If you looked at four-year colleges as a selection of choices within a marketplace, which would you say have the largest market share of students?
If you guessed the large flagship state schools such as Penn State-University Park or Rutgers-New Brunswick you would be wrong. Over 40 percent of college students attend smaller regional public colleges; less than a fifth attend the larger flagships and just over a quarter attend private colleges of all sizes.
Within New Jersey, where I live, as well as Pennsylvania, regional public colleges include schools that were founded as teacher’s colleges as well as smaller campuses within the larger public university systems: Penn State, Rutgers and the University of Pittsburgh. I have recently visited and reported about three such schools: Bloomsburg University (picture above) and Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania as well as The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).
Within New Jersey, residents are quite fortunate to have not only TCNJ, which has excellent retention and graduation rates, but also three other regional public colleges that graduate over half of their freshman classes. These are Ramapo College of New Jersey, Rowan University and Stockton University. Slippery Rock University has achieved similar success among the Pennsylvania schools.
What makes regional public colleges in New Jersey and Pennsylvania different from flagships?
Within New Jersey, the regional public colleges charge closer in tuition and fees to Rutgers-New Brunswick than most families would like to see. TCNJ could cost you more. However, a student who is in the middle of the applicant pool at Rutgers might qualify for a merit-based scholarship from a regional state school.
Pennsylvania”s State System schools charge significantly less than Penn State, Pitt or Temple. It is also quite possible for students who qualify for admission to the main campuses at Penn State or Pitt could receive merit-based awards from the regional public colleges that would further reduce costs. Some of the Pennsylvania State System schools, including Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Millersville, Shippensburg and Slippery Rock also have tuition reductions for non-residents.
With the exception of TCNJ, the regional public colleges in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are not exceptionally hard to get into unless you are competing for a seat in a high-demand major such as Engineering, Medical Laboratory Technology, Nursing or Special Education. If you are considering several regional public colleges that offer the same major, the admissions officers at the nearest college will know your high school the best, and likely know your school counselor. Your best chance for admission is with the school that is closest to home.
Classes and class sizes
Professors at regional public colleges do research and are expected to publish and advance their field. But they are also asked to teach more courses than their peers at flagship state schools and larger private universities. However, they are less likely to advise graduate students, nor ask them to be teaching assistants.
I often hear that classes at the regional public college will be smaller, but the student/faculty ratios that are about the same as they are at larger schools. My impression is that the introductory courses will be smaller, because there are fewer students. The upper-level courses will be about the same size because there are fewer sections and fewer faculty.
Within New Jersey, campus life at a regional public college has less emphasis on spectator sports and fraternity/sorority life than a larger residential public or private university. These schools compete in D-3 sports and have much smaller enrollments than Rutgers’ main campus. Students are more likely to cheer on a team when they have friends on the team.
The Pennsylvania schools that I have visited were no different terms of a social life. But the 14 Pennsylvania State System schools also play varsity scholarship sports. Football attendance at Shippensburg and Slippery Rock has historically been among the best in Division II, according to the NCAA. But the setting is far less festive than you will find on Rutgers’ main campus, let alone Penn State’s
What are the prospects for graduates of regional public colleges?
The graduate of a signature program within a regional public college will find a good job—if s/he has been well prepared through the classroom, extracurricular, internship and volunteer opportunities that were available. However, the flagships have a larger alumni base that is also more global.
I personally recommend that prospective students in New Jersey and Pennsylvania consider where they might want to live after they graduate. Rowan and West Chester University (PA), for example, have large alumni bases in the Philadelphia area. But neither has much of a presence in and around Pittsburgh. However, nearly half of Slippery Rock’s alumni base that is registered in LinkedIn is based in and around the Steel City.
Conclusion: When should you consider a regional public college vs. a flagship state university?
The major reasons are costs (lower prices or scholarships, option to commute vs. living on campus), the likelihood of admission to the school and to your desired major. If your heart is leading you towards a high-demand major, and you are more likely to be admitted to that major at the regional public college versus your flagship state university, then the regional public college is an attractive option.
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