30

I'm at the tail end of my Ph.D. at an R2 institution that's considered a regional institution in the United States. I attended a regional university for my undergrad at an R2. I did my Master's at a well-known regional college. I really wanted to do a Ph.D. At the time, I didn't know about the stigma regional institutions carry in the United States.

Why is this the case? Why is it that regional institutions are frowned upon in academic circles? I also find it confusing since many of those regional institutions have professors who graduated from big R1s themselves for their Ph.D. or even post-doc. If they're the ones training regional college students, why are the expected outcomes different compared to the bigger institutions?

To me, a key benefit of regional institutions is more individualized attention due to smaller class sizes. This was the major reason I attended my regional college since I graduated from high school with a class of 8 people and it would've been too much of a culture shock to go to a school with 50k undergrad. Small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) were out of the question since they were unaffordable even with scholarships.

I've heard reasons for regional colleges' bad reputation all across the board from high acceptance rates to suboptimal graduation rates, or to not being known to most graduate schools in the United States. Are all of those reasons true? Or, is there more to the story?

7
  • 24
    What do you mean by a "regional college"?
    – Buffy
    Mar 1 at 21:47
  • 3
    @Buffy I'm not sure if this link will show up but regional colleges are defined by this website: regionalcolleges.org ETA: I've also heard the nickname "no name state colleges" for those institutions as well. Adds to the stigma pretty much.
    – zzmondo1
    Mar 1 at 21:52
  • 2
    The link works, but, oddly, they didn't give a membership list. Can you give some examples?
    – Buffy
    Mar 1 at 22:00
  • 9
    @Buffy Appalachian State University (they're the quintessential regional university for better or worse), Central Michigan University, Northern Michigan University. Another factor they almost all have in common is that they were almost all of them were teacher's colleges at one point before turning into research universities.
    – zzmondo1
    Mar 1 at 22:08
  • 4
    I have submitted edits to your question to make clear you are talking about the US context. Much of what you have written does not apply to the rest of the world AFAIK. Mar 2 at 9:16

6 Answers 6

60

My perspective is that of a mathematician who went to an elite small liberal arts college (SLAC) as an undergraduate and taught as a graduate student and in temporary positions at an R1 and an elite SLAC before my current tenure track and then tenured position at an R2. I was a top 10% but not top 2% student in mathematics as an undergraduate at my college.

Regional universities have poor reputations because they have lower standards for passing classes and graduating, particularly on expectations for creativity and originality (as opposed to memorization of facts and procedures).

As a poor attempt at wit, I sometimes say that regional universities end up providing their students with their third middle school education, not a university education (because that's what their students expect and are capable of).

I sometimes teach a course on Abstract Algebra - a required course for the theoretical mathematics track of our mathematics major as well as for our mathematics education majors. Here it is mostly taken by seniors. I took it as a junior with classmates who were mostly sophomores and juniors. The material we covered in one semester here was covered in half a semester where I was an undergraduate so we ended up covering the second half of the course I took as an undergraduate as an additional elective here.

While the passing students here have learned the same facts and procedures as the students in the course I took, I was expected as an undergraduate to be able to use these facts to answer questions different from questions I had been explicitly taught to answer. Here that is expected of the best students but not all students, and at many regional universities (for which I only have indirect experience as someone who occasionally teaches and advises graduate students coming from such universities) that seems to be not expected of students at all.

While they have memorized more facts, the average graduating math major here is about as capable of solving a problem they were not explicitly taught to as I was at age 14 (and nowadays 14-year-old me could look up those facts on Wikipedia as necessary). The average graduating Ph.D. here is about as capable as I was in my junior year of college (and my senior thesis was more original, though a smaller body of work, than their Ph.D. dissertations).

It is definitely true that the professors at a regional university are capable of teaching classes at the same pace and expectations as classes at top universities. However, they don't. If I taught at the same pace at which I was taught as an undergraduate, almost none of my students would learn anything - it would just be too much material too fast for them. If I had the same expectations as I was held to as an undergraduate (and I did not think those expectations were particularly high at the time - after all over 90% of my classmates graduated!), only about half my seniors would pass - and keep in mind these are students who have passed several years of classes and chosen a comparatively difficult major. Given the selection effect, probably only 15-20% of the entering undergraduate students would have been able to graduate given the standards expected of me as an undergraduate. In the US system, no university with a 20% graduation rate could survive.

