Episode 115: What About a Gap Year Before College?

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While today’s topic might not be an issue in higher education generally, it could well be an issue in your own teenager’s higher education–and it’s an issue that you might want to think about quickly right now if you have a high school senior. It is the notion of having your teenager take a gap year between finishing high school this spring and starting college this fall. For those of you who have high school juniors at home, it’s not too early for you to be thinking about this option, too.

For those of you wrestling with which college your teenager should attend when he or she has some options, let us remind you that, last year in April, we did a series of three episodes on how to think about that college decision–one for above-average students, one for average students, and one for below-average students–because we felt that their options and their reasons for choosing one college over another might be very different. You should go back and re-read the show notes or re-listen to Episodes 69, 70, and 71–or, at least, the one that best describes the academic standing of your own teenager. As we said last week when we highlighted some key points from those three episodes, we just can’t do any better now than we did then in pointing out the serious questions you should consider in making this all-important choice with your teenager.

With all that said, we are guessing that there are some families that are not thrilled with the college options they have at the moment, and today’s episode might give those families something else to consider. Like everything, the notion of a gap year has pros and cons, though I have to say that there are a lot of fervent supporters–far more than I thought before I did this episode. Let’s get some background.

1. The Background

Let me start by saying that I happened on an article from The Conversation from way back last May. The Conversation is, in its own words, “an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.” The Conversation explains that its “team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.” (quoted from the website) The Conversation, which was founded in Australia and now operates in the U.K. and U.S. as well, is a free resource, which addresses issues in arts, business, politics, the environment, health, technology, education, and more–so check it out.

The discussion today comes from an article by Joe O’Shea, the Director of Undergraduate Research and Academic Engagement at Florida State University, and Nina Hoe, the Study Director at the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. O’Shea is the president of the board of the American Gap Association, and Ms. Hoe is the Association’s Director of Research. My guess is that they might not be the most impartial chroniclers of the benefits of a gap year; nonetheless, they offer a lot of information on the topic in their article.

Although gap years have been discussed–and taken–in the U.S. for many years, the notion of a gap year landed squarely on our collective radar when Malia Obama decided to take 2016?2017 as a gap year before attending Harvard this coming fall. Now, that probably had to do with the fact that her father was finishing up his presidency more than anything else, but perhaps she put gap years on the map for a lot of families that had never thought about them.

The data show that about 11 percent of Australian students more than 10 years ago were taking gap years compared to no more than 3 percent of U.S. students today. What is a common topic of discussion and real alternative for educated families in the U.K. is rarely discussed here in the U.S., especially among middle-income and lower-income families.

And yet, Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe assert, in their article, that gap years are getting more popular in the U.S. So, let’s look at what the research shows.

2. The Research

The authors present evidence that an alarmingly sizable percentage of students on college campuses are stressed severely enough–including to the point of being medically diagnosed with anxiety or depression–to cause them to seek counseling from on-campus health services. The authors also note that “faculty and staff are reporting that today’s students lack coping skills such as resilience and the ability to succeed independently despite adversity” (quoted from the article). It is a picture of too many college students who are burned out from intense high school years, over-anxious, and unable to handle the many demands of college academic and social life.

Well, if that’s the problem, what does research say about the solution? Here is what the authors say:

Research shows that a gap year . . . can provide students the opportunity to gain personal skills such as independence, resilience, confidence and focus. A combination of activities during this year that involve volunteering, interning or working, either domestically or internationally, can provide meaningful experiences that challenge students outside their comfort zones. These experience[s] can help students reevaluate how they understand themselves and the world.

Several peer-reviewed studies focusing on students in the U.K. and Australia have shown that students who took a gap year experienced a host of personal benefits, such as higher levels of motivation and higher academic performance in college.

A 2015 survey of over 700 former gap year participants found overwhelming personal, academic, career and civic engagement benefits associated with taking a gap year.

