State Schools vs. the Ivy League

Over at Kevin Drum's blog, there is an interesting exchange between Drum and an unnamed college professor. In a post that was primarily about issues related to paying for a college education, Drum wrote:

The fact is that UCLA provides undergraduates with an education that's just as good as Harvard, and the country might be a better place if we all faced up to that and took Harvard and the rest of our super-elite universities off the pedestal we've placed them on. That pedestal has long since become corrosive and damaging to the public welfare.

Alas, the unnamed professor provides provides a sobering argument that Drum is mistaken:

Based on wide experience in both private and public universities, I’d have to say that this isn’t true. People who think it is true probably aren’t aware of just how much public universities have cut, or else aren’t aware just how intensive an education private universities provide. (What I’m going to say covers the humanities and social sciences; I’m less familiar with science and engineering.)

Public universities still have excellent faculties. Their scholarship is often first-rate, and their lecturing skill is probably no worse, on average, than it is in the Ivy League. The problem is that while lecturing is cheap and easily scalable, developing writing and critical thinking skills is expensive because it’s labor intensive. For students to really engage with the material they’re reading in books and hearing about in lectures, someone smart and knowledgeable has to lead a small-group discussion. For them to learn how to make an argument and defend it against objections, they have to write lots of papers, be able to work on them with someone who knows how to write and also knows the subject matter, and have them graded by someone in a position to make serious comments so they can do better next time.

Ivy League students sometimes complain that most of the discussion-leading and careful paper-grading -- they call it “real teaching” and they’re right to do so -- is done by grad student teaching assistants, since seminars with professors are scarce. But at the University of California these days -- and I’m told it’s been like this at Michigan for decades -- graduate and undergraduate funding cuts mean that most upper-level courses have no discussion sections and no teaching assistants. In other words, the real teaching doesn’t take place at all. Papers, if they're assigned at all -- and increasingly they're not -- are graded by “readers” paid so poorly that they can only spend a few minutes on each paper, are not available for writing assistance, and can't even be required, given their meager pay for long hours, to attend the lectures in the classes they're grading for. There's no way readers can grade papers carefully in such circumstances: they put check marks in the margin when something of substance is mentioned, and pass pretty much everyone through. As for professor-led seminars, never that plentiful, they’ve all but vanished: they simply cost too much.

There's more, so go read the whole thing.


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In science and engineering, it is still possible to get as good an education at a public university (at least some public universities) as at an Ivy League university. I say this at someone who works at one of the most chronically underfunded flagship state universities in the US. We still graduate some pretty sharp people who go on to do well as grad students and beyond.

For humanities and social sciences, however, the unnamed professor is almost certainly correct. One issue the professor doesn't mention is that well-funded private schools can offer enough sections to ensure that anybody sufficiently motivated to do so can graduate in four years. Not so at my institution or many other public universities; it is routine for people to end up on five- or even six-year plans just to be able to take the courses required to graduate in their major. Hiring freezes mean that faculty slots aren't being filled, so courses are being taught by adjuncts or grad students, or not at all.

Another counterintuitive result is that for many people the Ivy League school is the net cheaper option. Big name private schools have the endowment to offer more generous financial aid packages, including grants rather than loans, to middle class students.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Jun 2012 #permalink

I often hear this myth about undergraduate education being better at Harvard, MIT etc. It's certainly not true for science education.

If you don't believe me you can check it out for yourself since MIT has put many of their undergraduate lectures online. I blogged about this in Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education? where I posted links to MIT's introductory biochemistry lectures. They are an embarrassment. The information being taught is incorrect and the level of the course is closer to high school than university.

I go to conferences on undergraduate science eduction every year. There are hundreds of educators at those meetings and almost all of them are from small colleges and public universities. They are the ones driving innovation in education, including approaches to critical thinking and student centered learning.

Notably absent from those meetings are any instructors from the "elite" private universities. It could be because they are already such perfect teachers that they don't need to learn anything about pedagogy. I suspect that's what they think but I'm certain they are wrong.

