Public Flagships and Renowned Private Colleges

In a different thread there were some comments made about a state flagship in comparison with a world-renowned private school that focuses on STEM. In the thread, there were some comments that I would love to hear people’s thoughts about. In this particular instance, people were talking about Louisiana State University (LSU), and I added bolding to the comments as I felt was appropriate.

  • “You are comparing arguably the world’s finest physics school to a mediocre state flagship.”

  • “If you were talking about at full ride at University of Michigan vs. full pay MIT. Or UC Berkeley vs. MIT. I’d say, OK, fine. Save the money. But LSU? No way.”

  • “A mediocre state flagship might be ok if OP knew she wanted med school, or that she was committed to academia and getting a phd.”

Some of my questions are:

  • What qualities would make one describe a school as a mediocre state flagship?

  • Is there anything a college can do to move from being a “mediocre” flagship to the level of a U. of Michigan or UC Berkeley that is within the university’s locus of control? If there are things that can happen outside the university’s locus of control, what would those be?

Comments on this thread can be about flagships generally or LSU, whichever people find easier to discuss in illustrating their points.

Edited to remove a question on other schools that one might consider mediocre.


I don’t like dissing state flagship universities. These are publicly funded and I can’t think of one that doesn’t do the best it can do with the money allocated to it.

Of course, there are folks applying to top 20 colleges and places like Montana or wherever might seem mediocre to them.

But really…all flagships have their strengths.


I removed the last question as that was an invitation to “name names” though from some of my previous threads, I think many regular posters would know I generally have a very favorable outlook toward state flagships, regardless of their renown.

One of my persisting, ongoing questions is about what a quality school and education is, and how we can tell. There are some (as evidenced by the quotes) who have thoughts about a particular flagship (LSU) or types of flagships (mediocre state flagships). Is it just because of their USNWR ranking? The school’s selectivity? Or is there actually a difference in the education that is being provided by the university that some people are aware of that I am not? Or other factors that others are considering? Are these perceptions that people hold accurate, or can others debunk them?

This is not an effort to bash state schools. It’s an attempt to figure out why some people think that there are state flagships that are not up to their preferred standards, and what, if anything, can be done to change that.


My cynicism is that it at least in part just supply and demand…If they get a ton of applications and they have to start rejecting a higher percentage of them, their prestige and desirability will magically rise, leading to more applications, a lower acceptance rate, etc…

But what is wonderful about most most state schools is that they have a clear mandate to serve the students of their state. I would actually hate to see the majority of state schools become highly competitive like UC Berkeley. I would much rather they offer a place for as many state students (and others) as possible. Ah, but then they will never be seen as prestigious…


Probably partly because of rankings. Partly because of location maybe.

There are folks who think schools are mediocre because they don’t have a great football team or marching band. Or they don’t know anyone who has attended.


I admit to never considering our local “mediocre” state schools, for myself or my kids. They are more accessible than our state flagship (UMich), so there are a lot of students there who would not be accepted to the flagship. I didn’t think they were bad, I just “aimed higher.” Turns out S transferred to a local university after freshman year, and it worked out really well for him. He was a biology major, so most of his classes were filled with students who did well in math and science. He was a little frustrated with some of his classmates in non-STEM classes, but he survived (for example, he knew that some of the feedback he got from peer review in English classes just needed to be ignored). Overall, he got a fine education. LinkedIn is a favorite of mine … I like looking up former classmates of mine & of my kids. I’ve noticed lots of folks who have done quite well career wise who attended the “mediocre” schools.


Actually I can see a screenplay already…

A state college struggling to get the respect it knows it deserves embarks on a desperate plan to increase its prestige by developing strategies to maximize their applications so that they can become highly rejective like the big players they’ve envied for years.

They waive application fees so that students apply because why not it’s free. They do outreach to students they know aren’t qualified for admission. In a nod to Gogol’s Dead Souls, they find social security numbers for the recently deceased and fabricate fake applications. They raise their application numbers to record rates. And then they reject 85% of the applicants. With an admit rate of only 15%, and now considered a reach for all, high stats students across the country now consider State U their dream school and apply in record numbers (leading of course to their acceptance rate to fall to 10% with subsequent competition among the best students in the country all vying to get a coveted spot in the next freshman class).

