College should be more than taking classes and receiving a diploma. It’s experiences like research, internships, and networking that allow students to fully explore their interests — and that improves their chances of post-college employment. At the same time, college should be affordable and accessible.
My family was very lucky. As an undergraduate, my sister worked in a forensic osteology lab. At the age of 20 she was analyzing bones, attempting to understand how individuals died, and trying to make sense of crimes. She worked in a state laboratory to help identify decedents and determine if a crime had taken place. I attended the same university. More interested in the living, one of my internships was with adult protective services; I spent two days a week investigating claims of elder abuse and neglect. I traveled into houses and nursing homes, worked with the police, and, as I progressed, handled the citywide emergency phone line. My experience led directly to my first job. My sister’s experience led her away from forensics, after she worked on a particularly disturbing crime and realized the job wasn’t right for her. Luckily, she had time left in college to explore her other interests. She took a grant writing class, which led her to her first post-college job: a development officer at a non-profit.
These are the experiences that students hope to gain as they head to college — opportunities working alongside current professionals in their field, using modern equipment and gaining real life experience. However, many believe these opportunities only exist at the most elite and expensive colleges and universities.
My sister and I, however, attended the University of New Mexico.
Our opportunities existed because our college was our state’s flagship, a comprehensive university where state research and government funding is directed. We were surrounded by national laboratories, public service headquarters, and corporations, places that offered students internships and jobs. Our campus had a medical school and a law school. There were never-ending opportunities because the only other university was hours away on the other side of the state.
Now I live in Long Beach, California and I am surrounded by universities and colleges. From my house I can easily drive to California State Universities in Long Beach, Dominguez Hills, Los Angeles, Fullerton, and Pomona. I can also easily reach the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), UC Riverside, and UC Irvine. I am surrounded by top private universities as well: Caltech, Pomona College, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, USC, Chapman, and Occidental. In addition, there’s a nearly unlimited supply of community colleges near me. Southern California is a large place, but with all these students, opportunities are limited, and students at community colleges and in the CSU system may lose out on research and internship opportunities, as they are more likely to be awarded to those from more prestigious institutions. In addition, a student who decides to switch fields, as my sister did, may find that they are at the wrong school to gain internships and experience in their new field.
A lone state flagship university connects a student to a wide array of opportunities with no competition from students at other institutions. The city’s hospitals, museums, schools, businesses, community based organizations, social services, theaters, television stations, radio stations, and more are available for internships and jobs. One of my closest college friends, a journalism student, had a paid job while at UNM driving and reporting from the traffic van of the local radio station. (She also drove that van into a parking garage and got it stuck because of all the radio equipment on top, but that, too, is a learning experience.)
Most flagships will have additional opportunities for high achieving students. For example, UNM has the honors college, which ”welcomes applications from motivated students seeking a rigorous liberal arts experience.” For students who cannot afford a small liberal arts school, the honors college provides an opportunity for high achieving students to take seminar style classes with other motivated students. In fact, the application to the UNM honors college is very similar to that of a selective liberal arts college.
“The Honors College admission process is a holistic decision made after review of the applicant’s high school curriculum and GPA, standardized test scores, and evidence of leadership and community involvement.” The honors college also has a designated residence hall. It is, essentially, a college within the University.
So what does all this cost? The University of New Mexico is one of the least expensive universities in the nation due to its generous merit aid. Qualifying students in the western part of the country are eligible for a significant reduction in out of state tuition. However, the out of state tuition differential is completely waived for all students, regardless of their state of residence, if they have a slightly higher GPA and test scores. And while this article focuses on UNM, a close look at the flagship universities in many other states will show similar options, both financially and academically.
For more opportunities both for California residents and non residents, also look at the University of Montana, the University of Nevada, the University of Wyoming, and other flagship universities in lower population states.
The charts below indicate the costs for full paying students at California institutions and the University of New Mexico. However, the cost for all institutions will be reduced for students who qualify for need-based aid, such as Pell grants, work study, and subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
California Public Universities
Compare those costs to the ones for the University of New Mexico, listed below. Keep in mind that the scholarships listed here are automatically awarded to students with the specified GPA and test scores. If a student also qualifies for need-based aid, that will “stack” on these awards and further reduce tuition.
University of New Mexico Automatic Scholarships
|Tuition and fees||Room and Board||Total|
|Western Undergraduate Exchange 19 ACT/ 980 SAT & 3.0 GPA||$7,929||$9190||$17,119|
|Western Undergraduate Exchange Plus 22 ACT/1100 SAT & 3.0 GPA||$6,950||$9190||$16,140|
|Amigo Scholarship 23 ACT/1130 SAT & 3.5 GPA||$6,950||$9190||$16,140|
|Amigo Scholarship 26 ACT/1240 SAT & 3.0 GPA||$6,950||$9190||$16,140|
University of New Mexico Competitive Scholarships – Freshman Only
|Regent Scholarship - Complete Admissions Application and Scholarship Application||Full tuition, room & board|
|National Scholarship - National Merit||Full tuition, room & board|
As you can see, the cost of attending New Mexico’s flagship is significantly less than CSULB. And yet at UNM you have access to more opportunities in more areas.
There are numerous opportunities across the country for students to attend low cost institutions that offer high quality education and significant opportunities. Sometimes it takes looking beyond your own backyard and considering someplace different and unknown. While California has several very good systems, don’t overlook less expensive, high quality options simply because you know less about those places, or because you can’t imagine living there. Reaching beyond the obvious, the local, and the prestigious allows options for rich experiences and improves your chances for future employment.