Today’s post is aimed at helping anyone who is currently trying to decide which college or university to attend, starting next September. Many factors will likely be considered in making the final decisions of where to go, and no doubt, a lot of people will give much consideration to differences in the costs of attending different schools. Tuitions can vary a great deal, and there is a general positive relationship between the costs of attending a particular institution for an undergraduate degree and the ‘prestige’ of that institution, as perceived by the public. Of course, critical to justifying the higher costs of attending some colleges, there is also a widespread belief that the highly-prestigious institutions deliver a higher quality education than what is available at the ‘less-knowns’. This latter belief is an illusion. It is based on the mistaken expectation that you get what you pay for when it comes to higher education. In some ways you do, but not in the ways that are relevant to the majority of education consumers — the students and their parents.
This morning, I came across an illuminating report of a study that was done by researchers at Wabash College, which basically shows that there is almost no relationship between the amount of money a college spends on education and the quality of the education it provides. The study was reported at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and you can find the details, here.
Reading about this study inspired me to re-post something today that was originally published here several months, on June 25, 2012, Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists. In this commentary, I explain why the prestige of a university is not significantly related the quality of undergraduate education it delivers, or to the quality of the student-experience. This is a total cut-and-paste, so if you read that post recently, you can move on to somewhere else from here, without missing anything new.
Choosing a University for an Undergraduate Degree? Ignore the Rankings Lists
Most students have options when it comes to choosing which college or university to attend for their undergraduate education. Some of the important factors to consider when making choices include, the availability of the desired program of study, the location of the institution, and the costs of attending. Different people may weigh each of these factors differently, but nearly everyone considers one or more of them when deliberating over the options.
Many people will also consider another factor — one that is much less tangible than program availability, location, or cost. I am referring here to the general reputation that an institution has among the lay population. Such reputations are often unqualified and vague. Rather than being based on genuine comparisons of the value of education or training available at different schools, they tend to be based on “what one hears” about a particular school, or how often it is mentioned in the news, or in other contexts (TV shows, movies, magazine articles, etc.). The general repute of an institution will, nonetheless, sway the decisions of many students (and parents) about which university or college to attend for a postsecondary education.
While there is no doubt that unaccredited diploma mills are a poor choice for any serious student who wants a worthwhile education, general reputations vary greatly among the thousands of accredited colleges and universities in North America. Most of us have acquired implicit respect for certain institutions merely from hearing them referred to often and in mostly positive contexts. Many of us will also make unsubstantiated generalizations about an institution based on its overall reputation. In most instances, an unwarranted overgeneralization about a college or university does not lead to any significant problems. On the other hand, it may become a problem for people who are trying to decide where to invest in a postsecondary education, especially if it leads them to make compromises in terms of the more valid considerations of program availability, location, or cost. Unfounded beliefs about the relative quality of undergraduate teaching at different schools can lead to flawed choices. Excellent opportunities may exist at schools with less recognizable names.
Okay, so subjective impressions that are based on indirect evidence may be flawed and shortsighted. But, what about those college or university-rankings lists that various organizations publish from time to time? In general, such rankings tend to be based on objective criteria, so it seems reasonable to have some faith in their validity. But, does that make them useful?
Although they can be mildly interesting to some, university rankings are virtually useless to the average person. At least, they are not useful for those purposes for which many people will actually use them. As I will explain, such rankings should be ignored when deciding where to go to for an undergraduate degree in most disciplines within the sciences, social sciences, or applied sciences, the arts, or fine arts.
Importantly, I am referring here only to rankings that deal exclusively with universities, without including undergraduate colleges. When it comes to comprehensive rankings-lists for all U.S. colleges and universities that offer undergraduate programs, the best I have seen is published by Forbes. Unlike university-rankings lists, the undergraduate college rankings tend to be more useful for discriminating between the “good” places to go for a bachelor’s degree and the “not so good.”
I had the inspiration for today’s blog post while recently perusing the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2011-12. The Times Higher Education list is one of the better known and most comprehensive ranking of global universities. Some of the other well-known university rankings lists include US News National University Rankings, QS World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities, to name just a few. Each list has a particular geographical scope, which is usually limited to a particular country or continent. A few are global, including the THE list. A respected and widely-consulted ranking of Canadian universities is published each year by McLean’s.
