Road Trip: Sam Houston State University

Growing fast but staying friendly

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This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

Like many states, Texas aims to boost the number of college graduates from state schools over the next decade, and Sam Houston State is part of the push. Its student population has grown more than 22 percent in the past five years to 16,000, and new buildings and student apartments have cropped up on the Huntsville campus like Texas bluebells, although not all of the extra students have gone there: A satellite campus sits between Huntsville and Houston in a huge planned community called the Woodlands. Huntsville still oozes small-town friendliness, though, and a stranger used to being greeted with "Sup?" eventually will hear an old-fashioned Texas "Howdy."

Sam Houston State prides itself on small classes. Despite its growth, the university says the 20-to-1 student-faculty ratio remains the same as it was at the school's founding in 1879. The oak-studded campus is the home of nationally recognized degree programs in theater and dance, math, and criminal justice (Huntsville's other claim to fame is its prison, the oldest in Texas and the home of the state's death row). The College of Criminal Justice, in fact, has a working courtroom, where real trials have been conducted with students looking on.

Incoming students who might flounder without extra attention find Sam Houston State relentless. All freshmen receive six weeks of instruction from upperclassmen in study skills, test taking, and time management. Once they've been to the Student Advising and Mentoring Center for the basics, director Bill Fleming hopes they'll come back if they need a tutor or a confidant. If they don't, faculty members notice when students are failing or skipping classes and the center follows up. Charlie Nutt, associate director of the National Academic Advising Association, says such a comprehensive safety net is unusual, and Sam Houston State can point to results: The percentage of freshmen who become sophomores is up sharply since the center opened five years ago, and so is the six-year graduation rate. Senior Zach Schroeder credits the help with keeping him on track toward his bachelor's in communications next May. "The advising center has been helping me since before I was a student," he said.

What students do not come for is night life. Huntsville has some fine barbecue but no club scene. That's all right by Schroeder, who hails from Schulenburg, Texas (pop. 2,700), and spends much of his off time doing play-by-play sports broadcasts for the campus radio station, KHSU. Sam Houston State, he says, is "extremely friendly." It's also impossible to miss—just look for the six-story statue of Sam Houston as you're tooling down I-45.