By Larry Moran (not verified) on 19 Jun 2012 #permalink

I work in a UC biology department and we still offer labs and discussions in almost all of our courses - some even taught by professors. It is true that lecture sizes continue to grow, but we have faculty who use active learning exercises in lectures of 200-400; many have attended the NAS/HHMI Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 19 Jun 2012 #permalink

The trouble is that with the reduction in state support for public universities and the concomitant increases in tuition, it's getting hard to tell the difference in costs between, say, UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Here in Virginia, the two "prestige" campuses of the state university, UVA and VPU now reject may eligible instate students in favor of out of state students who pay a higher tuition. Of course, maybe that's good for the "lesser" schools like George Mason and James Madison.

Between undergraduate and graduate school (Brown and Dartmouth) and then as a faculty member (Kansas State Univ. and James Madison Univ.) I have had experience with both Ivy League schools and big state schools. The biggest difference I've noticed is in the student body. Brown and Dartmouth had all the usual college nonsense (drinking heavily on the weekends, blowing off morning classes, leaving every assignment to the last minute), but at the end of the day just about everyone cared about their grades and took their courses seriously. Everyone was “good at school.”

In the state schools things are far more heterogeneous. You'll have your top students who could compete with anyone, but you'll also have a bottom tier of people who frankly should not be in college at all. Then there is a large middle ground of people who will do just enough work to skate by with low Bs or Cs, but who do not put any passion into their course work.

So I agree that there is a good eduction to be had at any decent college or university, but I also think the Ivy League (and comparable) schools provide a richer experience than do big state schools. It's not just an arbitrary status symbol.

Regardless, wherever you are you get out of your education what you put into it. And even in times of shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes, it is still a huge privilege and opportunity to be able to go to college at all.

Re Jason Rosenhouse @ 7:24 pm

With all due respect, I don't think it is entirely fair to consider Kansas State and James Madison to be representative of the prestige state universities such as UC Berkeley or even UVA. My experience at Berkeley a million years ago was that the weaker students usually dropped out of school after their freshman or sophomore years.

Speaking of UVA, does Prof. Rosenhouse have any opinions as to the current brouhaha going on there relative to the firing of the school's president? I suspect that many of the same issues that the governing board of Virginia's state schools are concerned about at U◊A are also present at James Madison.

I notice that, in the discussion of the various advantages or disadvantages of attending an Ivy League school vs a state university, one entire field of study has been left out, namely engineering.

I think I can state quite authoritatively that a student planning to major in one of the many sub-specialties of engineering would be well advised to attend a state university such as Berkeley, VPU, or Texas A&M for example, rather then one of the ivys. The ivys are not known for their engineering departments.

The only substantial difference between state schools and elite universities is that the latter selects students with personal and cognitive characteristics that make them more likely to succeed regardless of what school they attend. The "quality of education" or "richness of the experience" is really a secondary factor to the person receiving the education.

I attended Kansas State as an undergrad and all one needs is a high school diploma to enroll - very different than UC. I remember freshmen orientation and other incoming students discussing their 10s and 11s on the ACT. Both of my roommates bailed before the end of their first year. It is a massive weeding process after rather than before.

At the big state schools, one needs to seek out the enrichment that might be handed to her or him at a private college. All of the activities are still there.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 20 Jun 2012 #permalink

Can't speak for the other ivies, but Cornell has a solid engineering school.

By Gordon Briggs (not verified) on 20 Jun 2012 #permalink

Re Gordon Briggs # 1:10pm

Cornell differs from the other ivies because it is partially a land grant college which requires a substantial commitment to engineering. The others are entirely private schools.

SLC --

To be honest, I don't know that much about the circumstances of the resignation of UVAs President. You might find >this post, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, to be interesting.

Re jason Rosenhouse @ 11:36 am

LInk doesn't work.

The Washington Post actually did some investigative reporting last week and determined that the entire campaign to remove Ms. Sullivan was perpetrated by one member of the governing board, one Helen Dragas. Apparently, Ms. Dragas was all bent out of shape at Ms. Sullivan because the latter refused to make draconian cuts in the academic budget, which, in her considered opinion, would have adversely affected the quality of the education of students at UVA. Obviously, the quality of education at UVA is of little moment to Ms. Dragas.

Attached is a link to a commentary on a statement issued by Ms. Dragas in a local Charlottesville blog.

I'm sure that being more selective in taking students means that they can teach faster. I went to University of Texas for a year to try to catch up on my math skills, and the pace was glacial because they could only go as fast as the students.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 22 Jun 2012 #permalink