Over 90 percent of all respondents indicated that their gap year provided important time for personal reflection, aided in personal development, increased maturity and self-confidence, and fostered the development of interpersonal communication skills.

Specifically related to college, 73 percent of respondents reported that their gap year helped them increase their readiness for college, 59 percent said it increased their interest in attending college and 57 percent said it helped them figure out what they wanted to study in college. (quoted from the article)

As loyal listeners of USACollegeChat know, we are all about getting kids outside their comfort zone, so that is an appealing aspect of a gap year. And I do think that what the research finds is entirely believable. I imagine that most adults would agree that a one-year dose of the real world?whether that is in a volunteer or paid setting, whether that is at home or far away, whether that is working with people like you or people not at all like you?is likely to help teenagers grow up and give them more life-coping skills than they had when they started.

But what about their future academic life? What if they like the path they are on in their gap year so much that they decide not to go to college at all? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And what happens when they do go to college after a gap year?

Here is some research cited, with obvious approval, on the American Gap Association website:

From Joe O’Shea’s book, Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs: “. . . In Australia and the United Kingdom, economic researchers found that high school students who deferred their admission to college to take a Gap Year went to college (after their Gap Year) at the same rate as those who accepted an offer and intended to go straight there (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012). They also found that taking a Gap Year had a significant positive impact on students’ academic performance in college, with the strongest impact for students who had applied to college with grades on the lower end of the distribution (Birch and Miller 2007; Crawford and Cribb 2012).” In fact, in the United Kingdom and in the United States, students who had taken a Gap Year were more likely to graduate with higher grade point averages than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college, and this effect was seen even for Gap Year students with lower academic achievement in high school (Crawford and Cribb 2012, Clagett 2013). (quoted from the website)

Well, now I am really interested–because I feared that kids who took a gap year might end up opting out of college (which would obviously not be my preference for them). It is also persuasive that gap-year kids with lower grades in high school graduated with higher college grades than similar students who went straight to college. Whether that finding is the result of academic knowledge actually gained during the gap year or of enhanced personal traits (like motivation and self-confidence) doesn’t really matter, I guess. So, there does not seem to be a personal or academic downside to a gap year–at least according to this research, these authors, and the American Gap Association.

3. The Design (and Expense) of a Worthwhile Gap Year

How then do Mr. O’Shea and Ms. Hoe characterize an appropriate gap year experience? This is what they say:

Gap years need to be properly designed so they can challenge students with new roles and perspectives that accelerate their growth as thinkers and citizens. Experiences that push students out of their comfort zones and allow them to explore new cultures and people from different backgrounds can create an impactful experience. They provide students an opportunity to reflect on a number of challenges and also allow for critical self-reflection that can root part of their identity in contributions to others.

In an ideal gap year experience, students get to develop actual relationships with people who are different from them. And when that happens, students can begin to see the world from different perspectives and learn about the complexity of social challenges. (quoted from the article)

Of course, that all sounds great. And if that can be done in the context of an internship near home or a volunteer slot in a nearby community, then I can get past one fear I have, which is that that gap years are just one more thing that benefit rich kids who can afford to fly off to some exotic locale or who can get a fascinating internship because of their parents’ connections.   Do you know, by the way, that there are companies that plan gap years for kids, including booking all of the travel? That can’t be cheap. Just like college admissions coaching, the notion of gap year experiences has spawned a whole industry. And that does worry me a bit.

Perhaps the title of a New York Times article last May by Mike McPhate says it all: “Malia Obama’s ‘Gap Year’ Is Part of a Growing (and Expensive) Trend.” His article notes that the price tag on an international gap year program could run as high as $35,000.

But here are a couple of other ways to do it:

[U]niversity administrators . . . note that gap-year plans come in a variety of forms, some of them at no cost. AmeriCorpsCity Year, for example, pays students stipends to teach. Another popular program, Global Citizen Year, provides financial support–more than $6 million since 2010–for students to pursue experiential learning.

