This is the third episode in our series, Decision Time Again, because, of course, it is actually decision time for lots of parents and kids out there.
Although USACollegeChat is headquartered on the East Coast, we have some loyal listeners in California, and California colleges, including its public universities, are increasingly popular among students back here in the East. So, with that in mind, we have today’s episode. It is designed to make some of you feel better if your senior applied to a California college or two and did not get in. It is also designed to help those of you just starting on the application process with your juniors in case you want to consider California public universities–or not.
The most prestigious tier is the UC system, which has nine campuses (plus UC San Francisco, which offers only graduate and professional programs): UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz. We have spoken many times about UC Berkeley, clearly one of our nation’s finest colleges, public or private, with its long history of excellence. We have also spoken many times about UCLA, which has risen in prestige in the past 50 years, is increasingly popular nationwide, and, some say, is now as difficult to get into as UC Berkeley. The other seven campuses are less famous outside of California, but that does not mean that they aren’t excellent schools in their own right.
The middle tier is the CSU system, which has 23 campuses, spread from Humboldt in the north to San Diego in the south. Many of these colleges are not well known to those of us who are not from California, but that does not mean that they aren’t good schools.
The third tier is the California Community Colleges system, which comprises 114 colleges, with over 2 million students. Understandably, these two-year institutions are attended mostly by California residents who live near the campus they are attending.
Now, a note to California: It is especially confusing to those of us who do not live in your state to wrap our heads around the fact that, for example, there is a UC San Diego; a CSU at San Diego, known as San Diego State University; and a University of San Diego, which is a private Catholic university. So, those of you non-Californians interested in a California university, pay attention to what you are looking at.
2. College Acceptances in California
That was a long introduction to the point of this episode, which is the runaway application numbers and crazy difficulty of getting into schools in the UC system, the top-tier system and the one that most out-of-staters are most interested in. I came across an article recently in Inside Higher Ed, written by Scott Jaschik, with this sad headline: “Wait-Listed, Rejected and Frustrated in California.” Here is the opening to Mr. Jaschik’s article, which, though anecdotal, is quite revealing, even for those of us who are not Californians:
[A] counselor said that he is seeing students either wait-listed or rejected from UC Davis or UC Santa Barbara–students with “straight A’s and maybe one or two B’s” and SAT scores above 1400 or near-perfect ACT scores. He has seen even stronger students–among the top of his school’s graduating class–getting rejected from UC San Diego.
“Our San Diego decisions look like Berkeley and UCLA decisions from years past,” he said. “Students we told that ‘this was a likely school’ aren’t getting in.”
Parents–many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness–are particularly shocked. “We are constantly working with parents who assume a B-plus student can go to Davis or Santa Barbara, and they can’t,” said the counselor.
UCLA and Berkeley have for years been long shots for all applicants. They reject many students with perfect SAT scores and grade point averages. So while many applicants are crushed by rejections at those two campuses, their counselors aren’t surprised. The difference this year, counselors say, is that other UC campuses and some California State campuses have gone up significantly in competitiveness. . . .
A school counselor in Northern California said it is the “middle group” within the University of California where he is seeing change. He has a senior with straight A’s who was wait-listed at Santa Barbara. At Davis and San Diego, “students we assumed would be strong candidates are being wait-listed.”
He said that, next year, he will be discouraging students from using any UC as a safety. (quoted from the article)
Well, there is a lot to unpack there. First, there is the notion that kids in California are increasingly unable to use their own public higher education system as their fallback position, or safety schools. We have often said, here at USACollegeChat, that the state public university campuses are great safety school choices for bright kids with good grades and good admission test scores. And while we were always sure that no one could use UC Berkeley or UCLA as a safety, we would have thought that some of the UC campuses in that “middle group” would have been fine to use. I guess we are going to need to rethink this strategy–at least for kids in California, which gives those kids just one more source of anxiety in the college search process.
Second, there is the very real concern of high school counselors, who have somehow led a lot of kids astray while following norms they had trusted. They will all have to recalibrate before next season’s application process so that there will be fewer unpleasant surprises.
Third, there is the very real misconception of parents, “many of whom rely on out-of-date senses of colleges’ competitiveness.” I just want to say to parents that I totally get this, because it happens to me all the time. And, as we are fond of saying here at USACollegeChat, we do this for a living. I am constantly amazed at admissions stories from colleges that I know were really nothing to write home about 40 years ago, colleges that were politely referred to as “party schools,” colleges that now no one can seem to get into. I don’t want to name a bunch of those colleges here, but I can tell you that there are quite a few on my list. This all just speaks to the growing competitiveness of college admissions. Sometimes my college friends from Cornell and I sit around and wonder whether any of us could have gotten in to Cornell today. So, parents and grandparents, this is not your college world any longer; it is a new college world, with higher expectations across the board.
