about 10,000 graduate and professional students, for a total of about 37,000 students. UMD draws students from all 50 states and from about 115 foreign countries. Each university draws a whopping 80 percent or so of its students from its own state. The next-most-popular states of residence for UMD students are nearby and populous New Jersey and New York. Incoming freshmen at Rutgers have an average high school GPA of a 3.7 (about like Penn State), with average SAT subtest scores hovering in the mid-600s (except for the engineers, whose average GPA is a remarkable 4.2). Incoming freshmen this year at UMD have an average high school GPA of that same remarkable 4.2, with average SAT subtest scores hovering in the high 600s.

Finally, we come to UD, with about 18,000 undergraduates and about 4,500 graduate and professional students, for a total of about 22,500 students—about half the size of Penn State, but still not small by anyone’s standards. A university with 18,000 undergraduates is going to feel gigantic to most 18-year-olds. Incoming freshmen at UD have average SAT subtest scores hovering around 600—about like Penn State’s scores. Only about 40 percent of UD undergraduates are from Delaware, perhaps because Delaware is such a small state and the University is a reasonably large school.

Let us remind you, listeners, again that most colleges are looking for geographic diversity in their student body and that students might be able to get into a better college far from home if that college is lacking, but wanting, that diversity. My guess is that any of these flagship universities would 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. Now if that student comes from New York or another reasonably close state—as we know many of them do—then the GPA and test scores might need to be a bit better since there will be competition from other appealing candidates from New York.

UD is the oldest of these institutions, and it has an impressive history. It was founded in 1743 in Pennsylvania as a private academy to educate clergy and was moved to Delaware in 1765. Its first class of students boasted three students who went on to sign the Declaration of Independence, one of whom also signed the U.S. Constitution later. UD’s colors of blue and gold were taken from the Delaware State flag, which got them from the colors of George Washington’s uniform. They also represent the colors of the flag of Delaware’s first Swedish colonists.

Rutgers came along in 1766 as Queen’s College, a private institution with Dutch religious roots. It was renamed in 1825 for Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War colonel and college benefactor. Around 1918, New Jersey College for Women was born; it became Douglass College and is now Douglass Residential College, which offers courses and services to 2,400 women who have been admitted to Rutgers and choose to affiliate with the College.

Penn State and UMD both opened almost a century later, in the mid-1800s, as agricultural colleges. UMD gradually became public over the years, until the State took full control in 1916 and then linked the College Park and Baltimore campuses to create the University in 1920. Interestingly, it was during the Great Depression in the 1930s that Penn State began to open its undergraduate branch campuses throughout the commonwealth for students who could not afford to travel away from home to attend college.

Turning to academics, these flagship universities have from 7 to 12 undergraduate schools and colleges (and additional 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 and architecture, nursing, earth and mineral sciences, communications, agriculture and natural resources, environmental sciences, information and computer sciences, health sciences, public health, social work, and planning and public policy. In 2013, Rutgers opened its Biomedical and Health Sciences division, housing eight undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, in its own facilities in New Brunswick and elsewhere in the state. In other words, the possibilities for studying whatever a student wants are almost endless.

These flagship universities offer from about 90 to 160 undergraduate degree programs across their undergraduate colleges and schools. Rutgers claims to have one of the top three philosophy programs in the English-speaking world—along with New York University and the University of Oxford in the U.K. UD claims to have started the first study abroad program in the U.S. in 1923 with a junior year abroad in France; UD now specializes in short-term, faculty-led programs abroad. UMD offers what it calls an Education Abroad program the summer before freshman year and a Destination London program, in which freshmen spend their first full semester in London with other UMD freshmen.

At Penn State, typical undergraduates take almost one-third of their courses in the College of Liberal Arts. All students are required to take 45 credits of General Education courses, including three credits of writing-intensive coursework, a course in U.S. cultures, a course in international cultures, and coursework that covers social and behavioral sciences, humanities, natural sciences, quantitative skills, the arts, and health and physical activity—with health and physical activity being one of the more unusual distribution requirements we have seen (can you say, Nittany Lions?).

Like all other flagship universities, each of these four has several hundred student organizations, including fraternities and sororities—with UMD boasting over 800.

