Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 2: Universities


Teaching versus Research


In a country with thousands of institutions of higher education, with widely varying standards and atmospheres, one of the ways of trying to bring some order out of this overwhelming complexity is to first break them down into a few general categories. Most of these institutions are universities, liberal arts colleges or institutes of technology (engineering schools). Each type has its own special advantages and disadvantages.

Whatever kind of institution you are considering, one of the more mundane, but potentially important, problems to be aware of is confusing the names of institutions. Obviously, what you learn about one place may not be at all true of another place with the same or similar name. There are, for example, four independent institutions named Trinity College, located in four different states-not counting Trinity College at Duke University, Trinity Christian College, or Trinity University. There are also two separate institutions named Wheaton College, two named Judson College, and three named Columbia College, not counting the one at Columbia University. In addition, Miami University in Ohio is often confused with the University of Miami in Florida, just as Washington University in St. Louis can be confused with the University of Washington in Seattle or George Washington University in the District of Columbia. A name like Indiana University of Pennsylvania invites multiple confusions, since there is an Indiana University in Bloomington and a University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Many state university systems have campuses in different cities with very different standards and purposes, but all using the same name. The University of California at Santa Cruz is not like the University of California at Davis- as both will tell you. UC Santa Cruz is an experimental institution with a Bohemian flavor, while UC Davis tends to be pre-professional in academic orientation and to attract a very different student body, geared to such concerns. The University of South Florida in Tampa is a typical large state university (about 28,000 students) but, in Sarasota, New College of the University of South Florida has less than 500 students, with combined SAT scores averaging more than 200 points higher and an impressive record of sending a higher proportion of its students on to get Ph.D.'s than most Ivy League schools do.

Whether talking, reading, or writing for information, be sure to know the exact name (and location) of the college you are considering. You don't want either positive or negative information about one place to influence your decision about another.


Universities are likely to be the best known educational institutions, whether because of their football teams (Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama), their basketball teams (U.C.L.A., Georgetown) or their scholarship and research (Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley). None is famous for its undergraduate teaching, though a few may in fact deserve to be. Undergraduate teaching is simply not as newsworthy as a Rose Bowl victory or a Nobel Prize. There is less relationship between institutional renown and undergraduate education in a university than in any other kind of educational institution. Nowhere is it more necessary to avoid being dazzled by big names.

Parents and students need to understand-as clearly and as early as possible- that while their top priority may be a good education, that is not necessarily the top priority of university professors. The more prestigious the university, the less likely is the teaching of undergraduates to be paramount. For example, Time magazine summarized criticisms of top Harvard professors as "too engaged in their own research, too busy with outside consulting or just too lordly to bother with anything so trivial as an undergraduate." One renowned Harvard professor of government was described as talking to a class of 15 students while gazing over their heads, "as if addressing the House of Lords." Much the same picture emerges repeatedly in the Confidential Guide published by Harvard students, where another professor of government was described as "completely disorganized" in his lectures and "inept at managing classroom discussions." Words like "disorganized" and "rambling" appear again and again in descriptions of the lectures of particular Harvard professors in fields as disparate as music, anthropology, and women's studies. In a course on genetics, both the professor and his teaching assistants are described as "often inadequately prepared" and in an introductory chemistry course, "lectures have bordered on the incomprehensible."

These problems are not peculiar to Harvard. Princeton's Student Course Guide likewise repeatedly characterizes lectures as "rambling," "confusing," "unorganized," or even "incoherent," whether the subject is architecture, biology, mathematics, chemistry, economics, Afro- American studies, mechanical and aerospace engineering, or Near-Eastern studies. Lectures were especially confusing in an economics course in which the professor "got lost in his own equations." In an electrical engineering course, the lecturer "literally read the book aloud in his lecture." In one math course, the "lectures were spotty, poorly organized, and poorly presented." In another, mathematical proofs were simply "begun and never finished."

None of these things is peculiar to Harvard or Princeton. The point here is that world-class universities do not mean world-class teaching. At both these institutions (and others) there are also some professors who are highly praised by the students for superb teaching. The terms in which these teachers are praised by the students are often revealing: "A research star who actually considers teaching worthwhile," "one of the few professors who answers his own telephone," "everything that Harvard is supposed to be, but usually isn't."

