April 9, 2012

THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND Baltimore County has received national acclaim for its success in preparing African Americans for careers in science, technology, engineering and math. The credit is deserved for the university and its charismatic president, Freeman Hrabowski III. But the attention has masked other significant accomplishments at an institution that combines the best of a major research center while keeping its focus on undergraduates.

Recognition of UMBC as one of the nation’s premier universities was recently affirmed with the release of U.S. News & World Report’s influential list of best places for undergraduate learning. As The Post’s Daniel de Vise reported, UMBC this year tied with Yale for fourth place in the judgment of college leaders who pick the nation’s top institutions for undergraduate teaching. UMBC opened in 1966 as a minimally selective commuter school; its story needs to be studied as U.S. higher education aims to prepare graduates for a competitive world economy.

A key challenge is to attract and retain men and women of all races in the sciences. Mr. Hrabowski combined his training as a mathematician with an evangelistic zeal to redesign science and math education so that learning is more interactive and collaborative and students get support and inspiration to stay in fields key to America’s success.

But UMBC is not just about the hard sciences; the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences claims 42.5 percent of the university’s enrollment. Students winning Fulbright Scholarships and other prestigious awards are as apt to major in political science and modern languages as in molecular chemistry. When Mr. Hrabowski touts the school’s achievements, he gives top billing to Greek and Latin courses, a theater program that has been invited to perform seven times at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and pioneering work in the visual arts. UMBC draws undergraduates from 150 countries; the greatest proportion of students comes from Montgomery County.

Research is central to the school’s DNA and, because graduate enrollment is small, undergraduates are involved in the work, getting hands-on experience. The faculty — despite the university’s modest size — attracts about $85 million annually in research and training grants and contracts. And Mr. Hrabowski, president for almost 20 years, is passionate about the role higher education can play in solving problems such as poverty, energy dependence and health care. As the nation debates how to get its money’s worth amid rising higher education costs, UMBC is one good place to look.