My previous commentary argued that university-rankings lists should be ignored when deciding where to attend for a bachelor’s degree in most fields of study. The reasons basically boiled down to this: University rankings are based primarily on research activities and other factors that are unrelated to teaching undergraduate students. Yes, the “greatest universities” have lots of great scholars, who do great research, make great discoveries, and other great stuff. But, that doesn’t mean these “greats” are passing on anything special to average students they meet in the classroom.
In fact, faculty members who do tremendous amounts of research often do very little undergraduate teaching. For example, one of my former colleagues (now retired) is internationally renowned, and her large grants and other research accomplishments over a few decades did much to advance the prestige of our university. But, during the 16 years that our careers overlapped, I don’t think she taught a single undergraduate class. She did give seminar classes to graduate students, but she did no undergraduate teaching that I noticed during those 16 years. This is the way she wanted it, and she was able to swing things that way, because she was an outstanding researcher. I am sure she did her fair share of undergraduate teaching earlier in her career, but later, when she was widely recognized as a research-superstar, she was able to “opt-out” of teaching bachelor’s students. The majority of my colleagues would similarly choose not to teach undergraduate classes if that option was available. Most of us find our research activities and our training of new researchers (i.e., Ph.D. students) far more enjoyable than lecturing to undergraduate students. Most of us, but not all of us, feel that way. And I’m not just talking about my own university, here. It’s like that everywhere, especially in the most research-intensive disciplines.
Many people, including college and university students, do not realize it, but the majority of university professors have little desire to deliver lectures to undergraduate classes. As I mentioned in my previous post, most universities hire professors to do research, and expect them to teach — it’s not the other way around. (This does not apply so much to a liberal arts college). The point I’m getting at is simply that, in general, the more a particular professor contributes to research or training of graduate students, often, the less he or she will teach undergraduate students. And remember, the reputation or standing of a university is based mostly on research-related factors, and the only teaching and training that contributes significantly to a university’s reputation is doctoral-level training. This is just another example of the disconnect between the position a university holds on a university-rankings list, and the quality of undergraduate teaching and training that it delivers.
Consumers should understand these things when trying to decide where to go for a bachelor’s degree. One should ignore the general reputation or prestige of the university, because it is irrelevant to finding the best place for your undergraduate studies. The most relevant factors are geographical location, costs, and the availability of the desired program of study. So, how does one choose among multiple schools that happen to be in the same city, all of which offer the relevant undergraduate program, and with very similar tuition and other associated costs? Are all the options going to be equally attractive? No, it’s likely there are some significant differences in what a student would experience at the different schools. But, in order to discover what those things are before deciding where to enroll, it is necessary to make a personal visit to the schools in question, and ask specific questions of the right people.
Now, I will give a specific example of how focusing on the general reputation of one university relative to another can lead thousands of students to a make less-than-optimal decision when choosing a university. Full-disclosure — I am a faculty member in the Psychology department at Concordia University in Montréal, and I am going to be comparing some features of our undergraduate psychology programs to those offered at McGill University.
Of course, McGill is recognized around the world as a “top tier” university. Some refer to it as the Harvard of Canada. McGill is almost 200 years old. Concordia University was founded in the mid-1970s. I would venture to say that most people outside of Canada have never heard of Concordia University.
Each year, about 500-700 new students begin a bachelor’s program in Psychology at either McGill or Concordia. Both of these universities have relatively large Psychology departments, with a few dozen faculty members, and undergraduate enrollments of over a thousand students. There are two other large universities in Montréal, but they are French, so students who want to attend an English university and study psychology have to choose between McGill and Concordia.
Many students with excellent entry grades know they will be accepted at McGill, and they don’t even apply to Concordia. Many other students who have good grades will apply to and be accepted at both schools, but most of them will decide to attend McGill. I suspect that if you ask these students why they chose McGill when they could have gone to Concordia instead, most will say something about wanting to go to the “best university.” That rationale is lame, and it clearly reflects the difference in general reputation of these two universities among the public.
