Selecting a college with your child is an agonizing ordeal. Triply agonizing, in fact. First, choosing the right school from among dozens of viable options is anxiety-inducing. Second, there’s the ignominy of actually having to listen to your teenager’s peculiar ideas as to what’s in his or her best interest. Finally, there’s the trauma of tuition. The cost of a college education, after all, can easily exceed a quarter-million dollars.
In hopes of somewhat alleviating your agony, I offer the following tips as you begin searching for a dream school. Having taught college for a quarter century, having sat on admissions committees, and having recently published a tell-all about American professors, permit me to make some helpful, and occasionally unorthodox, suggestions:
Ignore the rankings: I would urge parents to pay no heed to popular college ranking systems. Those listicles are based on input and metrics (e.g., alumni giving rate, the opinions of high-school college counselors) that have little to do with the quality of undergraduate instruction. If you must obsess over rankings, then you’d be far better off checking the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which compares the cost of college with the average salary after graduation. At least it gives you a general sense of what your return on investment might be.
Enjoy the campus tour, but …: A campus tour lets you gawk at the new freshman living space (with architectural flourishes inspired by Gaudí), and the all-quinoa cafeteria. It does not, however, equip you with much information about what’s really important. Remember, your primary task is to figure out how your kid will be educated at this institution. Does this college have a pedagogical philosophy? Does it aspire to forge a certain type of mind, and even a soul? Few campus tours ever answer those questions, if only because few college administrations ever ask them. (Far better are personalized, student-led services like Campus Sherpa where clients might be smuggled into actual college classes).
Don’t Trust, Verify: No college website or brochure is complete without an image of a begoggled chemist sharing a hearty laugh with begoggled sophomore. My point being that every seat of learning in America projects an image of a faculty teeming with committed and conscientious pedagogues. Those scholars do exist at every school. But they exist in the minority and they exist by accident. They exist in spite of a dysfunctional professorial culture and the policies of cynical administrators. Parents, then, must be wary of any and all claims about “our distinguished scholar-teachers.”
Professors are important: Nothing is more central to a college experience than the 30 to 40 professors who will spend about 1,800 hours in the classroom with your son or daughter. If only scholars and their employers understood that as well! In professorial culture, teaching is viewed as grunge work, grin-and-bear-it toil. From the day we set foot in graduate school we are taught that the classroom is something to be avoided at all costs in order to facilitate unadulterated research time. As you read this, countless professors on the tenure-line are scheming ever-ingenious ways to avoid dealing with undergraduates. And while they’re applying for grants, or shaking down deans for “research leave,” the instruction of sophomores is left to overworked, underpaid, “part-time,” or contingent faculty. This cruel division of labor, astonishingly, is especially pronounced at elite schools. Your job, then, is to figure out. . . .
Where are the Professors?: I was once dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that a colleague was up for promotion whom I did not even know was my colleague. According to legend, he had been with us for a decade. His office, I later learned, was a hundred feet from my own! Among professors the reward for scholarly achievement is delinquency. This is why it is hazardous to select a school on the basis of “strength of faculty.” The strongest faculty will be on “research leave,” or in another hemisphere, or simply unaccounted for when the semester begins.
Who are the Professors?: Parents, then, must think long and hard about who will likely be teaching their kids. Easier said than done. Schools are not forthcoming with that data. Smart consumers scour course offerings, departmental websites, and the Registrar’s homepage in order to answer one crucial question: does this school consistently place its best paid and most valued scholars (i.e., tenure-line faculty and/or properly compensated non-tenure line faculty) in front of undergraduates? The dark corollary to this question is: does this school consistently place poorly paid, exploited and demoralized “part-time” faculty in front of its undergraduates.
Class size: “Massification” is the term that scholars of education use to describe the predicament of an undergrad sitting in a classroom with more than 25 other students. Study after study relates that massification degrades learning outcomes. It is also particularly hazardous for freshmen and sophomores. Look for schools that can proffer hard data about their small-class settings (as opposed to the highly misleading “Faculty-to-Student-Ratio” statistic), especially in the first year.
Experiential Learning: The new gold standard in higher education bucks against the massification trend. Conscientious college administrations pair students with professors on projects that are meaningful to both. This interaction is a huge boon to an undergraduate’s self-esteem, intellectual development, not to mention his or her career trajectory. A school that is truly committed to experiential learning should be able to spotlight hundreds of examples of professor/student research collaborations on its website.
Resist “the Heteropatriarchy”: Unless you wish for your kid to be indoctrinated into one blinkered political worldview, then look for schools that aren’t characterized by a “party line.” The scholarly association known as Heterodox Academy makes much of the importance of “viewpoint diversity,” something sorely lacking on many elite Liberal Arts faculties. Parents should never underestimate how un-enriching an education can be when it always leads a student to conclude that “Neo-Liberalism,” or “the Heteropatriarchy,” are the root causes of all our problems.
Honors Colleges: In many ways an Honors College represents an institutional effort to deal with all the deficiencies of American undergraduate education alluded to above. These units (here is a handy guide are usually carved out from larger schools. They may possess a “war chest” which lets them lure high-performing applicants away from highly ranked places where professorial buy-in will be minimal. In short, these administrations try to identify the best scholar-teachers on the Quad (regardless of their politics), place them in small classroom settings, and properly train them and incentivize them to completely commit to undergraduate teaching. That’s what all colleges should be doing. And that’s what all parents should be looking for.
Jacques Berlinerblau is Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. His most recent book is “Campus Confidential: How College Works, Or Doesn’t, For Professors, Parents, and Students” (Melville House)