But those programs can be highly competitive. City Year, for example, says it selects only about one in four applicants. (quoted from the article)

So, although these programs sound promising, it’s like trying to get into college all over again. I am not sure how that helps kids cope with burnout and stress. And, as we might have expected, colleges themselves are getting into the game, according to Mr. McPhate’s article:

More universities have begun formal gap-year programs that take varying approaches to enrollment and the providing of aid, including Princeton, Tufts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Elon University.

At Princeton and North Carolina, for example, freshman-year enrollment is deferred and at least some financial help is provided, while Elon considers participants enrolled and charges its regular tuition. Another program offered by the New School in New York City also treats students as enrolled and offers up to a full year of academic credit.

Florida State University is among the latest campuses to start offering scholarships to gap-year students. Late last year, the public institution said applicants could get up to $5,000, and sent an email to the entire incoming [freshman] class urging them to consider deferring their freshman year. (quoted from the article)

Clearly, I am not understanding how a gap year turns into a year where tuition is charged and a full year of academic credit is given. That really makes it sound more like a study abroad program. And, in fact, there are already colleges (NYU is one) where freshmen can take their freshman year in another country–a real study abroad experience before you ever study at home.

4. So What?

So, what is the purpose of a gap year and who should think about taking one? Well, I think that the vocal proponents of gap years think everyone should take one, given the positive results that the research seems to show. I am probably a bit more restrained in my enthusiasm, but I am willing to be persuaded. Parents, I am afraid that you are going to have to do some research of your own if you think your senior would benefit from a year of experiences–paid or unpaid, nearby or far away–before starting into his or her college career.

Here are a few quotations from another New York Times article, written last year by Abigail Falik, who is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year (which we mentioned earlier) and who is, I am assuming, a bit partial to the notion of gap years.

 

What if college freshmen arrived on campus not burnt out from having been “excellent sheep” in high school, but instead refreshed, focused and prepared to take full advantage of the rich resources and opportunities colleges have to offer?

The “gap year,” a common practice across Europe and Australia, has yet to take root in the United States. A primary barrier is the stigma we associate with the term–it conveys privilege and frivolity and is often viewed either as a luxury for a select few, or remediation for kids who didn’t get into the college of their choice.

And yet, the research shows undeniable, positive impacts in terms of increased maturity, confidence and achievement. A recent Middlebury study showed that students who take a year off before arriving outperform their peers in their academic and extracurricular engagement on campus. . . .

Given its known benefits, it’s time to rebrand the “gap year” as anything but a “gap.” When used intentionally, the year before college can be a bridge, a launch pad and a new rite of passage. It’s the students who find the courage to step off the treadmill–replacing textbooks with experience and achievement with exploration–who are best prepared for life after high school. And a growing number of colleges are taking notice.

Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s undergraduate admissions dean, wrote a manifesto about the need for students to take time off before college. Rick Shaw, Stanford’s undergraduate admissions dean, now speaks about the value of non-linear paths and the learning and growth that come from risk taking and failure, as opposed to perfect records. (quoted from the article)

Well, if I had not been sure that the notion of a gap year was an issue in higher education when I started this episode, I am pretty sure now. Parents, start your research!

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Episode 29: Colleges in the Southeast Region—Part I

We are continuing our series on looking at colleges outside your comfort zone by starting a virtual tour of public colleges and universities in the Southeast region. Detailed show notes with links to all the colleges mentioned in today’s episode are at http://usacollegechat.org/29

In our last two episodes, we started our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. to try to stretch your thinking about colleges that might be attractive to your child. As you recall, we started with five states in the Great Lakes region. As we said then, we are looking at four-year colleges only, reasoning that students headed to a public two-year college are highly likely to go to one in their home state and are not, therefore, looking to leave their own geographic region—at least not right away.

Again, we want to make it clear that there is no statistical basis for the colleges we are going to spotlight in this episode. No college has asked us to choose it, and no college has paid us anything to choose it. These are entirely our own choices.

