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, what are these flagship campuses in our five Far West states (not counting California)? They are the University of Washington in Seattle (UW), the University of Oregon in Eugene (UO), the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UH Mānoa), and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
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.
Given the size and the diversity of academic offerings of OSU and UNLV, it seems that these two universities are competitively attractive when compared to the flagship universities in their states (perhaps a bit like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, as we discussed in our Great Lakes public university episode). So both could be worth a look for out-of-state students.
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.
Let me just say a word about paying close attention to which university you are actually investigating because names can be mighty similar. For example, there is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but also the California State University, Los Angeles. Or, to make matters worse, there is the University of California, San Diego, but also San Diego State University (in the California State University System), as well as the University of San Diego (a private Catholic university).
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…
In New York State
Outside of New York State
- California Community Colleges
- California State University
- California State University, Los Angeles
- Evergreen State College (Washington)
- Michigan State University
- Oregon State University
- San Diego State University (California)
- University of Alaska Fairbanks
- University of California
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University of California, San Diego
- University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
- University of Michigan
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas
- University of Nevada, Reno
- University of Oregon
- University of San Diego (California)
- University of Washington
- Western Undergraduate Exchange
Learn more about these topics in previous episodes…
- An introduction to our virtual tour of colleges around the United States: In Episode 26: Why Look at Colleges Outside Your Comfort Zone
- Public colleges and universities: In Episode 1: Public, Private, and Proprietary Colleges
- The Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE): In Episode 33: Colleges in the Rocky Mountain Region–Part I
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