And then a lone professor emeritus makes an impassioned speech about how the university has sold it soul for ratings, and how they’ve lost site of their educational mission in their quest for high rankings.The scene ends with the football team gathering around to sing the college fight song, while admissions officers break their pencils in half in their high rise offices out of frustration.

The audience is invited to reflect upon what it means to be a “mediocre flagship.”


I would say that it is the strength of the grad program. There is always some interplay between undergraduate and graduate. I raised this on the other UGA thread. They will cap out because there isn’t enough headroom.

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I know plenty of people who attended LSU and I am familiar with the football and band program.

I do not dislike LSU at all- to the contrary, I think it fulfills its mission of providing affordable and accessible higher education to its residents. That is a fine purpose and it does that well. That is not the purpose of MIT.

Notwithstanding that, it seems to be appropriately ranked as the 87th best public university in the country, based upon its student profile, retention rates, etc. So I would consider that a bit below average for a flagship, in other words, mediocre in my view. If you prefer “slightly below average” that would work too. Not every public flagship has the credentials of MI, UCs, UNC, UVA, GA, FL, TX.

Absolutely one can succeed from a slightly below average school. But that does not somehow transform the school into something it is not.


What qualities would make one describe a school as a mediocre state flagship?:

A lack of strong faculty members. Can this school attract good teachers and/or researchers, or would strong candidates wish to go elsewhere?

A lack of strong and serious students. How do the state’s top students feel about this school? Do they view it as a top option, a strong even if not glamorous option, or do they generally try to escape?

A lack of resources. A school doesn’t need to be fancy, but labs need appropriate equipment, computers need to be up to date, libraries need to be decent.


Factors outside a school’s control:

State government policy decisions combined with local economy factors will determine funding.

The character of the state will determine the average strength of local students (e.g. although standardized tests are not perfect, it is pretty stark when some states have a NMSF cutoff of 207 while others have 223.)

Good weather and cultural amenities in the surrounding area will greatly affect the ability to attract OOS students and faculty.

Factors within a school’s control:

Showing “love” to attract strong student candidates (especially instate ones.) This love can be in the form of scholarships, but doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as making an accepted students day available to anyone who wants it (my own kid tried to tour to get some questions answered at our flagship, but very little was available other than the most generic tour. This and many other factors gave him the feeling the state didn’t care whether he stayed or left.)

Sadly, sports. Specifically football, men’s basketball, and to a lesser extent men’s hockey. National televised sports success attracts students. I wish that weren’t true.


Regarding the quality of faculty: It’s important to keep in mind that the academic job market has changed. These days, there are so few jobs in any given year, in any given discipline, that a job at a school that undergrads and their parents consider a “mediocre state flagship” might be the most prestigious job available. So universities like LSU (or any flagship that might not be considered prestigious for undergraduate applicants) are likely to have superstar faculty who get big research grants and bring a lot of scholarly recognition to the school. Strong applicants for academic jobs would absolutely climb over each other for a job at a school like LSU. And successful applicants would stay there, because once you have a tenure-track (or tenured) job, it’s almost impossible to move. There are exceptions, but almost all lateral job moves happen before receiving tenure.

The good news for students is that they’re likely to get a much higher caliber faculty at any institution – universities or LACs, high- or low-ranking, national or local reputation, regardless of location – than they would have a generation ago, when jobs were more plentiful. The bad news is that there are a lot of unemployed (or underemployed) but phenomenally qualified Ph.D.s who will never get to share their talents with students.


Absolutely. The difference in student ability between LSU and MIT is much greater than the difference in faculty standing.


I’ll compare my daughter’s first year experience at UCLA vs my own at SDSU in the 90s (which I think was a solid school then but not the place it is today).

My first year daughter has been fortunate to learn from some of the top minds in their fields. A science cluster course with the person who discovered the Kuiper Belt, a world-renowned history professor awarded for his teaching by President Obama, etc.

I had some great professors, but that happened more often and more memorably once I got into my major.