And fourth, I would like to say to all my young friends here in New York, who have just told me recently that they wanted to go to UC Berkeley, think again–because your chances are not good, no matter how smart you are. Berkeley just turned down hundreds–really thousands–like you. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply? No, because you might get lucky. But it does mean you shouldn’t expect to get in, you should have plenty of other college choices that you like a lot, and you should be happily surprised if it all works out in your favor.
And how might California’s situation affect those of you who have kids recently wait listed at top colleges elsewhere? Here is what Mr. Jaschik explains:
. . . [Y]ields could be hard to predict for out-of-state colleges that recruit top students in California. Many Californians have in the past turned down top out-of-state institutions for UC campuses that charge a fraction of the cost of private institutions. Such students may not have the option going ahead. (quoted from the article)
In other words, California kids who might have turned down Cornell for Berkeley might need to pick up that acceptance to Cornell now, with Berkeley out of the running. That means it is less likely that other kids on the wait list at top colleges will actually get in. It might also mean that some of those colleges will find themselves overenrolled because most of the California kids they accepted might actually end up coming.
3. College Applications in California
But, let’s back up the clock a minute to look at applications to these California universities, not just acceptances. This is a story we have mentioned before, but never with quite this much data to support it. Here are the facts, according to Mr. Jaschik’s article:
. . . [The] numbers are available for total applications for the coming fall. And while UC campuses are edging up in total size, the application increases are much larger. Total (unduplicated) applications for undergraduate admission to the University of California were up 5.7 percent, but the largest increases were not at Berkeley, which was up only 4.6 percent. UC Riverside saw the largest percentage increase–12.2 percent.
Five UC campuses–Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara–received more than 100,000 applications each. San Diego’s total is up 9.7 percent. Davis is not far behind at 95,000 applications, up 8.6 percent. (By way of comparison, Harvard University received just under 40,000 applications last year.)
Application totals like those guarantee shrinking admit rates of the sort many applicants are experiencing this year. (quoted from the article)
Wow. That’s a lot of applications, and I doubt they are going to start dropping off any time soon. What does it all mean? Well, for families in California, it means that you need to get out of your geographic comfort zone (and perhaps your financial comfort zone as well). This is the advice we give most often to everyone looking at colleges, and it might be one reason that counselors in California are finding that kids are getting into prestigious schools in the East–more prestigious than some of the public universities they did not get into in California–precisely because they broadened their geographic scope and found some colleges that were anxious to diversify their own freshman classes with exotic creatures from California. Can it get any worse? Stay tuned for what will happen next year at this time.
In last week’s episode, we continued our virtual tour of colleges by looking at the six states of the Far West region: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawai‘i. 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 Far West states by focusing on private higher education institutions.
We are going to check out several national universities, which really draw students internationally, as well as a handful of universities best known in their own region and a handful of smaller liberal arts colleges. Many of them happen to be located in the very large state of California. We feel that these are the private institutions in the Far West that are most likely to attract out-of-state students.
As we say in every one of our episodes, we want to make it clear that no college has asked us or paid us anything to name it. These are simply our choices.
Founded in 1891 in lovely Pasadena, Caltech is “a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, where extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation, and transform our future,” according to its website. In most cases, I take website statements with a grain of salt; but, I believe this one is actually accurate.
About 1,000 undergraduate students study in 26 programs across six academic divisions: Biology and Biological Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Engineering and Applied Science, Geological and Planetary Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. Caltech also enrolls about 1,200 graduate students—so, more graduate than undergraduate students.
Caltech boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1—so low a ratio that it is literally unbelievable (before this, the lowest we had seen was Rice University’s 6:1, which also seemed shockingly low). This means that students have unprecedented access to faculty in class and in research labs and likely outside of class as well. About 80 percent of Caltech undergraduate degree-holders go on to earn a graduate degree.
Despite enrolling really brainy students, Caltech fields 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. Undergraduates live in eight Houses, each with its own character and each of which they visit during a process called Rotation.
New freshmen in the Class of 2018 are about 60 percent male and 40 percent female—a bit more balanced than the overall institution. Their average SAT scores are about 750 or better on each subtest. So, this is an institution for a very particular kind of student with very particular academic interests.
At about $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, Caltech’s cost is comparable to other top-tier universities and not surprising, given the equipment and lab expenses of operating a higher education institution focused on engineering and science.