There are also varsity sports teams—from 19 to 29 women’s and men’s teams. The most famous of these is likely Penn State’s Nittany Lions football machine—unless you come from the Mid-Atlantic tradition of lacrosse (which is actually a Native American tradition) and find UMD’s Terrapins’ 12 national men’s titles and 459 All-Americans more impressive (by the way, terrapins are turtles). Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game on November 6, 1869, which Rutgers won 6–4 (the game was played with 25 players on each side and rugby-like rules).

Just as we have seen elsewhere, out-of-state tuition and fees at these flagship universities are on the high side, running right around $31,000 per year (about double in-state costs). While that is still lower than many private colleges in your home state—that is, before any financial aid package is figured in—I have to admit this tuition price tag is not much of a deal. But, as we have said in previous episodes, these flagship universities are better academically and more widely recognized than many private colleges where you would pay as much or more, and there is no prestige in attending a private college that is not as good as a great public university.

In the category of famous alumni, which I often like to mention, I want to note that actor Avery Brooks—maybe best known for his role as Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but certainly most beloved (that would be by me) for his role as Hawk on Spenser for Hire—is an alumnus of Rutgers and has been a theater professor there, where his wife is an assistant dean. So, that’s a shout-out to Avery and Vicki Brooks, whom I have never met, but would love to, if you happen to be listening!

3. An Historically Black Flagship University

In an earlier episode in Series 1 of NYCollegeChat and in quite a few episodes during our virtual tour, we have talked about historically black colleges and universities (commonly referred to as HBCUs), which were established with the mission of educating African-American students solely or primarily—that is, a mission of serving students who had been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. You might recall that there are just over 100 HBCUs—public and private, rural and urban, large and small, two-year and four-year and graduate schools.

As we explained in our earlier episode, HBCUs today enroll students who are not black. Some people say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students, who are now welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S. Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition and shared culture on HBCU campuses.

Eight of the public HBCUs are located in this Mid-Atlantic region—the University of the District of Columbia; The Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania; Delaware State University; Morgan State University in Baltimore; and three campuses of the University System of Maryland, namely Coppin State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. We are going to look at a few of them next week, but today we want to talk about the University of the District of Columbia—a flagship university that is also an HBCU.

The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) dates its history back to 1851 and 1873 and the creation of two normal schools for girls—one black, established by abolitionist Myrtilla Miner, and one white. Their merger many years later in 1955 formed the District of Columbia Teachers College—the only public higher education institution in Washington. But what if lower-income Washington residents, who needed a public higher education option, did not want to become teachers? Congress established two additional higher education institutions in 1966: Federal City College, a liberal arts college, and Washington Technical Institute, for vocational and technical training. In 1975, a law was passed to merge these three institutions into the University of the District of Columbia—still the only public higher education institution in our nation’s capital.

UDC is made up of a Community College; School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; School of Business and Public Administration; College of Arts and Sciences; College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences; and the David A. Clarke School of Law. UDC serves just about 2,000 undergraduate students in over 75 bachelor’s degree programs in what it calls its flagship schools, another approximately 2,500 in its own community college, and another approximately 600 in the graduate and professional programs.

UDC bachelor’s degree students all take an elaborately planned and sequenced set of General Education courses worth 37 credits (that is, almost one-third of the courses that are required for the degree). These courses are interdisciplinary and collaboratively taught.

Admission standards for UDC’s flagship programs are set out quite clearly on its website:

  • 2.5 high school grade point average and 1200 SAT or 16 ACT score; OR
  • 2.0 high school grade point average and 1400 SAT or 19 ACT score

About 85 percent of UDC flagship undergraduates are D.C. or Metro area residents. D.C. residents pay just about $7,500 per year in tuition and fees (an appealing bargain), Metro area residents pay approximately $1,000 more, and out-of-area students pay about $15,000 per year (also an appealing bargain, compared to other public institutions we have been discussing).

So, stay tuned next week when we continue our discussion of public options in the Mid-Atlantic region because we have some intriguing ones for you.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Flagship schools that made history
  • Flagship schools that take the liberal arts seriously
  • Flagship schools at an appealing price

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