I’m entering the fifth year of operating EducatedQuest. On this continuing journey I have had the opportunity to visit the flagship state universities as well as other fine public options in 14 states. I hope to add a few more in 2016, starting with schools that are of interest to the students and families that i serve in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The citizens of these states are fortunate to have very good flagship state universities. But they, along with citizens of other states, have some other fine public options.

I’ve been asked time to time: which state has the best state universities, as if students had a choice of schools.

For example, I have a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Most educators who work at the highest levels in higher education will say that UIUC is one of the best state universities in the land. There’s a lot to like about UIUC. It has more academic options than most other large schools. It is true to its land grant mission, it is a charter member not only of the Big Ten, but also the research-oriented Association of American Universities. But there is only one school like UIUC in Illinois. The same is true in Wisconsin with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Its ironic that Illinois, a state with nearly 13 million residents sends half as many students (around 31,000) to flagship schools as its neighbor, Indiana, which has half as many people, but two highly-respected state universities: Indiana University-Bloomington and Purdue. The people of Illinois do not have the same choices as the people of Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio do within their states.

I’m often told that the University of California has the best cluster of state universities in a single system. True, the student profiles at Berkeley or UCLA would be the envy of the chancellor at UIUC or Wisconsin. But there is a drop-off in terms of freshman retention and graduation rates after that. UC-Davis and UC-San Diego, highly ranked in the media, do not outperform Rutgers-New Brunswick, ranked far below them. Not to mention that all of the schools, excluding Merced, are very large, with no fewer than 15,000 undergraduates. Merced’s 4-year graduation rates (around 30 percent) are nothing impressive. If you believe big is better and you live in California, fine. Your system is perfect for you. But after touring so many schools and meeting so many students from California attending college elsewhere, I doubt that those students liked the public options that were available closer to home.

Texas has the “10 Percent Plan,” which I believe is now the “8 Percent Plan,” probably soon to become the “7 Percent Plan.” But most of the interest is in the flagship campus at Austin, though Texas A&M is a fine school, too. The Abigail Fisher case, now being re-reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, was brought by a plaintiff who was turned down by the University of Texas-Austin and chose to attend LSU. Nothing wrong with the decision. But it is an admission that no other public option in her home state was acceptable to her. Still, while Texas has plenty of public educational options, the schools are very large. The same is true in Florida, though it has a fine selective liberal arts college–New College of Florida–within the mix with some very large schools.

Other states have supported a mix of large and small state universities and public colleges, most prominently New York and Pennsylvania. But the number of top-performing state universities in these states is small. Within New York State, only four schools: the university centers at Albany and Binghamton and the smaller campuses at Geneseo and New Paltz graduate at least half of a freshman class within four years. Among the best and brightest in New York, the shopping with the state university system often ends at Binghamton and Geneseo. The main campuses at Penn State and Pitt do an excellent job at retaining and graduating their students. Around two-thirds of the freshmen who start at these schools graduate on time.  Both have feeder campuses to bring in junior transfers. But no other four-year public college in Pennsylvania graduates at least half of a freshman class on time.

Which state has the best selection of state schools to educate its residents? Virginia

Virginia has three of the best flagship state universities in the U.S. They include the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and Virginia Tech. James Madison University and the University of Mary Washington have better four-year graduation rates than schools with more famous names. All graduate more than 60 percent of their freshmen on time. Christopher Newport University, formerly part of the College of William and Mary, graduates half a class on time.

The College of William and Mary and Christopher Newport are mid-sized schools, with around 7,000 and and 5,000 undergraduates respectively. Mary Washington is a public liberal arts school that had just over 4,000. The University of Virginia has around 12,000 undergraduates, truly the right size for a flagship, while Virginia Tech is the Land Grant with just over 24,000 undergraduates. James Madison, considered U.S. News’ top public regional university in the South, has just over 19,000.

I emphasized selection versus rankings of state universities for a reason: not every college-bound student who wants a public option wants to go to a large (10,000+ student) school while most college-bound students in many states do not have the opportunity to consider smaller schools that also deliver good services.

Virginia has public mid-sized schools that have done very well by their students, and kept in-state charges to very reasonable levels. But out-of-state charges at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary have gone past $40,000, though both schools attract non-resident applicants whose families are willing to pay The other schools, though they have reasonable sticker prices for non-residents, do not award merit aid below the upper 10 percent of a freshman class.

What is the second-best state university state? New Jersey

Rutgers-New Brunswick, the College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and Ramapo College of New Jersey do an excellent job of graduating a class. Stockton University now graduates more than half of their freshmen on time.

The performance of the better New Jersey public colleges is incredible considering that most of the students do not come from other states. No state school in New Jersey gets more than eight percent of its student body from a U.S. state other than New Jersey. Ramapo and TCNJ have approximately 6,000 and 6,500 undergraduates, respectively, Stockton has around 7,700.  Rutgers has more than 30,000. Admissions are reasonably competitive at these schools, though none is as difficult to get into as the University of Virginia or William and Mary.

The fact that four New Jersey public schools graduate more than half of a class in four years—Rutgers-New Brunswick, TCNJ and Ramapo do better–is a positive reflection on New Jersey high schools as well as the colleges. Rutgers performance–the most recent four-year graduation rate is 59 percent–is even more impressive considering that New Jersey does not have a school such as Michigan State or North Carolina State to take students who cannot gain admission to the better known institution. Rutgers gets the excellent students, much like the University of Michigan or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. But it also takes the very good who would go to Michigan State or North Carolina State if they lived in Michigan or North Carolina, and it graduates them.

While Virginia maintains a reasonable sticker price for in-state residents, New Jersey colleges tend to be on the higher side. In-state tuition and fees at the better schools are between $12,500 and $15,500, among the highest in the country. Non-resident charges are higher than those for most of the Virginia schools, excluding the University of Virginia and William and Mary.  Merit aid, aside from Ramapo and Stockton, does not extend deep into a freshman class.

Neither New Jersey nor Virginia is among the ten most populated U.S. states. ranking 11th and 12th respectively. The public college options offered in each state were not by design. The better performers evolved to respond to the demand for the degree programs they offered or were asked to offer.

Within New Jersey TCNJ was founded as a teacher’s college, Ramapo and Stockton, both chartered less than 50 years ago, were liberal arts schools that became more comprehensive colleges. Rutgers-New Brunswick began life as the eighth liberal arts college founded in the original colonies. Within Virginia, James Madison and Mary Washington were founded as women’s colleges. The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, an alumnus of William and Mary. Virginia Tech was founded as the state’s land-grant university in 1872, seven years after the Civil War. Christopher Newport began life as an extension division of the College of William and Mary; it did not become a residential university until the 1990s.

Of course I expect to receive negative comments on this post. I’ve lived in New Jersey most of my life. I meet many people who believe that “if it’s public and it’s in New Jersey, it can’t be good.” I also meet many people who are quite proud of their associations with schools such as the main campus of Penn State as well as the University of Michigan. Those are great universities. But no state ever has enough high-quality public options. Virginia and New Jersey come the closest.




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