Emerging Trends in Public University Admissions

Trends that college-bound parents should know.

Following the theme of my last post about selective private college admissions, I would like to share my own observations on emerging trends in public college and university admissions that you should know, especially if your college-bound student is a freshman or sophomore. While the news about selective college admissions might be considered pessimistic by some, there are more attractive public options than ever before. This will continue for many reasons that I will cover in this post.

  • Nothing succeeds like success. While I do not believe that the Federal Government should be in the business of “ranking” colleges, it has been a good idea for schools to release retention and graduation rates to the public. Five or six years at a public institution can approach, even exceed the costs of a four years at a smaller private one when a student is not careful. I have seen many public institutions expand academic advising functions to help students consider academic options earlier and become better acclimated to college-level work. Writing centers are quite popular on campuses, especially with the better students. Temple University’s marketing push, called “Fly in Four,” as one example, has been exceptionally popular with the incoming freshman class.
  • The larger classes get “smaller.” The downside of the state university experience is the large, impersonal introductory courses. These are the least expensive to deliver, but offer the least benefit. You will see more large schools “flip” the large-lecture class into a “watch any time” format with less senior professors (and sadly, adjuncts and teaching assistants) taking a greater role in instruction. Since less-senior instructors are more vulnerable to student evaluations, you will start to see better teaching in these broad, general classes, maybe more challenging examinations and research projects. Purdue is one example of a large school that uses flipped lectures with success.
  • The large freshman class gets “smaller.” The best housing/academic combinations at public schools are honors colleges and living-learning communities. The best of these have faculty, student and community involvement. More and more such communities will form. Many will disappear, but some themes will be consistent: environmental progress, social justice, multicultural identity, academic interests, athletics, arts and more. Those who find their community quickly are most likely to succeed. Rutgers-New Brunswick and Miami University of Ohio are good examples of schools that have worked hard to develop living-learning communities as well as honors colleges.
  • The better the retention, the smaller the next freshman class will be. As more schools invest in success, freshman and sophomore retention rates will rise. This means smaller freshman classes and less room for transfer students on the main campus. Community college will become a less viable path into the junior class at a flagship school, unless the flagship offers more programs on satellite or community college campuses.
  • But will students want a “brand name” degree if they don’t get to the main campus? Penn State has wrestled with this for a long time with its 19 Commonwealth campuses. The most viable of these campuses offer the four-year degree programs in business, computer science, engineering and the sciences as well as housing. But traditional college students who have chosen to begin their education at satellite campuses have not usually had designs on staying for four years. Expect to see flagship state universities in need of students to step in and offer scholarships and academic options to target this large transfer student market.
  • Housing is a competitive advantage. When I was in college at Rutgers, the university guaranteed housing to freshmen and placed continuing students into a lottery. Those who came up losers had to commute or find housing off campus. Today, Rutgers houses more undergraduates than any state university with the exception of Michigan State. The lessons? The big schools cannot afford to force students into expensive local housing markets and they must take more responsibility for the behavior of their students. This means that more students will live on campus past the freshman year at more and more schools. When academics and costs are close to equal the quality of the housing might be the tipping point for many college-bound students. This is one reason why some of the more attractive housing options at publicly-supported schools are available at very good, but lesser-known schools such as Ramapo College of New Jersey and the University of Mary Washington (VA).
  • The number of degree/major options will be more closely scrutinized. The larger the school, the greater the number of possible majors, especially if the university has many schools within it. While state schools have obligations to help send qualified entry-level job candidates into the state’s labor market, they cannot afford to produce too many candidates for too few jobs. At the same time these schools will need to make more room to accommodate more students who are interested in the high-demand programs. Retiring academics in departments in low demand will not be replaced. Early retirements will be encouraged. New hires will be in the high-demand fields. Some might be established professionals as opposed to professors with doctoral degrees, while many will be adjuncts.
  • There are state universities, and then there are state universities that are “power brands.” When I started college in the late 1970′s much was made of the reasonable out-of-state charges of state universities. Only the University of Michigan charged more than $2,000 over the in-state tuition and fees that I paid to Rutgers as a resident. Today the out-of-state charges at the University of Michigan are almost triple those that a New Jersey resident would pay to stay home and go to Rutgers. The same is true for the schools in the University of California system, the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia. For the short term these schools, among others, have been able to justify their price and leverage their brand recognition. But those times will come to an end. These colleges were not built on the same pricing model as private schools–high tuition/high aid for those in need–and they have never competed against them on merit aid. The only way that these schools will be able to compete down the road will be to limit tuition and fee increases or freeze them.
  • More power brands are coming. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is likely to be the next power brand to raise its tuition and fees for out-of-state students past $35,000 to take advantage of its brand equity and appeal to well-to-do out-of-state students. Georgia Tech, Indiana University-Bloomington, Purdue University, Virginia Tech, UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware are other power brands that are likely to cross this threshold this year or next. But they too, will need to keep these increases low to avoid the need to offer more merit-based aid to non-residents.
  • Emerging brands are coming. This year Temple University, a large urban state-related school with many assets, went test-optional. Virginia Commonwealth University will do so, too, beginning with next year’s freshman class. There are other public schools with very good (80%+) freshman retention rates as well as decent (50%+) four-year graduation rates that will attempt to improve brand recognition by competing to attract students in the middle of the pools of the flagship schools. They will compete based on admissions to demanding academic programs such as nursing as well as merit scholarships. Such schools already include Richard Stockton College (NJ), Rowan University (NJ) Towson University (MD) and West Chester University (PA) within the region where I live.
  • Brands cannot always be built through sports. The public university that has historically charged less the flagship for its state has not always been able to boost applications through success in sports. Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University, both in Virginia, have advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, but few schools are equally successful at building a sports program. Public schools that have competed at the Division III level for several years are less likely to make the jump to scholarship sports. The costs to “pay” college athletes cannot be covered through football as they are at Division I schools such as Ohio State.

As is the case with selective private colleges, the long-term solution for the public university community is to maximize choices. Fortunately, the leaders in the public university community are becoming wise to that solution. Hopefully, the end result will be more good public options for thousands of college students and more predictable tuition and fee increases.

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