At Harvard, Princeton, and other institutions, the characterization appearing again and again in discussions of lectures by highly-praised professors is "well-organized." Anyone who has taught difficult material knows that producing a clear and well-structured lecture can take hours of preparation, even for someone who has taught the subject before. World-class scholars, vying for international pre-eminence in their fields, often have neither the time, the teaching talent, nor the inclination to produce the kinds of lectures that make a subject clear and alive for undergraduates. Important as lectures are, opportunities for interaction with professors outside the classroom-in their offices or at informal gatherings-can also be an important part of an educational experience. However, according to a distinguished accreditation panel visiting Harvard in 1987, "only the most aggressive and persistent undergraduate" is likely to have any "faculty-student interaction outside of the classroom" with senior Harvard professors. Harvard is by no means unique in this respect, nor are junior faculty members or even teaching assistants always accessible at research universities. The junior faculty and the graduate students who serve as teaching assistants at many universities have other distractions and pressures that keep them from investing great amounts of time in teaching. Their whole future and that of their families hang in the balance while they try to complete their research, so as to establish themselves in their professions. Many graduate students never get the Ph.D. degree for which they have sacrificed years of their lives. Most junior faculty members at leading research universities are let go after a few years, except for those rare individuals whose research output marks them as stars to be given tenure. In short, junior as well as senior faculty at many universities have strong incentives to give teaching a low priority. The very process by which a top university maintains its prestige and visibility in the world can undermine the education of undergraduates.

The teaching role of graduate students at universities is far larger than many people-especially parents and high school students-realize. Harvard has about 400 people teaching who are not faculty members but teaching assistants, teaching fellows, and the like-usually graduate students, understandably preoccupied with completing their own education. Even when called "teaching assistants," they do much more than simply assist professors with grading exams or preparing science labs. Most of the classes in introductory calculus at Harvard are taught by teaching assistants. Many teaching assistants are foreign, and a recurring complaint in the Harvard students' Confidential Guide is that their English is often hard to understand. As for the advisory role of these non-faculty teachers, according to the Harvard Salient (a student newspaper), "academic advising can be a sad joke, often consisting of nothing more than a harried tutor's cursory glance at the study card. Many of us qualify as 'phantom students' who go through Harvard without ever meeting a full professor."

The great state universities have similar problems, often to an even greater extent than Harvard and other large private universities. The University of California at Berkeley is unsurpassed as a research institution, its faculty have received many Nobel Prizes, its graduate programs rank above those of Harvard in several fields, and Berkeley is often rated number one among the nation's universities. However, none of this translates into an outstanding undergraduate education. At Berkeley, there are estimated to be more than twice as many graduate students teaching as at Harvard. In addition, Berkeley has large numbers of part-time junior faculty, who support themselves by having other jobs-and therefore other demands on their time besides teaching. Finally, the huge size of the university-more than 30,000 students-ensures that undergraduate education is impersonal, bureaucratic, and sometimes chaotic.

Many of the other outstanding state universities show a similar pattern. The universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and U.C.L.A. are all among the top 10 in a number of fields of graduate study and are usually included in lists of the country's leading universities. However, neither they nor Berkeley is even among the top 70 when it comes to the percentage of their own undergraduates who go on through graduate school to receive a Ph.D. Many small colleges are far more successful in this respect. These include not only such well-known colleges as Reed, Swarthmore, Oberlin, and Amherst, but also such little-known colleges as Wabash, Davidson, Occidental, and Birmingham-Southern.

There is nothing necesssarily immoral about the priorities of a research university. But parents and students need to understand what they are getting into when choosing a famous university, whether in the Ivy League or the flagship of their state university system. Some universities try to balance the pressures for research results with pressures to provide good undergraduate teaching as well, though that is much easier said than done. More important, some conscientious professors are genuinely concerned about college students, and such professors can be found at all academic levels and in all kinds of institutions-whether universities, liberal arts colleges, or technical institutes. At the University of California at San Diego, as at Harvard and Princeton, there are professors who draw praise from a student newspaper (The California Review in this case) as "a great teacher...tolerant of opposing viewpoints and respectful of his students." But while you can find such teachers everywhere, you cannot find them in the same proportions everywhere, and at some universities they are quite rare.