The undergraduate Psychology programs at Concordia do just as well as McGill’s at preparing students to join the general workforce after obtaining their bachelor’s degree. Concordia may even be doing a better job at this; it’s hard to assess, because students at either school will take the same kinds of courses, taught by equally-qualified and experienced professors. There is nothing that is explicitly taught to Psychology majors at McGill or Concordia that is particularly unique to either program. Moreover, the undergraduate Psychology curricula at Concordia and McGill are basically the same as at any other major university in the U.S. or Canada (or Australia, New Zealand, U.K.). If you plan to join the workforce after earning a bachelor’s degree, then either Concordia or McGill is equally capable of preparing you for that eventuality. In fact, the knowledge acquired as a bachelor’s student in Psychology will be generally the same at any accredited university.
But, there are other things to consider, of course. Among the most relevant are factors that influence satisfaction with the student-experience at the particular universities in question. For example, class size and teacher-to-student ratios tend to be important determinants of student satisfaction.
Most people prefer having classes in which there are 25 – 50 other students rather than classes with 100 – 200 classmates. There are a few reasons why students tend to prefer smaller class sizes, but I’m not going to go into all of that, here. I think most people appreciate that smaller is better when it comes to class-size. So, in terms of this factor, undergraduate Psychology at Concordia gets the nod over the same program of study at McGill. If the plan is for the student to join the workforce after earning their bachelor’s degree, then either school will be equally capable of preparing the student for that eventuality, but the general experience at Concordia will be more enjoyable for most students. To me, that seems like an important consideration to have in mind when choosing where to go to university. This factor can even impact the quality of learning that occurs, because students who are enjoying their classes are more likely to attend them.
Of course, a significant proportion, though still a minority, of those students who earn a bachelor’s degree in Psychology will decide they want to be psychologists, and they will therefore need to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate degree. For these students who plan to go on to the Ph.D., it’s relevant to consider certain additional features of the two Psychology departments being compared. These are features that influence how well the undergraduate programs are at preparing their students for getting into graduate school and succeeding once there.
As discussed in several other places on this blog, the most important thing that Psychology students need to do in order to get into a good Ph.D. program is acquire a lot of research experience. Accordingly, the extent to which students have opportunities to participate in their professor’s research should be a major factor when choosing between two potential schools for a bachelor’s in Psychology. Here again, Concordia gets the nod over McGill. The Psychology department at Concordia has a culture of involving undergraduates in research, beyond the standard option of being able to do an Honors thesis in the final year of the bachelor’s degree. Nearly every faculty member in the Psychology department at Concordia has a few volunteer research assistants working in their labs at any given time, and almost all of these volunteers are Psychology students who are trying to position themselves to be able to get into a master’s or Ph.D. program after the bachelor’s. And the strategy is highly successful — Concordia graduates have a very high success rate when it comes to getting into graduate school. I can’t say anything certain about the prospects for the typical McGill graduate in Psychology, because I don’t have access to the necessary information, but I am quite confident that they do not, in general, have the same success at getting into graduate school as do Concordia students. Of course, many McGill students will also succeed in getting into graduate school, but many will fail simply because they did not get the same opportunities to gain research experience and set up effective letters of recommendation as the Concordia students.
Overall then, for most students looking to study Psychology (in English) at a university in Montreal, Concordia will be a more satisfying choice than McGill. Not for all, but for most. This may be one of the reasons why I often meet Psychology students at Concordia who began their undergraduate degree at McGill but switched to Concordia after talking to friends who were already at Concordia. I have never heard of an undergraduate student switching from Psychology at Concordia to McGill. Although it’s possible that it happens, I have not heard of a single case in 18 years. One thing is for sure, I hear from a lot of Psychology students at Concordia who are glad to be there instead of at McGill.
Okay, I didn’t really set out here to promote Concordia university and it’s Psychology department. And I certainly don’t want to be bashing McGill as an institution, in any way. My purpose here has been to show how the things that really matter in determining one’s satisfaction with a university education are not the same factors that contribute to the public perception or reputation of a particular institution. The global ranking of a university says nothing about what happens at the level of particular programs in specific disciplines. Almost any university will have some areas of strength as well as some areas of mediocrity. These variations within an institution are totally obscured by rankings-lists.