Just a short drive away in Los Angeles, we find the University of Southern California (known as USC and, to its amazingly active alumni/alumnae, as SC). Founded in 1880 with 53 students, before Los Angeles had paved streets, USC now serves about 19,000 undergraduates and another 24,000 graduate and professional students—again, more graduate than undergraduate students and a very, very big student body for a private university. Almost one-quarter of its students are drawn internationally.
USC’s incoming freshmen have an average high school GPA of 3.73 and an average of close to 700 on each of the three SAT subtests; that’s a lot of smart kids. USC students are also athletic. USC was home to 418 Olympic athletes (between 1904 and 2010), the most of any U.S. university. And, it offers 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams. If you know any USC alums, you know that the Trojans play some serious football and you know that loyal alums into their eighties attend games in state and out of state. USC also offers students over 850 student organizations, including fraternities and sororities, to join.
USC has 21 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—as many as we have ever seen—including, its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a wide variety of career-related schools, such as its Schools of Cinematic Arts, Architecture, Dance, Business, Education, Music, Engineering, Art and Design, Accounting, Communication and Journalism, Public Policy, Dramatic Arts, and more. All undergraduates take a core of general education, writing, and diversity-themed courses.
With all of that available at USC, $48,000 in annual tuition and fees is perhaps understandable—though, obviously, still quite high.
Moving north, we come to Stanford University, located a bit south of San Francisco on a lovely campus with beautiful California Mission-style buildings of sandstone with red-tiled roofs. Leland Stanford Junior University was founded in 1885 by U.S. Senator Leland Stanford and his wife in memory of their son. They hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the campus—and it shows. Stanford University was co-educational and nondenominational at a time when most private universities were neither.
It now serves about 7,000 undergraduates and about 9,000 graduate and professional students in seven schools, three of which serve undergraduate students: Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Engineering; and Humanities and Sciences. Undergraduates choose from about 65 majors, with the top five majors all being in the sciences and engineering. Like Caltech, Stanford has an extraordinarily low and appealing student-to-faculty ratio of 4:1.
Surprisingly, given its first-rate national reputation, about 40 percent of undergraduates are Californians. Not surprisingly, given its outstanding academic reputation, about 75 percent of new freshmen have a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher and have a 700 or better on each of the three SAT subtests (including about 25 percent with perfect 800 scores).
About 96 percent of undergraduates live on campus and undoubtedly take part in approximately 650 student organizations. There are about 13,000 bicycles being ridden on campus every day. Stanford also provides a robust varsity sports program of 36 men’s, women’s, and co-educational teams. For a straight 38 years, at least one Stanford team has won a national championship (in 2013–14, it was women’s water polo).
At $45,000 in tuition and fees annually, its costs are high, but in line with other top universities.
2. Private Faith-Based Universities
The Far West has an interesting selection of faith-based universities that are well regarded, if not especially well known outside of the region. First, the Far West is home to four of the 28 Catholic Jesuit universities in the U.S.: Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, with about 6,000 undergraduates and a total of about 9,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, with about 5,500 undergraduates and a total of about 9,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, with about 5,000 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students; and Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, with about 4,500 undergraduates and a total of about 7,500 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. These are all substantial institutions. Pricewise, their annual tuition and fees range from about $38,000 to $44,000, with the ones in Washington being a bit cheaper than the ones in California.
As we have said in previous episodes, the Jesuits trace their commitment to education to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the first Jesuit college in Messina, Sicily, in 1548. Jesuit institutions today place a strong emphasis on intellectual rigor and a liberal arts foundation, social justice issues worldwide, and a life of service. Students of all faiths are welcome at Jesuit institutions, and I believe that most students feel quite comfortable there, even if they are not Catholic.
Turning to a different faith-based tradition, Hawai‘i has a branch of Brigham Young University, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a perfect locale just north of Honolulu. Its approximately 2,500 undergraduates drawn from 70 countries study in a relatively strict Mormon intellectual, ethical, and social setting, as we described in Episode 34 about the Rocky Mountain region’s Brigham Young University campuses in Utah and Idaho.
Moving on to another faith-based tradition, or perhaps more like a philosophy-based tradition, we have Soka University of America (SUA), located in Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California—a short drive from the beach. “Proudly founded upon the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, SUA offers a non-sectarian curriculum” and welcomes students of all beliefs (quoted from the website). With tuition of about $29,000, SUA offers full tuition scholarships to eligible students whose annual family income is $60,000 or less.
Soka means “to create value.” The mission of SUA is to “foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life” (quoted from the website). Soka schools—from kindergarten through college in Japan—are based on the work of a Japanese educator, imprisoned by Japanese authorities for opposing World War II and defending religious freedom. The education society that he founded is now one of the world’s largest Buddhist organizations made up of laypersons.
