By Christopher Feaver | Feb 6, 2015
A growing reputation for learning and research boosts enrollment on the Vestal campus
The second look at Binghamton University was the charm for Kate Sherwood.
After having been turned off by on-campus construction on her first visit to the Vestal campus in 2011 while a high school senior, Sherwood reconsidered the university, and transferred to BU after a freshman year at SUNY New Paltz.
“When I came here, everything changed,” said Sherwood, who expects to graduate in May with a major in social media marketing, a major she created herself, and a minor in music and opera performance. “There was so much opportunity, so many people you can go to. … I was really looking for a more challenging environment to really achieve my goals, and to build a career that I can be proud of, and this was definitely the place to be.”
Sherwood is one of many top students who has come to Binghamton University and found just what they were looking for.
In a report by Business Insider magazine last October to determine “the smartest college in America,” based on average SAT and ACT scores, Binghamton University ranked 12th in the nation for public institutions, ahead of all other SUNY schools, the military academies, and nestled between Ohio State University and the University of California — San Diego. The average combined SAT math and verbal scores for Binghamton U. were 1,295. Georgia Tech topped the list with a 1,385 average combined SAT score.
Including private schools, Binghamton University ranked 99th nationally on the Business Insider list, just behind George Washington University and just ahead of another BU, Boston University. By comparison, Cornell University ranked 28th, Colgate University ranked 49th and Syracuse University ranked 288th.
Binghamton University has other accolades as well. U.S. News & World Report ranks BU as the 38th-best public university in the country. Fiske Guide to Colleges has called BU, “the premier public university in the northeast.”
The rankings are not surprising to BU President Harvey Stenger, who said the university has done considerable growing up in the past few decades.
“It’s a great campus, great faculty, great experiences, a great value,” Stenger said. “What is unique is how quickly we have come to this level. I met some alums from the Class of 1979 who don’t like to tell where they went to college. If you went to Binghamton, this was your second choice.
“Now, we see parents, who are alums, very successful alums, doctors, lawyers, sending their kids here, because they know what a great place it is.”
There are numerous reasons for BU’s success.
The university has long been one of the best values in the business, not just for in-state, but also for out-of-state students. Undergraduate students can work closely with professors rather than graduate assistants. The student body at BU is a diverse mix that attracts top students from throughout the country and the world. And Binghamton University continues to increase its research and graduate school efforts, giving it more prestige and aiding in BU’s number one goal; preparing students for life after college.
“We have an ear that listens, and as a result, students are happier on campus,” said Randall M-J Edouard, BU’s assistant provost and director of admissions. “And that is totally reflected in our retention rate and our graduation rate.”
BU has a 91 percent freshman retention rate, one of the highest in the country, compared to 73.3 percent nationally. The graduation rate is also among the best in the country, according to collegefactual.com. Binghamton U. has an on-time (two or four-years depending on degree) rate of 67.7 percent and an overall graduation ranking of 79.4 percent. Nationally, 59.5 percent of students complete their degree within six years.
Students today say they love to broadcast they are from Binghamton University.
“I didn’t realize about the reputation of the school until I got here,” said senior Shavonna Hinton, a Marketing and Management Information Systems major from Webster, N.Y., and a middle-distance runner on the track and field team. “When people, friends, co-workers asked me where I went to school and I said ‘Binghamton’ they were like, ‘oh, hey, that’s a big deal!’ I think even in the short time I’ve been here, the reputation has grown too.”
College admissions experts say that BU has long-established itself as having a good name.
“When looking for good, viable options, for a good name, Binghamton fits the bill for a lot of students,” said Lisa Albro, Director of Educational Consulting for College Coach, based in Watertown, Massachusetts. “It offers value for their high-level testing scores.”
Bang for the buck
Value is a word used often by Binghamton University officials, and for good reason.
In-state tuition/fee/room and board costs are $22,543 for in-state students the 2014-15 year, and $34,183 for out-of-state students. BU ranks 18th nationally on Kiplinger’s Best College Values list. Families borrow $20,187 in federal loans on average to attend Binghamton University, with the federal loan payment over 10 years at about $230 per month, according to whitehouse.gov. BU’s loan default rate is 4.5 percent, compared to a national average of 14.7 percent.
“You cannot match it in terms of price,” Edouard said.
“We are the Saturn dealership — this is the price,” Stenger said. “They like the straightforwardness, this is our price, and it is very reasonable. Parents look at that and say, ‘prove to me $60,000 is worth it, compared to $24,000.'”
But tuition and room-and-board are just a part of the value factor. Students say the big payoff is a college experience that prepares them for life after college.
“We are doing the same high-quality work as a Syracuse student, doing work competitive with a Cornell student, but doing so with a state school price,” said Andrew Loso, a BU senior who grew up in Apalachin and attended Vestal High School.
“They have managed to put their money where their mouth is,” said Albro, who added Binghamton University now has the best name recognition in the SUNY system for out-of-state students. “Students have felt appropriately challenged.”
Adding to the name recognition is the success of students after they graduate.
“I think what we really do well is prepare students for their next step,” said Tom Gaube, BU’s Director of Recruitment. “Time and again, we find corporate recruiters, law school recruiters, medical school recruiters come and tell us that our students are as prepared as any top-tier institution across the United States.”
Admissions officials said the students themselves are often Binghamton University’s best recruiters, especially when prospective students are visiting campus.