To be sure, some of the colleges we are spotlighting will require that your child have very good high school grades and college admission test scores to get in. Others will be a bit easier, especially if a college is looking for out-of-state students to enhance its student body’s geographic diversity. But, because each student’s profile of grades and test scores and extracurricular activities and outside-of-school experiences is his or her own unique package, it will be up to you to look at your child’s high school record to see which colleges might be most appropriate.

Two general notes: First, when we talk about the colleges and universities in this episode, we are going to be talking about the main campus—that is, the one that most people associate with that institution—in those cases where an institution has more than one campus. Second, because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or really huge.

1. The Southeast Region

As we 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 four to 12 states. Today, we are going to start to look at the states that make up the Bureau’s Southeast region, which has 12 states. Because we thought that would be a lot of states to investigate as a group, we have divided the Bureau’s Southeast region into the Southern Southeast region and the Northern Southeast region. We will start with the six states in what we call the Southern Southeast region: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

For those of you who are listening in our home state of New York or up into the New England states or across the country in the Pacific Northwest, I am going to guess that most of you do not consider almost any colleges in these states for your child, with a rare exception. We would like to see whether we might change your mind about that.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

Let’s start with the flagship public state universities in these six states. Each state has one, though some are better known nationally than others. They are all good schools, and I would argue that at least a couple of them are great schools. While these universities 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 outside the state.

Some of these flagship campuses attract students from far away states more often than others. For some, an application from a student in New York is not so commonplace; in those cases, a New York student with decent, but not spectacular, high school grades and college admission test scores might have a real chance of being accepted. As we have said before, colleges like to have geographic diversity in the student body.

And remember what we said in Episode 27 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, 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. So, these flagship campuses draw a large portion of the best high school students in the state, which understandably drives up the average high school GPA of entering freshmen.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Southern Southeast region? They are the University of Mississippi in Oxford (commonly known as Ole Miss), University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, University of Florida in Gainesville, University of Georgia in Athens, University of South Carolina in Columbia, and in Baton Rouge. These universities are located in different kinds of settings—from picturesque small college towns to small cities to state capitals—but they have a lot in common, like enviable warm weather.

These flagship campuses have a lot of students. The typical number of undergraduates at these campuses is around 25,000, but with closer to 33,000 at Florida and only about half that many at Ole Miss. The total undergraduate, graduate, and professional student enrollment tops out at Florida with almost 50,000 students. All of these campuses are going to feel big to incoming freshmen. Partly because of the small-town charm of Oxford, Ole Miss might feel the least intimidating.

The history of racial integration of the student bodies of some of these schools is part of our national memory and the personal memories of those of us who were alive in the early 1960s. We remember the 1962 enrollment of James Meredith, the first African-American student at Ole Miss. But something that I did not know was that the University of South Carolina had first admitted African-American students in 1873, thus becoming the only Southern public university to admit African-American students during the nation’s period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Then the University closed for financial reasons in 1877. When conservative leaders re-opened it a few years later, it opened as an all-white institution.

And while we are talking about “firsts,” I also recently learned that the University of Georgia was established by the General Assembly of Georgia in 1785, making it the first state-supported public higher education institution in these United States. That’s quite a legacy.

These flagship universities have from 12 to 17 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—from liberal arts and sciences to every kind of career-related field you can imagine. Here are some of the more unusual ones: LSU has a School of the Coast and Environment; South Carolina has a College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management; Georgia has the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources; and Ole Miss has the Patterson School of Accountancy. Overall, these universities offer from about 70 to 140 undergraduate majors—which should be plenty to choose from.

Like other big universities, each one has hundreds of student clubs and organizations and about 15 to 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams (plus club sports and intramurals). They are all part of the Southeastern Conference, and they treat their sports and sports rivalries seriously (can you say Crimson Tide?). Attending sports events are a part of college life at these universities—as are fraternities and sororities for many students.

