Education Myths #1 “Aspiring Scientists/Engineers Are Always Better Off Getting Undergrad Degrees from Large Research Universities.”
As part of my ongoing attempt to help young people prepare to succeed in college/university, I will debunk major myths that could hinder performance. Myth #1 is that large research universities are always superior in eduation to smaller, liberal arts colleges–especially for those students aspiring to be scientists and engineers.
Short answer: Nonsense.
Longer answer: Large research universities have some obvious advantages: 1) They usually have state-of-the art science and engineering labs and equipment. 2) They often have big-name, superstar scientists as professors doing cutting edge research on campus (think of Einstein’s years at Princeton or Stephen Hawking at Cambridge) and students can compete for internships and assistantships helping in that research. 3)They have name recognition. A prospective employer looking for a bright entry-level roboticist is going to notice a B.Sc. from Caltech, M.I.T., Imperial College of London, or Stanford than a B.A. from Colorado College, the St. John’s Colleges (MD & NM) or Hendrix College (AR).
But these advantages are not everything. They come with disadvantages compared to smaller, liberal arts colleges. 1)The large research university, especially the flagship state universities, necessarily have less personal interaction between teacher and students. They can produce “factory education” that can lose students. Many of the introductory undergraduate courses have 200 or more students per class and are taught by teaching assistants. Only the brightest students may be noticed by the TA and the chances of them ever glimpsing the superstar professors whose names drew them to the university may be slim–especially in the lower-level courses, but in some settings this is true for all undergraduate courses. 2) Often in large research institutions grades are done on a curve (rather than a set, objective, standard) so that students compete with each other for top grades–and for chances at hands on research. Even in the sciences, an employer is going to be more impressed with a 3.75 GPA from a top liberal arts college like Williams, Amherst, Middlebury, Reed, Occidental, New College of Florida, College of Wooster (OH), Centre College, KY, Davidson College, NC, etc. than 3.0 or lower from Caltech or M.I.T.! This is also true in applying for graduate school. Many is the Harvard undergrad in biology who, graduating with a 3.0, found himself unable to get into medical school–losing out to students from liberal arts colleges with higher GPAs and a more nurturing educational environment.
A high quality, small liberal arts college usually has plenty of student-teacher interaction. Grades are not usually on curves. The focus is on bringing out the best in students and giving them the skills and character for further success. If the liberal arts college is a well-endowed one, it may have some fairly state of the art science labs, too–and without graduate students or teaching assistants, the students get to work in those labs with the professors themselves. A smaller student population also increases the chance that students will get to participate in internships or carry out original research themselves–sometimes even giving major presentations at professional meetings as undergrads. They get a chance to fall in love with science and research –something which can have a far greater impact on later success in the field than the name recognition of their undergraduate institution.
A small liberal arts college that sticks to its mission to educate in the liberal arts also has other distinct advantages for the would-be scientist: S/he may well double-major in the smaller setting: Chemistry and Modern Dance; Marine Biology and Art History; Physics and Philosophy; Computer Science and Classics; even Engineering & Applied Mathematics and Romance Languages. Regardless of whether or not s/he double-majors, the budding scientist in excellent, small, liberal arts college will learn that education and the life of the mind is more than aquiring technical skills or job preparation (important as those things are). They become well-r0unded intellectuals, citizens, and persons of character. They learn to think critically–including about the role of their own disciplines and professions in society–whereas in many large research universities the history of science is taught (if at all) as an elective in the history department and the philosophy of science is taught (if at all) as an elective in the philosophy department. This tends to produce technocrats more than pioneering leaders.