I rarely check out these types of ranking lists, even though one might expect I would be more than a bit interested in them, given that I am a university professor, I am active in research and teaching, and I spend a lot of time giving students advice about how to achieve their higher-education goals. I also have three children who are likely to be heading off to college or university over the next few years. Yes, I would seem to have a number of good reasons for wanting to know which schools are the best.
But, the truth is, I would never consider using a university-rankings list as an aid to student advising. They simply are not useful for that purpose. To understand why, one must appreciate the variety of important activities that are conducted at any global university, beyond the teaching of bachelor’s students. In my experience, most members of the public who have never been employed in a university setting grossly overestimate how much these institutions focus their resources on undergraduate teaching. Experienced academics, on the other hand, understand that it is the research mission that is most highly valued and nurtured by university administrators, and by the governments that provide public funding. Most university professors dedicate more blood, sweat, and tears to their research, and perhaps also to training of Ph.D. students, than they do to teaching undergraduate students. Universities tend to hire new faculty members on the basis of their research profiles, and give somewhat less consideration to teaching ability. In other words, professors are generally hired to do research, and expected to teach, whether they are good at teaching or not. Of course, this is also true at some of the “highest ranked” universities. Most university professors have never received any formal training on how to teach effectively. I often tell students that this explains why so many of us are lousy teachers!
Back to the rankings lists… Let’s be straight on what I’m saying, here. My position is that the relative ranking of universities on these lists should not be used to decide which schools are likely to provide a better undergraduate education. The simplest reason why university rankings should not be used to decide which school to attend is because those rankings are based on many dimensions or aspects of a university that have very little, or nothing at all, to do with content or delivery of undergraduate programs. Below, I’ll say more about the types of factors that go into the compilation of a university-ranking list, using the methodology behind the THE list, as a general example.
For now, let me make the point that only around 5% of a university’s score on the THE ranking is based on factors that are directly relevant to undergraduate education. The other 95% of a university’s score is based on factors that have little or no relevance to determining the quality or delivery of undergraduate education available to its students. Consider the central missions of any global university — research, teaching, knowledge transfer, and international activity.
The following is an overview of how THE ranking scores are determined.
There are 13 performance indicators, grouped into 5 areas:
Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)
Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).
Factors related to teaching account for less than one-third of a university’s overall score. THE also provides alternative rankings based on the specific performance areas. So, what if we just look at the rankings based only on the Teaching indicators? Well, let’s look at how they determine this particular 30% of the overall score — you will see that only a tiny fraction of it comes from undergraduate teaching considerations.
Half of the Teaching score is based on the results of a survey. Quoting from the methodological description on the THE website:
” Thomson Reuters carried out its Academic Reputation Survey – a worldwide poll of experienced scholars – in spring 2011. It examined the perceived prestige of institutions in both research and teaching… The results of the survey with regard to teaching make up 15% of the overall rankings score.”
There are two points I want to make about this measurement: First, notice that it’s based on the “perceived prestige” of a university in teaching and research. I would venture to say that it’s not too difficult for an experienced scholar to judge the prestige of a university based on quality and quantity of research conducted, because there are many visible indicators of research funding, activity, and output. Unless someone was once a student at a particular university, however, it is unlikely that he or she will have a clear view of the quality of undergraduate teaching that goes on at most universities, other than the ones with which they are currently associated. Admittedly, there are some scholars who happen to do research or administrative work, which, in one way or another, gives them a close enough vantage point to a few universities that they may be able to provide valid assessments in terms of the general quality of undergraduate teaching. But, individuals with real insight into the quality of undergraduate teaching at different universities are exceedingly rare.
The second limitation I want to point out about the “perceived prestige” measurement is that when pondering their views on the quality of teaching that exists in universities at which they have never been a student or instructor themselves, most experienced academics will consider what they know about the “products” of doctoral-level training, or even the postdoctoral training environment. These products, of course, are the people receiving a Ph.D., many of whom go on to have significant impact in various areas of research, engineering, or some other type of creative production. In other words, perceptions about teaching quality are based on perceptions of postgraduate training, not undergraduate teaching.
Other factors that contribute to the Teaching category include: 1) Ratio of PhD to bachelor’s degrees awarded by each university, which is worth 2.25% of the overall ranking scores. 2) Number of Ph.Ds awarded relative to the number of faculty members (i.e., academic staff) at the university, worth 6% of the overall score. 3) institutional income scaled against academic staff numbers, … adjusted for purchasing-power parity so that all nations compete on a level playing field, …” This is worth 2.25% of a university’s overall score.
