Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions.
While the price of tuition has been skyrocketing, jobs for new college graduates have become ever scarcer, with most starting annual salaries less than the amount each graduate owes (and many new graduates unable to land full-time work at all). I won’t barrage you with facts and figures, but here’s a sobering one: According to the Project on Student Debt, students from the class of 2011 who borrowed to gain their bachelor’s degrees — that’s two-thirds of graduates — emerged with an average of $26,600 in student-loan debt.
Some Blue Collar Ivies we profile offer full-tuition scholarships to students, sometimes in return for full-time work on campus. They are worth a careful look. But because these colleges can afford to be extremely selective, and some have income restrictions on whom they admit, we also profile at least one public university in each of the 50 states. Paying in-state tuition, a student can attend at one-third or even one-fourth of what others would pay.
The advantage of such a cost savings is obvious. And there really are excellent opportunities at most state universities. In these profiles, we point you to honors programs at state schools that often are nearly as rigorous as the options at elite private colleges. Some public institutions even offer Great Books programs; we tell you which ones. We highlight options for honors housing, which lets serious students escape the zoo atmosphere that pervades too many state-college dorms. We also tell you about schools that have set up internship programs with local employers or enable science students to work closely with senior faculty in research.
While spotlighting outstanding programs at state universities, we also call attention to land mines you should avoid. We flag programs and departments that are directionless, underfunded, or flooded by radical activists (as many liberal-arts departments sadly are), and we try to steer students to the strong ones. The good news is that state universities are so big, there is almost always some worthwhile path a proactive student can forge through the trackless forest. We find you that path, combing through each school’s catalogue to select a solid core curriculum of classes that will guarantee a basic liberal-arts education to any student, regardless of major.
The Blue Collar Ivies aren’t perfect. But if you follow the advice offered by the wise professors and savvy students who talked to our reporters, you will find a way to gain a solid, affordable education.
Here are excerpts from our profiles of two of the best state universities we covered — one on the East Coast and one out west:
The University of Maine
Plenty of traditional, solid courses to meet both gen-ed and majors’ requirements.
Strong emphasis on teaching, in addition to research.
Very solid programs in sciences, engineering, forestry, nursing, political science, history, psychology.
Humanities departments are less ideological than at most state schools.
Excellent honors program with many serious liberal-arts courses.
A Great Books Living Learning Community.
Women’s-studies department may close for lack of student interest.
Some departments are “unwelcoming” to religious or conservative students.
Foreign-language majors have been cut due to lack of funding.
Several social-science departments are subpar.
Few options in theater or the arts.
The University of Maine, a land- and sea-grant university, opened in 1868. While its research is well respected, the school also focuses sharply on teaching, especially in the liberal arts. UMaine students and faculty speak with pride of their engineering, nursing, forestry, and agriculture programs, and the Honors College is truly noteworthy.
Academic Life: Partly Cloudy
All students must fulfill a set of general-education requirements within six categories: Science, Human Values and Social Context, Mathematics, Writing Competency, Ethics, and Capstone Experience. There are good courses offered (along with fluff) in each of these categories, so students should choose carefully. Under Human Values and Social Context, students must take a course in Western Cultural Tradition, with very good options like “History of Ancient Philosophy.” In the required Cultural Diversity and Population and Environment subcategories, pickings are slimmer and include “Sex and Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Students can satisfy the Ethics requirement with a worthy class such as “Introduction to the Jewish Bible.”
UMaine’s student-faculty ratio is a middling 15:1, and more than half of courses have fewer than 20 students. Even the most crowded courses top at around 35 students. “Professors are quite accessible and helpful,” says one student. “I have had absolutely fantastic professors.” A teacher comments, “One of the things I really like about UMaine is the close balance of teaching and research. The university places a much greater emphasis on teaching than other research universities,” with standards “similar to those at very highly ranked liberal-arts colleges.”