Sometimes there are other features of a liberal arts college that help particular students become major scientists. Some students may come from conservative religious backgrounds that are hostile or fearful of modern science. If they come to a large university in which a secular atmosphere prevails, this could reinforce that background and force the student to choose between a desire to become a scientist or faithfulness to her or his faith tradition. The professors need not be militant atheists like Richard Dawkins for such culture shock to work its ill effects, either. If said student had gone, instead, to, e.g., a Calvin College or Earlham College, s/he might have been helped to see both the gains and limits of the scientific worldview and come to harmonize faith and scientific research–and not in the false traps of “creation science,” “intelligent design,” or other pseudo-scientific ideologies, either.
Likewise, as former Treasury Secretary and former Harvard President Larry Summers’ 2005 remarks showed anew, sexist attitudes still discourage many women from choosing the sciences or engineering as majors and careers. Contrary to Summers, this is not because of innate differences between male and female, but because of socialization and learning styles and sexist atmospheres and expectations. The proof is that all-women’s colleges produce alumnae who go on to earn Ph.Ds. in sciences and engineering and achieve breakthroughs in these fields at a much higher percentage than with women who go to co-ed Ivy League schools or (even more) women who attend flagship public universities.
I am not saying that the small liberal arts college is always the better choice. That would be a myth just as much as the current one that the large research university is always to be preferred. Some students thrive as undergraduates at large research universities–and these same persons might not do well at the smaller, liberal arts college for a variety of reasons. Success at and beyond college/university is better determined by getting the “fit” right–by matching the student and school in a holistic fashion rather than concentrating on rankings, name recognition, or the myth that bigger is better.
At this point, I can hear the skeptical reader getting ready to respond in my comments section, “That’s all very well and some of it is well argued, but is this just your opinion, Michael, or do you have any supporting evidence for your claims?” I do have some supporting evidence, as a matter of fact, Skeptical Reader, thanks for asking. The National Science Foundation just published a study of which U.S. colleges and universities baccalaureat programs were producing the most graduates who went on to earn Ph.Ds. in science and engineering. The top 50 included some of the usual suspects (M.I.T., Caltech, Harvard, etc.), but the majority on the list are small, liberal arts colleges. Two in the list, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr, are historic women’s colleges. Kalamazoo, Hendrix, Duke, Macalester, Occidental and Earlham are church-founded and remain voluntarily church-related, while several more (Bates, Brown, Rochester, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Haverford) were founded by churches and retain some of their church-related heritage (unlike still more founded by churches which have lost all trace of that heritage).
So, don’t let myth #1 prevent students, parents, or guidance counselors from exploring all the best possibilities for the right educational “fit” when searching for which college or university to attend–even if the student dreams of finding the cure for cancer or building the vehicle which takes humans to the surface of Mars.
Here are the top 50 current colleges and universities in the U.S. producing graduates who go on to earn doctorates in engineering or the natural sciences:
- California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
- Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA–the science & technical college in the Claremont Colleges Consortium).
- Massachussetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.)
- Reed College (Portland, OR) This small liberal arts college in Oregon produces more eventual Ph.D.s in its alumni in all fields combined than ANY other college or university in the nation, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. All juniors must pass a qualifying exam to become seniors and all seniors must complete a senior thesis and research project. Fair warning to parents, however, Reed also has a reputation for alcohol abuse and experimental drug usage on a widespread basis.
- Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA) Founded by Quakers as the earliest co-educational college in America and still committed to Quaker values of individual dignity and worth, equality, social justice, and peace. The Quaker view that science and faith cannot ever ultimately conflict also is reflected in the campus atmosphere though Swarthmore is no longer Quaker related.
- Carleton College (Northfield, MN).
- University of Chicago Founded as a combined dream of industrialist (and Baptist layperson) John D. Rockefeller and Yale historian and Old Testament scholar (and Baptist minister), William Rainey Harper (who had already created Yale’s Semitics Department from scratch), the University of Chicago was the first U.S. attempt to combine a traditional liberal arts university in the British (e.g., Oxford & Cambridge) and New England (e.g., Harvard & Yale) models with a research university modeled after the University of Berlin.
- Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA).