Founded in 1987, SUA has just about 400 undergraduate students and a handful of graduate students today—about half from the U.S. All undergraduates earn a B.A. in Liberal Arts, with a concentration in Environmental Studies, Humanities, International Studies, or Social and Behavioral Sciences. All students study abroad for one semester of their junior year, after four courses of language study in their choice of Chinese, French, Japanese, or Spanish—a required international perspective.
Finally, let’s look at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, just north of Los Angeles. If you ever see its gorgeous campus perched high above the Pacific Ocean, you will never forget it. Pepperdine describes itself as “a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service and leadership” (quoted from the website). Founded in 1937, George Pepperdine spoke to students with these words that still guide the University:
There are many good colleges and universities which can give you standard academic training, but if our school does not give you more than that, it really has no reason to exist. The great difference between this college and other colleges is that we are endeavoring to place adequate emphasis and greater stress upon religious teaching and Christian character. We want to present to you, in teaching and example, the Christian way of life. We do not compel you to accept it. You are free to make your own choice, but we want you to know what it is. (quoted from the website)
Today, Pepperdine’s approximately 3,200 undergraduates (by the way, there are graduate programs in five schools as well) study in 44 majors in Seaver College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, after a common core of 19 liberal arts courses, including three required religion courses: one on the Old Testament, one on the New Testament, and one on Christianity’s influences on culture (for example, the arts, education, social issues, and law). There are more than 115 student organizations and 17 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams to keep students busy. More than 60 percent study abroad at one of six Pepperdine facilities—in Buenos Aires, Florence, Heidelberg, Lausanne, London, and Shanghai. There is also a Washington, D.C., facility for “study abroad at home.”
Entering freshmen post an average high school GPA of 3.6 or a bit higher and SAT scores of about 625 to 650 on each of three subtests. About 55 percent of students come from California (maybe because not many kids from across the U.S. have seen Malibu yet). Tuition is hefty at $48,000 per year, but that view of the Pacific might be worth it.
3. 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.
Let’s focus on Reed for a moment and its approximately 1,400 undergraduate students studying in 40 majors (there are also some graduate students). Long known as a nontraditional college for smart students, Reed has been committed to a liberal arts education since its founding in 1908 from the estates of Oregon pioneers Simeon and Amanda Reed. Its freshmen take a year-long interdisciplinary humanities course, its juniors sit for a qualifying exam in their major, and its seniors write an original research or artistic thesis and defend it orally. Feedback from professors to students in their courses is through narrative comments rather than through traditional grades.
Reed is characterized by free thinking, lack of rules and regulations, its Honor Principle that governs both academic and social life, and small classes with open discussion. About 70 percent of its students go on to graduate or professional school, and about 25 percent go on to earn a Ph.D.
Reed offers club sports and outdoor programs, but no varsity sports. It does offer a wide variety of student organizations, funded by a student vote. Its incoming freshmen boast an average high school GPA of 3.9 and a pair of SAT subtest scores around 700—so these are bright kids in an intriguing and free-spirited academic environment. Almost 30 percent of students are from underrepresented minority groups, and about 50 percent come from the Far West states. Undergraduate tuition and fees are admittedly super high at about $50,000 per year.
Because these Colleges That Change Lives institutions are relatively small and thus are not particularly well known outside of their geographic region, it is my feeling that out-of-state students with a good high school record might have a good chance of being accepted (though that would need to be a really great high school record to be admitted to Reed).
4. Other Private Colleges
Of course, there are still more private colleges in these Far West states, especially in California—indeed, too many to discuss here. But I would like to mention one well-known consortium of colleges, The Claremont Colleges. Founded on the vision of James A. Blaisdell in 1925, The Claremont Colleges are described this way in Blaisdell’s own words:
My own very deep hope is that instead of one great, undifferentiated university, we might have a group of institutions divided into small colleges — somewhat of an Oxford type — around a library and other utilities which they would use in common. In this way I should hope to preserve the inestimable personal values of the small college while securing the facilities of the great university.
Blaisdell’s vision, which tries to have the best of both worlds, produced today’s consortium of five colleges—Pomona College, founded in 1887 and the founding college of this consortium almost five decades later; Scripps College in 1926; Claremont McKenna College in 1946; Harvey Mudd College in 1955; and Pitzer College in 1963—plus two graduate institutions and a support services entity. The colleges are located in Claremont, about 35 miles inland from Los Angeles—“within an hour of the Pacific Ocean, the Mojave Desert, the San Gabriel Mountains and the city of Los Angeles,” as the website boasts.
