Thursday, May 20, 2010


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.


Anonymous said...

I'm in one of the top 20 universities in my country, UK, and my experiences had been positive...despite my being slightly autistic which was the stem of most unrests but that's just minor issues which got corrected after getting help (that's very readily available if you vaguely know what you were looking for.)

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student at a BigU and was an undergrad at a SLAC (which I had a great experience at).

My BigU is famous as being one of the premier BigU's for undergrad education. Getting into BigU is very competitive - more than most SLACs in the state. Undergrads apparently believe that BigU is the place to be to get a great education.

Despite all this, I have been consistently underwhelmed by the quality of undergrad teaching and the care the faculty have for undergrad students. I know of two faculty who actually care about undergrad teaching. OTOH, I know half a dozen faculty who openly belittle their students to other faculty and TA's, talking about how stupid they are. The rest I've encountered have a "if I really must teach, I guess I'll do the bare minimum" attitude.

If this is how it is at a supposedly "top notch" for undergrad ed. BigU, I shudder at what it must be like at the rest of them. I can't imagine it being much worse...

Anonymous said...

I did my undergrad at SmallerCommuterUniversity which worked out really well. I am now doing my graduate work at BigHugeUniversity, which is also working out well. I think I'd have a much harder time doing undergrad work here at BigHugeUniversity even though the environment is PERFECT for me as a grad student. I couldn't take the competitiveness so well when my incoming class was all smooshed up in one first semester class but when we diverged to different departments/labs, I stopped feeling like I was behind. On the other hand, I did fine in intro classes with 250+ students at SmallCommuterUniversity.

Yeah competitiveness is always much more a factor than size. Easy to get the two confused.

lost academic said...

Now I feel I must recommend an older book by Neal Stephenson, entitled The Big U. It was out of print for awhile, but they brought it back around the time his newer stuff became more popular.

Anonymous said...

Math departments can be cesspools of ignorance and stupidity. My experience as a math graduate student at BigU was exactly the same as your friend's experience. Now I'm on the tenure-track at one such math department at BigU.

I would like to write just how difficult it. But reluctant to do so having read all the posts on lack of anonymity and caution against writing about your current situation. At the same time I need some help and perspective on stuff in order to get tenure.

I wish I could get together with some other people and start a joint blog. Here's one issue I would like to write about.

In my department the faculty are friendly on the surface but routinely undermine each other's scholarly initiatives. Advancement is based on forming alliances not on merit.

Kevin said...

Disclaimer: I have only had personal experience as a student or faculty member at BigU schools (smallest has been a UC campus with about 8k students at the time, largest had over 40k).

For a student in science or engineering, it can be very difficult to get enough opportunities for undergrad research at a small liberal arts college. A few work hard to place their students in labs, but there are usually many fewer choices.

Of course, a lot depends on the individual student---being at a BigU requires the student to seek out the opportunities, as it is much easier for students to get lost in the crowds. Some students do much better with closer mentoring and a reduced array of choices, and for them a BigU can be a very bad fit indeed.

I believe that some of the best choices for undergrads are mid-sized schools with enough size to have a wide range of research possibilities but small enough classes and cohorts not to be completely crowded out. I think it is getting harder to find such schools though, as they are almost all trying hard to grow into BigU schools.

Dave Backus said...

It depends on the place. I just went through this myself. I like the feel of small liberal arts colleges, but they don't have the same depth in technical areas. Maybe something in the middle? In the end, it's a match between student and school: he/she should visit and see what feels best.

Anonymous said...

I am a product of BigUs (4 successive degrees) and have always romanticized the small college. But recently I realized that while small colleges may be great for some students, and probably would have benefited me to some extent, there is no place like a BigU. Especially those that have incorporated things you mentioned like an honors program, first year programs, etc. It is easier to slip through the cracks at a BigU, yes. But if students take advantage of the huge amount of resources at many BigUs and join smaller groups or get involved in their major departments, I'm not so sure there is a huge difference.

Anonymous said...

