Last pre-decision visit today, good 'ole College Park, where my son was awarded a full ride plus book money, making the cost about $50K less than the nearest (financial) competitor on the decision list - worth a visit. Coupled with the Maryland Distinguished Scholars award, every school-related incidental would be paid for as well - my contribution for four years would consist of spending money and paying car insurance, springing for voice and organ lessons, and the other "nice-to-haves." Maryland fits the bill for the "comfortable old-shoe" option, since about 1/4rd of his HS graduating class attends.
I used to hang out at CP occasionally as a high school student. We'd drive to the campus to party with our slightly older friends, catch a concert, go to a protest, and help take over buildings (ah, the good old days). Although I have been there once or twice since then, I had no expectations this morning. Hadn't realized how much Maryland facilities have been upgraded in the past number of years. Student union - complete makeover, Clarice Performing Arts Center - wonderful facility with 7 theatres, new dorms, huge brand new recreation center with several indoor pools - one with underwater speakers (who picks the tunes, I wonder?).
S had heard the basic Honors Program presentation when he went for the scholarship interview - today they addressed the two special programs within Honors, Gemstone and Honors Humanities.
The students who spoke were down-to-earth, confident, and had very interesting tales to tell about their research teams, humanities projects, internships and career planning, and Honors seminars. The Honors seminars (limited to 20 people with senior faculty as instructors) have been increased - - more of them, encapsulated thematic studies in all of the fields offered, approx. 70 per semester, some that everyone would want to take, such as "Tolkein - Author of the Century." The seminars can be used to fulfill core requirements. Many Honors students double major and study abroad if they come in with advanced standing lots of IB or AP credits - my son would be practically a junior so would have lots of flexibility and options during the four years. Important nice-to-have - the Director said that graduate schools are happy to have motivated undergrads in their seminars - the student just needs the permission of the instructor, and many students start taking graduate courses as juniors.
Gemstone is a cool team research concept focused on technology and society - develops teamwork skills and allows students to get the experience of designing, executing, and presenting a meaningful study - such as improving the accuracy of the ballistic print of a a gun barrel to comply with Maryland requirements, studying the interactions between herbal medicine and prescription drugs, and providing a fact-based education about marijuana's effects to middle school students. It is 21 credits over 4 years, a living/learning experience, complete with social events. Some student teams have formed corporations and taken out patents as a result of these projects.
The Honors Humanities program is 16 credits over 2 years, also living/learning - it is aimed at students interested in the fine and performing arts, writing, literature, philosophy, languages, etc. My son was told that dorm life is filled with music and singing from sunup to sundown - everyone seems to sing or play an instrument. The projects are individual - one girl was doing landscape plans for mini-ecological environments to be planted on the flat-roofed campus buildings (she's obviously a botany/art double major). Most of the students double major with one of the majors in the fine arts.
We know many kids who attend Maryland, and according to feedback from many, it seems that they are quite happy there and pleased with their educational experience, especially the Honors Program participants (probably, among other reasons, because they have a home base, therefore don't have such a difficult adjustment based on the sheer size of the campus). Intro courses are the typical large lectures (in Honors, you can eliminate most of them, perhaps even all of them if you come in with AP/IB credits) for the first two years, and after that most advanced classes are pretty small.
So there's sense in which attending UMD would be like a continuation of high school (almost everyone you knew in HS is there), but on the other hand, it definitely has that solid, practical, savvy, professional, DC-area 'results oriented' quality and has benefited from a few decades of state $ ramping up (not in the past two years though - we've got to Defeat Ehrlich in 2006! Boo Hiss). As a parent, I feel that I could send my son there and know that, with just a bit of initiative, he would get a fine education and have an enjoyable experience.
The career planning is very good, and most students do at least three internships during their time at MD, often leading to job offers before graduating. There's an online database for that, which matches students background and preferences with requests from Federal government, associations, and corporations around DC (lots of those!). Several of the students who spoke today were from other Mid-Atlantic states - they had come specifically for strong MD programs, such as the 'gilt-edged job offer' CS department, the highly ranked engineering department, and one astronomy/physics major had been attracted by the physics department (ignorant here, folks, I haven't a clue what it's known for).
As a local who attended two very large universities for grad school, I wasn't too keen on the idea of MD (too big), but the lure of the Honors programs are that they make it much 'smaller,' and based on the student reports today, that seems to be the case, not merely a cliched marketing ploy. I would say that the convential wisdom, that UMD is coming up in the world, is quite true.