How to Make the Most of Your Higher Education: A Reply to Megan McArdle

Megan McArdle and our own Christopher Riley (who I love on “From the Top”!  Note: Apparently the humor is lost on some people.  Yes, I am aware it is not the same Christopher Riley. Sheesh.) are giving/seeking advice about college. I think McArdle is right on some things (k…

  1. drlorentz
    Avoid large research institutions like the plague.  They do not care about undergrads, indeed many of the faculty have deep contempt for undergrads.  If you like taking classes with 400 of your closest friends and taught by under-qualified grad students and adjuncts, then the big research school is for you!

    My experience was the opposite of what you describe. My undergraduate institution is principally a research university. The college is much smaller than the grad schools, only about 2000 student in my day. I never had graduate students or adjuncts teaching my classes, though grad students did conduct physics problem-solving sessions and helped set up labs. My freshman physics class had ~50 students, but after that all my classes had 20-25 students. My freshman philosophy class has ~25 students and was taught by a full professor.

    Since this was a research university, I had the opportunity to know and learn from some world-class scientists, including a couple of soon-to-be Nobel laureates. I participated (in a minor way) in some work at Fermilab. Such opportunities fire the imagination of a budding scientist but will not be available in a small school.

  2. Matthew Gilley

    I second most of it, especially the plug for History and English. I started at Wake Forest when it was still topping the list of “Best Buys;” it’s long since priced itself off that list. Still, it maintains a broad core curriculum requirement (somewhat watered down from my days) and students can’t declare a major until the end of their sophomore year. I’m grateful for my History major and how my professors taught me to argue from primary sources. Those skills were quite handy in law school (I hope that comment didn’t destroy the last of my tattered credibility).

  3. Schrodinger

    I went to an elite college. My opinion is that the “elite” colleges provide an education that is no better than the non elite colleges. The “elite” reputation comes from the fact that they can attract the top high school students from across the country, which maintains the illusion of being elite.

    It is an education because you spend four years with people who are as smart or (in my case) smarter than you (kind of like being a member of Ricochet).

    I agree that wherever you go, take a heavy load of core courses. Even if your major is in science, you will still want to take courses in the core Lib Art subjects (history, literature, languages, etc.)

    I majored in Political Science but took an equal number of other courses (History of the English Language was one I still remember). Then, ended up in Law School, although my JD was never used.

    I agree that work experience before college is a good way to get a sense of what you might want to have as a career.

  4. The Great Adventure!

    I just finished putting my son through a 4 year private school – Seattle Pacific Univ.  I can’t say enough about how fantastic the experience was for him – small classes and very close working relationships with  the professors.  In his case, attending a public university was not an option – he double majored in Theology and Educational Ministries with a minor in Scriptures.  You won’t find much course work in those areas at a public school.

    BUT!  He received a very good scholarship (approx 50% of his tuition), and “only” had to take out $10K in student loans.  We were able to foot the rest.  It was very expensive.  I would ask the non-Christian Rico members to overlook this, but God definitely provided in our case.  If he were starting this Fall instead of the Fall of 08, I don’t know how we would have made it.

    So I would wholeheartedly endorse most of CK’s recommendations.  Unless you have a compelling reason to go the private school route (like wanting to study Theology and Ed Min!).

  5. John Murdoch
    drlorentz

    My experience was the opposite of what you describe. My undergraduate institution is principally a research university. The college is much smaller than the grad schools, only about 2000 student in my day. My freshman physics class had ~50 students, but after that all my classes had 20-25 students. My freshman philosophy class has ~25 students and was taught by a full professor.

    I participated (in a minor way) in some work at Fermilab. Such opportunities fire the imagination of a budding scientist but will not be available in a small school.

    The advantage of attending an elite school is this: I know, from this quote, where drlorentz went to school. And I know that another graduate from this school went on to a tenured chair at Harvard Medical School. (Not to mention an adjunct at the law school who now has a big-time federal job….)

    The advantage of elite schools isn’t the education. It’s whom you meet, whom you marry, and where your friends go over the course of their lives. It’s the network.

  6. Augustine

    SC reminds me of something I meant to say. I have a good friend who went to Stanford, granted many years ago. He insists the the classroom education and our backwater public school is better than Stanford by long shot. A couple years ago Amity Schlaes published a piece (which I will not look up as I am on the unwieldy kindle, also explaining why I cannot spell her name correctly) saying that smart kids do well pretty much where ever the go to school. Going elite is largely for ego, both for parents and kid.

  7. Chris Anderson

    Is the worst choice (aside from obvious diploma-mills) the non-elite, expensive private college? Seems to me that it could be, but that ignores affiliation-type reasons that some kids attend these colleges. It could be a church affiliation, or that your mother or father is active in the alumni network, or some other reason. Not sure if MRS degree jokes are still relevant (I graduated college in the 80′s) but friends and potential spouses are a big part of the college experience.