I went to a BigU and now work at a very expensive private small U. I hope my kids will go to a BigU. In my experience, some small colleges definitely offer phenomenal opportunities, but some really drop the ball and offer very little that's not fluff. However, there are always many opportunities at BigU's -- it's just a question of finding them.

One of the perks of my job now is that my kids will have free ride here, if they get in and choose to come. It's an incredible benefit, and one that seems to be rare these days. I hope they will not have to use it, for many reasons....

Chris said...

I had rather an adventurous undergraduate career, and was exposed to a number of colleges and universities as a student. I have seen BigPublicU, BigPrivateU, SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and several variations. My experience was that academic excellence and caring faculty mattered much more than the size of the institution. And I didn't find institution size to be a really good predictor. A perceptive person can usually get a good idea of the character of an institution, or a department, in a half day visit. At least in regards to these attributes.

Charles Sutton said...

I also did my undergrad at a small liberal arts college and am now a professor at a BigU. I enjoyed my undergraduate immensely, but since then I've come to see the benefits of BigUs, which is basically that there are so many more things, both academically and outside, that you can do. It's like being in a city instead of a small town.

It's possible to get lost in a BigU, just as it's possible to get lost in the big city. But it's a mistake to say that one is uniformly better than the other. These days I'm inclined to recommend BigUs, in the same way that I'd recommend aspiring actors to go to New York, but that may just be "grass is greener" talking.

GMP said...

Anon 01:57 says of porfessors at BigU

"if I really must teach, I guess I'll do the bare minimum" attitude."

Being a professor at BigU, I can tell you that most of my colleagues care about teaching, but teaching is not rewarded adequately; so if you want to be recongized, rewarded (tenure, promotion, etc.) you do a good-enough job at teaching and put all your energy into research. That's just how big R1 universities are. Actually, in BigU's, if you are overzealous about teaching, you are hurting your career -- people think of all the time you should but are not devoting to research.
If you look overzealous in your tenure-track application, you won't get interviewed.

In my department, there are a number of good teachers, but a good undergrad experience requires for most students some sort of a personal touch. I admit most faculty don't have enough time for that... It's not the lack of caring, fopr most people; it's weighing what gives you recognition and a raise vs how many hours are in a day.

You win some, you lose some. I definitely say BigU for grad school. SLAC seems to be a good undergrad choice for most students.

And the sport of berating students and TAs as stupid -- I have seen/heard it everywhere. Those people are just jerks, and I don't think representative of most faculty (at least in my field). While there are some insufferable spoilt brats undergrads around, around who think my job is customer service satisfaction, I by-and-large love my BigU students (undergrad and grad) and enjoy teaching. I think most of my colleagues are the same.

Sofia said...

Math departments certainly are special, and we are lacking a blog that discusses academic life as opposed to mathematics itself. I have also thought of starting such a blog but have been afraid of both the difficulties with pseudonyms and the challenge of coming up with content regularly. Send me an email if you're interested in starting a joint blog!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:36's comment reminds me of a discussion I had with my advisor once about whether his kid (who was 2 at the time) would go to MIT. He was of the opinion that even if an MIT free ride existed for his kid, the undergrad environment there made the free ride a net lose.

Anonymous said...

Kevin's statement about the difficulty of finding a research experience at a SLAC is false. Sure, of course there's a reduced number of labs doing research -- but in the absence of grads, the profs NEED the undergrads to be doing research if they ever want to publish anything, and therefore take many students (especially in proportion to their student body size). And that means that undergrads can get on papers with faculty (often as the lead author) with quite some regularity. In fact, profs will actively pursue competent students to do research in their labs.

But of course there are tons of research opportunities at BigU. It's just important not to malign one or the other, especially without experience on both sides of the fence.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic. I often think about how my children's attitudes towards education will be colored by my husband and me.

My parents had no science or engineering background. My dad went to college at night and my mom went to a small local college. They had no idea how to relate to my interests and certainly couldn't offer much advice- however, I was given freedom to make my own choices. I originally thought a small college was for me but after visiting I knew right away I'd choose a larger research university.

