For the first two years I was in graduate school, I shared an apartment with a math grad student. We had both come to the BigU after graduating from a small liberal arts college, and, in graduate school, we shared the opinion that BigU, despite its reputation for excellence, was a giant organization that didn't really care much about its students, undergraduate or graduate.
Our experiences as grad students diverged, however, because I was fortunate to find myself in a department with an ambitious but supportive group of graduate students. As I've described in previous posts, I have remained friends and colleagues with many of my fellow graduate students, and in fact credit my continuing in academia to this remarkable group.
My friend found herself in a highly competitive and hostile department in which the graduate students undermined each other (perhaps imitating their advisers?) and were generally unfriendly. Some were pleased when a classmate failed because it reduced the pool of candidates applying for jobs.
My friend went on to become a successful math professor at a 2-year college, but her loathing of BigU lives on, undiminished after more than 20 years.
We were talking recently, and I asked if her son, who will be a senior in high school next year, is interested in big universities or small colleges, and she said, emphatically, that he will definitely go to a small college. Her son is interested in computers and possibly electrical engineering, but she is quite certain that big universities are terrible places to be a student. [Yes, I know that there are other types of universities, but I asked her about the extremes in the US higher education spectrum.]
I have found when talking to friends and colleagues about their offspring's college choices that, unless I also know the offspring well, it's difficult to discern the opinion of the parent vs. the opinion of the offspring. For this discussion, however, it doesn't really matter. What interested me is that my friend thinks that large universities are just like BigU: ghastly places to be a student of any sort.
If I had had no other experiences of universities other than graduate school, I would probably continue to share her opinion, despite having emerged from BigU with more positive experiences than she had.
Now, however, I disagree with this view about big universities based on my subsequent experiences at various other universities.
I therefore mentioned the following to my friend:
- Even 20+ years ago, I think that BigU was extreme in its lack of interest in its own students. Even back then, there were other big universities that did a better job of providing a good intellectual environment for their students. It's not a good idea to extrapolate from our BigU experiences of bygone days.
- Today, even BigU has programs for first year students, has an honors program, allows students to take courses in cohorts, has orientations, better advising, encourages research experiences, has more pleasant on-campus housing, and has professors who care about (and are rewarded for) excellent teaching.
A motivated student at a large university can have some of the same experiences that are so highly valued at colleges; e.g., small classes and research experiences advised by a professor.
Certainly there are major differences between colleges and universities, and I do not regret at all the fact that I went to a small college, but I have a very positive view of the educational experiences that can be found at the BigUs.
I am years away from exploring college/university options with my daughter, but unless she has her own strong opinions about college vs. university, I hope that we will look at both types of schools and see what each has to offer.
8 years ago