Three tips from

The Thinking Student’s
Guide to College

75 Tips for Getting a Better Education

by Andrew Roberts

Choosing a College

Choosing a college may be the first “adult” decision that most readers of this book will make or have already made. Unfortunately, I am going to take a little of the air out of what seems like an incredibly difficult and consequential decision. To a large degree your choice of university—at least within a large class of selective four-year institutions—does not matter very much. Not only are most students satisfied with their choice, but in important respects most colleges are pretty much alike.

While universities do differ in certain ways, the classroom experience is not one of the main ones. Teaching and learning occur in more or less the same ways at all colleges. Economics 101 and Chemistry 101 are virtually the same course at both Podunk U and Harvard and may even be of lower quality at more prestigious universities.

Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between universities that may make one or another a better fit for you. The main choice for academically minded students is between large research-oriented universities and small teaching-oriented colleges, though recently even this distinction has been blurred. Unless your dad is Bill Gates, cost should probably play a role in your calculations, and even some more superficial factors like location may be important as well. However, as far as academic programs go, distinctions—with a few exceptions—are more apparent than real.


Tip 1
You Can Get an Equivalent Classroom Education at All Reasonably Selective Colleges and Universities

There are two reasons why the educational experience is more or less the same across American universities. The first was described in the previous chapter. Universities do not have good means to monitor teaching quality, much less provide professors with incentives to do a better job at teaching. It is simply hard to tell if particular professors are doing a good job in the classroom and therefore it is hard to motivate them to do a better job. And because teaching quality is difficult to sell to the world at large—who verifies that one college does it better than others?—colleges tend not to encourage it. Professors do not earn large rewards—promotions or raises—for great classroom performance and so do not always give it their all. In fact, faculty at higher-ranked universities are under less pressure to teach well simply because they are under greater pressure to do research. As you go down the academic hierarchy, the emphasis on teaching actually goes up.

The second reason the classroom experience is so homogeneous has to do with the way professors are trained. Most professors learned their trade at the same handful of doctoral-granting institutions. More to the point, virtually all of them earned degrees in specific disciplines that emphasize certain core methods and results. Put together a group of physicists or sociologists and you will find that they have read most of the same books and articles and profess the same basic theories.

This sort of standardized training has led to a standardized educational experience. First off, just about all colleges are divided into the same academic departments—art history, geology, psychology, etc.—because professors received their doctorates in those fields. And because their training was similar, course offerings are more or less the same. An economics major almost always begins with an introductory course followed by intermediate macro and micro; chemistry departments usually start with two semesters of inorganic chemistry followed by two semesters of organic chemistry; no English major is complete without courses in Shakespeare and the nineteenth-century novel. Needless to say, it is not just the course titles that resemble each other, but the actual content. For years, every Econ 101 course worth its salt used Paul Samuelson’s famous textbook; even today a handful of textbooks dominate in most fields that use them.

Yes, there are differences. As you move to upper-division courses, you will find variety that reflects professors’ specialties, and you will find greater variety at larger universities simply because they employ more professors. At less prestigious universities meanwhile, professors may dilute the material in introductory courses to accommodate weaker students (though they may also offer “go faster, do more” versions of these same courses). And lower-ranked universities may feature some departments that are academically suspect in order to cater to less motivated students. It is, however, easy enough to avoid this less rigorous education.

It is not just the content of classes that is similar across universities; it is their style. It is the rare professor who has any formal training in the art of teaching. Our graduate training focused entirely on learning our field, not how to teach it to undergraduates. We received our doctorates for producing original research, not for becoming skilled teachers. Almost all of us are teaching amateurs who have learned to catch as catch can. Because there is little incentive to be innovative, we have mostly stuck to the tried and true like the standard lecture format or the midterm/final form of evaluation. In short, the classroom experience is similar at most universities in terms of professors’ commitment, course content, and teaching styles.

