Sunday, October 18, 2015

What Is a "Good" College? Two Tentative Answers

Sometimes, because of my job, people ask me advice about choosing colleges. It's always nice to be helpful, but talking about college reputations can be a minefield. Obviously, you learn quickly that you should never put any college or university down, but that's not enough. People can also get very prickly when you don't praise a particular college enough. Saying it's a good school may not satisfy them; they sometimes want to hear that School X is much better than School Y, or that School X is just as good as School Z, and will feel insulted unless you tell them what they're looking to hear. Then your choices are 1. giving people helpful practical advice that will offend them, or 2. being polite but misleading.

Before you can say anything useful about college choices, or analyze those choices in a clear-headed way, you have to get past the "good school" problem. People do want to know which colleges and universities confer the most advantage on their graduates, which are "better," but they do NOT want to hear anyone say that any college they already have a connection to is not a "better" than another. What is a "good school?" That's the problem right there.

The first half of this problem is that we talk about "good schools" and "bad schools" as if we were talking about educational quality, which is extremely hard to judge from outside an institution and which can vary widely for different students at the same college. Students don't get exactly the same education at the same school; they all take a different series of classes with a different mix of teachers and they each bring different things to those classes, so the range of educational outcomes at each college or university can be wide. What we're really talking about when we discuss "good schools" is the perceived quality of the education. That perceived quality obviously has some relationship to how well educated the students are, but that's only one factor and not necessarily the biggest. Mostly the discussion of "good schools" is about schools' reputation and prestige. That's fine. In fact, I prefer to frame the "good schools" question in terms of reputation, which is a fuzzy concept but still a thing we can measure in the world, rather than in terms of educational quality.

But the question of reputation is the second half of the problem. Because once you have a connection to a school, you have some stake in its reputation yourself. It is better for you if people think better of your alma mater. If your alma mater's reputation declines, that is at least slightly bad for you. And saying that School X is better than School Z does not just convey an opinion; it is a concrete act, an attempt (however slight), to build up School X's reputation. After all, a school's reputation is just what people say it is, so if enough people start saying that School X is better than School Z, School X will eventually have a better reputation than School Z. Conversations about college reputations are never just impartial discussions about the facts. They are part of a complex social interchange, perhaps better explained by an anthropologist, in which participants try to promote (or protect) the reputations of schools in which they have some reputational stake of their own. This is one of the reasons why talking about college reputations at all risks making you sound like a jerk, because actual jerks do spend a lot of time bragging about where they went to school (or where they send their kids to school), and putting down other colleges. But even if you're not trying to be a jerk, the project of talking honestly about colleges' reputations is always at cross-purposes with the people's desire to move the needle a bit in their old school's favor.

How can you evaluate colleges, then? How to have any rational conversation that doesn't slide into boosterism or hurt feelings? I would propose two things that we CAN talk about, as bottom line issues. One is strictly objective and factual. The other is still a bit of a judgement call, but as close to objective as such a question can get. Instead of talking about educational quality or reputation, I prefer to break things down to the questions of Resources and Reach.

What I call "resources" is the basic question of how much money a school spends on teaching its students. How well a college spends its money, and how much educational bang its professors provide for the college's buck, is impossible to know, except perhaps until you have spent four years at of your life at the school and the question has become moot. But how much money a college has to spend, and what it spends it on, are questions with concrete answers.

The cheapest proxy for resources is to look at the college or university's total budget. But that's not the approach I'd suggest. Universities spend their money on many different things, and what matters if you're applying to schools is how much they are going to spend on educating you. A university that contains many different schools (say a business school and a medical school and a school of dentistry) may have an impressive overall budget but the slice that goes to teaching undergraduates may be much smaller. Any university that operates a hospital or medical center is going to have a whale of a budget, but that doesn't mean the budget for teaching undergraduates won't be pinched. And even if you manage to find the budget for just the undergraduate college, schools can spend on many things beside teaching: they might build fancy new buildings, or put in some sweet amenities that attract students. In fact, the standard college visit is about impressing prospective students with all the money that's going to be spent on them, with the shiny new dorms and the big sports stadium and the rock-climbing wall in the state-of-the-art workout center. All of that is designed to communicate affluence and the sense that the student is going to be treated well, but it isn't necessarily connected to how much the college is spending in the classroom. At some places, students get to enjoy the new jumbotron in the football stadium but don't get to meet many full-time faculty for their first two years.

My preferred quick-and-dirty method of evaluation is to look at a few departments where you think you might major and see how many faculty those departments have. I also usually recommend subtracting out people with titles like "Instructor" or "Lecturer," not because people with those titles are not good teachers (they're usually hired only for the high quality of their teaching), but because those are usually lower-paid jobs (usually teaching intro classes) and that indicates something about the amount that the school is spending on educating that particular set of majors. Is this the whole story? Or course not. But it is one real and important part. If you want to major in, say, history at a small liberal-arts college, and one school you're thinking about has five history professors while another school, with the same number of students, has fifteen history professors, that is telling you something that you should not ignore.

