Ye who enter the raucous marketplace of institutions of higher education, beware that only one rule applies uniformly: Caveat emptor! That is right! Cyberspace and the media verily teem with schools whose paid barkers extol the virtues of their university or college whilst sweeping the foibles and faults under the proverbial rug. Misconceptions about quality schools abound and the resemblance between reputation and reality is sometimes quite faint. This is unsurprising, and it makes the search for a college is a a most unhappy one for the faint-hearted. Here are some myths about colleges; each is paired with a reality busting that myth.
- The Ivy League schools are the best places to go to school. Certainly it is true that the Ivy League schools are amongst the most expensive places to go to school. This is no matter of dispute here. However, even for the kid who comes loaded for bear with AP's, 1400+ SAT's and achievement tests galore, the Ivies may not be the best choice. This student may be able to get a better education at a four-year school that caters to undergraduates. These schools offer personal attention and a supportive atmosphere that their bigger, glitzier cousins more focused on graduate and professional schools just can't or won't offer. He could also save big bucks by getting into top state school honors program. The best of these programs offer small-school advantages like personal attention from faculty and small classes along with all the advantages of a big research university. Also, for students who have special interests in subjects such as architecture, engineering, art or music there may be better choices.
- There are only a handful of schools that offer superb educations. Go anywhere else and you will be marked a second-rate person. Many first-generation family immigrants come from countries where there is only one "real" university. They then persist on thinking this so in America. America is a huge place. It has nearly a third of a billion people of all sorts and stripes. Accordingly, its system of higher education contains many fine schools. No one school is going to provide you with the ticket to career nirvana. Many, many schools provide excellent undergraduate educations. Be guided by your interests, tastes and budget.
- Professors are paid to teach. This is the cruelest myth of all. The criteria for advancement or continued employment for most professors has more to do with extensive bibliographies of papers and large amounts of money raised for grant-sponsored projects. This is uniformly so in the ivies and at other institutions with big-time graduate and professional schools. At one such school, which shall remain nameless, undergraduates are referred to as "tuition nodules". At big research schools, the student must be both resourceful and aggressive to get the attention of faculty. While you can find faculty members at every institution that care deeply about undergraduate education, these people are, more often than not, a small minority of the faculty. Even at four-year schools, you must be watchful. Some of these schools have been bitten by the "research bug" and are placing increasing pressure on their faculties to raise research funding. Since each day only sports a mere 24 hours, time spent chasing grants necessarily comes out of such things as faculty-student interaction.
- Professors do teach. Many introductory courses are taught in large sections in which the professor never learns the name of most of the students. At some institutions, extensive use is made of poorly-paid graduate students to man the academic hustings in the lower-level courses. While many of these people are competent teachers, many are not. Mathematics and computer science departments are notorious for staffing their introductory courses with teaching assistants whose English is at best marginal. The higher education marketplace is not exactly thick with institutions where experienced faculty teach introductory classes in reasonably small sections. When shopping for a school, some snooping around about this matter is definitely in order. Get ahold of the student newspaper and questions students closely when you go to visit the school.
- Expensive means better. Anyone believing this one can send their excess funds to the builder of this web site, where they will be put to the best of use. The educational bang for your buck varies widely from school to school. Higher education is a difficult marketplace to navigate. Navigating it knowledgeably will enable you to increase the yield you get for each education dollar you lay out. Knowledge is your best friend.
- You will get a great education at a school with a great reputation. Beware! A school's "reputation" often lags its reality by a large number of years. Many purveyors of college rankings and ratings are hopelessly out of touch with the institutions they purport to rate. I have seen one book which purports to score the quality of undergraduate programs and then proceeds to heavily penalize undergraduate institutions for not having graduate programs! Some schools which are a little less known may be hidden gems, as yet unrecognized by the market. On the other hand, some "prestigious" places may be on the decline. Since the reputation-reality lag often is very long, a school's "reputation" can be a poor indicator of the solidity of its programs and offerings. Better a young Turk than a pauperized prince. Again, this just points out that the reward for being knowledgeable in the higher education marketplace is very high, as is the penalty for ignorance.
- All the best schools are in the East or California. The rest of the country is chockablock with quality schools. If you ignore these, you are passing up some excellent schools with distinguished programs.
Here are some useful tips for picking a school.
- Keep an open mind. Cast a wide net in places you consider and take a good look at lots of schools. You will be surprised at what you might find at different schools. Even if a given school does not immediately interest you, studying it a bit will give you a basis for comparison with other schools.
- Avail yourself of the internet! School web pages offer a great deal of useful basic information. If you heart set on engineering, you can easily determine if a school has an engineering program. If not, you can quickly drop that school from your list. If a school has an enrollment of 50,000 and you want a small school, you can filter that one out, too. Web pages are a good tool to help you build a list of schools fitting your interests, tastes, personality, and budget. As is so for any publicity vehicle, beware of the sales talk on school web sites. Other web pages offer independent sources of information about schools. Try searching with your favourite engine such as Google. School web pages often link faculty and student pages. Check these out and look for school chat sites as well. Faculty web pages can tell you a great deal about the interests of a department that interests you. This can yield critical information about whether or not a department's interests match yours. Often, these informal channels offer a gold mine of information much more useful than the university's front-door site.
- Hit the library and bookstore. Under construction here is a bibliography of useful books and other items. No one guide will provide you with all the information you need. You should look in diverse sources. If you know of something that should be added, make a case for it by sending to me. As I see interesting new items that cross my path, I will add them.
- Talk to people you know in and out of college Take the time to find out where last year's senior class went. Contact people and get some opinions. Almost everyone in a college or university has email, and many schools have email directories.
- Be guided by your interests, budget, personal preferences and academic ability. Do not pick a school solely based on its "reputation". Choose a range of schools where you have a realistic chance of being admitted. Be certain to have one or two "safties" you can live with. If you have a special requirement such as an engineering or music school, take an especially careful look at schools that offer those programs. Be guided by dollars and sense; most reading this page do not possess golden-egg-laying geese or unlimited fountains spurting money. Try to get the best education for the dollar.
On the left are the lists of schools. Remember that these lists reflect my personal preferences and prejudices!