This conclusion may be hard for you to stomach; after all, everyone knows that Harvard is better than Podunk U. Let me back it up with some hard evidence. For the last several years, scholars have surveyed tens of thousands of students at over a thousand colleges and universities across the United States. They asked students about the degree of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and a supportive environment at their colleges. These are all the things you should be getting out of college. The results are striking. Let me first quote from the latest report, “NSSE [the National Survey of Student Engagement] has found that students attending the same institution differ from each other a lot more than the average students at that institution differs from those at other institutions.” What this means is that the educational experiences of Harvard students differ more from each other than a typical student at Harvard differs from a typical student at Podunk U. And the difference is enormous. When comparing the degree to which students felt challenged or interacted with faculty, only 4 to 8 percent of the variation could be attributed to whether they attended Harvard or Podunk U. The rest—over 90 percent of the differences—was among students within institutions.

Or consider the conclusion of two researchers who reviewed hundreds of studies on the effects of universities: “on just about any outcome, and after taking account of the characteristics of the students enrolled, the dimensions along which American colleges are typically categorized, ranked, and studied, such as type of control, size, and selectivity, are simply not linked with important differences in student learning, change, or development.” As I said in the introduction, the difference is not between colleges, it is between students who suck the juice out of them and those who don’t. Universities are more or less the same. What is different is what students take away from them. The following chapters will show you how to get more out of whatever school you choose.

Nobel Prize Winners

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tries to explain why certain people become enormously successful. What makes an ordinary smart kid into a Bill Gates? One explanation that he considers and then dismisses is where they went to college. Consider the last twenty-five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Prize in Medicine, two of the highest marks of success a person can achieve. You might expect that most of the winners would be graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

In fact, of those fifty winners, more than half went to colleges that wouldn’t be viewed as the most prestigious. These included large state schools like the Universities of Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington as well as smaller and lesser known schools like Augsburg, Antioch, Dayton, DePauw, Gettysburg, Holy Cross, Hope, and Rollins. And this probably overstates the influence of the Harvards of the world, which not only have more resources for teaching, but admit the cream of each year’s high school crop. In short, don’t worry about attending one of the very top schools. You can be a success anywhere. After all, Bill Gates went to Harvard, but he also dropped out.


Tip 2
The Key Distinction Is between Small Colleges and Large Universities

From the point of view of teaching, the key difference between colleges is whether they are large research-oriented universities or small teaching-oriented colleges. At both types you can get a great education. However, the accessibility and style of this education differ. Whether you choose one or the other depends on the type of person you are. Some types will thrive at large research universities; others will do better at small colleges. Let me explain.

Large research universities do three things, only one of which is educating undergraduates. The other two are producing research and training graduate students. In some ways these activities are complementary: professors who are at the cutting edge of research know their fields very well (in addition to being very smart) and so can teach undergraduates the most up-to-date knowledge and provide the best answers to their questions. But there are also trade-offs: because professors are hired for their research productivity and expected to continually produce original research, they may not be great teachers and have much less incentive to devote extra time to their teaching. Some of them view teaching undergraduates as a distraction from their “real” work.

The mission of these universities to train future professors probably falls more on the trade-off side. A good proportion of your interaction with instructors at these schools will be with graduate students who grade most papers and exams, lead discussion sections, and sometimes teach their own courses. This does not necessarily have to detract from your education. Graduate students are young, hardworking, and more accessible than full-time faculty. (And without them there would be no professors in the future, much less new knowledge.) But they know their fields less well, are less experienced teachers than professors, and have their own research to worry about—their main task is writing a doctoral dissertation.

I do not intend this as a negative judgment of research universities. If you are sufficiently proactive and ambitious, you will find in them the best possible education the world has to offer. As the Harvard economist Greg Mankiw puts it, “For someone who wants to consider a research career, being at a top research school conveys significant benefits: You get to know more active researchers early on, and you can attend a large array of research seminars. But those opportunities are not relevant for 90 percent of students at these schools, who will not go on to become PhD econonerds but will instead become doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and so on.”