With a total enrollment of about 7,700 students, each college has its own campus within the same one square mile and its own students, but students are able to take a significant number of courses from the 2,500 offered across the five colleges or even to major in something at another of the five colleges. Here are the thumbnail descriptions of the five institutions:
Pomona College offers its 1,600 students a liberal arts curriculum, with 47 majors and a focus on the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. It has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Despite its small size, it offers 21 varsity sports teams and over 220 student organizations.
Scripps College is a liberal arts college for just under 1,000 women; about 30 percent are students of color. Scripps offers 65 majors, a required Core Curriculum of three challenging interdisciplinary humanities courses, and a required senior thesis. It fields 21 varsity sports teams in collaboration with its consortium mates Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College.
Claremont McKenna College—once Claremont Men’s College, but now coeducational—offers its 1,300 students a liberal arts curriculum with 33 majors and a focus on economics, government, and international relations. It also has an attractive 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. About 90 percent of its students have an internship during their college years.
Harvey Mudd College offers majors in just six fields—biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics, plus a few joint majors—but also requires a humanities course and a writing course of all students. Since 1963, its Clinic Program has engaged juniors and seniors in solving real-world problems for industry clients. Harvey Mudd has a student body of just about 800 undergraduates.
Pitzer College offers its 1,000 students about 40 fields of study in an “interdisciplinary liberal arts education emphasizing social justice, intercultural understanding and environmental sensitivity” (quoted from the website). Students are expected to engage in community service and are given the freedom to create their own academic programs; there are no traditional core course requirements. About 75 percent of Pitzer students study abroad.
The SAT subtest scores of entering freshmen at The Claremont Colleges are strong—about 680 to 735 across the board. In 2003, however, Pitzer adopted a test-optional admission policy “following a study that proved that there was no direct correlation between academic success at Pitzer and standardized testing. Since Pitzer stopped requiring the SAT or ACT for admission, the campus has seen a 58 percent increase in diversity, an 8 percent increase in GPA, and a 39 percent increase in applicants with a 10 percent increase in retention. The College has also doubled the number of students from low income, first generation backgrounds” (quoted from the website). And that is all quite impressive.
Tested or not, students at The Claremont Colleges are smart. For example, about 40 percent of the incoming freshmen in the Class of 2018 at Harvey Mudd were valedictorians or salutatorians of their high school class. Students at the five colleges pay about $46,000 to $49,000 annually in tuition and fees for the privilege of attending this unique consortium.
If we had more time, I might talk about Occidental College in Los Angeles or Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland, California—two more private liberal arts colleges that are worth a look.
5. Looking Back
I am struck by how difficult it appears for students to get into the private colleges we talked about in this episode. Some have always been very selective, but others have gotten increasingly so in the past two or three decades. I usually think that students from outside a region with decent, but not outstanding, grades might have a better shot at getting into a college than comparable students within the region. But I am not sure that is the case here. What I do know is that there are some great choices on the West Coast that are worth thinking hard about if you have a child who has done really well in high school. Otherwise, some of the faith-based institutions and some of the Colleges That Change Lives might give your good, but not great, student a chance to enjoy the West.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Why some faith-based colleges could be a surprisingly interesting choice
What colleges a kid might actually be able to get into these days
How interesting the vision for The Claremont Colleges turned out to be
Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…
This is the thirteenth episode in our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. as we continue to help you find colleges that might be appropriate 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, and the Southwest region. This episode takes us out to the Far West, which I know is likely to be outside the geographic comfort zone of lots of families here in the Northeast. But don’t be too hasty, listeners.
Remember 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 you are planning to send your teenager to a four-year college for lots of reasons we have discussed.
And, just to repeat, no college has asked us or paid us anything to include it in our virtual tour. These are our own choices.
1. The Far West 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 Far West region: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawai‘i.
I am sure that our listeners east of the Mississippi are thinking that some of those states sound very far away. But that alone doesn’t make them a bad choice as a place for your child to go to college. So let’s have a look this week at public colleges in these six states and next week at private colleges in these six states.
2. Flagship Public State Universities in Five States
As is our custom, let’s start with this region’s flagship public state universities. Each of the six states has one, as those of you who are regular listeners know by now. And, as usual, 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. Right now, let’s look at five of the states. We are going to save California for its own segment in a few minutes, because its public higher education system is enormous and complex and needs its own separate explanation.
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.
For many students, I think that great flagship campuses in other states are the hidden jewels of the college search.
So, let’s talk cities. Have you been to Seattle? It’s a lovely city—a real city—with relatively nearby mountains and lots of water. There are picturesque neighborhoods and boats and the famous fish market, and there is also a major city center. The UW campus, by the way, is perfectly beautiful—one of the prettiest I have ever seen.
