What is an Up and Coming College?
Last week I reported on Christopher Newport University, which could be considered to be an ‘up and coming’ college. It has dramatically expanded its academic programs and its attractive campus over the past two decades. It has also improved its retention and well as graduation rates to the point where they are better than many flagship state universities.
Up and Coming colleges are listed annually in the US News college guide, and are often listed by the education press. I have often found problems with the phrase ‘up and coming’ college. It implies that a school has achieved a stature that makes it worthwhile for families to consider it as they make their college list. This year the magazine stepped away from the phrase ‘up and coming’ and called them ‘Most Innovative Schools’ instead.
In order to consider whether a school is up and coming, we must consider that colleges, regardless of size and location, have three primary responsibilities.
First and foremost, they educate their students not only in the classroom, but also for life. They offer more opportunities for their students to learn and grow to become good citizens, and often leaders in their community and profession.
Second, their faculty do research or develop teaching practices that add to the body of knowledge in their field. Anyone who attends college, even for an occasional class, wants to be educated by knowledgable teachers.
Third, they have to be good citizens within their communities. These communities include not only the city where the college is located. They also include alumni, employers, and professions, among others. Every college that I have visited in my working life tries to balance all three of these responsibilities.
For a college to be considered up and coming, it should fulfill all three responsibilities exceptionally well.
While I am not qualified to judge schools based on the research output of their faculty, I can consider whether they succeed with the students that they attract. When I visit a campus, I can also consider whether the college is a good citizen. I’ll illustrate this with an example. US News has regularly included the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) as an ‘up and coming’ college, and also includes it among the ‘Most Innovative’ schools.
I have visited UMBC. It’s a smaller-college alternative to some very good neighboring public schools: Towson University, the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Delaware. Founded as a commuter division of the University of Maryland, mainly to teach computer and information sciences, UMBC has evolved into a residential university with nearly 14,000 students. Just under 9,500 are full-time undergraduates. Actor Kathleen Turner, who starred in the movies Romancing the Stone, Peggy Sue Got Married and The War of the Roses is an alumnus. UMBC is also known for seven exceptionally generous, but also extremely rigorous, Scholars Programs. These programs go a long way to offer a small college experience within a fairly large university.
It would have been easy to report that UMBC is an ‘up and coming’ college based on the Scholars Programs and the successes of their graduates, and leave it at that. But there’s more. The university has also been listed regularly as one of the “Best Colleges to Work For” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. UMBC has made their ‘Honor Roll’ for quality of work life each year since 2011.
Only five percent of the undergraduate student body at UMBC comes from outside Maryland, though the students are quite diverse. One quarter are Black or Hispanic, just over a fifth are Asian. Most colleges, public or private, are nowhere near as diverse as UMBC. UMBC also has some of the nicest undergraduate student housing that you will find at a school of this size, or larger. I also felt, after spending a day there, that the students and administrators really care about student life on campus. It was also interesting that, while UMBC competes in several NCAA Division I (scholarship) sports, the most successful and most advertised team is the chess team.
These are very all good reasons to consider UMBC an ‘up and coming’ college, and maybe an ‘innovative’ one.
But I also need to ask if UMBC succeeds with the students it attracts. I have no doubt that the Scholars succeed. But they do not represent the vast majority of the student body. Freshman retention has improved steadily from 82 percent in 2004 to 88 percent in 2016, according to the university’s office of institutional research. That’s a positive sign, and retention will likely get better.
But UMBC does not look as good when it comes to graduating a class. Only 42 percent of the students who entered in 2013 graduated within four years. That’s up from only 29 percent in 2000, but not impressive for a school that labels itself as an ‘honors university.’ UMBC has lost more than a fifth of each freshman class after two years, beginning with the class that entered in 2000, ending with the class that arrived in 2015.
There are academic reasons for students to leave UMBC. Prospective health professionals must transfer to the University of Maryland’s downtown Baltimore campus to complete a degree program, such as the BS in Nursing or the BS in Medical Technology. That essentially limits these programs to Maryland residents, because the downtown campus is not a residential setting. In addition, unlike many public colleges of similar size, UMBC does not have a business school, or even a general business major. Nor does it offer as many engineering specialities as the University of Maryland-College Park or the University of Delaware. But it’s difficult for me to believe that more than a fifth of the students who entered UMBC each year only for academic reasons.
The University of Texas-Dallas (UT-Dallas) is probably the most comparable school to UMBC. Like UMBC, it evolved from commuter school roots in the late 1960s. It too, draws most of its students from in state (96%) and recruits a very diverse student body with average SAT scores in excess of 1200. Like UMBC it has received many accolades and offers some generous but rigorous scholarship programs. It retained 87 percent of the class that entered in 2010, same as UMBC.
But there are major differences.
- UT-Dallas is less residential. Less that a fifth of UT-Dallas students live on campus vs. just over a third of UMBC students. UT-Dallas reported to US News that less than a fifth of its students are in campus during the weekends; for UMBC this was 65 percent.
- UT-Dallas does not compete in scholarship sports.
- UT-Dallas also offers more majors than UMBC, including an accredited business school.
Most interestingly, the newer and less residential UT-Dallas has graduated at least 47 percent of every class that entered since 2005, and over half of the classes that entered in 2008 and 2010.
I would have thought that the more residential campus at UMBC would do better at graduating a class. This time I was wrong. Maybe in this case, the fact that a school offers more academic options, especially a business program, has helped raise the graduation rate. Other public schools of similar size, including the College of Charleston and the University of Vermont, which offer more majors than UMBC, have done better at graduating a freshman class of statistically similar students. But neither of these universities, nor UT-Dallas, has ever appeared on an ‘Up and Coming’ or ‘Innovative School’ list.
UMBC is a good citizen of Baltimore County and the State of Maryland. The administration has attained some impressive achievements, and so have alumni, especially the Scholars. But it bothers me when so many students leave without earning a degree, even after the school has received many accolades in the education press, when that is primary purpose of a college, especially one that calls itself an honors university.
Want to learn more about “good colleges”? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 609-406-0062.