The story above about the MIT prof is the opposite of my own. My husband and I are alums and if one of our children showed an interest in going there, we'd definitely encourage it! Just another example of how personal these experiences are.

Anonymous said...

@anon 8:22
There is a ton of variation in SLAC research opportunities. I know of several schools where faculty do continue research programs in the way you suggest, but I also know of many that essentially have no research on campus (lack of money, too heavy teaching loads, etc). Students have to be careful when selecting their SLAC to pick one that isn't teaching only.

geekmommyprof said: "Being a professor at BigU, I can tell you that most of my colleagues care about teaching, but teaching is not rewarded adequately"

this is anon 1:57
Yeah, but that's part of my point. I don't understand how BigU can be considered a top place to get an education by undergrads when 95% of faculty don't (or can't) care about teaching. IMO this kind of atmosphere leads directly to a disproportionate number of the kinds of jerks I was talking about, it's not the same everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I went to a medium-ish private religious university (5k undergrads, 5k grad students mostly in law/education/business/some divinity) where my (physical science) department was teeny-tiny (4 faculty; ~7 students graduating in my year, which was a relatively large year for the dept). I LOVED my experience--incredibly supportive department, awesome research experience, lots of great experiences at the school outside the department. And I always kind of thought a big school would NOT have been for me. I actually came to college dead set on studying to be a teacher in a humanities subject but only ended up coming to science because of the persuasion of the professor I had when I took a class in the dept for a gen ed requirement.

Now I'm in grad school at a BigU (which is also distinct from my undergrad school in that it's in a college town rather than a major metropolitan area... also makes for a very interesting cultural difference if not an academic one). I really love my department and think this was an awesome choice for grad school, but I do wonder what the undergrad experience is like. I have a few friends in my program who also did their undergrads here and for the most part they seem to have had a great experience and are fiercely loyal to it, I think because they were really driven, knew what they wanted to do, and early on in their college careers became associated with the department and other organizations that because kind of like a "sub-college" to them. But I also definitely see a ton of kids drifting along/screwing around who would probably be a lot better off at a smaller U. (Although then again I have ~$80k in student debt so maybe they WOULDN'T better off having that!!)

So I guess I'm basically repeating what everyone else has said--I'm sure there are other advantages to BigUs that I'm not even aware of, but it just comes down to the individual student. I've pretty much always been in the camp that college is what YOU make of it. I picked my school because it was close to home, most of my cousins had gone there and I didn't really know where else to go. The religion it's affiliated with is something one side of my family practices but I wasn't really raised in, and it drove me nuts sometimes. And frankly, the undergrad population there has a well-established reputation for being stuck-up douchebags. So I pretty much thought I would hate it... but I ended up finding a ton of amazing people who defied the stereotype and made my experience completely awesome!!

Anonymous said...

I loved my undergrad experience at a small liberal arts college, but I had miserable experiences as both a grad student at a large research university and at a professor at a private liberal arts college. (The research university seemed not to care about undergrads, the liberal arts college seemed to care about making the undergrads love the experience, whether or not they learned anything.) There are times when I'm not sure I want my kid to go to college at all! But in the end, I know that what he gets out of college will depend much more on him than on the institution, so I'll try to keep my mouth shut and not let my extreme cynicism about academia affect his choices. (And push him to be curious and independent, regardless of where he goes.)

Kim said...

Having recently seen the results of undergrad research projects at a public liberal arts college, I can say that undergrad-only engineering programs not only can provide research experiences, but can push students to do very interesting and creative work. Undergrad research opportunities are not a good reason to choose large research universities over liberal arts colleges.

Pagan Topologist said...

I also attended a (very) small college as an undergraduate. There were 45 people in my graduating class. I then attended a middle sized university and later a very large one for grad school. I think both experiences were worthwhile, but I am not sure I would have done as well as an undergrad at a large university.

I am now on the faculty at University of Delaware, which is middle sized by today's standards, I think.

Sharon said...

