Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beware of college rankings

Beware of college rankings like this list.  A higher ranking based on someone else's arbitrary metrics may not suit your needs.   A coworker, who had attended Cambridge University (ranked higher than UC Berkeley) horrified me with a description of his university education.

Teenagers in Britain are expected to pick a course of study when they apply to university.  Some universities do that in the US, too.  But the horrifying thing is that, under the British system, they study nothing but that subject.

He majored in chemistry so he took mathematics classes offered just for chemistry students, teaching him just the mathematics that he needed to solve chemistry problems.  He never took another history or humanities class after secondary (high) school!

Can you imagine being allowed only to take classes that you "need" for a profession you selected when you were 17-18?

Cambridge's smaller overall class sizes boost their ratings.  I did suffer through a handful of lower-division classes with hundreds of fellow students.  Berkeley is also so cash-strapped that some classes are cross-listed as both upper division and graduate classes at the same time.  Those can be incredibly difficult classes with brutal grading curves.

Running service  classes (courses offered by a department for students in other fields) specifically designed for each major is financially out of the question at Berkeley.  But that forced me to take history classes alongside history majors, english with english majors, mathematics with mathematics majors, physics with physics majors, etc.  In no way should that be considered inferior.

This cost-effective approach also allowed me to learn other disciplines in depth--and not just what I needed for chemistry.  In fact, I discovered a love for useless ("pure") mathematics and persevered through some pretty tough classes (cross-listed as graduate-level classes) to earn a BA in mathematics.

A BA also requires an area of concentration outside of your major, which gave me an excuse to take  four semesters of history and more coursework in language, literature and sociology.

I would never have had those opportunities under Oxbridge's narrower educational system.

High school seniors are making some tough decisions this season. But don't let the pursuit of a brand name education and fear of a few large classes dissuade you from a large and broad university.

A brand name education can also narrow your choices after graduation.  College rankings factor in alumni career earnings.  But, alumni of private colleges need to earn more so that they can pay back their higher student loans.  Attending a large public university can give you the financial freedom to pursue careers that make you happy and/or make a difference to society in ways that aren't measured in dollars.

Part of the appeal of elite private schools is the hope that you will meet children of the elite that can help you later in life.  A big public university educates a fair number of children of the elite, too.  But, part of the value of Big State U is that you will meet people from all walks of life.  Meeting people from public housing and the first in their extended family to attend university is also valuable.

One thing I can't argue with is that private colleges hand out higher grades for the extra money.  See this and other illuminating statistics at  Think of that as an opportunity to write an extra personal statement (under "explain any circumstances affecting your academic record not covered in the other questions").

I'd like to end by making a shameless plug for chemistry--the central science bridging the biological and physical sciences--and for mathematics--the language of science.  This liberal education has helped me make sense of the world.  Technology inevitably changes, but the sciences, mathematics and historical perspective will never be obsolete.


  1. In the shameless plug department, I'm writing to suggest your family take a look at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Last time I checked, MHC had graduated more women who went on to PhDs than any other US undergraduate-degree-granting institution. Not more-for-its-size, just more. The sciences are particularly strong there. Mount Holyoke would be happy to set you up with some alums to talk to - I loved it there, and I was respected and valued.

  2. My daughter chose McGill University (she's still there, working on a PhD in statistics), and then chose a very focused honors program, where nearly all the courses she took during 3 years of study were in mathematics. I would have been troubled by that narrow focus, except for the very high quality distance learning program she had for her high school education. I judged the quality of her humanities courses in high school to be at the same level as the same courses in public universities here in New York. In the end, it was her choice.

  3. @ Pamela
    You make a good point about traditionally women's colleges. While Mt Holyoke, and others, produce a high % of women who go on to earn PhDs in Science, NSF says that Berkeley enjoys the distinction of graduating the most (absolute #) female undergraduates that go on to earn PhDs in STEM.

    I can't find the NSF report right now, but the stats are compiled here:

  4. I think this is an old debate of "breadth vs depth" in college education, which seems to be American vs European university system. I got my undergraduate degree in Russian university, where 90% of all courses were either physics or math, with 1 course per semester in humanities and 1 course in foreign language. While I certainly missed an opportunity to take some potentially illuminating courses in history, sociology, archeology, etc., my physics preparation was way stronger than for most american students, when I started graduate school at a US university. And I probably wouldn't change it now, even if I could go back.
    The big distiction, imho, is if a person going to college knows what he/she is going to do for the rest of the life. Some do - and the focused programs are great for those guys. I think the European system assumes that most people have figured this out by the time they apply to the university. US system is much more flexible, and don't really pushes students to decide before they had some college experience. Again, there are pros and cons, and the right choice is different for different individuals.
    I agree that US system is definitely the best for people who are not sure about their interests/potential careers when they start college, and the liberal art approach is the most beneficial for them, since it exposes them to many different subjects and thus may open new career options they have not considered before.
    At William and Mary our students required to take at least 72 credits (out of 120) outside their major, and it is very exciting to see many unexpected double-majors: physics and English, physics and history, physics and art. In many cases these are students who came with one program in mind, but got excited by another subject and decided to study this as well.

    And I want to second the recommendation for Mount Holyoke - one of my current Ph.D. students graduated from there, and she is one of the best grad. students I worked with. I think women - only colleges, or at least colleges with smaller classes and more student-faculty interactions may be a more comfortable environment for some girls, since they tend to provide more supportive and nurturing environment.

  5. I also think very highly of Mt Holyoke. But, the small liberal arts schools are small. Berkeley educates ten times as many undergraduates. Some midwestern state flagship universities are 20 times larger than Mt Holyoke and its peers.

    Right now, as we debate how best to allocate educational resources to the many that need it, we need to look for solutions that scale. I don't think that MOOCs are a panacea. I don't want to shorten college to 3 vocational years.

    Yet, students need face time with teachers to learn how to analyze problems instead of just amassing data with search engines. But, small colleges will never handle as many students as large public universities.

    I want to remind people that it is possible to get a good liberal arts education cost-effectively, at Big State U.