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.
I really was not going to do this episode. I resisted doing our last two–one episode about The Common Application main essay (that 650-word statement that all seniors’ parents and teachers have come to loathe at this time of year) and one episode about the sad fact that our high school seniors in the U.S. cannot write. I was glad when last week was over, and I thought that I could move on to other topics of importance in the college applications season. And yet, I am drawn back into the quagmire of college application essays.
It gets worse. When I started putting this episode together–this episode that I did not want to do–I figured that I could keep it short and sweet. When I hit nine pages of text, I realized that it was not short (nor was it sweet, actually). And so, I have done something else that I didn’t want to do. I have planned for two episodes on this topic of supplemental essays.
Of course, I thought you might go back and re-listen to Episode 106, where we talk about supplemental essays. But I fear you won’t, and so I am going to reprise it here and add some new, updated thoughts. Why? Because I have just spent a fair number of days working on college application supplemental essays for a few teenagers I work with individually–and they have confirmed my worst nightmare. Our high school seniors cannot write these supplemental essays any better than they can write anything else. I base this bold statement not just on the teenagers I am working with now (who are, by the way, bright students with excellent grades and admission test scores), but also on the teenagers I have worked with over the past several years. I have read–and edited–hundreds of these supplemental essays. And I still have more to read and edit ahead of me this season. If I keep working with more and more teenagers every year, soon I will have 10 episodes on this topic.
Anyway, the last time we chatted about this topic was last January. Let’s see what, if anything, you remember–in case you were listening then.
1. How Many and the Choice, If You Have One
As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones. Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require as many as four. If you include short-answer open-ended questions that require just a sentence or two or a list of things–for example, cultural events you have attended recently–that number of supplemental “essays” for some colleges could go up to seven. Yikes!
Let’s look at the University of California system–a public university system with a zillion applicants (okay, zillion might be a slight exaggeration). But not much of one. UCLA, one of nine University of California campuses, had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall. So, how UCLA, for example, can process four essays from each applicant is, frankly, beyond me. But the University of California has some great universities–including the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA–and some very smart people. Here are the directions for University of California applicants for what are called the “personal insight questions” (quoted from the University of California website):
You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.
Keep in mind
All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.
Questions & guidance
Remember, the personal questions are just that–personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.
Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?
Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?
Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?
How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?
What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?
Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?
Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you–just to name a few.
If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?
Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?
If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom–such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs–and what you have gained from your involvement.
Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?
What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place–like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?
Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?
Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?
Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?
From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.
I think that these eight topics are sensible and fair, if not especially creative. On balance, I think that is a good thing. I believe that teenagers can actually write answers to these, and sometimes that is the biggest hurdle. (To tell you the truth, I have read some quirky or overly philosophical prompts that I could not respond to at all.) And yet, four essay questions of 350 words each is a lot of writing–especially if an applicant might have used up the answer to one of the prompts in the main Common App essay, which seems quite possible to me.
Sometimes, the topics for the supplemental essays, especially short ones, can be a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show a creative or funny or witty side. If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a teenager choose one of the odder ones–unless that teenager is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.
For some examples of essay topics that can be a bit odd, let’s look at the University of Chicago. If you don’t know the University of Chicago (one of those private universities whose name makes it sound like a public university), it is an outstanding, highly selective private university in, obviously, Chicago. Here are the directions for University of Chicago applicants (quoted from the University of Chicago website):
The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.
Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.
As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni. . . .
How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.
Extended Essay Questions:
(Required; Choose one)
Essay Option 1.
“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” ? Joseph Joubert
Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?
Essay Option 2.
Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.
-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018
Essay Option 3.
Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.
-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017
Essay Option 4.
The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.”
-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020
Essay Option 5.
Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.
-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021
Essay Option 6.
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
And, by the way, some of the past prompts are truly wacky. Choosing the right prompt in this kind of situation can make all the difference. When I work with teenagers on this, we always talk through several options before settling on the one that seems the most appropriate and the most likely to yield a convincing, insightful essay. And, yes, sometimes we get one written and realize that it just doesn’t work, and we have to switch prompts and start again!
So, the University of California and the University of Chicago are at the extremes, in terms of number of essays required and provocativeness of essay topics, respectively. Parents, you might be thankful now if the colleges on your teenager’s list have just one or two slightly boring supplemental essays to complete!
2. The Word Count
Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately (though I just saw one from Tulane University, where the upper limit was 800 words!). We all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and that it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words. Many supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it. Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 150 to 250 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say. Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy League school put it.
Here is the point: Lower word limits imply a different style of writing. While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in The Common App main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that. They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words.
Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts. But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them.
So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written. They need to make a point (or two or maybe three), both effectively and efficiently. Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point.
One final note on word limits: As you might already have guessed, one college’s 350-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic. As we will talk about in our next episode, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges. You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics. That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics–like an extracurricular activity that is particularly meaningful to you–can save a lot of time.
