Monday, November 9, 2015

Prestige Universities

Nov. 9, 2015 Inside Higher Education reports on a new study:
But what if the richest and best-known colleges and universities don't provide the highest-quality education? Would the perceived value of degrees from those institutions decline, and would colleges that were shown in fact to provide higher-quality courses be held in more esteem than they are now?

The push to measure student learning outcomes and other attempts to gauge which institutions, programs and courses most help students learn have been motivated, in part, by skepticism about the assumption that the most famous and selective institutions deliver the highest-quality learning. But the quest for proof to the contrary has at times seemed quixotic.

Researchers at Teachers College of Columbia University and at Yeshiva University, however, believe they are developing a legitimate way to compare the educational quality of courses across institutions -- and their initial analysis, they say, "raises questions about the value of higher-prestige institutions in terms of their teaching quality." They are cautious about asserting that they have proof, and experts on learning challenge some of their assumptions and warn against reading too much into them.
This confirms the suspicions I put into a comment:
 No surprise. When I went off to USC, a classmate went to MIT. My impression was that MIT wasn't so much better, but attracted (and admitted) much higher quality students. They were superior not because of an MIT education, but because MIT admitted only the very best.
Something to remember when Junior asks you to take out a second mortgage to pay for Yale, Harvard, or Reed.

1 comment:

hga said...

Speaking as someone who attended MIT and still keeps touch with admin staff in it, this is simply not true of MIT. Unlike your stereotypical Research I university, MIT is very serious about undergraduate education, of course, it helps that that is richly awarded. Its undergraduates contribute a lot to the research efforts, and there's a formal program with strong financial incentives for professors (no cost when done for credit, and no overhead charged when typically paid in January and the summer).

The strongest indication is that professors don't get tenure if they're not adequate teachers. With rare exceptions, all the ones I know of try hard, but not all are really good at it, and badly screwing up a class has consequences for the tenured. Note almost all are hired at the assistant level for the tenure track, associates are rare and tend to be special cases like SF author Joe Halderman. Compare to extreme outlier Harvard where most tenured professors are hired directly into their positions, and I of course don't have to tell you about the general associate professor game.

You can also see this in the curricula of some of the more modern fields where it isn't standardized. MIT EECS's pioneering Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (AKA 6.001) moved from teaching the details of a programming language and a hodgepodge of stuff to a unified approach to teaching the basic topics (with the caveat that this was just becoming possible as the cost of computing was rapidly dropping with VLSI, e.g. by the time it was formally published in 1985 capable 68000 workstations were generally available). And almost all of it's courses are available on-line for examination, and some of the best teachers have become famous from the ones that include videos.

That said, of course the biggest factor is that MIT attracts a very self-selected group of applicants, and has no legacy admits unless they are judged to be able to do the required curricula of 1 term of calculus beyond the AP BC sequence, and 2 terms of calculus based mechanics, and electricity and magnetism. But I don't see how you can separate that from the quality of education it offers. The Indian IITs can get away with indifferent teaching due to the numbers game in that country (imagine taking an exam with a quarter million other students competing for only a few thousand positions), but students have many more options in the US.

I gather the same is generally true for CalTech, which is 1/4 the size and science focused, and has even more intense undergraduate requirements. The Ivies in general, though ... well, MIT was actually part of the Ivy League back before it was officially such, but dropped football as a distraction from education not long after the turn of the last century, or so was the official story when I first attended, which was also right about when it restarted in 1980 (which was fairly controversial on campus). It does believe in teaching both body and mind (that's the motto), but the body part in required labs, machine shops, etc. (plus a year of mandatory PE including swimming if you can't pass a test).

Anyway, I'd say a bottom line is that MIT and CalTech, and some other high ranked schools that do well in teaching will survive (e.g. for Computer Science you can't beat Stanford, UC Berkeley, CMU and MIT), the Ivies and a few others have strong signaling (and you can get a good educations at them if you really want to), and you've told us about the lowest ranked schools where all they do is education and I'd say they'll continue to have a role, but the great middle which don't offer good value for money ... eh, they can die, and its hard to see how they won't in the long term.