- Rice University (Houston, TX) Rice is a private research university (aided by its proximity to NASA’s Houston Mission Control Center just as CalTech is aided by being home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab), but it has maintained a commitment to quality undergraduate education, as mandated by its charter.
- Princeton University (Princeton, NJ) The Oxbridge-style Residential Colleges help Princeton combine the advantages of small liberal arts colleges with a major research university.
- Harvard University (Cambridge, MA). Founded by Puritans in 1636 and modeled after Cambridge University, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in North America.
- Bryn Mawr College (Bryn Mawr, PA). Founded by Quakers for the education of women, this women’s college continues to combine Quaker values and top-notch academics. The current president of Harvard is a historian who graduated from Bryn Mawr.
- Haverford College (Haverford, PA). Quaker values and strong academics. The 2010 captain of the Men’s Cross-Country Track Team is the 20th Haverford winner of a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford!
- Pomona College (Claremont, CA) The oldest of the Claremont Colleges.
- New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech–Socorro, NM).
- Williams College (Williamsburg, MA).
- Yale University (New Haven, CT). As with Princeton, the Oxbridge-style residential college system allows Yale to combine the advantages of a small liberal arts college with that of a major research university. Founded by New Light Congregationalists and Presbyterians dissatisfied with the direction of Harvard, Yale has long-since become “non-sectarian,” although still housing a major ecumenical Christian divinity school.
- Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences and Conservatory of Music (Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH). Fousnded by evangelical Christian abolitionists in the 19th C. (with evangelist Charles Finney as first president), Oberlin long since became “nonsectarian,” but it has retained its heritage of strongly connecting education with work for social justice.
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA).
- The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD). The first American university created to be a modern research university from the beginning.
- Kalamazoo College (Kalamazoo, MI) Baptist liberal arts college in the Midwest.
- Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Ezra Cornell, 1868.
- Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH).
- Washington College (Chestertown, MD). First insitution of American higher learning named after George Washington, whose permission to use his name was given while Washington was still serving as president.
- Brown University (Providence, R.I.) Founded by Baptists in 1764, this is the oldest institution of higher education in North America founded by Baptists and the only one in the Ivy League. Although committed to religious liberty from the beginning (first American college or university to admit Jewish and Catholic students), Brown was strongly related to Northern (now American) Baptists until the end of the 19th C. and the president was always a Baptist minister until the middle of the 1930s. First American college or university to admit Native Americans; one of the earliest to admit African-Americans and women.
- Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT) Although founded by Methodists, unlike several other colleges and universities with similar names, Wesleyan University in CT long ago cut any ties to either Methodists or the Christian heritage of the Wesleys. It’s an excellent university, but “Wesleyan” only in name.
- Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA).
- Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college with a special focus on internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.
- Amherst College (Amherst, MA). One of the 5 colleges of Pioneer Valley, MA.
- Duke University (Durham, NC). Founded by Methodists and still strongly related to the United Methodist Church.
- Beloit College (Beloit, WI).
- Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME).
- Wellesley College (Wellesley, CT). One of the “Seven Sisters” of historic, elite women’s colleges that, prior to coeducation, was the female answer to the women-barring Ivy League. Still a major women’s college that produces more than its share of female leadership including 2 out of the 3 women who have served as U.S. Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
- Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). The first American university to focus on the sciences and technology (before the founding of M.I.T. or CalTech) in 1824–at a time when sciences were a small part (or no part) of the curricula of most U.S. colleges. RPI is also the home of the first school of engineering in the U.S. outside the military. Prior to RPI the only engineering school in the U.S. was at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point! Overshadowed for decades by M.I.T., Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and even Rice and Harvey Mudd, RPI’s reputation is making a comeback as this listing shows.