My perspective is that at a smaller school, you almost have to get a good undergraduate education -- small classes, get to know your professors, etc. At big universities like where I went to grad school and where I teach, you can get an amazing education, but you have to search it out. In our major, students can get away with almost no professors knowing their name, minimal feedback, and very few extras. But they also can leave with tons of research experience, volunteer activities, thesis research, even publications/presentations. So, depends on student's personality as to which is a better fit.

Female Science Professor said...

I read The Big U (N Stephenson) years ago and didn't really like it (giant sewer rats?) but it did capture some of the surreal elements of BigUs.

CyndiF said...

I received my undergraduate EE degree at a BigU (Texas). I had a great experience including in large, general undergraduate classes outside my major. In my opinion, a big research university offers an enormous array of options to a motivated undergrad. However, the student has to have initiative to seek them out. It is easy to get lost at a big school. I think smaller schools can be better for students who need more active mentoring. On the flip side some of the smaller schools seem more sheltered and provide less of an adult atmosphere to me. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

I agree that college is what you make of it. The problem with so many students' attending BigUs is that they don't realize what college could be, and what opportunities they could be grabbing--they didn't pick it up from their parents or high school counselors, or they're not hearing it from their peers. I went to a top mid-size Ivy League university where professors were pretty much required to work with undergrads on independent research for senior theses (which were mandatory), and there weren't too many grad students to compete with. You couldn't escape contact with big profs. I met my sig other while in grad school at a BigU, where he had done his undergrad. He had had such a different experience. While I'd wager there's the same number of excellent professors at both institutions, the cultures, expectations, and opportunities were so different for the undergrads. He really feels he missed out.

Kevin said...

"Kevin's statement about the difficulty of finding a research experience at a SLAC is false."

That's a bit harsh. I said "it can be very difficult to get enough opportunities for undergrad research at a small liberal arts college." I still believe that to be true---even the SLACs that have strong research programs may not have research that matches a student's interests and talents. Getting into "a" lab may be somewhat easier, but finding a project to join that you are passionate about can still be quite hard.

I'm at a research U that has a 10:1 undergrad to grad ratio, so I'm well aware of the advantages to undergrads of having professors who are active in research and needing more hands in the lab. But it is not just about size or undergrad/grad ratio---the culture of the department and the school as a whole makes a huge difference. I was an undergrad at a huge state U that was more much undergrad than grad, but there were very few undergrad research opportunities because there was very little research. Grad school was a big private research U, with an awesome environment for grads. They talked a lot about how much the undergrads got involved in research, but I never actually saw any undergrads in the labs. First faculty job, another huge school with a good research rep, and with EE labs for undergrads with equipment that was 50 years old and junior EE labs that had not had the project changed for 20 years (sorry, that was the most recent change---most hadn't been changed for 40 years). Second (and current) faculty job, smaller research U, growing reputation, serious commitment by the faculty to both research and undergrad teaching---a good balance, though the pay is low.

PUI prof said...

I went to a Big State U for undergrad because I assumed I couldn't afford anything else. I did graduate with no debt- yahoo!

I was brought up that "college is what you make of it" and since I am a relatively assertive and confident person, I did fine at a Big U, seeking out the resources I thought I needed. I found out in grad school, however, that my academic preparation could have been a bit better.

Hub went to MIT, and though he did well academically, he really floundered socially/ mentally/ spiritually, and it took a long time for him to recover from that. So I'm not sure he got the best education he could at a prestigious U. He was one that 'slipped through the cracks', even though he graduated with a good GPA.

When I applied to teach at at SLAC/PUI I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. I assumed that the students that were attracted to a small school like ours lacked confidence to make their way at a Big U. I was wrong about that. They come for many reasons, but I wouldn't say that a lack of desire to compete for resources is a general charateristic of SLAC/ PUI students. I do know that nearly every one of them benefits *greatly* from closer Prof/ Student relationships. Students in our department get a GREAT education. While there are a lot of students that do great at Big U's would say that the student population in general does better at a SLAC/ PUI. JMHO.

