Are LACs really better ...

<p>My understanding is that the main benefit for a LAC is small classes and accessibility to professors (including instructions by its professors, not TAs). Between the top 20 universities and the top 25 LACs, the faculty to student ratio is not much different. All universities claim better access to professors. All their professors teach undergraduates. All top LACs also claim good opportunity of research assistant positions. Those LACs talk about their professors' research activities like the top universities.</p>

<p>Is there no difference between them, any more, in academics?</p>

<p>Well... just ask what the average size is for an intro science class at a top university. While the class ratios are good in many upper level courses, the intro lecture courses are very large at a lot of universities, even the "top 20".</p>

<p>Many LACs do not have TAs at all, all courses are taught by professors. Most major universities use teaching assistants for office hours and at least some hours of instruction in the classroom, especially in into level classes. That is not all bad, I had some TAs at a top 20 university who were great teachers. But I had some who did not speak English well, and some who were only TAs to earn the money to be in grad school (no interest in teaching). Although it has been some years since I attended that university, everything I see out here on CC indicates that it has not changed.</p>

<p>An important disadvantage of a liberal arts college is that you can only major in the liberal arts.</p>

<p>And unless there is an exchange system with other college in the area, you won't even be able to take electives in non-liberal arts subjects.</p>

<p>This can be restrictive, but people rarely talk about it.</p>

<p>
[quote]
An important disadvantage of a liberal arts college is that you can only major in the liberal arts.

[/quote]

You do know that math and the sciences are liberal arts, right? This means you forgo the chance for pre-professional programs like business and engineering. If those are the programs you want to take then most LACs will not work (though there are some that have those programs).</p>

<p>Yes, I know that math and science are liberal arts.</p>

<p>I was thinking in terms of my daughter, a senior at a large university who is completing a major in economics (which is also liberal arts). She has had the opportunity to take two accounting courses, two finance courses, and an entrepreneurship course, all of which complemented her major and provided her with skills that will come in handy on the job. She also had the chance to be an undergraduate TA for finance. She would not have had those opportunities at most liberal arts colleges.</p>

<p>You don't have to be in a pre-professional program to benefit from taking a few pre-professional courses.</p>

<p>The difference also depends on the student.
My daughter will attend an LAC with just about 2000 students in the fall.
After visiting a large university then visiting at a small LAC, she knew where she'd be happiest.</p>

<p>For some kids, they are better. For others not.</p>

<p>I know a few LACs. The intro classes are much smaller. </p>

<p>There is another difference that is not mentioned. Professors at top 20 universities are judged for promotion solely or predominantly based upon research (quantity and quality). In most cases, there is no weight given to teaching (it could count against you if you are completely incomprehensible, but probably only if you are marginal in the research dimension). The promotion process is pretty intense and people respond to incentives. </p>

<p>At LACs, research may be included in the promotion decision but teaching and commitment to students are likely to get much greater weight. Professors tend to self-select. Those interest in teaching more than research will tend to go to LACs. Those who see themselves as researchers will go to universities.</p>

<p>The research universities also have grad students, who frequently are nearer and dearer to the professors' hearts because they help engage in the research.</p>

<p>This is reflected both in the quality of teaching and the time spent with undergraduates. My son is at a top LAC. He took a freshman seminar with 15 kids (his largest class that year had 50) and he had a conflict during the professor's office hours. So, the professor agreed to meet with him for an hour a week outside of class/office hours. Highly unlikely to happen at a top research university. [My son is both unusually bright -- even for that school -- and a strategist -- he told me that before every meeting, he would prepare two questions that the professor would find provocative. So, the professor probably wanted to keep meeting with him]. He's also dyslexic and having smaller classes where the professors engage in discussion and get to know him outside his papers/tests helps him. </p>

