An Unexpected Find in the Pacific Northwest

Because I am an Arizona college counselor, last month I visited the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

Stay with me, please, while I explain.  Arizona students qualify for in-state tuition at two nationally ranked state universities:

  • University of Arizona (in Tucson)
  • Arizona State University (in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb)

Both schools have strong programs in the sciences and engineering.  Although they are world-class in only a handful of areas – astronomy at the University of Arizona, for instance – they are certainly reasonable choices for all but the most competitive students.  Indeed, scads of students from other states decamp to these campuses each year.

Despite their merits, these universities also have generous admissions policies.  Arizona State University admits virtually all-comers as a deliberate strategy to serve its community, even as its Barrett Honors College is one of the best in the nation.  (

And now the kicker:  in-state tuition at these universities is just shy of $10,000 annually, and resident students with higher GPAs often qualify for merit scholarships that waive up to $9,000 of that amount.  There is no need for a college counselor to help students who wish to attend those universities – students need only take 30 minutes to complete a very simple application reminiscent of what their parents completed back in the day.

So here is the dilemma for an Arizona college counselor – what sort of Arizona student should eschew such a deal?

In fact, there is a sizable group of students for whom the Arizona universities are not a good fit.  Consider the number of undergraduates attending these universities:

  • University of Arizona: 33,000
  • Arizona State: 40,000

Students looking for a classic small liberal arts education must look elsewhere.  And both universities are located in the middle of a vast desert where temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees from May through September; classes during the summer session are often held at night, when temperatures merely hover in the 90s.  With apologies to Marilyn Monroe, even though “Some Like It Hot”, some don’t.  If you grew up in Southern Arizona, you might feel that it is time for a change.

Which brings us to the University of Puget Sound (UPS), the antithesis of Arizona higher education.  UPS is located in the cool, rainy, Pacific Northwest, in Tacoma (an hour south of Seattle on Puget Sound).  Undergraduate enrollment is 2,600 students.  The student-faculty ratio is 11:1, and only 1% of classes enroll more than 50 students.

This is liberal arts education in the “Colleges That Change Lives” tradition (yes, it’s in the book).  Professors are highly regarded – more of them have won “Professor of the Year” honors from the Carnegie Foundation than other Washington schools, by a wide margin.  They are committed to bringing out the potential in all of their students, not just the cream of the crop.  Again, this is quite different from the typical big school experience.  Of course, you will pay for it on a par with other top colleges its size.  But that goes with (leaving) the Arizona Territory.

Admissions are not unduly competitive:  the typical admitted student has a 3.5 GPA and SAT scores in the 600s for reading and math.  But some students bloom late – others just do better in small schools with committed professors.  The school is particularly strong in the sciences, with very good lab facilities (top 20 in the Princeton Review).  It also claims a significantly higher than average medical and dental school placement rate, and a top 10% ranking of colleges who go on to earn doctorate degrees.  UPS is also competitive for its size in the race for Fulbright and Watson fellowships.

Tacoma is a formerly run-down industrial town that is showing signs of life as a college town.  However, most activity still occurs on campus.  And a beautiful campus it is – compact, some beautiful brick buildings, Mt. Rainier in the background, and mature trees (the college was founded in 1888, so “mature” does not even begin to describe it).  Seattle and its environs beckon – students who love the outdoors will thrive here.  Out-of-towners are welcome; 78% are from out-of-state.

If you like music, you will like UPS.  The School of Music is nationally regarded, and UPS is the only liberal arts school in the Northwest (and there are plenty of them) to offer a full symphony orchestra, concert band, jazz band, and choral and opera program.  Seattle Opera is an hour north.  Students do not have to be music majors to participate, and the sheer number of performances makes campus life more interesting.

This is also a school for the socially committed student – 75 percent participate in community service, and it ranks in the top five for small schools sending graduates to the Peace Corps.  International studies are encouraged, with a whopping 50 percent of students going abroad.  This includes their “PacRim” program, where several professors take students to Asia for nine months of intensive study.

The other reason I came here is my interest in students with learning disabilities.  Small liberal arts colleges are often not favorable ground for those students.  Such colleges often do not have the funding to provide a full range of services, and they tend not to attract gifted specialists who can make all the difference for a student.  Because many are off the beaten path, students sometimes struggle to find medical and psychological providers on or off campus.

I was very pleasantly surprised by UPS, and will recommend it to my students with disabilities.  The reason:  Peggy Perno, who heads the program (indeed, she mostly IS the program).  She is a former social worker with a great deal of experience in mental health who runs UPS’ disability program like a much larger program, and with palpable warmth and caring.  Students use an “app” calendaring system to make sure that they make appointments, meetings, classes, and the like.  Perno concentrates on creating routines for students; routines become habits.

Because all students at UPS can get up to 2 hours of tutoring a week, her students get the same.  She welcomes high functioning students on the autism spectrum (ASD), and has created a “hangout” space in her office where those students can relax and socialize.  The school is small enough that this approach works.  Finally, unlike many liberal arts colleges, Tacoma is far from the middle of nowhere.  It is a city of 200,000 people, meaning that therapists and psychiatrists are available.

In sum, the school is small, welcoming to all, and . . . not in the middle of a desert.  For a certain type of Arizona student, what’s not to like?


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