TITLE: Research, Prestige, and an Undergraduate Education AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 29, 2007 11:39 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Philip Greenspun recently posted a provocative blog entry called Why do high school kids keep signing up to be undergrads at research universities? If you've never read any of Philip's stuff, this might seem like an odd and perhaps even naive piece. His claim is pretty straightforward: "Research universities do not bother to disguise the fact that promotion, status, salary, and tenure for faculty are all based on research accomplishments," so why don't our brightest, most ambitious high school students figure out that these institutions aren't really about teaching undergraduates? This claim might seem odd considering that Philip himself went to MIT and now teaches as an adjunct prof there. But he has an established track record of writing about how schools like Harvard, MIT, the Ivies, and their ilk could do a better job of educating undergrads, and at a lower cost. My thoughts on this issue are mixed, though at a certain level I agree with his premise. More on how I agree below. As an undergraduate, I went to a so-called regional university, one that grants Ph.D.s in many fields but which is not typical of the big research schools Philip considers. I chose the school for its relatively strong architecture school, which ranked in the top 15 or 20 programs nationally despite being at a school that overall catered largely to a regional student population. There I was part of a good honors college and was able to work closely with published scholars in a way that seems unlikely at a Research U. However, I eventually changed my major and studied computer science accounting. The accounting program had a good reputation, but its computer science department was average at best. It had a standard curriculum, and I was a good enough student and had enough good profs that I was able to receive a decent education and to have my mind opened to the excitement of doing computer science as an academic career. But when I arrived at grad school I was probably behind most of my peers in terms of academic preparation. I went to a research school for my graduate study, though not one in the top tier of CS schools. It was at that time, I think, making an effort to broaden, deepen, and strengthen its CS program (something I think it has done). The department gave me great financial support and opportunities to teach several courses and do research with a couple of different groups. The undergrad students I taught and TAed sometimes commented that they felt like they were getting a better deal out of my courses than they got out of other courses at the university, but I was often surprised by how committed some of the very best researchers in the department were to their undergrad courses. Some of the more ambitious undergrads worked in labs with the grad students and got to know the research profs pretty well. At least one of those students is now a tenured prof in a strong CS program down south. Now I teach at a so-called comprehensive university, one of those medium-sized state schools that offers neither the prestige of the big research school nor the prestige of an elite liberal arts school. We are in a no-man's land in other ways as well -- our faculty are expected to do research, but our teaching expectations and resources place an upper bound on what most faculty can do; our admissions standards grant access to a wider variety of students, but such folks tend to require a more active, more personal teaching effort. What Greenspun says holds the essence of truth in a couple of ways. The first is that a lot of our best students think that they can only get a good education at one of the big research schools. That is almost certainly not true. The variation in quality among the programs at the less elite schools is greater, which requires students and their parents to be perhaps more careful in selecting programs. It also requires the schools themselves to do a better job communicating where their quality programs lie, because otherwise people won't know. But a university such as mine can assemble a faculty that is current in the discipline, does research that contributes value (even basic knowledge), and cares enough about its mission to teach to devote serious energy to the classroom. I don't think that a comprehensive's teaching mission in any speaks ill of a research school faculty's desire to teach well but, as Greenspun points out, those faculty face strong institutional pressure to excel in other areas. The comprehensive school's lower admission standards means that weaker students have a chance that they couldn't get elsewhere. Its faculty's orientation means that stronger have a chance to excel in collaboration with faculty who combine interest and perhaps talent in both teaching and research. If the MITs and Harvards don't excel in teaching undergrads, what value to they offer to bright, ambitious high school students? Commenters on the article answered in a way that sometimes struck me as cynical or mercenary, but I finally realized that perhaps they were simply being practical. Going to Research U. or Ivy C. buys you connections. For example:
Seems pretty plain that he's not looking to buy the educational experience, he's looking to buy the peers and the prestige of the university. And in my experience of what school is good for, he's making the right decision. You wanna learn? Set up a book budget and talk your way into or build your own facilities to play with the subject you're interested in. Lectures are a lousy way to learn anyway. But you don't go to college to learn, you go to college to make the friends who are going to be on a similar arc as you go through your own career, and to build your reputation by association....
You will meet and make friends with rich kids with good manners who will provide critical angel funding and business connections for your startups.