Eugene and Reno are both set in hiking-rafting-kayaking-mountain biking outdoor country. Eugene is an hour from Oregon’s breathtaking Pacific coast and two hours from Portland, seemingly everyone’s new favorite city on the West Coast. Eugene makes everybody’s list of great college towns to live in. At the base of the Sierra Nevada, Reno is 30 minutes from the majesty of Lake Tahoe, a true vacationland. Though Reno is often associated with Las Vegas because of its casinos, it is actually closer geographically to Sacramento than to Las Vegas—a two-hour drive vs. a seven-hour drive.
And what is there to say about Mānoa and Fairbanks—two spots as physically different and dramatic as we can imagine in the U.S., but both intriguing to most of us in the rest of the country.
Turning to the five flagship universities, we can put them into three groups by enrollment size, starting with the largest university, which is UW with about 31,000 undergraduates and a total of about 45,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. These enrollment figures put UW right up there with our larger flagship universities nationwide, though below the very largest. About 75 percent of students at all three UW System campuses are Washington residents (my guess is that the percent of residents is a bit lower at the flagship campus in Seattle because that is the one most likely to attract out-of-state students). The average high school GPA of incoming freshmen is an impressive 3.75, and the average SAT score for all three subtests is a combined 1833—in other words, perhaps a set of scores in the low 600s across the three subtests.
UO comes in next with about 21,000 undergraduates and a total of about 24,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students—a bit more than half the size of UW. Just over 50 percent of UO’s students come from Oregon, so students from out of state would feel quite at home in Eugene. Freshmen at UO come with an average high school GPA of 3.58 and SAT subtest scores in the high 500s. Perhaps the relatively low percentage of home-grown Oregonians at UO is accounted for by the fact that high school students in Oregon have a second attractive state university—that is, Oregon State University in Corvallis—with just as many students, if not more, and an entering GPA that is just as high. More about Oregon State University later.
Following close behind UO are UH Mānoa and UNR, each with about 19,000 total students, with 14,000 to 16,000 being undergraduates. Each university draws about 65 to 70 percent of its students from its own state. Interestingly, UNR serves about one-third “underrepresented” students, and the University has set a goal to grow its enrollment to 22,000 total students. So, it is on the move. Not surprisingly, at UH Mānoa, white students make up just about one-quarter of the enrollment, with Asian students being the largest segment at about one-third of the student body.
Compared to these first four flagship universities, UAF is rather small, with just about 6,500 total students; about 90 percent are undergraduates, and 90 percent are Alaska residents. While it is understandable that not too many high school graduates from around the U.S. are drawn to a university in faraway Alaska, UAF does boast students from 49 states. Though UAF is just about one-third the size of UNR or UH Mānoa, it is safe to say that a university of 6,000 undergraduates would still feel quite large to a new freshman; after all, that is a lot bigger than the student body at many, many small liberal arts colleges. One advantage of UAF’s size is its enviably low 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio—extraordinarily low for a public university.
Each of these flagship universities does, in fact, attract students nationally and internationally, even if not in great numbers. As we have often said, colleges love geographic diversity, and 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. 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 UW.
The flagship universities in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada were all founded in the 1860s and 1870s. UW was founded in 1861 before statehood by its Territorial Legislature, which stipulated that the Territorial University would have four departments: literature, science, and the arts; law; medicine; and the military—an interesting set of choices.
UH Mānoa and UAF came along later in the early 1900s, though well before statehood. In fact, in 1959, the Alaska Constitution was written in one of the buildings on the UAF campus and then signed in another. Also prior to statehood, UAF opened its Geophysical Institute, which has an international reputation in the study of the earth and the physical environment at high latitudes and which is now home to the Poker Flat Research Range, the only university-based rocket range in the world (it provides launching facilities for NASA and the Department of Defense).
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 arts, architecture, nursing, and agriculture and natural resources.
But here are some of the more innovative schools and colleges where undergraduates can study. UW has a College of Built Environments, which houses its architecture, construction management, landscape architecture, urban design and planning, and real estate departments. UO has a School of Architecture and Allied Arts, offering studies in architecture, art, arts administration, digital arts, historic preservation, the history of art and architecture, interior architecture, landscape architecture, planning, public policy and management, and product design. Perhaps as should be perfectly obvious, UAF offers a College of Engineering and Mines and a School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
However, my vote for most intriguing colleges and schools has to go to UH Mānoa. Among its 14 colleges and schools, it offers a School of Travel Industry Management, which integrates the studies of hospitality, tourism, and transportation management, designed to support the state’s leading industry with a decidedly international flavor, including studies in international economic and political systems. UH Mānoa also offers a School of Pacific and Asian Studies, with eight individual Centers for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Okinawan, Pacific Islands, Philippine, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Studies.
