College/University Diamonds In the Rough

Colleges and universities are my hobby, and I occasionally give seminars to prospective college students and their parents. Periodically, a “diamond in the rough” gets onto my radar, and I recently found one that I thought would be of interest to prospective engineers (like many followers of this forum). Rather than simply sharing my most recent “treasure”, I thought it might be helpful for prospective college students to also know something about the processes (aka treasure maps) that have led me to various destinations. I consider a “diamond in the rough” to be something valuable that not many others have discovered. Some qualities I consider valuable include research and work opportunities for undergrads (e.g. internships, co-ops), graduation rates, and employment rates of graduates after graduation. Harvard and MIT are diamonds, but many people attribute high value to them, which makes them highly competitive and out of reach of even outstanding students. A community college education can also be a good value for very little money, but has certain limits – you can’t get a BA/BS degree, and sometimes long wait lists prevent you from getting the classes you want/need in a timely way. Being overcrowded, I don’t consider them “undiscovered.”

More than a decade ago, Rice University and Grove City College got onto my radar as potential schools for my kids, who were in elementary school at the time. Along with “valuable qualities” listed above were the financial aid opportunities available, and I was ecstatic to find good schools that our family could potentially afford. As I investigated the programs of these schools more deeply, I thought, “These are incredible schools for the price, and their acceptance rates are pretty high, so they’re not outrageously competitive”. At the time, neither of these schools was rated in the top 30. However, a couple years later, U.S. News & World Report published a report on “The ‘New’ Ivy Leagues” – up and coming schools to watch, and Rice and Grove City were listed among them. Over the next few years, I watched Rice’s acceptance rate drop from 40% to 16% (it’s now ranked 13th among National Universities) and Grove City’s median SAT score climb from 1100 (for 2 parts) to 1300+. I thought to myself, “Shoot, these schools are still diamonds but no longer undiscovered.”

As my “kids” transitioned to high school, they started receiving emails/mailings from various universities, based on their interests and SAT scores. Many students and parents ignore/discard these notices, but I gave each one at least a quick look-over. One of the notices that caught my eye was Case Western Reserve University, a school with a strong engineering program, whose acceptance rate was 75%. With some digging/research, I determined that this was a quality school without much press. Over the past 2-3 years, the acceptance rate has dropped to 50% – still not outrageously competitive, but less “undiscovered” than before. Less competitive “diamonds” discovered include Utah State, Cedarville U. and Spring Arbor U. (a liberal arts school – it has limited programs but is good at what it does). These schools also have the advantage of lower cost and two have merit-based scholarships for “solid” (not necessarily stellar) students.

The latest school to catch my attention is Clarkson University. I discovered it while attempting to answer the question, “Are there any schools with good engineering programs similar to University of the Pacific (the most well-known private college within commuting distance of my audience) that are easier to get into?” UOP has a 24% acceptance rate, and many students with very good scores and grades are turned away, simply because there are so many students and so few private colleges in our area. As I looked at the National Rankings, UOP came up at 113, and Clarkson at 115. Similar size, similar costs, and as I looked at the programs, Clarkson’s engineering program really impressed me. Students attending there have strong scores and grades, but the acceptance rate is 77%. I suspect that Clarkson suffers from the reverse geography problem of UOP – too many well-known schools nearby, not enough population. It’ll be interesting to see whether over the coming years, Clarkson makes it onto the radar, moving from a “diamond in the rough” to a “discovered diamond.”

The point of this analysis is not to tell you, “You should go to this college,” but simply to increase awareness that many outstanding opportunities “fly below the radar”. Most forum folks have high regard for well-known engineering colleges like MIT, CMU, and CalTech, and probably now, Rice, but are not aware that digging below the surface can turn up some undiscovered treasures. CMU was a “diamond in the rough” 20 – 30 years ago – even though Red Whittaker and the Robotics Institute had been around since 1979, it wasn’t until the ‘90s that better press moved this diamond in the rough out into the light.

My son has Rice Alumni pulling for him, but I hardly consider $50,200.00 a year a bargain!

Didn’t JVN go there ?

You have to look beyond the sticker price. The median final cost to students (payments and loans) was $18,000 at Rice when I last checked (3-4 years ago) because of financial aid. For a family with below-median income (below Rice families’ median, not the national median), the cost would be even less.

Many high-priced schools (including Ivy Leagues) are listed by US News and World Report as “best value colleges” because they give generous aid to students, which can bring the final price into the same price range as attending a state school and living on campus. In my area, some students pay more annually to keep their car in service than the cost of dorm living out of state for a year. “Best value” takes on a number of forms:

  1. Very generous need-based aid. Some expensive schools give need-based aid to students with family incomes up to $180,000, because even a family whose income is $150,000+ would be hard-pressed to pay the full $50,000, especially if they have more than 1 student in college. Ivy league schools are famous for this.

  2. Substantial merit-based aid to large numbers of students. For example, 3 years ago, Case offered scholarships of $28K to ~150 freshmen, $22.5K to ~150 freshmen, and ~$17K to 200 freshmen. With only 1000 students in the freshman class, that’s half the incoming class receiving grants of 1/3 to 2/3 of the total bill (not just tuition). These scholarships are completely independent of income (children of millionaires can receive them). Caution: merit-based aid is usually dependent on keeping a certain GPA, which may be difficult for an engineering major. It’s important to know the “what if” scenario if GPA drops below the threshold.

  3. Lower sticker price. Schools like Grove City and Cedarville take this approach. There are also a few state schools that charge relatively low tuition to even out-of-state students (see this post). In addition, Utah State offers merit-based awards to both in and out-of-state students.