Who cares if the undergrad instruction is subpar? Students admitted to these schools are strong academically and likely capable of fending for themselves when it comes to content. What these students really need is a frat brother who will soon be an investment banker in a major NYC brokerage. It's really unfair to focus on this side of the connection connection. As many commenters also pointed out, these schools attract lots of smart people, from undergrads to grad students to research staff to faculty. And the assiduous undergrad gets to hang around with them, learning from them all. Paul Graham would say that these folks make a great pool of candidates to be partners in the start-up that will make you wealthy. And if strong undergrad can fend for him- or herself, why not do it at Harvard or MIT, in a more intellectual climate? Good points. But Greenspun offers one potential obstacle, one that seems to grow each year: price. Is the education an undergrad receives at an Ivy League or research school, intellectual and business connections included, really worth $200,000? In one of his own comments, he writes:
Economists who've studied the question of whether or not an Ivy League education is worth it generally have concluded that students who were accepted to Ivy League schools and chose not to attend (saving money by going to a state university, for example) ended up with the same lifetime income. Being the kind of person who gets admitted to Harvard has a lot of economic value. Attending Harvard turned out not to have any economic value.
I'm guessing, though, that most of these students went to a state research university, not to a comprehensive. I'd be curious to see how the few students who did opt for the less prestigious but more teaching-oriented school fared. I'm guessing that most still managed to excel in their careers and amass comparable wealth -- at least wealth enough to live comfortably. I'm not sure Greenspun thinks that everyone should agree with his answer so much as that they should at least be asking themselves the question, and not just assuming the prestige trumps educational experience. This whole discussion leads me to want to borrow a phrase from Richard Gabriel that he applies to talent and performance as a writer. The perceived quality of your undergraduate institution does not determine how good you can get, only how fast you get can good. I read Greenspun's article just as I was finishing reading the book Teaching at the People's University, by Bruce Henderson. This book describes the history and culture of the state comprehensive universities, paying special attention to the competing forces that on the one hand push their faculty to teach and serve an academically diverse student body and on the other expects research and the other trappings of the more prestigious research schools. Having taught at a comprehensive for fifteen years now, I can't say that the book has taught me much I didn't already know about the conflicting culture of these schools, but it paints a reasonably accurate picture of what the culture is like. It can be a difficult environment in which to balance the desire to pursue basic research that has a significant effect in the world and the desire to teach a broad variety of students well. There is no doubt that many of the students who enroll in this sort of school are served well, because otherwise they would have little opportunity to receive a solid university education; the major research schools and elite liberal arts schools wouldn't admit them. That's a noble motivation and it provides a valuable service to the state, but what about the better students who choose a comprehensive? And what of the aspirations of faculty who are trained in a research-school environment to value their careers by the intellectual contribution they make to their discipline? Henderson does a nice job laying these issues out for people to consider explicitly, rather than to back into them when their expectations are unmet. This is not unlike what Greenspun does in his blog entry, laying an important question on the line that too often goes unasked until the answer is too late to matter. All this said, I'm not sure that Greenspun was thinking of the comprehensives at all when he wrote his article. The only school he mentions as an alternative to MIT, Harvard, and the other Ivies is the Olin College of Engineering, which is a much different sort of institution than a mid-level state school. I wonder whether he would suggest that his young relative attend one of the many teacher-oriented schools in his home state of Massachusetts? After having experienced two or three different kinds of university, would I choose a different path for myself in retrospect? This sort of guessing game is always difficult to play, because I have experienced them all under different conditions, and they have all shaped me in different ways. I sometimes think of the undergraduates who worked in our research lab while I was in grad school; they certainly had broader and deeper intellectual experiences than I had as as undergraduate. But as a first-generation university attendee I grew quite a bit as an undergraduate and had a lot of fun doing it. Had I been destined for a high-flying academic research career, I think I would have had one. Some of my undergrad friends have done well on that path. My ambition, goals, and inclinations are well suited for where I've landed; that's the best explanation for why I've landed here. Would my effect on the world have been greater had I started at a Harvard? That's hard to say, but I see lots of opportunities to contribute to the world from this perch. Would I be happier, or a better citizen, or a better father and husband? Unlikely. I wish Greenspun's young relative luck in his academic career. And I hope that I can prepare my daughters to choose paths that allow them to grow and learn and contribute. -----