Its newest school, established in 2007, is the School of Hawaiian Knowledge, created “to pursue, perpetuate, research, and revitalize all areas and forms of Hawaiian knowledge, including its language, origins, history, arts, sciences, literature, religion, education, law, and society, its political, medicinal, and cultural practices, as well as all other forms of knowledge” (quoted from the website). This school offers a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies, which includes third-level proficiency in the Hawaiian language. I am struck by how unique some of these area studies and cultural offerings are and how much studying at UH Mānoa could be like studying abroad for virtually all students from the other 49 states.
Let us also say that UNR does something interesting with its freshmen by requiring students to take their choice of two of UNR’s three interdisciplinary Core Humanities courses, taught by English, history, foreign languages and literatures, philosophy, and political science professors: Ancient and Medieval Cultures, The Modern World, and/or American Experiences and Constitutional Change.
These flagship universities offer from about 100 to more than 200 undergraduate degree programs across their numerous undergraduate colleges and schools. So students should be able to find exactly what they want. Interestingly, at UW, the largest of the universities with the most options to choose from, about 70 percent of undergraduate degrees are from the College of Arts and Sciences.
Like all other flagship universities, each of these has more than 100 student clubs and organizations—and sometimes several hundred. And there are lots of outdoor recreation opportunities in all of these locales, along with club sports and intramurals. By the way, UAF is the only U.S. university with its own snowboarding terrain park.
There are also varsity sports teams—from 16 to 21 women’s and men’s and co-ed teams (with just 10 teams at the smaller UAF campus). Though UW Huskies fans might dispute this, I am going to say that the sport I think of first at these universities is track and field at UO, where the men just won back-to-back NCAA national championships and where Hayward Field, a dedicated track venue, is the frequent host of national championships and Olympic trials.
As we have seen in other regions, out-of-state tuition at these flagship universities is not cheap, running from about $20,000 to $34,000 per year—about three times what a state resident would pay. But that is still lower than many 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 we have mentioned in previous episodes, some of these universities 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. Look hard at any public universities your child is interested in to see whether there might be a similar exchange program in place in your state.
3. Other Public State Universities
In each of these Far West 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. Let’s look at three that we think are most likely to attract out-of-state students.
We have already mentioned one, and that is Oregon State University in Corvallis, which actually has a larger total student enrollment than UO (about 30,000 across two campuses) and which attracts equally talented freshmen. Corvallis, located 90 miles south of Portland, is a small, safe, environmentally responsible, outdoorsy college town. Offering over 200 undergraduate degree programs in nine of its 11 colleges, OSU has a College of Forestry and a College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences—both of which make sense, given its location between the Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean. Founded in 1868, its campus is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is known for its classic and well-planned architectural and landscape design. It is one of two U.S. universities to have Land Grant, Sea Grant, Space Grant, and Sun Grant designations. In a future episode, we should talk about the history of land grant universities, but, suffice it to say, that having all four designations is impressive.
Let’s turn to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), founded relatively recently in 1957 as an outpost of UNR and then earning independent and equal status in 1968. It serves about 24,000 undergraduates and a total of about 29,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, making it considerably larger than the flagship UNR. About 85 percent of its students are from Nevada, and about 55 percent are minority students. It has a total of 10 schools and colleges, including the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering, and a College of Fine Arts. Its urban location in Las Vegas makes it a very different choice for students from UNR’s location in the northern part of the state.
The third institution we would like to spotlight is The Evergreen State College, located about an hour south of the Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington’s capital city of Olympia. When you view Evergreen by air, what you see are—wait for it—a million evergreen trees, calm waters, and a few college buildings. Founded quite recently in 1971, Evergreen is a public liberal arts college, serving about 4,500 students, mostly undergraduates, and offering them more than 60 fields of study to choose from. It is deeply environmentally responsible and has been repeatedly recognized for its innovative, cool, free spirit style and substance. Evergreen prides itself on having its students learn through interdisciplinary study, collaborative learning activities with their classmates from diverse backgrounds, and opportunities to link theory with practical applications.
Students at Evergreen take one interdisciplinary course, called a program, at a time, which might last one, two, or even three quarters. Built around a theme, a program integrates several subjects and is taught by a team of two to four professors from different subject fields. Students participate in a mixture of lectures, seminars, tutorials, field trips, labs, and the like during each program. There are no required programs or distribution requirements or major requirements (because there are no majors) for earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts and Science does have some math, science, or computer science requirements.