Ever since 2011, colleges have been required to put a net price calculator (of total costs) on their websites, making cost analysis a bit more transparent. For both my children (an engineering major and a liberal arts major), we were able to find placement at private colleges that cost less annually than attending the local state school as an in-state, on-campus resident, because room and board in CA is so expensive. In addition, the 4-year graduation rate at our local state school is 19.4% (while the 4-year graduation rates at their chosen schools are 2-3 times higher). Taking an extra 1-2 years to graduate adds even more cost to the degree.

JVN, can you confirm? If so, this fact alone could catapult Clarkson from unknown treasure to “cool school”! Also, do you care to comment on your experience there?

Great post ! It would be nice to see a list of hidden gem universities.

From your post it looks like,
Rice , Clarkson, Grove City College, Case Western Reserve, Utah State, Cedarville, and Spring Arbor

Here is my addition to the list,
Harvey Mudd College & Olin College

The estimable Mr. V-Neun did earn his engineering degree at Clarkson.

Thanks for mentioning these. One thing I forgot to mention is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and what serves my family’s purpose may not be relevant to someone else. There were many schools that have great programs but were filtered out because of the following “search criteria”.

  • Final out-of-pocket costs in our family’s price range
  • Median scores and grades that were within “reasonable striking range” of the intended student.
  • Suitable programs (most important feature)
    — For student 1, a strong engineering program with hands-on opportunities (for a student who likes working more than studying)
    — For student 2, a special education program and Mandarin. Desirable (but not essential): TESL/TEFL courses available, and smaller school preferred.

Having different search criteria would turn up different gems.

Finding Clarkson involved slightly different criteria (strong engineering program, similar to UOP’s standards, but greater likelihood of acceptance). One thing I didn’t screen was the financial aid situation, as this wasn’t given as a constraint.

Hi Yolande,
Yes – I did graduate from Clarkson (BSME - Class of 2005). I really enjoyed my 4-years there, and it was a great school for me.

It is small with a focus on community, collaborative, and group project based learning. The atmosphere is very friendly – almost all my professors had open door policies, and I was always able to approach them for help and 1:1 instruction. There has been a lot of growth / expansion up there, including some major projects in the year since I’ve graduated.

There is a strong program (SPEED) focused on extracurricular projects such as FIRST Robotics, Mini Baja, Formula SAE, Steel Bridge, Concrete Canoe, etc.

Do you like Hockey? :slight_smile:

It is in the middle of nowhere, but I never struggled to find things to do. It is cold in the winter. Very cold. No, really… it’s cold.

I’d be happy to answer questions about my experiences at Clarkson with anyone interested.
jvn@vexrobotics.com

Cold by Texas standards, or Michigan standards?

45 or 50 degrees below zero, before windchill. Regularly.

Recently, I heard from a former student, now in a small, lesser-known Aerospace Engineering program, which he loves. He’s at a university that neither of us knew was “strong in engineering” when he first began his college-search journey, and I was pleased to see that he’d found a “diamond in the rough” that was well-suited to his interests and temperament. Gleaning from his experience and mine, we pieced together some advice on “How to Find a Diamond.”

  • Target your area of specialty. In this student’s case, searching for “aerospace engineering” narrowed the field considerably. This works well for specialized fields like forensic biotech or nuclear engineering, but not so well for broader fields like mechanical engineering.

  • When you see lists of colleges that target your area of interest (I’m assuming engineering or robotics for this forum), scour the lists for names you’ve never seen and do a quick search to see if they appeal to you. For example, on the VEXU team list, I see a few familiar names like Purdue and Michigan State, but some like Old Dominion and Vaughn that are new to me.

  • Don’t discount the community colleges. The VEXU list includes Quinsig and Northland, and your local community college may have technical programs that are worth checking out, especially if you like to work with your hands, but are less interested in being a long-term student. For example, at the community college where I teach, there are programs that prepare students for jobs in Electromechanics and Industrial Technology that require a 1-year certificate but pay in the $50-$100K range, and local employers can’t find enough of these 1-year graduates to fill their positions. Realize the cost of earning a 1-year certificate at a community college is significantly less than a 4-year degree.

  • Use your own circle of contacts to get schools on the radar. Did your Uncle Herman & Aunt Edith mention a college near their home in Iowa? If it’s a good fit, you may have a place to visit over Thanksgiving and store your stuff over the summer!

Some students prefer a well-known school in the “mainstream”, but many of the best-known schools are out of reach financially or competitively. Being open to other options off the beaten track can open up possibilities that are not only within reach, but also could be a “best fit” for your unique situation.

Please check dates of threads. This thread died 3 years ago.

It is his thread.

It still isn’t helpful. No one was asking any questions regarding it.

Edit: After reading my sentence it sounds rude, I don’t mean that in a rude way. It is just confusing when several year old threads get revived.

Well… It was more of an update than an answer

Sorry for any confusion. I had thought of starting a new thread and linking back as a reference, and that would probably have been the best way to do it. The “new” forum’s “Chit Chat” area is less sequestered than it used to be, so tangential topics like college are harder to keep out of view for those less interested.

The reason I revived this old thread was hearing from the aerospace student. He began his search for a “good fit” college 3 years ago (at the time of the OP) and has just happily completed his freshman year. Also, a surprise visit this week from an engineering grad (from a lesser-known diamond) I coached over 10 years ago was another reminder that good choices made today can have positive effects a decade later. Finally, I thought some of the information might be relevant to current prospective college students who weren’t on the forum 3 years ago.

It’s actually “hers.” :slight_smile:

Touche. I just assumed and I shouldn’t have.

I was on the forum 3 years ago when this thread happened but must have missed it. I found it quite interesting now.