Those professors who enjoy teaching more than research are likely to seek out the small liberal arts college-or have to go there after being forced out of research universities for not publishing enough. Winning the "teacher of the year" award at a research university will carry very little weight when time comes to have one's contract renewed or to be voted on for tenure. In 1987, a Harvard professor whose credentials included such an award was notified that his contract would not be renewed. I personally know three other professors at three different institutions who were notified that their contracts would not be renewed after they had won "teacher of the year" awards. One referred to the award as "travel money." The issue of teaching versus research has been debated innumerable times and is unlikely to be settled any time soon. What is important to someone seeking good teaching is to find out where it is most likely to be found. At a top research university, where the professor knows that "publish or perish" are his career choices, it is unrealistic to expect that most will make teaching their top priority. To some, teaching is purely incidental.


Large Universities

Universities have great advantages as well as disadvantages-and whether one outweighs the other depends entirely on what kind of person you are. If you are the kind of person who can find your way through the maze with little or no help, who can separate the wheat from the chaff when selecting courses, and is a self-starter when it comes to studying, doing assignments, or making friends, you may be ready to tackle the largest, most impersonal university and be able to benefit from the best that it has to offer. You should be aware, however, of just how large many universities are. There are 20,000 or more students on each of about a hundred or more campuses across the country, including more than 40,000 on the following campuses, each the main campus of a state university:

University of Minnesota........62,266 students
Ohio State University..........53,446 students
University of Texas............ 47,973 students
University of Wisconsin........44,218 students
Michigan State University......42,193 students
Arizona State University.......40,538 students

Each of the above represents the number of students on one campus, not counting students at other campuses of the state university system. These figures do, however, include undergraduates, graduate students, and students in professional schools on campus, such as medical schools and law schools. But each of the 6 campuses above (and others) has more than 30,000 undergraduates alone, with nearly 50,000 undergraduates being on the main campus of the University of Minnesota. While these half dozen universities are the largest, there are many more that are sufficiently large to be impersonal and bureaucratic. There are 10,000 or more undergraduates alone on well over two hundred campuses in the United States. Often the problems created by size are made worse when many students do not live on campus, but are scattered across a large area-a few living in dormitories, some living in rooming houses, some sharing apartments, some commuting from miles away. At an institution like this, there simply is no college community, and an individual can easily get lost completely, with no one knowing that he or she exists, except as a name and a number on computer printouts. Both the academic and the psychic consequences of this isolation can be devastating. Discussions among students can be a major part of an undergraduate education, on campuses where there is enough of a college community for such discussions to take place regularly. At some colleges, students are encouraged to work together on difficult problem sets that can take hours to figure out, even with everyone in a group pitching in. In some math, science, and engineering courses, these problem sets not only test your understanding but are an essential tool in getting you beyond the generalities of the textbook or the lecture to a penetrating understanding of the real complexities involved. Students not only discuss the material from their courses, clarifying their own thoughts in the process; they also keep each other abreast of all sorts of opportunities, dangers, and deadlines on campus. Students are also a valuable source of counseling on what courses to take, and what professors to seek out (or to avoid). All these academic benefits of student interaction are lost at a commuter school with no real college community. The personal losses, as far as morale and social development are concerned, may be even greater. Statistics on the percentage of students living on campus can give you a clue about all this, but are not always the last word. Both at the University of California at Davis and at U.C.L.A., about 70 percent of the students live off campus. But the little college town of Davis is not sprawling Los Angeles, which covers an area 50 percent larger than the five boroughs of New York combined. Moreover, the neighborhood in the immediate vicinity of U.C.L.A. is too high-rent for most students to be able to live there. The net result is that U.C.L.A. students are scattered far and wide (one of my students lived 50 miles away) while UC Davis students live sufficiently clustered around the university to preserve something of a college community. This is one of the things to ask about during a campus visit: Where do the students live?