Each of these six flagship universities is well enough known to attract students from many states and foreign countries, but the most of the undergraduate students attending these campuses are home grown. For some of the universities, that could mean that a solid application from outside of the state would be viewed favorably, and your child could likely get a great education at a cost lower than a private school in your home state—that is, before any financial aid package is figured in. More important, as we said in an earlier episode, these six 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.

All of these flagship universities have proud alumni and alumnae, many still living in the state and sharing a network of friends who are also alums—and returning to the campus on weekends to see the big football game. In fact, since 1851, 25 governors of Georgia graduated from the University of Georgia. So, I guess it is turning out a quality product.

When we attended the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s college fair in New York City a couple of weeks ago, we had a good conversation with Anastasia Sailer, the University of South Carolina’s Regional Admissions Representative for New York, who did a quick audio pitch for NYCollegeChat. Be sure to listen to it in our recorded episode.

3. Other Public State Universities

In these six Southern Southeast states, there are also other public universities—not branches of the flagship campus, but other universities in their own right, some of which are as well known as the flagship campus.

Like the state of Michigan, which we talked about in Episode 27, with the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, both Mississippi and Florida have very substantial second well-known public institutions: Mississippi State University in Starkville and Florida State University in the state capital of Tallahassee. Each has about the same number of undergraduate students as its state’s flagship university: Mississippi State with about 16,000 undergraduates and Florida State with about twice that many. Each offers a broad array of colleges and undergraduate majors: Mississippi State with eight colleges and about 65 undergraduate majors and Florida State with 16 colleges and about 85 undergraduate majors. Each is a good choice for lots and lots of students.

Interestingly, the state of Florida also has a newer public university (established in 1963) that has grown to be larger than both of Florida’s historic public universities. That newer one is the University of Central Florida (UCF), with its main campus located in Orlando plus a double handful of regional campuses in the central part of the state. According to UCF’s website, UCF is the second largest university in the U.S., with a total of about 61,000 students, about 52,000 of them undergraduates. UCF has 12 undergraduate and graduate colleges and offers about 90 undergraduate majors. The most unusual of those colleges is the College of Optics and Photonics, which is the science and technology of light—that is, lasers, LEDs, LCDs, optical fibers, and imaging systems for applications in industry and medicine.

South Carolina and Alabama both have nationally recognized public universities (perhaps especially during football season) that I bet many people think are private, given their nonpublic-sounding names: Clemson University in South Carolina and Auburn University in Alabama.

Clemson was founded on the estate of Congressman and two-time U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who passed it on to his daughter and son-in-law Thomas Clemson, our country’s first Secretary of Agriculture. Clemson Agricultural College, originally an all-male military school, opened in 1893. Today, Clemson is a coeducational university with a broad array of eight schools and colleges, including, of course, the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences. The University serves about 16,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduate students—mostly, from South Carolina, but with several hundred each from states as far away as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Let’s look at Auburn, which started as an all-male private liberal arts college back in 1859 and now is home to a full slate of 13 undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and schools and a total of about 26,000 students (about 21,000 of them undergraduates). With 15 varsity sports, Auburn is another proud member of the Southeastern Conference. While most students come from Alabama and, next most often, from nearby Georgia and Florida, Auburn draws from states across the U.S. Fewer than 100 come from New York, however, so Auburn might be interested in a good applicant from our home state.

One more word about public schools in South Carolina: The College of Charleston, located in what some people believe is the prettiest city in the South, serves a somewhat smaller student body of about 10,000 undergraduates and just 1,000 graduate students, including some New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Undergraduates have a choice of 59 majors in seven schools, focused mostly on the liberal arts and sciences (plus business and education). And a note about the College’s history: Founded in 1770, the College of Charleston is the oldest higher education institution south of Virginia and the 13th oldest in the U.S. Its founders included three signers of the Declaration of Independence and three framers of the Constitution. It was both a private college and a city-supported college before it became part of the state’s public system in 1970.