We occasionally get graduate students whose recommendation letters say they were the best student this decade at their regional university, and we find out when they get here that they would not have passed the junior and senior level courses at my undergraduate (and cannot keep up with even our relatively easy graduate program). Their undergraduate courses had such low expectations (because they had no students who could exceed those expectations) that their professors never found out if they had the originality and creativity necessary to succeed in graduate study.

18
  • 6
    Ah, well, yes, sadly, this is accurate... But/and the idea that as time goes on our kids will always be able to do more-and-more... is obviously false. Then we find ourselves back into this sort of confusion about definitions of "success", and so on. Mar 1 at 23:05
  • 10
    @zzmondo1: Have you ever met the accountant who can't keep up with their accounting job and gets fired in 6 months? The accountant who can handle the textbook situations but gets horribly confused at anything out of the ordinary? The (more competent) accountant who can do an entry-level job competently but clearly can never manage a larger more complex situation and hence will never become a partner? At a higher-level school, the accounting student learns the kernel of the skills that, combined with experience, allows them to advance in their careers; at a lower-level school they don't. Mar 1 at 23:22
  • 22
    I've only ever been affiliated and now am on faculty at R1s. This post is so dishearteningly pessimistic it boarders on cliché. Is this how all faculty at these types of institutions feel?
    – Ian
    Mar 1 at 23:41
  • 29
    @Ian - most faculty at such institutions are also quite proud of what they are able to accomplish (as little as it may seem to you) with the students that they have. Mar 1 at 23:48
  • 14
    While I don't disagree, I think your personal comparisons, esp. the one with age 14 you, may be somewhat misleading - you were a top student. For this it would be better to compare average students at R1 schools with average students at regional schools.
    – Kimball
    Mar 2 at 19:47
11

There is no "bad reputation." The number of universities in the United States that have a "bad reputation" is very small.

Causes of bad reputation are:

  • Bankruptcy, which is increasingly common
  • For-profit business model, which is getting rarer
  • Very low graduation rates
  • Extreme political views

99% universities are not the top 1%, so they do not have the elitist reputation of the top 1%.

10
  • Not a US perspective, but I can actually imagine that bankruptcy might result from spending lots of money on providing really good quality undergraduate education, and as such might actually be linked with a good reputation. Mar 3 at 20:36
  • 2
    @DanielHatton That'd be a very short-lived reputation then. Extremely hard to keep, not only because you'd have a very high turnover of professors, which would flee the place after the second missing paycheck.
    – Karl
    Mar 3 at 20:50
  • 2
    @Karl Very short-lived if you start counting from the moment of bankruptcy, but before that they might have successfully been keeping up very high quality (including paying the profs) by running an operating loss for decades, funding it (e.g.) by borrowing secured on their ownership of their campus. Mar 3 at 23:40
  • @DanielHatton I'm sure that's not uncommon in US. German universities are either state-owned (usually including the real estate), or operating at the verge of bankruptcy from year to year (to a good part because they don't own their real estate).
    – Karl
    Mar 4 at 22:18
  • @DanielHatton The main costs of running a college are largely fixed. A professor is paid the same whether they teach 3 or 300 students, between the cases, your labor cost has gone down by 99%. (Research projects always break even due to cost-plus and rules about not giving the government free stuff.) If a college can provide a good education that people want, demand will increase, and it will not go bankrupt. If a school goes bankrupt, it's almost certainly because nobody wants what they're selling.
    – user71659
    Mar 4 at 22:56
9

First, it could be good to look in to the definition of R1 and R2 universities.

See Carnegie Classification Methodology PDF for 2022 and the website. They basically do PCA on the cumulative doctorates awarded and per capita research expenditures at each institution with >20 PhDs/year and >$5 million in external funding.

Their data sources are available and the summary statistics can be found here. They do consider and weigh science and engineering vs non-science and engineering separately, but are combined via the PCA for analysis. For the sake of comparison, let's look at the science and engineering analysis. The two factors with the highest loading are:

  • Median full-time research staff per faculty (explains 71% of the variance of the per-capita differences)
    • R1: 0.3
    • R2: 0.0
  • Median total STEM PhDs per institution per year (explains 70% of the variance of the to total institutional differences)
    • R1: 158
    • R2: 17

So the major difference between R1 and R2 is the environment (what resources are available at the institution beyond your PhD advisor) and the number of PhDs produced. This is just segmenting in to two groups, not putting value on the quality, just describing differences between the groups. From their own description of the analysis:

While this approach is suitable for classification purposes, we do not believe the institution-level results should be used for institution-by-institution comparison and ranking.