The students at ucla seem to be work hard, play hard—in that order. My friends in school were often more focused on playing, with academics an afterthought. I knew many who dropped out freshman year because they partied too hard and flunked out.

Some things are the same. Big classes, TAs, lots of school spirit, beautiful campuses, etc. registration was challenging at both.

That said, from an outcome perspective, I can’t complain at all. I learned how to hustle at SDSU, advocate for myself, and compete for opportunities. All of that has served me well in my career. The core skills I gained were also useful, but learning to be scrappy and make stuff happen is a life lesson a big state school offers all of its students—no matter what its ranking.


Many state flagships that are less highly rated are found in states where public K-12 education is weak. As you brought up LSU, I’ll point out that Louisiana has one of the worst public education systems in the country. As most students at LSU come from Louisiana, of course the overall caliber of student will be lower. That doesn’t mean there aren’t many great students at LSU or that the faculty isn’t impressive because I’m sure both are true.


One way small states with small college-atttending populations try to counteract that is with massive scholarships like at U Alabama, which is mostly OOS now.

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Student quality is far apart between the top schools and not top schools.
Good schools are better resourced.
Often have higher rigor.
Offer better networks.
Good schools will have better exit options.


Whatever words one wants to use, College A is not necessarily equal to College B.

Even within A and B, which major is stronger can differ.

The difference comes from the Professors - they may all be “good,” but who has “great?” And can “good” or “great” teach or research well without good funding and equipment? Teach, perhaps, but research? That’s iffier.

Then the difference comes from the students. A school full of high academic kids is going to have stronger entry level classes than a school of not-so high academic kids. Even “great” professors can only teach beginning at the level of students that they have - plus, students themselves are not equal. Some literally have more academic talent than others in the same way not all football players are NFL bound.

Students also often prefer being at their own level academically. Those who are quite talented love to have others at their level to converse with. They are less enthused when they have to slow down, esp if it’s due to lack of preparation from their classmates (that doesn’t end at high school - not everyone does the reading, or homework). Those who aren’t top of their class can get intimidated by those who are, causing them to feel less worthy. They don’t even have to actually be less talented - it could be a poorer foundation from high school - but if they think they’re “lesser,” it can easily be self-fulfilling.

Do we assume all sports teams are equal? Many are competitive with each other and could win/lose on any given day, but some are actually superior to others due to who’s on the team. Same goes for colleges. Will someone want to go to the superior school to sit on the bench and never play? Not likely.

Pick the school for the student based upon the student and college.

To find good fits, look and see what the profs are researching (if research is important) or where recent grads have gone. If you’re happy with what you see, then it’s likely a good fit. If not, look at other options.

No single school is always at the top. Pending major, what school is at the top could be a relatively unknown school. Pending student and their goals, there could be many “teams” to choose from all essentially good, or a few. Then add money into it all.

ETA: I had three boys, all great kids. One was far more into academics than the other two. That one could have gone anywhere and done well, but he was able to pick a school that truly fit him. The other two would have been miserable at his school so are glad they went where they chose. All three are successful, self-sustaining adults.

My top kid’s peer went to one of those “lesser” schools because it was free for him. He later wished he hadn’t after comparing notes. There were fewer opportunities for him and the academic socializing wasn’t as good. That said, both kids are doctors now quite happily living their lives. Success can come from anywhere, but the journey to get there is not the same.


Each of the 9 UC campuses is relatively small compared to the California population, so the admission competitiveness of the most desired UC campuses is high. Meanwhile, the 23 CSU campuses function as the broad-access and local-access universities around the state. In contrast, Arizona State University and University of Hawaii are relatively large compared to the Arizona and Hawaii populations respectively, so they can also function as the broad-access universities of their metro areas (and those universities are also located in the metro areas that have most of their states’ populations).

A counterfactual of California being like Arizona and Hawaii in this respect would be having perhaps three or four mega-universities of 150,000 to 200,000 students each located in the three or four largest metro areas of the state, instead of 9 UCs and 23 CSUs that it has currently. However, the California population is not as concentrated as the Arizona and Hawaii populations, so a greater percentage of students in this counterfactual would have to attend residentially instead of being able to commute at lower cost.


But has it increased the school’s reputation other than being a place to get scholarship money?