<p>You can get high-level faculty contact at research universities. But, you have to be focused and a little bit aggressive. I attended three of HYPMS. At my undergraduate school, I did research with the most famous guy in the field, who rarely worked with undergraduates. But, I had to do great work for two years and then go and ask him. At the school where I got my PhD, professors really only care about grad students. But, if a bright, aggressive, focused undergrad comes in, he/she can talk him/herself into research projects. But, generally the profs there don't care about undergraduates. [I was a prof there also].</p>

<p>And, there are opportunities at universities that have professional schools or advanced graduate programs that won't be available at LACs. There's good and bad in both. I think it depends upon the kid as to which would be better.</p>

<p>It all depends on who you are and what you want. Not every kid even knows what they want to major in, so being able to investigate many areas and easily change majors makes liberal arts colleges attractive to many. </p>

<p>The emphasis that the LACs put on critical thinking and writing is also attractive, it takes an enormous amount of time to read and grade 10 page papers, so smaller classes at the freshman level have the big advantage there. My son also chose an LAC because he wanted a smaller environment where he could become involved in many activities and get leadership opportunities. A close supportive environment for an 18 year old can also be very appealing.</p>

<p>Having said that, when my son decided he wanted to become a civil or environmental engineer he realized that he would have to go to graduate school. We did suggest that he take advantage of his school's 3/2 program where he could transfer to a school with an undergrad engineering program for the final 2 years (making a total of 5 years) and he would receive a dual degree, BA and BS. He has decided that he loves his experience, teachers and friends so much that he doesn't want to miss his senior year at his LAC. He's majoring in geology/physics so he'll need a semester of additional classes to catch up at graduate school and then take the standard 2 years for a masters.</p>

<p>So he's added time and money to his education by choosing an LAC, however he's having an incredible undergraduate experience that has expanded his horizons in many academic and non-academic ways. As I said, it depends on who you are and what you want.</p>

<p>One of my kids graduated from one of the very top university (with publicized 1:7 or 1:8 faculty:student ratio) with a major in CS.</p>

<p>Although he (and I) think he had a great education, and he had several employment options to choose from straight out of college, he had not a single class with less than 50 students in it (and most had about 150). (He took plenty of upper level classes (did half of his MS during that time), and it did not bring the class size down at all.) For him it did not matter, and he did not feel that his education quality suffered because of the class size.</p>

<p>My other kid graduated from a top LAC. I don't remember the official faculty:student ratio number, but it was similar to that of top U. Her largest class had 40 students in it, and many seminars had less then 10. She found this to be the key to the quality of her educational experience. (And she also got to be a TA and a peer tutor, so LAC students do not lack these opportunities)</p>

<p>From what I could see even from afar, the level of faculty involvement with the students was very different in these two schools. A lot depends on the student's preferred learning style, area of study, etc. There is no absolute "better" choice. But the two are very different, even though some of the "stats" may appear similar on paper.</p>

<p>


</p>

<p>Not strictly true. Harvey Mudd offers an ABET accredited Engineering major.</p>

<p>One other point. There are a ton of LACs in the northeast and one of things that can differeniate them is majors/schools they offer beyound a pure liberal arts education. With some research a student can find LACs that cover interests beyond pure liberal arts. For example for business Bucknell and Skidmore ... for education Skidmore and Wheaton (MA) ... for engineering Bucknell ... etc.</p>

<p>
[quote]
There is another difference that is not mentioned. Professors at top 20 universities are judged for promotion solely or predominantly based upon research (quantity and quality). In most cases, there is no weight given to teaching (it could count against you if you are completely incomprehensible, but probably only if you are marginal in the research dimension). The promotion process is pretty intense and people respond to incentives.