    For an above-average but not spectacular student, a mid-size state university with a strong liberal arts program offers a lot of advantages, foremost in cost, but also flexibility in switching majors without having to switch schools (YMMV).

    The network benefits are there as well, but tend to decay over distance as opposed to an elite university.

  8. Garrett Petersen

    We must consider the signalling aspect of schooling as well as the learning and networking aspects.  While you do learn some useful things in university, the main thing you get is a piece of paper that says you’re reasonably smart, hard-working, and conformist, all things employers find desirable.  If you go to Yale, doesn’t matter whether you retain any useful knowledge, you have proven that you’re someone clever enough to graduate from Yale.

    The big problem with choosing a major is that nobody really knows what the major entails until they’ve taken a load of courses in it already.  The fields that don’t get interesting until higher levels (statistics!) have too few people entering them, but the people who do enter get a satisfying, interesting career, and a high wage because few people enter their field.  I don’t have a perfect solution, but it’s important for people to recognize that statisticians don’t do stats 101 all day, and that English degree-holders don’t do English 101 all day.

  9. RushBabe49

    Umm… I hate to correct, but the Ricochet Christopher Riley is an entirely different person from Christopher O’Reilly, the pianist who hosts “From the Top”.

    As to colleges, I have a BS from Washington State, and an  MA from U of Minnesota, but the by-far-best education I ever received was the courses I took toward an AA in Purchasing Management at Shoreline Community College.  In fact, the young man from whom I took Micro-Economics entirely changed the way I see the world, and made an economics buff out of me.  I decided that the best way to study human behavior is study economics.   Don’t reject the community college system before you try it-the teachers there are guaranteed to care whether you learn, and they are always helpful. 
  10. drlorentz
    John Murdoch

    The advantage of attending an elite school is this: I know, from this quote, where drlorentz went to school. And I know that another graduate from this school went on to a tenured chair at Harvard Medical School. (Not to mention an adjunct at the law school who now has a big-time federal job….)

    The advantage of elite schools isn’t the education. It’s whom you meet, whom you marry, and where your friends go over the course of their lives. It’s the network.

    Mr Murdoch may be right in his speculation regarding my college, but surely incorrect in every other respect. I lost contact with all my professors in college, I did not marry anyone from there, and (regrettably) lost touch with most college friends over the years. In any case, none of them could be of any possible ‘use’ as Mr Murdoch envisions as they were all in unrelated fields of study. Talk about confirmation bias!

    The point of my original post was quite the opposite, as anyone can discern by simply reading it. The facts (as opposed to speculations) of my experience were at variance with the situation described my Mr King.

  11. Z in MT

    “Avoid large research institutions like the plague.  They do not care about undergrads, indeed many of the faculty have deep contempt for undergrads.  If you like taking classes with 400 of your closest friends and taught by under-qualified grad students and adjuncts, then the big research school is for you!”

    I would have to disagree with you here.  A good undergraduate is worth 5 mediocre graduate students in the lab any day.  The thing is, in a research lab you pay undergraduates hourly (maximum 20 hours a week) during the school year, but you pay graduate students a salary plus tuition.  The great thing about undergraduates is that the more you pay them the more they are worth, whereas with graduate student you pay upfront, most of the time you get disappointed and sometimes you find one worth it.

    Maybe I am just jaded because in my department we can’t seem to recruit any decent graduate students.

  12. Z in MT

    If this isn’t clear from my post above, if you are going into the hard sciences or some of the engineering disciplines the most important thing you can do is get work in a research lab.  If you are smart, curious, and work hard it will get noticed and you will be able to gain hands on experience while still taking classes.

  13. drlorentz
    Garrett Petersen: We must consider the signalling aspect of schooling as well as the learning and networking aspects.  While you do learn some useful things in university, the main thing you get is a piece of paper that says you’re reasonably smart, hard-working, and conformist, all things employers find desirable.  If you go to Yale, doesn’t matter whether you retain any useful knowledge, you have proven that you’re someone clever enough to graduate from Yale.

    …statisticians don’t do stats 101 all day, and that English degree-holders don’t do English 101 all day.

    Again, I find myself in alien territory. My undergraduate coursework in my major and related fields provided an essential foundation for my further studies and life’s work. I use the skill I learned there every day. Of course, we all continue to learn and build upon the foundation. However, such growth would be impossible without it.

    Perhaps Mr Petersen’s observations apply to social sciences or humanities, but they are quite inaccurate in mathematics and natural science. You cannot be a physicist without knowing what is covered in college physics classes, even if you don’t learn it in college.