- Earlham College (Richmond, IN). Founded and still closely connected to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
- Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, PA). Founded in 1787 by Benjamin Franklin and named after Franklin and Supreme Court Justice Harlan Marshall (another early supporter), F&M was organized by Lutheran and Reformed churches of immigrants from Germany. It was, thus, the first ecumenical Christian educational endeavor in North America. At first classes were in both German and English making it the first bilingual college in the U.S.–and it was also the first coeducational institution, admitting women from the beginning. (Sadly, the coeducational experiment was soon abandoned and not revived for another 182 years!) Today, F& M is a secular liberal arts college of very high caliber.
- Lawrence University (Appleton, WI). No graduate programs, Lawrence is a university only because it houses a Conservatory of Music along with its undergraduate college.
- University of Rochester (Rochester, NY). Founded by Baptists, this small top-tier research university with a collegiate atmosphere is now “non-sectarian” and secular and its seminary has now separated and merged with other small seminaries to become the nearby Colgate-Rochester-Crozer Divinity School. The school’s history is also entertwined with the struggle for women’s suffrage thanks to the friendship of early alumna Helen Barrett Montgomery (first woman president of the Northern Baptist Convention and first woman to translate the NT from Greek to English) with suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Today, the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership is at U of Rochester. Nobel-winning physicist and current Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu is a Rochester alumnus.
- University of California at Berkeley (CalBerkeley, Berkeley, CA).
- Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH). Dartmouth could be considered a small university. It has a business school, an engineering school, a medical school, and some graduate programs in arts and sciences. But it has retained the name “college” to remind all of its commitment to provide the absolute best in undergraduate liberal arts education.
- Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA). Founded by (and still voluntarily related to) Presbyterians in 1887, Occidental was the first liberal arts college on the West Coast. New England style liberal arts college with Los Angeles weather and resources.
- Hendrix College (Conway, AR). Founded by and still affiliated with United Methodists.
- Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY). Originally a women’s college (and one of the “Seven Sisters”), Vassar went co-ed in the early 1970s. It’s a highly selective liberal arts college.
- Trinity University (San Antonio, TX). Not to be confused with Trinity College in CT (which, although founded by an Episcopal priest, is a secular liberal arts college), Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL (which is an evangelical university closely related to the Evangelical Free Church) or other similar sounding institutions. Trinity University in San Antonio was founded by Cumberland Presbyterians and today is voluntarily related to the Presbyterian Church, USA.
- College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) The second oldest institution of higher education in North America (and oldest in the South), William and Mary was founded by Anglicans (Episcopalians) with a private charter from the King William and Queen Mary during the Colonial period. Today, it is a public institution and land grant university chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
- St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD & Santa Fe, NM) Despite the name, this is a secular college, although the curriculum will involve more Bible study than in many Christian colleges. The St. John’s College (in two campuses) is a liberal arts college rooted in the Great Books of the Western World. There are no majors, minors, textbooks or electives. All students read the same books spanning the history of Western civilization in tutorials, seminars, and colloquia. It is writing intensive both instructors and students are called “Mr.” or “Ms.” to create a community of common learning. All professors must take turns teaching all subjects, too. Because the curriculum is so set, the only drawback is that there is no opportunity to study abroad.
- Bates College (Lewiston, ME). Founded by Free Will Baptists who were also radical abolitionists, today Bates is secular, but still strongly committed to connecting liberal arts education to radical work for social justice.
- Whitman College (Walla Walla, WA). A private, secular, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest named after the great poet Walt Whitman.
- Brandeis University (Waltham, MA). Louis Brandeis, the great people’s lawyer and Supreme Court Justice was Jewish–and had experienced discrimination all his life, from his childhood in Louisville, KY to having to endure Jewish jokes and exclusion from clubs by the “Boston Brahmins” while at Harvard and later. Many top schools in North America did not admit Jews and almost all others, like Harvard his alma mater, had “Jewish quotas.” So Brandeis helped found a university with no religious restrictions and with a strong liberal arts orientation.
- Hampshire College (Amherst, MA). Part of the Five College Consortium.