3. No Thanksgiving Break: New Episode Next Week
Next week is Thanksgiving, and we were going to take a holiday break. However, we realized that the long Thanksgiving weekend might be just the time that some of you will use to work on supplemental essays for applications that will be due just weeks later. So, we will have a new episode next week, which will cover the rest of the advice we have on supplemental essays. We will bring it out on Tuesday, instead of our usual Thursday–just in time for the Thanksgiving celebration!
Today, we have figured out a way to talk both about our new book–How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–and to make good on the title of our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight. As we were writing the book, we realized that we could use a lot of college examples, drawn from our earlier podcast episodes, to illuminate the points we were trying to make. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many colleges were mentioned in the book–and by “mentioned,” I mean that they were used to illustrate the answers to some of the 52 questions that teenagers are asked to find the answers to for each college on their Long List of College Options (LLCO). In a way, these colleges are in our spotlight for things that they are doing right or for characteristics they have that are noteworthy. To find out why we mentioned each college, you are going to have to get the book!
1. Colleges in the Spotlight
So, here we go. Here are the colleges that we thought were worth mentioning–for some reason or other (they are listed roughly in the order in which they are mentioned in the book, and I might have missed a few):
But the new book doesn’t stop with those 60-plus. We also name some great college towns–“great,” according to one of the lists of great college towns that publications love to compile. Do you know what colleges are located in these towns?
College Station, TX
Saratoga Springs, NY
Santa Cruz, CA
St. Augustine, FL
Ann Arbor, MI
Iowa City, IA
2. Now, It’s Up to You
Now, it’s up to you. At least, that is what we say at the end of the book. We wrote this to each student, assuming that he or she had done the assignments as they were presented:
You have done a lot of work to gather information about the colleges on your LLCO. You have completed a College Profile Worksheet on quite a few colleges by now. You have learned more than many high school students know about a variety of specific colleges and about higher education generally.
So, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting the colleges you have researched. That will be a long process, which will require analysis and evaluation by you and your parents and perhaps other important family members. And it’s okay that it is a long process because this is a big decision for all of you.
Remember that choosing which colleges to apply to can be every bit as important as choosing which college to attend. In an ideal world, you should be happy with every college you apply to because that will take the pressure off as you wait for acceptances to come in.
Of course, you might be more excited about some choices than others, but don’t apply to any college that you would not want to attend. That is a waste of your time and money. We are confident that there is a college that you can be admitted to that will make you happy. Even safety schools don’t have to be disappointing choices. If they are for you now, you just haven’t looked hard enough yet! Get busy.
We mean that last point really sincerely: If your teenager’s safety schools are disappointing choices for him or her, you all just haven’t looked hard enough yet. There are great colleges–especially some public flagship universities and some large private universities–that are very likely to admit good students, especially those who come from other states. Having a safety school that your teenager does not want to go to is really not having any safety school at all.
We mean it when we say, “Look harder.” We hope that our new book will help your teenager look harder, think harder, and work harder to expand his or her LLCO, to get exciting colleges onto that LLCO, to learn as much as possible about each one of them (by completing a College Profile Worksheet for each one), and to feel satisfied when all of the applications are submitted–that is, satisfied that all of the colleges he or she applied to are good choices, just for different reasons. And a satisfied teenager is likely to produce a satisfied parent. Or at least it should.
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…
But even with public colleges that are supported by tax dollars, student tuition is a major source of revenue.
2. Public College Enrollment and Tuition
Public colleges usually have a large student enrollment—larger than most, but not all, private colleges.
Public colleges have lower tuition than private colleges, so the cost of attending a public college is lower than attending a private college, unless a student has been awarded a generous scholarship by a private college. Of course, students can be awarded scholarships by public colleges, too, making the cost of attending a public college even more attractive.
3. Attitudes About Private Colleges
Private colleges, which are funded by the tuition of its students and by donations from its alumni and others, are often seen as being more prestigious or as being “better” colleges than public colleges. The fact is the some private colleges are indeed better than some public colleges; another fact is that some public colleges are better than some private colleges.
What is “better”? Students are smarter. Professors are better educated. Classes are smaller. Extracurricular activities are more available. Campus facilities are more impressive. Alumni are more successful. The fact is that some public colleges beat some private colleges in all these areas, so it pays to know as much as you can about what a variety of colleges have to offer your child.
4. Proprietary Colleges
Public and private colleges are nonprofit organizations whose first responsibility is to their students. Proprietary colleges are profit-making organizations whose first responsibility is to its owners and stockholders.
That does not mean that proprietary colleges provide a bad education; in fact, some provide a very good education.
You should have a close look at any proprietary colleges your child is interested in. Check out their majors, their courses, their faculty, their costs, and their record of success.
Listen to the podcast to find out about…
Great public colleges you might consider
Public and private college names that are misleading
The special public–private partnership that is Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), made up of 3 public colleges and 4 private colleges
Check out these higher education institutions we mention…