There is one last public institution to spotlight today, and that is Georgia Institute of Technology (commonly known as Georgia Tech), located in Atlanta. A top-ranked public university by anyone’s standards, Georgia Tech provides a “focused, technologically based education” (taken from the website) for about 14,000 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students. It offers degrees in six colleges (Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Sciences, Business, and Liberal Arts), with “more than 100 centers focused on interdisciplinary research that consistently contribute vital research and innovation to American government, industry, and business” (taken from the website). Your child is going to need excellent high school grades and college admission test scores to get into Georgia Tech. To help balance out its academically rigorous reputation, Georgia Tech also has 39 fraternities and 16 sororities on campus and 17 men’s and women’s athletic teams. John Heisman, remembered for the Heisman Trophy that bears his name, became Georgia Tech’s first full-time football coach in 1903 (interestingly, he had previously coached at both Auburn and Clemson).

As we said earlier, all of these public universities (and there are even 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. So, consider looking at public universities beyond just the flagship university, for the special programs or the appealing locations or the sense of history and tradition that they offer.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…
The disparity between high school grades and college admission test scores for students at some flagship public state universities
Weather conditions that you might want to alert your child to in these states
Writing a college application essay especially for a college outside your geographic region

Find links to all the higher education institutions and programs we mention in this episode at http://usacollegechat.org/29

Connect with us through…
Leaving a comment on today’s episode at http://usacollegechat.org/29
Subscribing to NYCollegeChat on iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn!
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Reviewing parent materials we have available at Policy Studies in Education at http://policystudies.org/parents
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Ask your questions or share your feedback by…
Calling us at (516) 900-NYCC to record a question on our NYCollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast
Emailing us at paul@policystudies.org to ask a question if you want us to answer it privately

We are continuing our series on looking at colleges outside your comfort zone by starting a virtual tour of public colleges and universities in the Southeast region.

Episode 29:  Colleges in the Southeast Region—Part I on the NYCollegeChat podcast

In our last two episodes, we started our virtual tour of colleges across the U.S. to try to stretch your thinking about colleges that might be attractive to your child. As you recall, we started with five states in the Great Lakes region. As we said then, we are looking at four-year colleges only, reasoning that students headed to a public two-year college are highly likely to go to one in their home state and are not, therefore, looking to leave their own geographic region—at least not right away.

Again, we want to make it clear that there is no statistical basis for the colleges we are going to spotlight in this episode. No college has asked us to choose it, and no college has paid us anything to choose it. These are entirely our own choices.

To be sure, some of the colleges we are spotlighting will require that your child have very good high school grades and college admission test scores to get in. Others will be a bit easier, especially if a college is looking for out-of-state students to enhance its student body’s geographic diversity. But, because each student’s profile of grades and test scores and extracurricular activities and outside-of-school experiences is his or her own unique package, it will be up to you to look at your child’s high school record to see which colleges might be most appropriate.

Two general notes: First, when we talk about the colleges and universities in this episode, we are going to be talking about the main campus—that is, the one that most people associate with that institution—in those cases where an institution has more than one campus. Second, because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or really huge.

1. The Southeast Region

As we 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 four to 12 states. Today, we are going to start to look at the states that make up the Bureau’s Southeast region, which has 12 states. Because we thought that would be a lot of states to investigate as a group, we have divided the Bureau’s Southeast region into the Southern Southeast region and the Northern Southeast region. We will start with the six states in what we call the Southern Southeast region: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

For those of you who are listening in our home state of New York or up into the New England states or across the country in the Pacific Northwest, I am going to guess that most of you do not consider almost any colleges in these states for your child, with a rare exception. We would like to see whether we might change your mind about that.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

Let’s start with the flagship public state universities in these six states. Each state has one, though some are better known nationally than others. They are all good schools, and I would argue that at least a couple of them are great schools. While these universities 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 outside the state.