I haven't yet decided how I feel about Big U's vs Prestigious U's vs SLAC's If my kids had no preference where to go, I would recommend them to go HERE (SLAC) as long as they wanted to do so in one of our shining departments, and to go far away from here if they wanted to major in something we stink at!

But for grad school? Prestigious/ Big/ Resource-Rich ALL THE WAY.

Anonymous said...

I think that being at a BigU for my undergrad was very god for me; it was a good thing to be forced to take initiative and find opportunities for myself. At a smaller U, I would've coasted through. Learning how to make opportunities for yourself is a useful skill and has helped me in grad school.

Anonymous said...

I was an undergrad at a public BigU, and for me, the greatest benefit was that I got to meet people from all different backgrounds, different academic levels, different majors, etc. This has served me well both in grad school and now in my faculty position at a private mid-size U. The students here seem a bit more homogeneous. Very diverse in terms of ethnicity, but homogeneous in terms of their goals and approach to academics. In contrast, public BigU represented a wider cross-section of the American public.

grumpy said...

I attended a SLAC for undergrad and BigU for grad school.

There was a ton of dicking around at the SLAC and lazy students definitely fell through the cracks.

On the other hand, there are a large number of programs for students, particularly those at SLACs, to do research at major research institutes during the summer.

Based on the amount of research an undergrad has time for, I think doing 2-3 involved summer projects is plenty and frankly I don't think the students at a BigU are at such a major advantage.

In my opinion, the biggest advantage for students at BigUs is the wealth of academic opportunities (ability to sit in on grad classes, lots of specialty seminars, interacting with highly accomplished researchers, etc.)

REUs!!! said...

I went to a small liberal arts college in part because I was recruited to play a DIII sport, and ended up in the physical sciences. The research opportunities at my school weren't great (little to no funding + heavy teaching loads) but my profs recognized that and encouraged me to do REUs in the summer, which let me explore 2 entirely different types of school/areas of the country (Big Public School in CA one summer, relatively urban Ivy League school the next) and do some really cool research. I went to a top grad school in my field and later got my name on a paper from my contributions during one summer's research, so there are ways to get ahead in science even at a SLAC without any research opportunities. It's all what the student makes of it, to echo several other commenters.

Liberal Arts Lady said...

I pursued a SLAC job because I attended, and loved, a small college as an undergrad myself. I always felt sorry for the undergrads at my graduate institution. A few superstars were recruited into important labs and did exciting research, but the vast majority were seen as annoyances and were definitely not a priority, even for their TAs.

I'm sure this varies from Uni to Uni, and I've heard of some great departments at large schools. But it seems like a bigger gamble to pursue an undergraduate education at a prestigious school, particularly if you're an average student.

aceon said...

Though I love Neil Stephenson's other books, I have to say the Big U is a stinker.

Forrest said...

As an undergraduate at BigU, I agree that, as a general rule, BigU isn't particularly adept at hand-holding. A fair number of smart science and engineering students do flounder, partially as a result of a lack of good guidence.

However, BigU is a FANTASTIC place for those of us who are self-motivated and self-directed. BigU is home to many of the greatest science and engineering faculty in the world, and undergraduates can easily secure research opportunities with such faculty. I see BigU as a collection of amazing resources--resources that LiberalArtsCollege lacks--which I am responsible for seeking out.

lost academic said...

@FSP: I considered the BigU more of a cautionary social and academic tale, excepting the fantastical elements. Sometimes Stephenson does go right off the deep end. I liked Zodiac, too, but had similar problems. Whenever I read the words BigU, I have to think back and smile a little.

More along the lines of the main conversation, I had an undergraduate experience at what felt like a mediumish (6K undergrad) liberal arts, science and research college - big name for research, medicine, etc, though - and am now at a slightly larger school dominated by engineering. I would never want my kids to go to my GradU for some particularly unique reasons to the school, it's just not worth the name on the degree to suffer needlessly, and the administration isn't particularly interested in improving things like undergrad attrition. I hope when we get to that point in the journey that we'll all remember to match the school and what it can offer to the student and the multiple futures they may want, which are more than academic.