To get the best education at such a university, you have to be a go-getter. You have to make yourself known to the full-time faculty. You have to show them that you are worth taking seriously, that you care about their field and have numerous talents. If you can do this, professors will take you under their wing, show you how their field works at the highest level, and perhaps even help you produce your own original work.

If you are shy and lack self-confidence, however, you may lose some of the benefits such universities offer. Indeed, most students at these schools do not get involved in the research atmosphere, much less form bonds with professors. Instead, they end up taking mostly large lecture courses and interacting primarily with graduate students. While some of these classes will be life-changing experiences, few instructors will take you seriously as an individual. Most students at these universities become a face in the crowd, particularly in the larger and more popular majors (see Tip 39). If you do not seek out your professors, they usually will not seek you out.

What does a small teaching-oriented college offer? In many ways it is the opposite of the research university. There are no graduate students. Almost all of the classes are taught by professors. Many more, probably most, of them will be small seminars. You will likely get to know many of your professors personally or at least have the opportunity to do so. You will probably meet them walking around campus since these schools are often in small towns. And your professors will return the favor. They will learn your name and something about you. They are not required to do as much research and are encouraged to be good teachers. In fact, many of them end up at such schools precisely because they enjoy teaching and are good at it.

One of the surveys of college graduates that I referred to earlier confirms this impression. The survey asked students whether during their undergraduate studies anyone other than fellow students took “a special interest” in their work, whether there “was someone you could turn to for advice or for general support or encouragement.” At small liberal arts colleges, 62 percent of students answered that a faculty member took an interest in them versus 36 percent for public research universities and 41 percent for private research universities. Incidentally, Ivy League schools came in near the bottom with 37 percent.

A small college is perfect for you if you are less confident in your abilities and lack the moxie to draw attention to yourself. This is not to say that you are less talented. Only that you would thrive more in an environment where you are a big fish in a small pond. Indeed, there is a less competitive atmosphere at such schools. You are less likely to have to compete with the superstars who have been trained since the age of two to attend Harvard and who draw all of the professors’ attention to themselves.

What could be wrong with such a picture? The main thing that is missing is contact with the cutting edge of research. Fewer professors at small colleges are doing major work in the field; there are fewer geniuses around. And the university as a whole is less geared to research—that means fewer public lectures and conferences, less money to build labs or travel to foreign countries. This may not be noticeable for most undergraduates, but for the very top students to whom this book is addressed, there are fewer opportunities at such schools. A final black mark against these schools is that they are almost all private and hence expensive, though most do offer significant financial aid.

I would add, however, that these small teaching-oriented colleges produce more future professors—a higher percentage of their students go on to get PhDs. The reason I think is that students at these schools tend to identify with their professors much more and can see themselves following in their footsteps. For most students at research-oriented universities, the professoriate is a distant and mysterious group.

Note that what I have set out here is a contrast of ideal types—the difference between the prototypical large research-oriented university and the prototypical small teaching-oriented college. In fact, over the past twenty or so years these distinctions have been breaking down. Large universities have started to offer more college-type experiences with smaller seminars and greater contact with faculty (though they have not forsaken research or graduate students). Some offer special honors programs or liberal arts colleges embedded within the university. Conversely, small colleges have begun to require a much greater research commitment from faculty. Differences between the two types may thus be on the decline, but they still exist.

The takeaway point for you is to determine whether you have the self-confidence and talent to take advantage of the resources of a large research university or whether you need personal attention to be more accessible and competition less cutthroat. To put it more bluntly than I should, do you want the floor of the New York Stock Exchange where fortunes are made by those with the talent to succeed or a greenhouse where gardeners tend to all of their plants?

Where Do Professors Send Their Children to College?