Some of these flagship campuses attract students from far away states more often than others. For some, an application from a student in New York is not so commonplace; in those cases, a New York student with decent, but not spectacular, high school grades and college admission test scores might have a real chance of being accepted. As we have said before, colleges like to have geographic diversity in the student body.

And remember what we said in Episode 27 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, 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. So, these flagship campuses draw a large portion of the best high school students in the state, which understandably drives up the average high school GPA of entering freshmen.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Southern Southeast region? They are the University of Mississippi in Oxford (commonly known as Ole Miss), University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, University of Florida in Gainesville, University of Georgia in Athens, University of South Carolina in Columbia, and  in Baton Rouge. These universities are located in different kinds of settings—from picturesque small college towns to small cities to state capitals—but they have a lot in common, like enviable warm weather.

These flagship campuses have a lot of students. The typical number of undergraduates at these campuses is around 25,000, but with closer to 33,000 at Florida and only about half that many at Ole Miss. The total undergraduate, graduate, and professional student enrollment tops out at Florida with almost 50,000 students. All of these campuses are going to feel big to incoming freshmen. Partly because of the small-town charm of Oxford, Ole Miss might feel the least intimidating.

The history of racial integration of the student bodies of some of these schools is part of our national memory and the personal memories of those of us who were alive in the early 1960s. We remember the 1962 enrollment of James Meredith, the first African-American student at Ole Miss. But something that I did not know was that the University of South Carolina had first admitted African-American students in 1873, thus becoming the only Southern public university to admit African-American students during the nation’s period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Then the University closed for financial reasons in 1877. When conservative leaders re-opened it a few years later, it opened as an all-white institution.

And while we are talking about “firsts,” I also recently learned that the University of Georgia was established by the General Assembly of Georgia in 1785, making it the first state-supported public higher education institution in these United States. That’s quite a legacy.

These flagship universities have from 12 to 17 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges—from liberal arts and sciences to every kind of career-related field you can imagine. Here are some of the more unusual ones: LSU has a School of the Coast and Environment; South Carolina has a College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management; Georgia has the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources; and Ole Miss has the Patterson School of Accountancy. Overall, these universities offer from about 70 to 140 undergraduate majors—which should be plenty to choose from.

Like other big universities, each one has hundreds of student clubs and organizations and about 15 to 20 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams (plus club sports and intramurals). They are all part of the Southeastern Conference, and they treat their sports and sports rivalries seriously (can you say Crimson Tide?). Attending sports events are a part of college life at these universities—as are fraternities and sororities for many students.

Each of these six flagship universities is well enough known to attract students from many states and foreign countries, but the most of the undergraduate students attending these campuses are home grown. For some of the universities, that could mean that a solid application from outside of the state would be viewed favorably, and your child could likely get a great education at a cost lower than a private school in your home state—that is, before any financial aid package is figured in. More important, as we said in an earlier episode, these six 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.

All of these flagship universities have proud alumni and alumnae, many still living in the state and sharing a network of friends who are also alums—and returning to the campus on weekends to see the big football game. In fact, since 1851, 25 governors of Georgia graduated from the University of Georgia. So, I guess it is turning out a quality product.

When we attended the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s college fair in New York City a couple of weeks ago, we had a good conversation with Anastasia Sailer, the University of South Carolina’s Regional Admissions Representative for New York, who did a quick audio pitch for NYCollegeChat. Be sure to listen to it in our recorded episode.

3. Other Public State Universities

In these six Southern Southeast states, there are also other public universities—not branches of the flagship campus, but other universities in their own right, some of which are as well known as the flagship campus.