Sometimes ask me if College A or University B would be a good place for their son or daughter to study Shakespeare. Getting into the general quality of the schools is like getting into quicksand. But I can say, perfectly factually, that University B only has one professor who teaches Shakespeare. That's not the whole story, of course (and, full disclosure, for years I was the only professor teaching Shakespeare in my department). But it's not none of the story, either, and it's the easiest part to get your hands on.

I also suggest looking at the lists of classes offered over the last four or five semesters: not just the list of courses in the catalog, which sometimes includes courses not taught for years, but the actual classes the department has taught over the last two or three years. And if you are at all interested in going on to graduate school after college, I'd advise searching for all of the books, articles, etc., that the professors in each department have published in the last ten years. There are great teachers who don't publish much, or don't publish much anymore, but a department where no one is producing new scholarship can have trouble placing its students in graduate schools.

The second issue you should consider, "reach," is simply how far a school's reputation stretches. Where does graduating from that particular school give you an advantage? The question of how good a reputation a school has opens up impossible questions and risks hurting feelings. The question of how far a reputation extends is much closer to an objective question.

There are schools which have a local reputation: people in the immediate area of the school (say, in a particular city and its suburbs) are likely to be more impressed by you for graduating from that school. But in the rest of the world, people either have not heard of that school or have no particular opinion, for good or ill, about it. They may recognize the school's name, but not think much more about it than, "Oh, yes. That is actually a college." But in that school's city, having gone to that school may actually be an advantage when you are looking for a job.

There are also schools with regional reputation. People have heard of that school, and think well of it, across an area of several states. A degree from such a school might give you some competitive advantage across the South, for example, or across the Northeast.  Then there are a smaller number of schools with national reputations: having a degree from that school is a good thing on your resume anywhere in the country. Obviously, a school with a good national or regional reputation often has an even better local reputation. A school that's respected throughout the South might be considered a very big deal in its home city. Then there are a few American colleges with international and a tiny handful with global reputations. When a school actually has a global reputation, people recognize its name anywhere in the world. If you have to explain what, or where your school is, it doesn't have a reputation where you are.

Think of it this way: how many British universities can you name? And how many can you say are impressive? Almost every educated person in America has heard of Oxford and Cambridge. And you know that those schools are supposed to be big deals. You may have heard of the University of London, or St. Andrews. They have international reputations, at least. Oxford and Cambridge have truly global reputations. There are a number of other excellent universities in the UK, but I will confess that I cannot distinguish between the reputations of most of those colleges. Is the University of Hull more or less prestigious than the University of Kent? Is Manchester "better" or "worse" than Nottingham? Other than my regard for individual British Shakespeare scholars at those places, I have no idea. Those are schools with national, regional, or local reputations. On this side of the Atlantic, they are hard to tell apart.

Likewise, when you move to a new city in the US, you will hear for the first time about a number of local colleges that are considered fairly prestigious. Those schools have local reputations. It is much harder to realize that this or that college from your own home town, which some of your high school friends dreamed of getting into, is basically unknown where you live now. (Just today I had to explain to my spouse, a professional academic herself, the reputation that a particular Boston-area university has in Boston. That school's reputation is regional at best.) There are, however, a few colleges that have specialized reputations within a particular field: largely unknown to the general public, but well known for people in a particular business. Think of a school with an incredibly strong meteorology program, whose meteorology majors have a national advantage when competing for meteorology jobs, but no one who majored in anything else gets any advantage outside the local area.

The important point here is that local and regional reputations are not illusions. It is not that your new neighbors in your new town are wrong about how good some local college is. The college really does have the reputation they think it has. It just doesn't have that reputation in other places. If you graduate from the college in greater Boston my spouse was asking about today, that degree will serve as an advantage to you in the Boston area, and likely throughout New England. It simply won't give you that advantage anywhere else. Outside the New England states, that's not a "good" school or a "bad" school, but simply a school. HR staff will look at your resume and see that you went to college. If you move to say, Chicago the week after graduation, you will likely lose any edge that the degree might give you in Massachusetts.

How much the question of reach matters in choosing a school depends on what you want to do after college. If you are planning to move after graduation, to enter a profession that will likely require you to move, or to apply to graduate or professional schools outside your area, you are better off if your college has a national reputation. If you plan to live your days happily in or around your hometown, a school with a local reputation might be more than enough. You can go to the Boston-area school my wife hasn't really heard of, settle down on the South Shore, and be just fine. But if your lifelong dream is to go on to, say, medical school at UCLA, then trying to get into UCLA from a school that's only a big deal in Boston is not the best plan. In fact, there are other Boston colleges that might, inside Boston, seem no better than Nameless Boston-Area College, or even have slightly less local cachet, but whose cred travels further. This is when you need some candid expert advice.

The question, both in terms of resources and reach, isn't how good the school is in some abstract way. It's what the college is going to offer you.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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