The main difficulty in choosing a college is information. How can you know what you are buying with your tuition dollars until you actually enroll at a college? While many guidebooks try to provide you with information, it is hard to produce a simple and accurate evaluation of such an intangible and multidimensional experience as a university education; colleges are not toaster ovens.

One way to get a more accurate sense of quality is to consider the choices that insiders make. Insiders are people who work inside an institution. In any field, insiders know their institution better than anyone else and thus have the information to make the best choices in matters concerning it. You would expect, for example, that stockbrokers would make wiser investment choices than their customers, and it turns out that they do. And real estate agents receive higher prices for their homes than their clients do.

In evaluating colleges, the consummate insiders are professors. They have been trained at universities, spent their lives working at them, and have close friends at universities across the country. You would expect them to know the right places to send their kids—which colleges and universities will give their kids the best education and set them on the right path.

It turns out that if you compare the college choices of children of university faculty and those of equivalent nonfaculty, you see large differences. The accompanying table shows the universities where professors most commonly send their children. Professors are far more likely to send their children to small liberal arts colleges and somewhat more likely to send them to major research universities than other parents. This holds even when you look at parents with similar incomes and educational attainments. Children of university faculty are about twice as likely to attend small liberal arts colleges as children of families earning more than $100,000 a year who you would expect to be well informed on such matters and not particularly worried about the cost.

This difference is telling. If your stockbroker told you which stocks he had in his own portfolio, you would probably buy them. If university faculty are telling you that they think liberal arts colleges are the best place for their children, then you may want to heed their advice.

The Most Popular Colleges for Children of Professors
(from a survey of 5,592 students)

1. Oberlin College: 614. Duke University: 33
2. Carleton College: 365. University of Michigan at Ann Arbor: 27
3. Stanford University: 366. University of Chicago: 26


Tip 3
Reputation Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think

Most Americans could easily reel off the names of the “best” or most prestigious universities. The answers are so obvious that I do not need to list them here. But are these the places where you can get the best education? The very fact that they are consistently at the top of the rankings suggests that they are not. If rankings of colleges were truly based on the quality of education they offer, then we would probably expect some changes over time. Are we to believe that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (there, I’ve said their names) consistently offer the best education? Perhaps. But the consistency of the ratings suggests that something else is at work.

The reputation of these universities is not earned through detailed studies of the sort of education they provide and whether their students are learning more than at other schools. Indeed, nobody really knows how to measure an education. Rather, their reputations come from comparisons of the sort of students and faculty they attract. Their students have higher SAT scores, their faculty publish more, and they have more money to spend on both. Students and faculty in turn are attracted by the reputation and money, which is in turn a consequence of the students and faculty. You see where I am heading here.

You might object that even if Harvard is not providing a better education, a Harvard diploma does impress employers and graduate schools and thus leads to more success. Indeed, graduates of more highly rated schools do earn higher salaries; a college with one hundred point higher average SAT scores will produce graduates who earn 3 to 7 percent higher wages. But is this difference due to the better education that Harvard students receive or the fact that Harvard admits more talented students (and provides them with better connections)? It is hard to distinguish these effects.

Two researchers, however, discovered a way to separate the effects of precollege talent and learning that takes place at college. Their trick was to compare students who were admitted to the same colleges and universities, but some of whom chose to matriculate at the more selective schools and others at less selective schools. It turned out that these similar students had the same success on the job market. Students who were admitted to Harvard but went to State U instead earned the same salaries as comparable students who did go to Harvard. The supposedly better education at the more selective schools did not give students an advantage once their precollege talents were controlled for. Or as a senior dean at one major university put it, we “admit good students and then make a special effort to ‘get out of their way.’”

Copyright notice: Excerpts from The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Andrew Roberts
The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education
©2010, 184 pages, 2 tables
Cloth $42.00 ISBN: 9780226721149
Paper $14.00 ISBN: 9780226721156
Also available as an e-book

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