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It is the rare professor who has any formal training in the art of teaching. Our graduate training focused entirely on learning our field, not how to teach it to undergraduates. We received our doctorates for producing original research, not for becoming skilled teachers. Almost all of us are teaching amateurs who have learned to catch as catch can. This conclusion may be hard for you to stomach; after all, everyone knows that Harvard is better than Podunk U.

Let me back it up with some hard evidence. For the last several years, scholars have surveyed tens of thousands of students at over a thousand colleges and universities across the United States. They asked students about the degree of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and a supportive environment at their colleges.

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These are all the things you should be getting out of college. The results are striking. And the difference is enormous. When comparing the degree to which students felt challenged or interacted with faculty, only 4 to 8 percent of the variation could be attributed to whether they attended Harvard or Podunk U. The rest—over 90 percent of the differences—was among students within institutions. Universities are more or less the same. What is different is what students take away from them. The following chapters will show you how to get more out of whatever school you choose. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tries to explain why certain people become enormously successful.

What makes an ordinary smart kid into a Bill Gates? One explanation that he considers and then dismisses is where they went to college. Consider the last twenty-five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Prize in Medicine, two of the highest marks of success a person can achieve. You might expect that most of the winners would be graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. You can be a success anywhere. After all, Bill Gates went to Harvard, but he also dropped out.

From the point of view of teaching, the key difference between colleges is whether they are large research-oriented universities or small teaching-oriented colleges. At both types you can get a great education. However, the accessibility and style of this education differ.

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Whether you choose one or the other depends on the type of person you are. Some types will thrive at large research universities; others will do better at small colleges. Let me explain. Large research universities do three things, only one of which is educating undergraduates. The other two are producing research and training graduate students. In some ways these activities are complementary: professors who are at the cutting edge of research know their fields very well in addition to being very smart and so can teach undergraduates the most up-to-date knowledge and provide the best answers to their questions.

But there are also trade-offs: because professors are hired for their research productivity and expected to continually produce original research, they may not be great teachers and have much less incentive to devote extra time to their teaching. The mission of these universities to train future professors probably falls more on the trade-off side.

A good proportion of your interaction with instructors at these schools will be with graduate students who grade most papers and exams, lead discussion sections, and sometimes teach their own courses. This does not necessarily have to detract from your education. Graduate students are young, hardworking, and more accessible than full-time faculty. And without them there would be no professors in the future, much less new knowledge.

But they know their fields less well, are less experienced teachers than professors, and have their own research to worry about—their main task is writing a doctoral dissertation. I do not intend this as a negative judgment of research universities. If you are sufficiently proactive and ambitious, you will find in them the best possible education the world has to offer. But those opportunities are not relevant for 90 percent of students at these schools, who will not go on to become PhD econonerds but will instead become doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and so on.

To get the best education at such a university, you have to be a go-getter. You have to make yourself known to the full-time faculty.

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You have to show them that you are worth taking seriously, that you care about their field and have numerous talents. If you can do this, professors will take you under their wing, show you how their field works at the highest level, and perhaps even help you produce your own original work.

If you are shy and lack self-confidence, however, you may lose some of the benefits such universities offer. Indeed, most students at these schools do not get involved in the research atmosphere, much less form bonds with professors.

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Instead, they end up taking mostly large lecture courses and interacting primarily with graduate students. While some of these classes will be life-changing experiences, few instructors will take you seriously as an individual.

Most students at these universities become a face in the crowd, particularly in the larger and more popular majors see Tip If you do not seek out your professors, they usually will not seek you out. What does a small teaching-oriented college offer?

Stanford University

In many ways it is the opposite of the research university. There are no graduate students. Almost all of the classes are taught by professors. Many more, probably most, of them will be small seminars. You will likely get to know many of your professors personally or at least have the opportunity to do so.

You will probably meet them walking around campus since these schools are often in small towns. And your professors will return the favor. They will learn your name and something about you. They are not required to do as much research and are encouraged to be good teachers. In fact, many of them end up at such schools precisely because they enjoy teaching and are good at it. One of the surveys of college graduates that I referred to earlier confirms this impression.

Incidentally, Ivy League schools came in near the bottom with 37 percent. A small college is perfect for you if you are less confident in your abilities and lack the moxie to draw attention to yourself. This is not to say that you are less talented. Only that you would thrive more in an environment where you are a big fish in a small pond.

Indeed, there is a less competitive atmosphere at such schools. What could be wrong with such a picture?

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The main thing that is missing is contact with the cutting edge of research. Fewer professors at small colleges are doing major work in the field; there are fewer geniuses around. And the university as a whole is less geared to research—that means fewer public lectures and conferences, less money to build labs or travel to foreign countries. This may not be noticeable for most undergraduates, but for the very top students to whom this book is addressed, there are fewer opportunities at such schools.

A final black mark against these schools is that they are almost all private and hence expensive, though most do offer significant financial aid. I would add, however, that these small teaching-oriented colleges produce more future professors—a higher percentage of their students go on to get PhDs. The reason I think is that students at these schools tend to identify with their professors much more and can see themselves following in their footsteps.

For most students at research-oriented universities, the professoriate is a distant and mysterious group. Note that what I have set out here is a contrast of ideal types—the difference between the prototypical large research-oriented university and the prototypical small teaching-oriented college.

In fact, over the past twenty or so years these distinctions have been breaking down. Large universities have started to offer more college-type experiences with smaller seminars and greater contact with faculty though they have not forsaken research or graduate students. Some offer special honors programs or liberal arts colleges embedded within the university.

Conversely, small colleges have begun to require a much greater research commitment from faculty.

Guide to For-Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know |

Differences between the two types may thus be on the decline, but they still exist. The takeaway point for you is to determine whether you have the self-confidence and talent to take advantage of the resources of a large research university or whether you need personal attention to be more accessible and competition less cutthroat. To put it more bluntly than I should, do you want the floor of the New York Stock Exchange where fortunes are made by those with the talent to succeed or a greenhouse where gardeners tend to all of their plants?

The main difficulty in choosing a college is information.