Why Your College List Should Start with Your Flagship University

Student standing at state flagship universityLong time readers of my blog know that I think that the start of any college search should begin with estimating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This simply sets the baseline for how much you should expect to pay. The next step should be looking up your state flagship university. Why? Because while your EFC sets your financial expectations, your state flagship serves as the ideal reference point for adding and comparing the schools you add to your final college list.

Defining State Flagship University

So what is your state flagship? Without going into details, there really isn’t just one definition of a flagship university. For our purposes, the flagship is the state-supported university or universities that meet the following criteria:

Carnegie Classification of Doctoral University: Higher or Highest Research Activity
Have among the highest graduation rates for public universities in the state
Know that if I don’t include it, people will complain

Yeah, I know the last one is kind of iffy. But I’m from Texas and I know better. The Doctoral University qualification keeps some quality schools such as Truman State University that don’t fit the image of “state flagship” from showing up. And the graduation rate actually closely correlates to the listing of state Flagship Universities defined by the College Board. The colleges with an asterisk are recognized as state flagships by the College Board.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will think I should have two schools listed for some of the 33 states where I only list one. And for those where I listed more one, there will be those who will wonder how I could have possibly considered the two schools academic peers. Sorry, I made the best choice with the data I had available.

Furthermore, if you really think school X should be included because that’s the school you would choose over the listed flagship, great! The point of this is to set a benchmark public institution and if you already have one that you know you prefer, by all means, use it.

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Why Use Your Flagship University as a Base

I tell people to start with their flagship because even if they haven’t saved a penny for college, as a state resident, you have been paying to support your public universities through taxes.

For those with a high EFC, your state flagship is likely to still cost less than any private option even with merit aid. If you know the profile of your state flagship, you can decide if the advantages of a private college are worth the cost.

If you’re looking for need-based aid, you also need to know how much your public options cost. If your financial aid award from a private school can’t come in below the cost of attending your public universities without student loans, it just makes financial sense to attend your state school.

I’ve created a list of 68 public universities that I think people can use as their base flagship university. As with most Doctoral Institution, they tend to be large. Only nine had fewer than 10,000 full-timer undergraduates while 29 have 20,000 or more.

Beware of Out-of-State Tuition

One of the first things you should look at is how much these schools charge for out-of-state tuition. A total of 46 charge non-residents more than $40,000. The eleven schools below, charge more than $50,000.

  • University of California-Berkeley
  • University of California-Los Angeles
  • University of Virginia-Main Campus
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Connecticut
  • The University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Arizona
  • Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Unless you’re applying to a university that explicitly offers out-of-state students ways to pay the in-state rate or substantial tuition discounts, it doesn’t make sense financially to attend an out-of-state public university.

In-State Tuition May Not Be Such a Great Deal Either

Of course, for some of the universities, the in-state price isn’t anything to brag about. Some public flagship universities charge twice as much as others. In 2016-17, the total cost of attendance ranged from a low of $18,556 to a high of $36,369. Among the 68 schools on the list, 40 charged $25,000 or more. It cost over $30,000 at the following eleven:

  • University of California-Berkeley
  • Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
  • University of California-Los Angeles
  • University of New Hampshire-Main Campus
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Virginia-Main Campus
  • Rutgers University-New Brunswick
  • Auburn University
  • The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Connecticut

Students without need shouldn’t be counting on merit money to offset the costs of attending these schools. According to publicly available Common Data Sets, at six of the universities less than 10% of students without need received merit aid. There’s actually quite a bit of variation in the percentage of students receiving merit aid without demonstrated need. The percentage ranges from less than one percent (University of Texas at Austin and Montana State University) to 97% at the University of Utah. You need to check the percentages for the schools in your state.

Graduation Rates are Important

Cost isn’t the only factor to consider when using your state flagship as a baseline for your search. You should also consider graduation rates. Do you really want to pay more to attend a private college that has a lower graduation rate than your state flagship?

Given that the flagship universities on the list have four-year graduation rates from 15% to 88%, this is something you really want to pay attention to. A more expensive private college may be worth the price if you can graduate in four years rather than five or six.

However, you need to keep in mind that graduation rates have a lot to do with the academic credentials of the students admitted. Basically, the lower the acceptance rate, the higher you would expect the graduation rate. Therefore, you need to make sure you take into consideration student characteristics such as test scores, GPA, and percentage receiving Pell Grants when you start comparing graduation and acceptance rates.

Is Your Flagship a Realistic Option?

Among the listed schools, 54 admitted 50% or more of students while five accepted less than 30%. This means that in some states, you shouldn’t use your state flagship as a baseline because you aren’t likely to be admitted. If this is the case, the smart thing to do is find the public university in your state that would be at least a match for you in terms of academic qualifications. Use this institution as your baseline to compare other schools.

Ultimately, using your state flagship university as a benchmark to compare other school is the smart approach to creating a list of quality, affordable colleges. Reviewing how it ranks in different categories can help you to decide which factors are important to your family in picking a college. And the sooner you start the process, the sooner you can find the colleges that will best meet your needs.

If you think this sounds like a reasonable approach to making a college list, you’ll want to download the 7 Days to a Smarter List guide for FREE.

Flagship Universities

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Listing of flagship universities that can be used as a basis to create you college list.

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