Another interesting comparison (second highest coefficient for the per-capita productivity score):

  • Median research expenditures per faculty
    • R1: $252k
    • R2: $53k

Now with that context, I think we get some insight to the answer to the questions.

... I didn't know about the stigma [PhDs from] regional institutions carry in the United States.

Why is this the case? Why is it that regional institutions are frowned upon in academic circles?

I wouldn't call it a stigma as much as PhDs from R2s were in a far less resourced environment, and their productivity quantity and quality could be lower than one from an R1. There are far fewer PhDs from R2s, and the groups they came from had 5x less funding and significantly less institutional support than their R1 counterparts. I'd go even further and say that there's a similar drop off from the "top 10" R1 institutions where most faculty are hired from and the rest of the R1s.

So there isn't so much a "stigma" against R2s as there is a "bias" towards "top 10" institutions. On one hand, the top graduates from there were the top-of-the-top and succeeded at the highest level in the best resource environment, so it's not unlikely that they would continue that trajectory. However, this leads to a situation where 80% of US faculty come from only 20% of the institutions, and 1/8 faculty came from one of 5 institutions. (EDIT: the original paper appeared in Nature, at this link.)

To me, a key benefit of regional institutions is more individualized attention due to smaller class sizes. This was the major reason I attended my regional college since I graduated from high school with a class of 8 people and it would've been too much of a culture shock to go to a school with 50k undergrad

These are two different issues.

  • Class size (and classes) are irrelevant to a PhD. Classes themselves are largely irrelevant except in how they prepare you to produce scholarly work.
  • Class size (and classes) are extremely relevant for an undergrad degree and is an advantage you gain at a regional school at the expense of the lack of opportunities (due to lack of funding and institutional support) for the "R1 research experience." But you can still get the "R1 experience" doing a summer REU. R2 undergrads can go on to be successful in an R1 PhD program.

I've heard reasons for regional colleges' bad reputation all across the board from high acceptance rates to suboptimal graduation rates, or to not being known to most graduate schools in the United States. Are all of those reasons true? Or, is there more to the story?

I think this is also conflating grad vs. undergrad. For undergrad, the top regional college graduates are usually pretty good in R1 PhD programs (especially if they did some summer program at an R1 school). The median student, however, can be unprepared for an R1 PhD for the reasons you cite. I have been on R1 PhD admissions committees and have had an outstanding student from a regional school in my R1 research group. An additional significant advantage regional students have are that they are often US citizens, which matters for some funding and fellowships.

For grad school, it's not that the schools have a bad reputation, but when you compare two graduating PhDs on paper (and hide the school name), there is very often a significant difference in quantity and quality of publications between an R1 and R2 graduate. There's an argument that they should be evaluated based on what they could achieve based upon the resources available to them, but institutions are typically risk-adverse. An open line is very important (and expensive, on the order of several million dollars), it's hard for departments to justify hiring a PhD from an R2 institution that did well with limited resources when another candidate from an R1 institution is ready to go now.

However, post-docs can help a lot. Doing a post-doc at an R1 after an R2 will give you that institutional experience.

4
  • A quick fair warning: The Carnegie Foundation is due to update their methodology for the next round of classifications in 2025. acenet.edu/News-Room/Pages/…
    – user176372
    Mar 3 at 17:53
  • @user176372 Thanks, the new way is much clearer: R1 will be $50 million in expenditures and 70 doctorates/year. In the end, both methods are kind of arbitrary - but simple and arbitrary is at least more transparent! It will help give institutions some kind of clear benchmark to use on whether they are achieving their stated goals.
    – sh314
    Mar 3 at 18:53
  • Note that the examples of "regional colleges" given by the OP are NOT R1 or R2 universities, but, rather, masters granting, primarily.
    – Buffy
    Mar 3 at 19:07
  • 1
    @Buffy I think that's part of the confusion. The question asks why PhDs from those institutions have a stigma, but then goes on to talk about undergrad experience at what sounds like a masters granting institution. The examples they gave are both R2 (CMU) and masters (Appalachian State, NMU), but were still asking about a PhD.
    – sh314
    Mar 4 at 12:10
6

I'm not sure which field you are in I'm sure that could factor in to perceived reputation as well. I am a PhD graduate in chemistry from an R1, but I did my undergrad in a regional college. I think your concerns with the perceived reputation is more so with graduate degrees than undergrad. In my undergrad most of my professors did their PhD at an R1, and being in a smaller regional college, I get to do research very early and I definitely felt a lot more prepared for grad school compared to some of my peers who might have gone to an R1 but didn't have as much research experience as I did.

