Lehigh ISE graduate students continue to shine on national stage
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Research and Higher Ed

The Economist recently published a provocative column entitled: "Declining by degrees: will America's universities go the way of its car companies?" The column makes many interesting parallels between the two sectors, and provides numbers that give pause:

  • "Median household income has grown by a factor of 6.5 in the past 40 years, but the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students."
  • "In 1961 full-time students in four-year colleges spent 24 hours a week studying; that has fallen to 14," 12 of which are taken by Prof Thiele's IE 316 assignments (just kidding).
  • "Only 40% of students graduate in four years."

The columnist speculates that "professors are not particularly interested in students’ welfare" because of misplaced incentives rewarding research rather than teaching (shockingly, "[t]his year 20 of Harvard’s 48 history professors will be on leave"), points at a worrisome trend in science and engineering where - according to the Kaufmann Foundation - productivity of R&D funding has flagged, and highlights increasing "administrative bloat" in universities. In addition, the author does not seem to believe that the situation can be changed since colleges tend to compete on academic reputation and amenities rather than quality of teaching. This certainly paints a bleak picture of US undergraduate education today.

Providing a different perspective, Prof Mike Trick from Carnegie-Mellon recently listed on his blog the 50 US institutions whose undergraduate students are most likely to earn a PhD within 9 years of their college graduation. (This list can be found in the study "Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients" by the National Science Foundation.) As Mike points out, the list is notable for the emphasis on universities classified as "research-very high" (RU/VH) institutions or "baccalaureate" (meaning that they do not have graduate programs) in the 2005 Carnegie classification.

The "research-high" (RU/H) institutions are remarkably absent from the rankings, except for the College of William & Mary and two Master's granting institutions. In addition, just about every single school in the list (with the exception of the College of William & Mary again, UC Berkeley, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and the partial exception of Cornell) is private rather than public. Harvard itself is 11th on the list.

This raises fascinating questions regarding the effectiveness of undergraduate teaching at research-high private institutions, especially in terms of encouraging students to push the boundaries of knowledge and fostering a culture that supports this goal. How do colleges such as Harvey Mudd, Reed or Swarthmore, with no graduate research programs of their own, manage to interest so many undergraduates into cutting-edge research (after all, that is what getting a PhD is about), while PhD-granting universities with more moderate research activity do not, by far, engage their own undergraduates to the same extent?

Comments

A possible explanation is that students who are in contact with effective, dynamic research programs are inspired to pursue one. Students who have no research contact may idealize it and pursue the unknown, the gap in their education. On the other hand, students who have contact with mediocre research, in an environment in which researchers are existing but not prominent, are put off by it.

"How do colleges such as Harvey Mudd, Reed or Swarthmore, with no graduate research programs of their own, manage to interest so many undergraduates into cutting-edge research"

On this first half of the question I'd imagine a large part of that is due to selection bias--smart people who will end up getting advanced degrees anyway will end up attending these schools which attract smarter students (I know that's in-part the case for Carleton College--ranked #6--at the least). Perhaps that is in contrast with some public institutions which may attract students based on say, D-1 sports teams :).

In addition, some of the schools mentioned probably encourage a higher quality of undergraduate research as graduate RAs do not exist in droves so-to-speak.

"How do colleges such as Harvey Mudd, Reed or Swarthmore, with no graduate research programs of their own, manage to interest so many undergraduates into cutting-edge research (after all, that is what getting a PhD is about), while PhD-granting universities with more moderate research activity do not, by far, engage their own undergraduates to the same extent?" Which is cause, and which is effect? I suspect that schools like Harvey Mudd have an organizational culture that promotes activities which stimulate and encourage ambitions for more education on the part of the students. I also suspect that high school students who know, or think, that they want to pursue advanced degrees incline more toward those types of schools, while high school students who have no particular interest in graduate degrees (excluding professional school degrees) gravitate more toward better known schools, which may be in the RU/H category.

Thanks for the comments! You all make fantastic points.

Here's something interesting I noticed: a lot of the schools listed in the NSF study as sending off the most students to graduate school (to get PhDs) also appear in the Washington Monthly rankings of colleges and universities that contribute most to public good.
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/rankings_2010/national_university_rank.php
http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/college_guide/rankings_2010/liberal_arts_rank.php
Coincidence? I don't think so.

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