The honors program offers classes no larger than eight to 14 students. Says one, however, “The honors-sequence experience varies greatly depending on the professors.” A professor praises the Honors College as the “jewel in the crown,” stating that his best students “write very solid senior theses to conclude their B.A.,” followed by a two-hour defense to a faculty committee. The thesis project, a well-chosen adviser, and some of the excellent course material offered (the Odyssey, the Republic, Greek dramas, the Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Inferno, Renaissance art, the Bible, The Prince, Shakespeare’s plays, The Social Contract, the works of John Locke, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and much more) make the honors sequence the best choice for an undergraduate at UMaine.
Besides the Honors College, students and faculty speak most highly of engineering, chemistry, anthropology, political science, forestry, nursing, history, psychology, biology, marine sciences –as well as the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
Other programs are weaker. A professor warns against the social sciences, “with the exception of psychology . . . which has a nationally respected doctoral program, especially in family counseling.” Though one student calls UMaine’s business school “pretty good for a public state university,” a professor counters that it has “low standards.” This professor also notes that the foreign-languages department is “too small” with “too few courses in non-European languages.” Another teacher says that UMaine’s theater, public-administration, and women’s- studies departments have all been “slated for being phased out due to low numbers of majors.”
UMaine is a real bargain for Mainers, who paid only $8,370 in tuition in 2012–13 (compared with $25,230 for out-of-state students) and room and board of $8,848. Some 60 percent of students received need-based aid, but those who borrowed racked up a daunting $32,438 in average student-loan debt.
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California
Comparatively little ideology in the classroom: “Just the data, ma’am.”
20 percent of students take part in research with teachers.
Excellent hard-science departments (especially Nobel-rich physics) and good programs in the humanities, political science, and film studies.
Highly qualified faculty who do all teaching (grad students lead discussion sections).
Comparatively wholesome dorm policies and a beautiful campus.
Some enormous (800-student) classes.
Politicized courses in the black- and Chicano-studies programs fulfill general-ed mandates.
General advising is weak.
Many bars and a good deal of drinking near campus.
Several chaplaincies are slackly heterodox.
What is today the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) was founded in 1909. Twice in the past decade, UCSB has been named one of Newsweek’s “twelve hottest American colleges.” Five Nobel laureates and dozens of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellows on faculty attract such attention; so do twelve national state-of-the-art research centers. It also helps that students and teachers don’t waste much of their time on radical politics. The school isn’t near the beach; it’s on the beach. (The university includes a weather report on its homepage.)
Academic Life: Science More than Letters
Most of the almost 19,000 undergraduates at UCSB are attracted to the school’s science-centered programs and the chance to participate in top-flight research, but Santa Barbara also has some good liberal-arts departments. Although the university has no core curriculum, there are many substantial courses available that can help students gain a solid liberal-arts foundation if they choose wisely.
UCSB is known as a research institution, and its strengths accordingly lie in the sciences. Several departments are among the best in the nation, especially physics, where four members of the faculty have won Nobel Prizes. More than 20 percent of undergraduates (including freshmen) participate in some form of research, and there are abundant opportunities — not just in the hard sciences but in the humanities and social sciences too — for those who seek them.
Apart from instructors, students have plenty of other academic resources available. The UCSB Libraries are major research facilities with 3 million books and bound journals, and more than 500,000 sound recordings.
There are only a few politicized distractions in the curriculum — men in lab coats tend not to put up with them. “Strange and bizarre courses are very few, since UCSB mainly focuses on the hard sciences,” says a student. For the most part, students can express their views without fear of reprisal. According to one student, because Santa Barbara is “predominantly a hard- science school, there is a communal belief that everything has to test for validity, no matter who says it.” But the few distractions, when they do occur, are glaringly obvious. The black- and Chicano- studies departments get most of their business by helping students fulfill a particular general-education requirement.
