This past weekend I visited an open house for The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). A public college with approximately 6,400 undergraduates, TCNJ is the most selective public school in the Garden State. I have not documented this, but I have heard that New Jersey college-bound students prefer TCNJ to Rutgers-New Brunswick, New Jersey’s flagship state university.
Some reasons are understandable. TCNJ has a very nice campus that is less intimidating and easier to navigate. The classes, even in the more popular majors, are likely to be smaller. TCNJ is not necessarily “better” than Rutgers, though you will likely meet TCNJ students who say it is. What it is is a different approach to a public college education that is preferred to the flagship state university.
TCNJ certainly performs better than Rutgers-New Brunswick. For the past eight years, according to the admissions office, the College has retained 95 percent of its freshman class. Seventy-three percent of the class that entered TCNJ in 2009 graduated on time vs. 59 percent for the flagship state university. Only four publicly-supported schools have done better at graduating students on time than TCNJ; the College of William and Mary, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia. All of these schools are a research-oriented state university that also grants graduate and professional degrees. TCNJ is focused more on the undergraduate.
There are few colleges, public or private, in the U.S. like TCNJ. In terms of student body size and academic programs TCNJ is more similar to a school such as Elon or Quinnipiac than it is to a state university or a private research university of similar size such as Princeton. If I were to say this to students at TCNJ some might argue with vigor. But this also proves a point about the “quality” of a college education. It’s all about the work the school does vs. the company that it compares itself.
There may be no public college or mid-sized state university that is totally like TCNJ though there are some that do an excellent job at serving the undergraduate first. SUNY-Geneseo is one such school that I have reported on before. So are Ramapo College of New Jersey, the University of Mary Washington (VA) and Truman State University (MO).
But there are downsides to consider. For one there’s history. None of the schools that I listed here have been known as what they are for more than 20 years. TCNJ, Ramapo and Truman State were previously known as training grounds for teachers, even as they added more majors. Mary Washington was the woman’s college for the University of Virginia until that school began to admit women in 1970. These schools have neither the institutional memory nor the alumni base of a flagship state university, even if they do better at retaining and graduating undergraduates. TCNJ as an example does a great job at helping future nurses and teachers find positions. It has offered these programs for decades. The employers who hire them know TCNJ. That will not be true for engineering. Rutgers and Penn State will graduate more electrical engineering majors than TCNJ will graduate for all of the engineering programs combined.
Nor do they have the financial resources. TCNJ, as one example, had an endowment of $27 million in Fiscal Year 2014, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. By comparison, Elon had an endowment of $189 million and Quinnipiac’s was $349 million. TCNJ might have the State of New Jersey as a source for help–over $70 million in public money will go into new science facilities there–but public financing for higher education is in a more fragile state than anyone wants to admit. TCNJ has, with state funds and state economic development authority financing, constructed some impressive academic facilities as well as a brand-new Campus Town. But if you walk around this campus you see that the sidewalks, student center and recreational facilities need improvement to get close to what they are at the private schools that TCNJ students might have considered.
If you’re drawn to compare emerging state schools to the flagship state university within the same state, visit both. Tour the campus and get a handle on the academic and residential experience. Meet with career services and alumni relations to get a sense of the network that has been developed by the school. Whether a school is a flagship state university or a top regional institution, it should be focused on student success and a nurturing network to help after graduation. Sometimes one will do a better job than the other. Consider that. Don’t get hung up over which might be the better school.
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