Safety School?

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The University of Massachusetts, Amherst is the state’s flagship public university. But the school has long struggled to become a nationally-recognized, influential public school. According to an article by Tracy Jan in the Boston Globe, it’s not going so well.

[For] thousands of… Bay State families choosing colleges each year, UMass Amherst, the academic flagship of the state system, is simply not good enough.

Despite improvement efforts that date back generations, UMass Amherst remains firmly lodged among the nation’s second-tier state schools, depleted by years of budget cuts. The average SAT scores of incoming students, freshman retention rates, and graduation rates lag behind those of its peers. The number of tenured faculty has plummeted. And the school’s endowment is one of the lowest in the country for a public flagship school.

There have been some improvements. As the article points out, the school now admits 67 percent of applicants. In 2005 the school admitted some 80 of all students who applied. But still, only 22 percent of admitted students end up enrolling in the school. At the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, more than 50 percent of admitted students end up attending their flagship universities.

Many Massachusetts high school students see UMass, Amherst as a safety school, the college students apply to only because they can count on being admitted.

The major problem appears to be money. According to the article, “in the past five years, Massachusetts has cut public higher-education appropriations per student by more than 13 percent, while nationally state support per student grew by an average of 4 percent.”

This has caused the university to spend less on research and also raise tuition and fees. This has the effect of reducing both the school’s value and its objective quality.

Not all colleges are supposed to be the most selective in the nation. Flagship public schools all over America enroll very qualified students who might have preferred to go elsewhere but decided on the state school because it’s more affordable.

The trouble with UMass, now one of the most expensive state universities in America, is that it’s trying to be more selective without offering much of a deal to precisely those high-achieving students it wants to attract. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer