- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

There’s Stanford, Yale, Princeton and - in the same breath - University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Yes, indeed, this public university - where students can get an education for a fraction of the price of its private counterparts - recently has soared in national rankings. In the 2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings, the school was named number-one up-and-coming national university and the number four national university (behind Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale and Stanford University in undergraduate teaching for the same year.

But UMBC is not alone among local universities to earn national recognition. George Mason University snapped up the number-two up-and-coming distinction; and six among the 100 top national universities are in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.

Such as in the, which named “They’ve been very successful in establishing a technology niche, which is a major attraction,” says Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News. “Another attraction is the Washington area. Recent surveys show it’s a place where more and more young people want to start out.”

And, in the case of UMBC, another draw is the school’s dynamic president - Freeman Hrabowski - who has promoted diversity on campus and attracted quality faculty, Mr. Morse adds.

For example, one of the school’s economic’s professors, Scott Farrow, used to be the chief economist at the US Governement Accountibility Office (GAO).

(Campus diversity is considered a plus by many as it provides what’s referred to as “out-of-classroom education,” meaning students learn about other cultures and customs from classmates.)

“It has to do with both the strength of the school and the economic vitality of the region,” says Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason University, which also excels in technology.

In fact, the top undergraduate majors at George Mason are biology, information technology and political science - all three are perfect matches for the needs of regional biotech, defense and government employers, Mr. Stearns says.

This means many of the graduates can stay in the area, whose job market has a definite edge over the national average, he says.

“The region is a major attraction,” Mr. Stearns says.

As a consequence, both University of Maryland, Baltimore County and George Mason University have seen applications skyrocket.

“Our applications are up about 60 percent from last year,” says Mr. Hrabowski, who agrees that the school’s success has to do both with quality education and location.

Mr. Stearns says he anticipates at least a 10-percent application increase compared to last year.

These numbers jibe with national trend figures from the Pew Research Center showing that the share of 18- to 24-year olds attending college reached an all-time high last year.

According to Pew, 11.5 million students, or 39.5 percent of all young adults ages 18-24, were enrolled in either a two or four-year college.

Aside from hiring quality faculty, Mr. Hrabowski points to a couple of other UMBC draws: The Research Park and Technology Center (a campus research park that features 50 private companies) and the fact that undergraduates are treated with respect and encouraged to publish research papers along with their professors.

“This is an inclusive environment, a culture of learning and experimentation where we encourage collaboration across disciplines and titles,” Mr. Hrabowski says.

So, it seems his vision and push for academic excellence is paying off?

“Many of our students already know where they will be working next year,” he says.

Says a lot in this economy.

And, not only that, but half a dozen graduate students have been invited to England’s Cambridge University on full-ride scholarships to study subjects as diverse as Medieval literature and physics, he says.

So, while UMBC and George Mason may not be in the same league as Stanford and Yale - at least not in overall national university rankings - it seems they are making inroads among students and faculties.

“We’re the new America - where people want to be smart,” Mr. Hrabowski says of UMBC. “The feeling is you can help make this place.”

NOTE: In the 2010 rankings another two Maryland universities - Loyola University Maryland and Stevenson University - got nods in the US News and World Report up-and-coming category.

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