However, for graduate degrees, the level of expectations and the competitiveness of your research become more apparent going from an R1 to an R2, the faculties are not subjected to the same level of competitions between them. For example, an assistant professor at an R1 institution, when they go up for tenure, they are being compared with people that are in the top of their field, and percentage of tenure awarded is relatively low, some professors don't survive their first 5 years. As you go to lower tiers, it is easier and easier to get tenure, and many professors are not expected to do high impact research like those at an R1, so the graduate students in their group would also likely not have been expected to produce high impact research. Therefore the perceived prestige of your graduate degree would not be as good as those in R1.

That being said, combining the two points, most of my peers in graduate school at an R1 did their undergrad at a regional college where they had years of undergraduate research experience with multiple publications, but the reason we get in to R1 is because we are already ahead when it comes to research. Most professors at R1s that take lots of graduate students are in their early to mid career where their tenure or reputation is dependent on their high impact work in the field, so the PhD students in their group will graduate with publications and accomplishments that are also at the top of the field.

3
  • 3
    I'm acutely skeptical that tenure denial rates are particularly high at R1's. It's challenging to come up with good data on this, but here's a cohesive enough blog post from 2014 that does some probing: dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/…. In math, for example, a handful of "top" schools have a reputation of denying most of their assistants tenure (assistant professorships there are understood to be cushy postdocs). Everywhere else? Tenure rates seem quite high.
    – user176372
    Mar 2 at 19:21
  • 1
    I'm only saying it's relatively low, the number my school throws around was 50-60% which is pretty low in my opinion, that being said, it also accounts those who leave and never apply, which for my department 2 out of 6 stayed in the past 5 years, so sure the percentage for those who ultimately stay and submit their tenure package is probably high
    – Quin Hu
    Mar 2 at 20:40
  • Didn't old Jack Welch do his BS in chem eng at U Mass Amherst (not Amherst College) and then a PhD at (now R1) Urbana-Champaign? Of course, that was then and this is now . . .
    – Trunk
    Mar 4 at 2:18
0

Maybe someone should mention something inherent with "lower-ranking" colleges and that is the matter of research resources, especially laboratories if your field is science or engineering. Colleges not having certain instrumentation precludes them from having graduates proficient in those techniques, unlike graduates of better-endowed colleges.

Sure, any smart go-ahead student can catch up over a few months if given some mentoring by senior students/postdocs. And biased professors will often wax on sadly about "inexperience" and "lack of technical proficiencies" when they simply do not rate the student or their first college and are too cute to say so. But it is extra work if new techniques need to be mastered first.

As long as college ratings are based principally on quality of research output then the regard of regional colleges will be handicapped by their more limited laboratory budgets.

Exceptions will occasionally arise, e.g. when an inspiring professor cultures his own research group, wins funds from outside state/national education sources and makes a breakthrough that the R1/R2 groups failed to make. But even in that scenario, any additional enhancement of RCU status may be confined to the star RCU rather than seen as a consequence of RCUs' educational emphasis generally.

You mentioned that even if you got accepted to a good SLAC you wouldn't have been able to afford to go there. That's the other aspect of any human selection process: where a candidate's past record betokens "poverty", academics involved in grad student/postdoc/staff selection - some of whom may be socially insecure themselves and simply aping the manners and attitudes of their more socially well-heeled peers - may not want to be associated with them.

-2

"To me, a key benefit of regional institutions is more individualized attention due to smaller class sizes."

That's the key here. R1 faculty expects their Ph.D students to be able to do research right away. The last thing they want is a needy Ph.D student.

2
  • 6
    What you say isn't actually true of R1 universities in many (most?) fields in the US. Certainly false in math. A doctoral student starts with coursework leading to the preliminary/qualifying exams, not with dissertation research. It is more likely true in, say Germany, where students normally start after earning a masters.
    – Buffy
    Mar 3 at 19:09
  • But everything is different in math . . . the courses as well as the objects.
    – Trunk
    Mar 3 at 19:48

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .