Never heard of UMBC? MIT has. And Cal Tech. And Harvard. And Stanford...

If the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s stunning upset of No. 1 seed Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament was the first time you ever heard of UMBC, you could be excused for wondering: Is that a community college? No, it’s not. Actually, it’s something of a nerd factory (and proud of it) that churns out future research scientists, computer scientists, engineers and Md-PhDs at an astonishing rate.

It’s a bit of a joke in Maryland that UMBC was repeatedly ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the top up-and-coming university in the nation. The truth is, it up and came quite a while ago. The magazine also ranks it as one of the top 20 schools for undergraduate teaching and one of the five most innovative national universities. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance has called it a best value university for eight years in a row.

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski is something of a living legend among college presidents. He grew up in segregated Alabama — he knew one of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing and was part of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Children’s Crusade — and grew up to become a mathematician. He’s led UMBC since 1992, where his research has focused on expanding opportunities for minorities in science. It’s a good fit for a school founded as an integrated institution in the 1960s as Maryland’s other universities were just desegregating. Today, UMBC produces more African-American Md-PhD students than any other university in the country.

March Madness fans may not know about UMBC, but the graduate admissions departments at MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, Stanford and so on sure do. So does the NSA, which is right down the road from UMBC’s suburban Baltimore campus. So do Facebook and Google, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

What they know is that this university produces graduates schooled not only in science (there are also excellent humanities students there, too) but in collaboration, innovation and application of what they have learned. Top graduate research programs knew UMBC students were overachievers long before the Retrievers trounced UVa.

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