[/quote]
</p>

<p>True enough but let me also provide a potentially provocative side point here. And I'm not bashing LACs at all- would be very happy if my kids went to one and they can provide <em>excellent education</em>. But it is also important to recognize that this 'focus on teaching' has more to it than people realize. Like most things, its overrated. </p>

<p>People get PhDs in a research environment. A PhD is a research degree and for the most part, one is trained to be a researcher, not a teacher. The higher resources, salaries, prestige, and freedom of schedule come from getting a position at a top research university after a PhD. Those that don't make the cut- because their degree is from a lesser school or they aren't as strong a PhD graduate- take a 'teaching job' at a more teaching oriented school than a research powerhouse. Its a place where they have to be in the classroom a ton more, usually make less money, have far less prestige in many fields. While absolutely it is the case that some PhDs choose a teaching school because that is their passion and/or strength, more often than not it's the default they ended up with because they couldn't get a job in a research environment. </p>

<p>Food for thought.</p>

<p>^With the job market as it is now, the very best graduates of the very best grad schools are considered lucky if they can get a job at any four-year school. So that's not really true. It's not that the best researchers go to the best research universities; they go to the schools that would have them, be they public or private or research-oriented or teaching-oriented, while hundreds of their less impressive colleagues stay on the job market for another year (and another one... and another one...).</p>

<p>At S's LAC the profs are truly happy to be there, generally love their jobs and the kids. Starbright, I really don't know where you get that they are all there because they couldn't do what they want. Not true in my experience.</p>

<p>I have one at a university and one at a LAC and they are both having good experiences. But at the LAC, S has relationships with pretty much all his profs, they are all accessible and have actually recognized his abilities. More than one has offered recommendations without prompting, and he has pretty easy research and TA opportunities. In addition to the nurturing, the quality of what he's learning can't be beat. LACs might not be for everyone, but the benefits can't be denied.</p>

<p>Also, the ratio may be the same, but I know that at some top research universities, the top "professors" do not teach AT ALL. They just research. That may be what they were trained for, but there's no great benefit to the students.</p>

<p>
[quote]
An important disadvantage of a liberal arts college is that you can only major in the liberal arts.

[/quote]
</p>

<p>There are some LAC consortium that provide a variety of opportunity and yet keep the LAC feel. The most famous of this is the Claremont consortium where you can get a degree in accounting (Calremont McKenna) or a degree in Engineering (Harvey Mudd) or in Liberal arts etc. Students can take classes at any of the consortium colleges. The aim here is to provide more opportunity than a typical LAC and at the same time has the small campus feel.</p>

<p>An advantage to the large universities, besides potentially being less costly, is a deeper curriculum in different majors. There tend to be more math classes available, etc because there are more students and more instructors.</p>

<p>A student who enters university advanced in a certain field may also benefit from going to a school with a strong graduate program in that field. This appears to be most common with math -- I knew some math majors who were taking graduate level math courses as juniors.</p>

<p>There are advantages and disadvantages to the various types of colleges. I happen to like LACs, just as I like the small, selective, rigorous independent schools for high school. I especially like them for my kids.</p>

<p>I will reiterate what some previous poster said. A PhD program is a research program, not a teaching one. So while some PhDs will choose jobs at LACs for the teaching most of those who end up at LACs are those that could not get a job at a research school. Even in this job market, I know plenty of PhD candidates who (rightly or wrongly) chose post-docs instead of teaching at a LAC (one of my best friends took a postdoc at a state school instead of a tenure track job at Williams) because of research opportunities. The research you can do at a LAC will not be of the same caliber as in a university, if that's what interests you.</p>

<p>I am just being devil's advocate here, I went to a LAC myself, but have a PhD.</p>

<p>Totally depends on the kid. My S had Williams and U of Chicago as his final choices. He chose Williams. It's provocative to imagine how different he'd be now if he went the other way.</p>

<p>My D attended Barnard with half her classes at Barnard and half at Columbia. For her, the Barnard courses were more rigorous.</p>

<p>One draw back of the uni (might just be Columbia) was that it was much more disorganized that Barnard and the grading was normed less, so one section TA might give a C for work another would give a B. Things felt more arbitrary.</p>

<p>I attended a uni and took grad courses as an undergraduate and felt invigorated by tall the activity.</p>

<p>I also have a PhD, but we did have a series of teaching practicums so not only research was stressed.</p>

<p>So, three very different experiences. </p>

<p>All depends on the student.</p>