Factors 1 and 2 are more relevant to training of graduate students. Most students join the workforce after college, so only a small proportion of undergraduates would have anything at stake in the quality of graduate training available where they choose to earn their bachelor’s degree. Although some undergraduates may appreciate being in an environment that includes graduate students, most do not care. Factor 3 is about money; having more of it may contribute in some ways to having superior undergraduate teaching resources, but those are seldom the spending priorities for a university, these days. In other words, none of the factors that have been considered so far are valid indicators of the quality of undergraduate teaching.
If you’re keeping track, you may have noticed that we still need to account approximately 5% of the overall THE ranking score. Finally, we’re getting to something that’s actually relevant to predicting the quality of undergraduate teaching — or at least, the quality of the undergraduate learning experience:
“Our teaching and learning category also employs a staff-to-student ratio as a simple proxy for teaching quality – suggesting that where there is a low ratio of students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from the institution’s faculty,…”
As the folks at THE are quick to point out, “… this measure serves as only a crude proxy – after all, you cannot judge the quality of the food in a restaurant by the number of waiters employed to serve it…” Accordingly, it accounts for just 4.5 per cent of the overall ranking scores.
Despite it’s crudeness, the staff-to-student ratio is, in my opinion, the only factor contributing to the overall ranking score that is clearly relevant to determining the quality of undergraduate education for the majority of university students.
I hope my analysis of the methods behind the Times Higher Education global university rankings makes the point that universities exist for the sake of much more than just teaching undergraduate students. University professors are hired to do research, and expected to teach — not the other way around. Things are somewhat different at most liberal arts colleges, however, so it’s important to keep in mind that I’m talking about universities, here. Of course, different organizations use different formulae to compile their university-rankings lists, so there is some variation in terms of how relevant the rankings are to the concerns of undergraduate students. But, its important to remember, if the rankings are comparing universities and not just undergraduate colleges, much more weight will be given to various aspects of the research mission, including doctoral-level training.
The problem I’m getting at is the way these rankings lists end up being used by many regular people to make important decisions that should not be made on the basis of such rankings. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that I don’t think the rankings lists are useful, nor am I about to criticize the methods that are used to compile them. They are relevant for regular folks, for certain reasons. But, none of those reasons have much of anything to do with the undergraduate training mission of the typical global university. These rankings lists can contribute to the impressions that typical consumers have about the “quality” of particular universities. This is fair enough. After all, there is a lot of good research and objective analysis behind some of rankings lists. The Times Higher Education World University ranking is a fine example of that.
It’s early in the fall semester, and undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada are still getting settled into their new classes. At some point during the next few months, a new cohort of graduating seniors who plan to pursue a master’s or doctorate degree will begin dealing with grad-school applications. If past experience is a good indicator of what to expect over the next few months, I should be meeting several students who want to apply to grad school for next year, but who have waited too long to begin preparing.
For most students, there is more to applying successfully to graduate school than just submitting all the required parts of the application. It can take several months, even a year or more, to make all the necessary preparations so that when the time actually comes to put together the application, all the right elements are in place to ensure you are successful at getting into the program that’s right for you. Too often, students postpone everything related to grad-school applications until their senior year. By then, it’s often too late to prepare an effective application, so compromises are made, and the rush to meet an application deadline ends up in a flawed application package, and a rejection letter.
The remainder of this post discusses a few of the more time-consuming steps in the process of applying to graduate school. The advice is especially applicable to students who are applying to a doctorate program, or to a master’s program in which they will have a research supervisor (common in the sciences and social sciences).
Setting up effective letters of recommendation
One of the most influential components of a grad-school application is the letters of recommendation. Most graduate programs require applicants to submit three letters. Some of the people who make decisions about who gets in and who does not care more about what they can glean from an applicant’s letters of recommendation than from any other part of the application. It is essential that the letters come from people who have known the student in a relevant context. For the most part, this means professors who have been able to learn about the student’s personality and character, work ethic, communication skills, and interpersonal skills. In order to set up the most effective letters, therefore, students must provide at least a few of their professors with opportunities to discover these things about them. This cannot be accomplished in the classroom, so undergraduates need to find ways to get involved in their professors’ research or other scholarly work.
