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Opportunity

Opportunity knocks

When Jon Schechter was a high school senior, he considered going to Boston University or Northeastern, both private colleges. “But there was no way I could afford it.”

Tuition, room, and board at BU costs $56,184; at Northeastern, $53,226. So Schechter, who is from Natick, ended up at UMass Amherst, where those same costs added up to a comparatively cheap $23,167. Like many students, he admits it was his fallback school. “I didn’t even take a tour. I just accepted the admissions offer.”

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Price is one of the reasons applications to UMass Amherst are up nearly 70 percent since 2005. (Another is that the university began to accept the Common Application Form in 2007, making the process considerably easier.) But once Schechter arrived at the state’s flagship public university, he says that he realized it was not only good value for the money, it was the opportunity he was looking for to get an education without being saddled with enormous debt. With plans to go to medical school, he was able to design his own major, which he calls “humans as biological systems,” taking courses in departments that compare strongly to their counterparts at private and other public universities.

Those include organismic and evolutionary biology, microbiology, food science, polymer science and engineering, chemistry and chemical engineering, physics, and the hot field of kinesiology — the study of human movement. Also highly rated are the university’s linguistics and English departments, the latter of which has a well-known master of fine arts program for poets and writers.

Some of UMass’s graduate programs, in fact, are astonishingly competitive. Its computer science department, which is especially well known for having faculty who specialize in data retrieval and machine learning, had 800 applicants this year for 30 seats. Linguistics? Try 130 applicants for six slots.

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“It’s richly ironic, but also sad, that our programs have this tremendous reputation abroad and in other states, but are undervalued here, because they’re really very good” says John McCarthy, dean of the graduate school and a professor of linguistics.

The National Research Council ranks four of the doctoral programs at UMass — food science, kinesiology, linguistics, and polymer science and engineering — among the nation’s best, public or private, though that’s out of 39 disciplines offered by the university that are eligible to be assessed.

As for Schechter, who is now a junior, he’s been pleasantly surprised. And now he tries to persuade other people in Massachusetts of the value of his education.

“When I talk to people in state, they still know our reputation from a long time ago, as a party school,” he says. “But people from other states say, ‘Wow, UMass.’ ”

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