Although big universities are not usually places to look for individual attention, they do have other beneficial features. One of the advantages of many universities is the vast range of subjects covered and the vast range of courses under each subject. At U.C. Davis, a fairly modest-sized institution (20,000 students) as state universities go, there are 48 subjects in which to major in the undergraduate College of Letters and Sciences alone, compared to 25 at Hillsdale College, 21 at Bates College, and 20 at Beloit College, all fairly typical of liberal arts colleges in this regard. Within a given department, the disparities tend to be even greater. At U.C. Davis' College of Letters and Sciences, there are more than 50 undergraduate courses in mathematics, compared to less than half that many at Hillsdale, Bates, or Beloit.

Precise numbers are not crucial, because some schools are on quarter systems and others on semesters or trimesters, and some courses are offered every year while others are offered less frequently. Nevertheless, when disparities reach certain magnitudes, the general picture is clear: Big universities offer a greater variety of subjects and more courses within each subject. The chances of finding that special subject that will really ignite your interest, and of being able to pursue it further, are greater at a large university. Not only are there usually more courses available in the undergraduate liberal arts college of a university than in an independent liberal arts college, many universities like U.C. Davis also have undergraduate colleges of engineering, agricultural science, and other subjects, where you may enroll in particular courses that interest you. Moreover, there are also graduate courses available in case you want to pursue your interest in a particular subject further after exhausting the undergraduate courses that deal with it. In addition to offering a wider range of intellectual resources, large universities often offer a wider range of physical resources as well- computers, library facilities, and science laboratories, for example. However, it is necessary to assess these resources in comparison to the number of people who will be using them. The University of California at Davis has about 7 times as many books in its library as Beloit College has, but there are nearly 18 times as many students at U.C. Davis.

Even the question as to what courses are available depends on the number of people. While a large university may have far more courses listed in its catalogue, more of these courses may be closed when they reach their enrollment limit (usually based on the size of the classroom). So, while it may be possible to sample a wider variety of courses at a big university, it may also be more difficult to take the basic courses in the right sequence because the classes fill up and are then closed to further enrollment. During one academic year, for example, Berkeley students were refused permission to enroll in a chosen course more than 15,000 times. That's only about once per undergraduate per year. But, depending upon what the courses are, not being allowed to enroll in courses you want 4 times during your college career can throw a monkey wrench into your whole program and set back your graduation.

The larger universities tend to predominate in many academic fields, though some smaller ones make a strong showing as well. When faculty members across the country ranked the top 10 graduate departments in their respective fields, the following institutions had departments among the top 10 the most times:

University# of Depts
1. University of California at Berkeley28
2. Stanford University25
3. Harvard University22
4. University of California at Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.)18
5. University of Chicago17
5. Princeton University17
7. Yale University16
8. University of Michigan15
8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology15
10. Columbia University 14
10. University of Wisconsin14
Source: Conference Board of Associated Research Councils

Like most other lists, this list contains both useful information and pitfalls. One pitfall in this case is that universities differ so much in size that they also differ in the number of departments they have. Not all are big enough to have departments in fields that attract a relatively small percentage of their students. Thus, while the University of Minnesota is number one in geography, Rice and Princeton have no geography departments at all, and so could not possibly be among the top 10 in that field. Huge institutions like Berkeley, Wisconsin, or U.C.L.A. have at least a chance of being in the top 10 in virtually every field, while Chicago, Princeton, or Johns Hopkins do not. This does not make the rankings meaningless, because many other huge universities seldom or never make the top 10 list in any field. On the other hand, some universities not on this select list were nevertheless among the top 10 departments in some fields-the University of Illinois in a number of mathematical, scientific, and engineering fields, as well as in music, linguistics, history, and political science, for example. In addition to the University of Illinois, some other very large universities that show up among the top 10 in a number of fields include Penn, Minnesota, Texas, Washington (Seattle), Purdue and Cornell.

While rankings of graduate departments may in many cases have very limited relevance to undergraduate education, they do indicate something about the presence of world-class professors on campus. Further investigation can determine how many actually teach undergraduate courses and how effectively. For those students who are able to thrive in a large university setting, it can be a special opportunity to study under one of the leading scholars in a field, either in an undergraduate course or perhaps in a graduate course by the senior year. Similar opportunities may be even more available in some of the smaller universities, where teaching may receive more attention.