Out-of-state students pay about $22,000 per year in tuition (compared to the $8,000 that Washington residents pay). But, even so, that is about half as much as most private liberal arts colleges, especially those that have this innovative a take on higher education.
As we have said before, all of these public universities (and there are more in these states than those we mentioned here, especially in Washington) 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 innovative programs or the appealing locations or the breadth of opportunties that they offer.
4. Public State Universities in California
We now come to public universities in California. Remembering that California is a physically huge and populous state, we can expect a lot of public options. California boasts its University of California campuses (California’s premier public system), its California State University campuses (its second tier of public colleges), and its California Community Colleges System campuses (its third tier of public colleges, which offer opportunities to an enormous number of California students who do not have the high school grades and/or the financial resources and/or the inclination to attend one of California’s public four-year campuses). In the wake of tight state budgeting, whether California universities should accept more out-of-state students, who bring their higher tuition payments, or keep more spaces open for its own students has been a political football tossed back and forth in the media a lot lately.
With that said, both the UC campuses and the CSU campuses have elaborate eligibility standards, which include the student’s high school GPA calculated for 15 required core courses, class rank, and SAT or ACT scores, and which vary by the student’s place of residence in and outside of California. While it is not necessary to go into these details right now, suffice it to say that out-of-state students will have to meet higher admission standards than California residents for both UC and CSU campuses. And that is on top of the fact that space in some programs on some of these campuses is extremely limited.
With all that as a backdrop, let’s start by taking a quick look at the University of California, Berkeley, considered by most to be the flagship public university (though it seems to me, as an outsider, that California is really more like New York—that is, it has many individual universities, loosely coupled into a system and governed by that system, but each having the stature and character of an independent well-known university). There is a lot to recommend it as a place to study, including its charming campus in Berkeley, north of San Francisco and Oakland. Founded in 1868 by the merger of two tiny colleges, UC Berkeley (fondly referred to as Cal by Californians) is the oldest of the UC campuses. Today it has an undergraduate enrollment of about 27,000 students and a total enrollment of about 38,000 students, who are studying in 14 undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and schools. Those of us of a certain age remember the UC Berkeley of the 1960s as a campus where politically conscious students protested for their right to free speech in the wake of civil rights struggles and then the war in Vietnam. While UC Berkeley has long been known for its brainy students, today it is super-hard to get into, posting a low acceptance rate of about 17 percent of applicants. The average high school GPA of new freshmen is a 4.19 and their entering SAT scores are at about 700 on each of three subtests. To be sure, UC Berkeley ranks as one of the very best public institutions in the U.S. and, indeed, as one of the best public or private institutions in the U.S. While California residents pay about $13,000 in tuition per year, nonresidents pay about $34,000 in tuition per year—still less than you would pay at comparable first-class private universities.
Perhaps the best known of the UC campuses is UCLA—the University of California, Los Angeles. Started in 1919 as the University of California’s Southern Branch, UCLA’s star has been rising ever since and, by many accounts, it now ranks academically with UC Berkeley. Its incoming freshman class average GPA is 4.25, with comparably high SAT scores. UCLA currently serves about 28,000 undergraduates and a total of about 42,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. About one-third of its undergraduates are Asian, and about one-quarter are white. About 80 percent are California residents. UCLA’s undergraduates study in 125 majors across five schools and colleges: College of Letters and Science and the Schools of the Arts and Architecture; Engineering and Applied Science; Theater, Film and Television; and Nursing. And they play some great basketball (can you say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?), have won more NCAA titles than any other university, and have produced 250 Olympic medalists. Again, your child would need to be exceptional to get into UCLA these days.
The UC System has seven more campuses that serve undergraduate students, but all require out-of-state students to have a 3.4 GPA for a set of 15 required core courses taken in high school, with no grade lower than a C. So the admission standards are indeed high.
The California State University System, on the other hand, has 23 campuses, spread from the top to the bottom of the state. Tuition is a bargain at about $5,500 per year for California residents and about $17,000, by my calculation, for out-of-state students. It has always been my impression that these state universities are easier to get into than those in the University of California System, but deciphering the admissions requirements can be daunting for non-Californians unfamiliar with the lingo. Our best advice is that you should talk directly with an admissions officer at the campus, if your child is interested in attending a public state university in California—many of which could be attractive options.
So, is it more trouble than it is worth to try to go to a public university in California as an out-of-state student? Well, it is certainly trouble. But I don’t think any student currently studying on a public campus in beautiful Santa Barbara or San Diego or Monterey Bay or Sonoma County or San Francisco would think it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
How remarkably diverse college options are in the Far West
How remarkably unique The Evergreen State College is for a public college
How remarkably complex public higher education is in California
Check out these higher education institutions and organizations we mention…