Once a student starts to get involved in a professor’s work, it is necessary to make a significant contribution, over a sufficient period of time, so the professor can actually learn about the student’s abilities and potential. This takes several months to accomplish, and if a student is going to get this type of important exposure with more than one professor, then the entire process of setting up three effective letters of recommendation may take a year or two. Ideally, a student who is thinking about applying to graduate school at some point down the road should start contacting professors for these types of opportunities by the end of the sophomore year. Of course, some students only begin to seriously consider graduate school during their junior or senior years, and for them it is essential to begin their preparations immediately.
Finding the right graduate programs
A great deal of research may be needed to find the right programs in light of your specific interests or objectives, so you need to get busy on this at least a couple of months before application deadlines. Many people will apply only to programs available at universities they select on the basis of convenience, or geographical location, such as only at universities within a particular city or state. That may be fine if there are legitimate reasons why one must live in a particular region. But, too often, students limit the geographical scope of their search for the best graduate program without fully appreciating how different two graduate programs offering the same degree may be in terms of the kinds of specialized training they offer. As a result, many students will unwittingly apply to graduate programs that are not ideal for their specific career goals. They might get into one of those programs, but they might also have overlooked other options that would have been even better for them.
As I have discussed before, students should focus on finding a potential graduate supervisor whose area of specialization is a good match with the student’s own interests and goals. The best programs for the student to apply to will tend to be those where they find these ideal potential supervisors. It can take several weeks or even a few months of researching different programs and faculty members to come up with a really good short list of programs to which to apply.
Wooing potential graduate supervisors
As discussed previously on this blog, one of the most important steps for grad-school applicants to take is to contact potential supervisors before applying. This contact should be made at least a few months before applications are due. The purpose is not simply to find out whether or not they are interested in taking a new grad student, although this is certainly important to ascertain before going through all the time, trouble, and expense, of applying.
As I just mentioned, choosing the right graduate programs typically means first finding the right potential supervisors. The best way to learn certain key things about a potential supervisor is through some kind of direct contact with that person by email, or even better, an in-person visit. It’s also the most effective way for potential supervisors to find out what they need to know about you. If all they have to go on are the usual components in your application file, it’s more likely they won’t feel they know you well enough to justify the risk of accepting you as a new graduate student.
Dealing with the actual applications
Each of the steps just discussed require a significant amount of time, over a period of at least a few months, and up to a year or more, before you begin dealing with your applications, per se. But, the applications can also be very time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time involved in properly filling out application forms (several hours) and writing a good personal statement (several days or a few weeks), or the typical delay between when transcripts or standardized test scores are requested and when they actually arrive at their destinations (several weeks). You also need to give professors a few weeks notice prior to when you will actually need a letter of recommendation.
If you follow my advice about deciding how many programs to apply to, you will probably choose at least a few, and you will have a lot of things to do for each application. You will find that each program has different forms for you to complete, and slightly different procedures to follow when submitting your application and ensuring that everything else that’s required is submitted on your behalf (i.e., your official transcripts, standardized exam scores, and letters of recommendation).
Organization is the key to dealing with multiple items for multiple applications. Most graduate programs are serious about their deadlines and will not consider an application if any of the required components is missing or late. Use a checklist to keep track of those things you have taken care of for each application, and which things remain to be done.
Consider trying to beat the application deadline by a couple of weeks, as it might pay off in unexpected ways. For instance, it may allow you enough time to respond to unexpected problems that occur close to the deadline, such as unfulfilled requests for transcripts, test scores, or letters of recommendation. Getting your application in a couple of weeks before the deadline will also indicate that you are organized and enthusiastic about the program. Your application might even receive a closer evaluation if the admissions committee or individual faculty members begin reviewing applications before the deadline, and yours is already there.
Don’t rush to get to the wrong place
Now for a bit of advice specifically for students who are considering graduate school for next year, but who think they not properly prepared to put together a winning application at this time, or else, who are still not certain that going to grad school is even the right decision. It’s probably better to wait a year to do it properly, to find the right program or supervisor, or to make certain about the career path you want to take, than it is to rush together applications to hastily chosen programs during the next few weeks or months.
If you decide to do a rush job, there is a high risk of rejection. That would mean a big waste of time and money, and perhaps a blow to your self-esteem. If you are actually accepted and decide to take up the offer of admission, you may end up with a long-term commitment to a program that is not ideal for you, when there are much better opportunities for you, elsewhere.