“We like to have students … talk to them, just tell the truth about what they are experiencing, Edouard said. “Word of mouth is a big thing. Students just speak about Binghamton University in a way most students don’t talk about their institutions.”
The word is out about Binghamton University not just across the state, but around the world. Thanks to active recruitment strategies and alumni support, the university has long-attracted a strong international student core. About 10 percent of the undergraduate student body come from foreign countries. That number jumps considerably, to 40 percent, for graduate school international students.
Graduate programs most highly represented among international students are computer science, systems science and industrial engineering, electrical engineering, accounting and mechanical engineering. Undergraduate programs that most appeal to foreign students include business administration, computer science and economics.
Combining all the classes, and there are 115 countries currently represented by the BU student body.
“Our strategy really is to find students who will add value to the campus community,” Gaube said. “We have diverse perspectives, different geographic backgrounds, races and ethnicities. We take all these academically talented people with diverse backgrounds and put them together and form a global environment here.
“We have a nice global reach. We have 117,000 alumni worldwide. The word of mouth, the buzz marketing is very strong. And we have a lot of great mentoring programs.”
High rankings on university lists play a big factor in attracting top-notch international students, said Bari Norman, the president and co-founder of Manhattan-based Expert Admissions, which focuses on helping students, including international students, find a college.
“It’s hard for international students to differentiate what’s good and what isn’t,” Norman said. “The rankings come into play, they look at them as almost official. … In the absence of familiarity and other information … they do see it as a very objective rating method.
“Once you kind of get something going, the more will follow, as long as you do things right for international students. At the end of the day, if you have a good experience, good education and a good value, you see students come.”
Divya Khandekar made the 7,760-mile trek from Mumbai, India five years ago. When she arrived on campus, essentially everything she knew about BU had been gleaned from the Internet and admissions counselors. Binghamton University’s website has a section devoted to international students, complete with information about the university and its programs, living in Binghamton, and details on the intricate steps it takes to apply to a school a half-a-world away.
Khandekar, who earned her undergraduate degree in human development last year and is now a graduate student working on her MBA, said it was an eye-opener when she arrived in Binghamton, a place much smaller than Mumbai, with a metropolitan population of 20.7 million people.
“But after five years here, I love this place, and I call it my home,” said Khandekar, who now lives off-campus in Vestal. “This campus itself is like a city. As a freshman I assimilated myself with the culture, and made a lot of friends on campus. I love this place now.”
Construction fences have been a staple of the BU campus for several years, as several projects including a new admissions center, substantial university union renovations, a new engineering building, the Center for Excellence research facility and revamped dorms have often made moving around difficult.
“A couple of years ago, it was a running joke,” Hinton said. “You will always see orange (construction) cones. We had T-shirts: Newing College; Caution Under Construction.” Newing is an on-campus dorm community completed in 2011.
While construction on the center of campus is mostly wrapped up for the time being, there are other projects, including the $19 million Southern Tier High Technology Incubator in downtown Binghamton and a planned $60 million facility to house the new Binghamton University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, that would be built on a 51/2-acre area at 96 Corliss Ave. in Johnson City, near UHS Wilson Medical Center.
BU named Gloria E. Meredith as the founding dean of School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences earlier this month. Plans call for the first cohort of students to be enrolled in the pharmacy school by fall 2017, with construction of the Johnson City facility completed in 2018, university officials said.
Of the construction projects, the East campus housing project, at $375 million, was the largest, Stenger said, adding 3,000 beds on campus.
But work continues.
“Every year a new idea springs up, and the state usually funds it,” Stenger said. “Fortunately, being a relatively young campus, some of the older (SUNY) campuses that were bigger than us earlier, their critical maintenance is really critical, replacing steam lines underground, repaving parking lots. … Our critical maintenance is enhancing a classroom, putting up new technology, upgrading the food court to the Marketplace. Our maintenance dollars go a lot further.”
Binghamton University has been boosting its enrollment in recent years, and now has more than 16,000 total students, including about 13,600 undergraduates.
After several years of increasing undergraduate numbers, Stenger said they are about where they want to be. Next year, in fact, the university plans to reduce the number of incoming freshmen by 100 to 150, making it even more difficult to get into the university.
But there are big plans for expanding the graduate school student population, growing it to about 6,000 by 2020, with 20,000 students overall, with much of the campus expansion off the main campus.
“I really don’t think we want to get much bigger as an undergraduate university,” Stenger said. “We are landlocked in many ways on the campus. And I think if we added graduate programs that are in the community, it would be better for the economy, better for the region, and it would probably be better for our profile, too.”
Growing faculty research is a big part of that plan to expand graduate school efforts, Stenger said.
“We have a relatively small-sized faculty in those areas of research that are federally funded,” he said, adding that biology, chemistry and physics departments need to grow, and the BU engineering department is still half the size of the University at Buffalo and Stony Brook.
Binghamton University received $31.7 million in combined research funding for July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. Stony Brook received $160 million and the University at Buffalo received $151 million over that time frame.
Expanding the graduate school would help in many areas, Stenger said, including providing “a career path,” for undergraduate students, helping faculty that are more research-active and making it easier to “serve different needs in the community,” via internships.
“We can keep them here in their field of study and provide them with more work experience and move them into their career,” he said.
Follow Christopher Feaver on Twitter @ckfeaver.