Higher Education’s Forgotten Universities

What kind of schools should students consider?

by Bruce B. Henderson (Western Carolina)

A longtime observer of higher education once called the regional state colleges and universities the “colleges of the forgotten Americans.” He meant that as a compliment, praising the regionals for democratizing American higher education. More often, the state regional universities (long known as the state comprehensive universities and now categorized as public master’s universities in the Carnegie system) have been the forgotten universities of America. In the literature on higher education, including much of the empirical research, books on university reform, and in the general higher education media, the state regional universities are frequently ignored. Research universities, liberal arts colleges, and even community colleges get more attention. In a rare instance when the Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned the regional universities they were described as “the undistinguished middle child of higher education.”

Yet, many students have not forgotten the regional state universities. Nearly half of the students at public four-year universities are at regional universities. But many of the best high school students do not consider attending a regional state universities. Good students are more likely to focus on private liberal arts colleges or research universities. I think good students should take a look at their states’ regional universities. The regionals democratized higher education. They are the people’s universities. They tend to be characterized by moderate size, the presence of a wide variety of applied programs that prepare students for jobs, and opportunities for students to be intellectually engaged with faculty members and each other.

Historically, one of the main advantages of the regional universities is that they have provided access to university studies to students who might not otherwise be able to attend a four-year university. But for strong students, access is not an issue. They could go anywhere. So why should they consider the regionals against attendance at a liberal arts college or major research university?

A practical reason good students should consider the regionals is cost. Although states have been decreasing support for the regionals and research universities, they still represent the least expensive option among four-year residential institutions. For strong out-of state students many regional universities have significant scholarship support. Graduates of  regional universities are more likely to leave without major debt than graduates of either liberal arts colleges or research universities.

A more important advantage students have from choosing a regional university over a research university is engagement with the university’s faculty. The faculty members at regional universities received their doctoral training at the same universities that faculty members at research universities attended. They are generally required to continue to engage in scholarship at their regional universities. However, faculty members at regional universities are more likely to be interested in teaching and the teaching process and relatively more interested and engaged in keeping up with the advances in their disciplines than in producing cutting-edge research. At research universities, undergraduate students often find themselves in very large classes, in classes taught by graduate students, or in classes taught by faculty members who are less interested in teaching undergraduates than in working on research projects with their doctoral students. At regional universities, students are likely to have a chance to work closely with faculty members on their research or service projects.

Students at liberal arts colleges get similar (or even better) access to faculty members, but at a considerable price. Moreover, because regional universities often have master’s programs, they may have better library and laboratory resources than those available at all but the most elite of the liberal arts colleges. A further advantage students have at a regional university relative to a liberal arts college is the opportunity to change their minds about what they want to study as their interests change. State regional universities typically offer a wide range of possible programs, ranging from the traditional liberal arts and sciences majors to more applied or esoteric programs (included at my institution are majors and minors in athletic training, forensic science, emergency medical care, motion picture and television production, and the management of sport, parks and recreation, hospitality and tourism, and emergencies).

There are disadvantages for strong students who choose the regionals over the research university or liberal arts college. The main one is the loss of prestige. Regional universities are lower in status for some of the same reasons that they are advantageous. Universities acquire high status by being selective (and relatively expensive), by obtaining large amounts of federal research funding, and by attaining national reputations for all they do. Students who choose to attend a regional university are largely opting out of the status game. More important, from an educational perspective, while attending a regional university can increase contact with faculty members, students may be joining a less competitive peer group. On average a student’s peers will be at least slightly less intellectually qualified and therefore potentially less intellectually stimulating. Moreover, faculty members may respond to the presence of less well prepared students by providing a less challenging experience in their courses. However, many regional universities have responded to this concern by developing honors colleges where students who are seeking intellectual stimulation and challenge can find it, from peers and professors.

Prospective students make their decisions about college attendance for many different reasons. Knowing about the advantages and disadvantages of the state regional universities may be useful in making the process more rational. The tradeoff of prestige for lower cost and greater engagement with faculty members is worth considering.

Bruce Henderson is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University.

Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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