  14. drlorentz
    John Murdoch

    The advantage of elite schools isn’t the education. … It’s the network.

    As a youth, I was often told of the great importance of making contacts: the network. I heard this from many quarters. Yet as a working adult I observed that this was almost never true. I got my first job by responding to an ad in Physics Today. The new employees we’ve hired over the years came to us in much the same way (through ads) or resume postings by professional societies (APS, OSA). I’ve manned a booth at conferences to find new people. Anyone can join the societies and come to meetings.

    I’ve also interviewed people from very prestigious schools and from less prestigious schools. The cold, hard reality is that the former tend to be better than the latter, lending some credence to one of the ideas expressed in #11, though without the negative connotation.

    Others may have different experiences, but opinions are often not based on experience. As a scientist, I prefer data to received wisdom. Networking didn’t matter to me. Or at least, that’s what we elites would like you to think ;)

  15. Misthiocracy
    Cattle King: 

    2. Smaller is better. Small class sizes taught by full-time faculty members.  Go to a place that really values undergraduate instruction.

    My one quibble with your post is the value you place on full-time faculty members.

    Going solely from my own university experience, the classes where I felt I learned the most stuff that I could actually use later in life were taught in the evenings by part-time teachers who had full-time jobs in “the real world”.

    These teachers were able to apply examples, cases, and situations from their “real” work to the classroom.

    These were classes in public relations, “message design” (i.e. propaganda and persuasion), writing, web design, and media production.

  16. Lady Grey

    I doubt if Christopher Riley, who posted “Are There Decent Colleges Left?” on Ricochet is the same person as Christopher O’Riley, the concert pianist who hosts the NPR program “From the Top”  and attended The New England Conservatory of Music.

  17. Misthiocracy

    Addendum: I heard this piece of advice after I had already graduated from university, so it was too late for me, but I’ll repeat it here for what it’s worth:

    No matter what you want to do in life, major in one of the “useful” subjects, such as business, law, computer science, or engineering. Then make sure every single one of your electives are related to what you really want to do in life.

    You want to be a painter or a writer? The vast majority of your time will be spend managing your career like an entrepreneur, so major in something like business or law and fill up your electives with fine arts or English courses.

    You want to be a filmmaker? It’s called show “business” for a reason. Major in business or law so you know how to survive in the industry. You can learn how to direct on your own time. Or, if you want to work on the technical side of the industry, that’s where an engineering or computer science degree is more useful.

    I have a friend who got himself an MBA and does Improv comedy. He’s super-happy.

  18. Valiuth

    Why all the hate on grad school  Sure it takes for ever, but if you are a science person I say go try a PhD, but be ready to leave after 3 years with a Masters if you find the life too tedious. As a science graduate student you actually get paid (biology people at least do) and no one forces you to do too much teaching. Certainly not at major research institutions. The one thing to watch out for is a dead end project and underfunded PI. Take an easy sure fire project, and if some one asks you to play around with something new and untried just walk away. 

  19. Fricosis Guy

    A few comments:

    • Network effects are more important in fields that rely on connections: especially rent seeking and giving industries like the law, investment banking, big pharma, insurance, higher education, politics.

    • The biggest difference in elite schools and mid-tier schools is at the end of the tail.  It is hard to find a “tail” in a Harvard Business School class. However, I could look around in my top 50 MBA program class and see 10%+ about whom  I wondered:  ”How did they get in?”
    • If your child has strong SAT/ACT scores, I’d encourage them to go to a school that both of you like, which  you can afford to send them without student loans.
    • If your child struggles with standardized tests and cannot improve via coaching, look hard at a strong vo-tech program or trade. Welders, plumbers, and machinists do not get outsourced and the jobs go begging.
    drlorentz

    John Murdoch

    The advantage of elite schools isn’t the education. … It’s the network.

    As a youth, I was often told of the great importance of making contacts: the network. Yet as a working adult I observed that this was almost never true.

  20. Chris Campion

    I think it’s a really bad idea, straight out of the gate, to advocate for a more generic liberal arts degree (like English) and argue that it develops the ability to think, and to argue, and creates a better job candidate right out of college.  I’ve worked at a college, and I’ve hired people.  I’ve worked with students.  Considering that the labor market is always a buyer’s market, and is much more so now, the lack of real-world skills will put that resume’ either at the bottom of the pile or it will be deleted.

    Anything that’s taught in a humanities class can be read, for free, from a public library.  Being able to do analysis in Excel, to write code, or to have a degree in the STEM majors will provide the means for a graduate to feed him- or herself, and to live their lives less under the burden of not having read Kierkegaard, but they won’t be living in Mom’s basement at age 32.  I suspect that’s also a lesson worth learning, too.

    There’s far too much self-love in higher ed.

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