Smaller Universities

Not all universities are huge-not even all the world-class research universities. The University of Chicago, which must be included on any list of the great universities of the world, has less than 9,000 students-including those in its medical school, law school, and other graduate and professional programs. Princeton has less than 7,000 total students at all levels, and Johns Hopkins less than 4,000 graduates and undergraduates on its main campus. There are also many less renowned universities of similar sizes. These smaller universities may escape some of the worst bureaucratic excesses of the huge, impersonal institutions and graduate teaching assistants may play a much smaller role in their undergraduate programs, but "publish or perish" remains the watchword of the faculty at the most prestigious of these universities and at those that aspire to that status. Nevertheless, smaller size seems to pay educational dividends to the undergraduates.

Universities whose undergraduate colleges are small are disproportionately represented among those whose graduates continue on to receive the Ph.D. The University of Chicago, whose undergraduate college has only about 3,000 students, has had nearly one-fourth of its Bachelor's degree recipients continue on to receive doctorates over the past 30 years-putting it first among all universities in that respect-compared to 16 percent at Harvard. Rice, Brandeis, Wesleyan, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Rochester also have relatively small numbers of undergraduates and they rank well ahead of Berkeley, Michigan, Penn, U.C.L.A., and many other large, highly-regarded universities in the proportion of their undergraduates who later achieve the Ph.D., though in absolute numbers the bigger schools are ahead.

The significance of these data on later doctoral degrees reach well beyond those people who plan to go on to graduate school. It says something about the quality and effectiveness of undergraduate teaching in general when significant percentages of the alumni are able to continue on to the doctorate. It says something about the importance of size that so many of the top institutions in this respect are small-small universities as well as small liberal arts colleges and small engineering schools. Not one institution among the top 70 has 12,000 undergraduates on campus. Most have less than half that number. Many of the leading universities that grant Ph.D.'s have far larger student bodies, and it is remarkable that their own undergraduates are not as successful at continuing on to that level as the undergraduates from smaller schools, many of which do not even have graduate programs of their own.

Not all smaller colleges and universities are private. There are a few smaller state-supported institutions worth noting, especially if the high tuition charged by private institutions is a problem. The University of California at Riverside has less than 4,000 undergraduates and houses most of them on campus, unlike Berkeley, U.C.L.A., and the rest of the U.C. system. Douglass College in New Jersey is about the same size and has a lovely campus (which I remember fondly as my first teaching post). Virginia has two state- supported liberal arts colleges: Washington-Monroe College (about 2,300 students) and William and Mary College (about 3,200 full-time undergraduates), in addition to the large and highly-regarded University of Virginia. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, has less than 3,000 students. The Morris campus of the University of Minnesota has less than 2,000 students. St. Mary's College, a state-supported institution in Maryland, has about 1,200 students. Florida's New College has less than 500 students, a good faculty, outstanding surroundings, and a successful experimental education program.

While some small-sized universities like Chicago pride themselves on successfully combining teaching and research, there are pressures even here to sacrifice the undergraduates for the sake of the graduate program. For example, there are grumblings from both students and faculty at the University of Chicago over the gradually increasing class size there and the increased use of teaching assistants. One professor refers to an "excruciating" problem of "steady pressure from graduate departments on the College to allow grad students to teach, as is the case at Harvard or Stanford." This will allow Chicago's graduate students to enter the competitive job market with teaching experience behind them and also allow the university to get its classes taught more cheaply than with professors-but all at a cost to the undergraduate. How far Chicago will move in the direction of Harvard, Stanford, and other large research universities in this regard is something to be checked out individually, as it may change from year to year.

Some smaller universities are essentially teaching institutions only. Depending on the proportions of graduate students and undergraduates, the smaller universities shade off into the category of liberal arts colleges. It is arbitrary to refer to institutions with only a relative handful of graduate students as "universities," when Bryn Mawr has hundreds of graduate students and even awards the Ph.D., while still being called a college. Lawrence University, Denison University, or Fisk University, for example, are more accurately described as colleges. There is nothing wrong with being a college rather than a university. What is important is to be aware of the real nature of an institution when making your choices.

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