Like the state of Michigan, which we talked about in Episode 27, with the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, both Mississippi and Florida have very substantial second well-known public institutions: Mississippi State University in Starkville and Florida State University in the state capital of Tallahassee. Each has about the same number of undergraduate students as its state’s flagship university: Mississippi State with about 16,000 undergraduates and Florida State with about twice that many. Each offers a broad array of colleges and undergraduate majors: Mississippi State with eight colleges and about 65 undergraduate majors and Florida State with 16 colleges and about 85 undergraduate majors. Each is a good choice for lots and lots of students.

Interestingly, the state of Florida also has a newer public university (established in 1963) that has grown to be larger than both of Florida’s historic public universities. That newer one is the University of Central Florida (UCF), with its main campus located in Orlando plus a double handful of regional campuses in the central part of the state. According to UCF’s website, UCF is the second largest university in the U.S., with a total of about 61,000 students, about 52,000 of them undergraduates. UCF has 12 undergraduate and graduate colleges and offers about 90 undergraduate majors. The most unusual of those colleges is the College of Optics and Photonics, which is the science and technology of light—that is, lasers, LEDs, LCDs, optical fibers, and imaging systems for applications in industry and medicine.

South Carolina and Alabama both have nationally recognized public universities (perhaps especially during football season) that I bet many people think are private, given their nonpublic-sounding names: Clemson University in South Carolina and Auburn University in Alabama.

Clemson was founded on the estate of Congressman and two-time U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who passed it on to his daughter and son-in-law Thomas Clemson, our country’s first Secretary of Agriculture. Clemson Agricultural College, originally an all-male military school, opened in 1893. Today, Clemson is a coeducational university with a broad array of eight schools and colleges, including, of course, the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences. The University serves about 16,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduate students—mostly, from South Carolina, but with several hundred each from states as far away as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Let’s look at Auburn, which started as an all-male private liberal arts college back in 1859 and now is home to a full slate of 13 undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges and schools and a total of about 26,000 students (about 21,000 of them undergraduates). With 15 varsity sports, Auburn is another proud member of the Southeastern Conference. While most students come from Alabama and, next most often, from nearby Georgia and Florida, Auburn draws from states across the U.S. Fewer than 100 come from New York, however, so Auburn might be interested in a good applicant from our home state.

One more word about public schools in South Carolina: The College of Charleston, located in what some people believe is the prettiest city in the South, serves a somewhat smaller student body of about 10,000 undergraduates and just 1,000 graduate students, including some New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Undergraduates have a choice of 59 majors in seven schools, focused mostly on the liberal arts and sciences (plus business and education). And a note about the College’s history: Founded in 1770, the College of Charleston is the oldest higher education institution south of Virginia and the 13th oldest in the U.S. Its founders included three signers of the Declaration of Independence and three framers of the Constitution. It was both a private college and a city-supported college before it became part of the state’s public system in 1970.

There is one last public institution to spotlight today, and that is Georgia Institute of Technology (commonly known as Georgia Tech), located in Atlanta. A top-ranked public university by anyone’s standards, Georgia Tech provides a “focused, technologically based education” (taken from the website) for about 14,000 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students. It offers degrees in six colleges (Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Sciences, Business, and Liberal Arts), with “more than 100 centers focused on interdisciplinary research that consistently contribute vital research and innovation to American government, industry, and business” (taken from the website). Your child is going to need excellent high school grades and college admission test scores to get into Georgia Tech. To help balance out its academically rigorous reputation, Georgia Tech also has 39 fraternities and 16 sororities on campus and 17 men’s and women’s athletic teams. John Heisman, remembered for the Heisman Trophy that bears his name, became Georgia Tech’s first full-time football coach in 1903 (interestingly, he had previously coached at both Auburn and Clemson).

As we said earlier, all of these public universities (and there are even 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. So, consider looking at public universities beyond just the flagship university, for the special programs or the appealing locations or the sense of history and tradition that they offer.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • The disparity between high school grades and college admission test scores for students at some flagship public state universities
  • Weather conditions that you might want to alert your child to in these states
  • Writing a college application essay especially for a college outside your geographic region

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