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Deciding on College? Why It’s Harder to Do than Ever

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

It’s that time of year again. Students are receiving acceptance/denial letters, making last-minute visits to campuses, weighing up financial aid offers, poring over websites, and talking endlessly to advice-givers.

Here is some help from the American side of things. And here, perhaps too late (!), is information about how admission decisions are made by universities on the Canadian side.

I’ve been thinking about this question since 1975, since I made my first applications for university, and I’ve been around universities and colleges ever since. So perhaps I can tell you how to know where the best teaching is.

Alas, I actually can’t.

Presuming that you’re putting first things first—and many students don’t: I remember hearing once that the top criterion for American high school students in selecting a college was “appearance of the campus”—you want to get the best education you can, which means, if nothing else, being taught by the best scholars. Despite all the published guides, however, finding out where the best scholars are is nearly impossible.

The usual criteria of “good teaching situations” are worth considering: low student/faculty ratios and class sizes; high percentage of courses taught by full-time faculty; the reputation of the school in various surveys; and so on.

A small class taught by a bad teacher is still, however, a bad class. Many sessional instructors, relatively inexperienced and terribly harried as they usually are, often teach better than do their tenured counterparts.

What about school reputation? Can’t we at least be sure that the better schools have the better people?

No. No, we can’t. And here’s a dirty little secret about the modern academy: The most prestigious schools don’t even have all the best researchers, let alone the best teachers.

The academy for some time now hasn’t been what it pretends to be—namely, a meritocracy. Two things happened in succession since about 1960 to distort the hiring practices, the “market,” of the academy.

The first thing was the frenetic hiring, promotion, and tenuring of faculty members to fill all the professorial jobs newly created by politicians anxious to promote education as the engine of future prosperity. For once in the history of higher education, there were more good jobs than there were good people, and a lot of mediocre scholars were given lifetime employment.

Secondly, once all those jobs were “tenured up”—by about 1980—the next generation of academic hirings didn’t, couldn’t, happen the way regular folk would think they should.

One might imagine, that is, that the type of professor most likely to be hired by universities bent on acquiring the best possible scholars would be the mid-career success story: mature enough to have compiled an impressive record but still young enough to be able to give two decades or more to the new school. But no, universities for almost forty years now have mainly hired either very junior people (since they can be had for low salaries—and they don’t threaten those now-senior mediocrities) or very senior people (since they bring prestige and attract graduate students).

So instead of a smoothly functioning job market in which the best and the brightest migrate inevitably to the top, while the next tier of schools employs the next tier of talent, and so on down the line…the North American academy has been in disarray. Brilliant people who graduated into a full-up job market now work in out-of-the-way places while early stars hired to good posts could fizzle out on the right side of tenure and nonetheless reside comfortably in the Ivy League.

Without being a disciplinary specialist, therefore, it’s impossible to know where the best professors are in each subject.

And by “best” I mean “best researchers,” according to the academic gold standard of “peer-reviewed research.” If you’re looking for (and you should be looking for) people who are dedicated to the classroom and effective instruction, it is difficult for anyone, even fellow professors in the same field, to know where those people are.

So can I offer any guidance at all? Not much.

But let me give you what I can.

First, good and bad teachers, in my experience, are everywhere. I have experienced good and bad teachers every place I have studied and taught.

Second, reputable schools rarely have terrible teachers—or, at least, not more than a few, and those few are well-known and usually avoidable. (If they can’t be avoided, and they are in your major, find out your first year and then transfer.)

Third, small schools generally prioritize teaching. Big schools generally don’t. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the school, the smaller the average class size.

Fourth, think about your whole experience: not just in class, but on campus and in the town and region you’ll be living in. Those are important dimensions of your undergraduate experience.

But don’t think about them too much. The main point of school is…school. So put academic concerns first.

And all this means, of course, that you’ll have to pray. It’s very, very difficult to know how good this or that school is in teaching this or that subject. But God knows. And God knows what you need and where you need to be.

So, yes, pray. And may you have a terrific time at the school to which God leads you!


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