The film-studies department is considered by some to be the best in the country and was given a big financial boost when alumnus Michael Douglas donated $1 million to the Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television, and New Media.
The Department of Religious Studies “is one of the major centers in North America for the study of religions,” the school reports. It takes pride in having once employed the famed post-Christian theologian Paul Tillich. The department “houses the prestigious Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life; maintains close ties with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, [and] boasts several endowed chairs located within it — the XIV Dalai Lama Chair in Tibetan Studies, the Virgil Cordano Chair in Catholic Studies, and the Tipton Distinguished Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies.” It’s probably a good sign that a fair number of professors in the religious-studies department earned degrees at the University of Chicago; several philosophy professors come from UCLA; and classical studies tends to hire from Berkeley and Harvard.
For a student who knows what he would like to study and what courses to take to get there, the College of Creative Studies, dubbed “the graduate school for undergraduates,” is an interesting alternative. With approximately 300 students, “the creative-studies major is for talented students who are committed to advanced and independent work in one of the disciplines represented in the college,” according to the catalogue.
There is also an undergraduate College Honors Program, which earns a student a diploma with distinction as long as he maintains a B average. Some of the courses are graduate level, while some undergraduate courses may count for honors credit if students attend honors discussion groups. Honors students have access to the graduate-student library, an honors study center, priority registration, special academic awards, field trips and research lectures, and a mentorship program that pairs honors upperclassmen with freshmen.
Students outside the honors program say the best advice comes from faculty advisers in their majors. There is a general-education advising office on the campus: “They can sometimes be helpful,” a student warns, “but they don’t always know the whole story. The professors have a better grasp.”
Once in class, students can generally expect to find professors (in the upper-level courses) or lecturers (in the lower-level ones) doing their own teaching. Graduate teaching assistants handle some discussion sections and the grading in larger, lower-level courses. Class sizes for some general-education courses can range from 200 to 800. The average class size in lower-division classes is 52. Upper-division courses average 36 students. The overall student-faculty ratio is 18:1.
Despite the large classes, students are impressed with the faculty. They report that their professors are outstanding teachers and mentors with proven track records. “My professors have been the most important part of my education here and have encouraged me, guided me, taught me, and trained me,” says one student. Another student calls her professors “amazing and helpful.”
In 2012–13 California residents (and illegal aliens residing in California) paid $13,671 in tuition and required fees to attend UCSB. Out-of-state Americans paid $36,549. Room and board were a hefty $13,275. Fifty-five percent of all students received need-based aid, and the average loan burden of a recent grad was a moderate $18,627.
The Blue Collar Ivies
University of Alabama
University of Alaska
University of Arizona
University of Arkansas
University of California at Berkeley
University of California at Los Angeles
University of California at Santa Barbara
United States Air Force Academy
University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Connecticut
University of Delaware
Florida State University
University of Florida
Georgia Institute of Technology
University of Georgia
University of Hawaii at Manoa
University of Idaho
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Indiana University Bloomington
University of Iowa
University of Kansas
Alice Lloyd College
University of Kentucky
Louisiana State University
University of Maine
United States Naval Academy
University of Maryland
University of Massachusetts–Amherst
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota–Twin Cities
University of Mississippi
College of the Ozarks
University of Missouri
University of Montana
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
University of Nevada
University of New Hampshire
University of New Mexico
Brooklyn College (CUNY)
State University of New York at Binghamton
United States Military Academy
North Carolina State University
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of North Dakota
Ohio State University
University of Oklahoma
University of Oregon
Pennsylvania State University
University of Rhode Island
College of Charleston
University of South Dakota
University of Tennessee
Texas A&M University
University of Texas at Austin
University of Utah
University of Vermont
College of William and Mary
George Mason University
University of Virginia
University of Washington
West Virginia University
University of Wisconsin–Madison
University of Wyoming
— John Zmirak is editor of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions. This adapted excerpt is reprinted with permission of ISI Books and has been amended since posting.