We already know that higher education applicants and their families have some difficulty decoding the information available about colleges and universities to find the institutions that they want to apply to. That’s the major reason that higher tuition prices in the past have sometimes produced a more selective applicant pool. If I’m trying to hold a dinner party made from the very best ingredients, but I’m making something I’ve never made before, I may choose the highest-priced ingredients, figuring that cost is a signal of quality. If I have experience with those ingredients, I may know better.
This is why college rankings flourish, even though most higher education insiders know that they’re highly manipulable, and in any event, don’t really tell most applicants the more fine-grained things that they’d really like to know. Various descriptive “insider’s guides” do a better job at describing the selective feel of an institutional culture for an applicant who wants to know what day-to-day life is like, but even those are often based on whimsical stereotypes of a given campus culture.
I sometimes join a faculty panel to talk to prospective Swarthmore applicants, and one of the first things that I say is that a college applicant and family can only have strong control over a few really basic dimensions of the choice in front of them. You can control the cost of tuition and board by choosing between public and private, near your family or far-away. You can choose between large and small. You can choose between institutions with unusual curricular designs (St. John’s, Hampshire, Bob Jones, the U.S. Military Academy) or institutions that are more or less variations on a common approach. An applicant and family can make some rough judgments about selectivity, quality, and resources using rankings systems. An applicant can decide if there’s a region or area of the country they really like or dislike.
Beyond that, if (for example) an applicant had decided that they wanted small colleges in the Northeast with a fairly standard curricular philosophy near the top of the selectivity hierarchy, there’s a good argument that they should just write out all the names on slips of paper, put them in a Hogwart’s hat, and choose six to apply to. The features that will really change your life or matter to you once those major decisions are made are almost impossible to predict: the friends you’ll make or lose, the people you’ll love or break up with, the professors you’ll connect to or be frustrated by, the courses that will excite or bore you, the majors that will grab or repel you, the professional connections you’ll make or wish you had, the institutional culture that will satisfy or disgust you.
It’s very hard to do more, roughly as it is hard when you’re a first-time home buyer to really understand and examine the things that will make the key differences in your life with a comparative understanding of all the possible choices. I don’t think I could actually have ever seen or accurately weighed the stuff that’s been good and bad about the home I bought five years ago even if I’d had the best counsel in the world. I don’t know even now if the other houses I looked at had better functioning windows or well-installed doorknobs or fewer horrifically stupid DIY jobs lurking under the surface. I don’t know if I would have had good neighbors at other houses like I do where we are now, or if my tomatoes would have grown well in other gardens.
It’s the same with higher education.
Still, applicants and families understandably want to be diligent. One area where they often kick the tires a lot is the curriculum of possible institutions. There aren’t so many services and rankings that really look closely at curricula. You could turn to something as goofy as the current ACTA rankings, but if you’ve got that much of an obsession with a rigid vision of certain highly particular ideas about “traditional” general education, don’t worry about any of the other kinds of issues involved in choosing a college or university. (For example, if you follow that report, only one highly particular approach to teaching writing is legitimate, and only if it’s a general education requirement: everything else is an illegitimate failure within that ranking system, with nothing further to debate or discuss. If that evaluation satisfies you, you have enough fixed ideas about higher education already to drive any decision you might need to make. )
If you want a more interesting, open conversation about how to interpret what a curriculum has to offer a prospective student, this conversation at EphBlog is kind of interesting if you go down to comment #11 from Williams professor James McAllister. (The initial post is a pretty conventional bit of concern trolling of a kind I’ve talked about a lot at this blog, and it gets pretty well debunked by McAllister by the time comment #11 rolls around.)
So leaving aside the hand-waving about whither history departments and all that, let’s just say that you’re a prospective undergraduate who wants to study one subject more than any other. McAllister is talking about the study of U.S. foreign relations and comparing Williams to Amherst and Swarthmore, with an argument that Williams is the best place to be of the three for a student who has that subject as a primary interest.
I don’t really want to get too deep into the highly granular kinds of comparisons involved in that judgment, though I think McAllister’s assessment of relative strengths seems basically right to me. Instead, here’s how I think a prospective who self-identifies as highly interested in one topic or subject ought to work through the questions involved.
First, are you sure that you’re really that interested in a single topic or issue, so sure that you want to make that a primary axis of your decision about where to go to college? Why are you that sure? Do you just like the topic or are you thinking already of a profession narrowly based on it? Are you sure based on an understanding of what a likely undergraduate-level curriculum around that topic looks like, or based on what you know about it from your high school experience? Are you making that choice with a wider awareness of the subjects that even a small college will offer to you that virtually no high school curriculum can focus on?
Second, are you SURE? Really? Then you’re a really unusual applicant. Most of what prospectives think they’re interested in is not the same as what those subjects turn out to be, and most of their interests are based on a very incomplete understanding of the range of academic subjects even within a particular discipline.
Third, if you’re really that kind of unusual person, absolutely certain that your first, second and last priority is to comprehensively study a single subject area while you’re an undergraduate and that this priority is unlikely to change, then: a) don’t apply to any small undergraduate institution; b) pick a place with as few general education requirements as possible; c) find a program in your preferred subject at a large institution that is stuffed to the gills with faculty and courses and make sure undergraduates with a dedicated interest get access to the most prestigious or high-powered faculty in your area of subject interest. The relative difference between one small college and the next doesn’t really matter to you if you’re that driven, because in either case, they’re going to have a relative paucity of resources in comparison to a large institution. You don’t really care about any of the other resources at an institution if you’re that focused: just your area of study and whatever direct supporting skill areas you need (say, language or quantitative training). An undergraduate applicant who is this specifically focused is really more like a proto-graduate student, and should use selection rules much closer to what a graduate student might employ.
Let’s assume you’re not so focused, just that you’d like to know whether certain areas of potential interest are well-represented in a given catalog. How can you tell? Some rough rules of thumb if you’re reading a catalog for this kind of information.
1) Look at four or five-year course cycles if you really want to know how many courses there are in a particular area. A single year can be highly misleading because of faculty leaves, short-term fluctuations in offerings, and so on.
2) Look over a range of possible departments: many subject areas are taught in multiple disciplines.
3) Look carefully at course descriptions. You may have one idea of what a subject area is about, and not recognize a course title as associated with that subject area. A description may give you a better idea. But be aware that there may be courses on your subject area that you don’t recognize as such at all because you don’t yet really know that subject area as it is commonly taught to undergraduates. Or a subject area you recognize may lead to a subject area you don’t recognize in the course of natural progressions of study. Be prepared to be surprised.
4) Look at the names of faculty who seem to teach a course in the subject areas that interest you. Search out the rest of their offerings and see whether this is a subject area that they commonly teach in, or whether it’s just an occasional or one-off course. I’ve taught courses on new media and interactive media, but I can’t regularly fit such courses into my schedule. I’ve taught courses that interested me on occasion that I decide for various reasons not to repeat, or I suddenly decide to retire a perennial offering and relaunch it with a new coat of paint on top.
5) Also look to see if the faculty teaching in a given area are tenure-track faculty or visiting faculty. The content offered by visiting faculty shifts a great deal at both small and large institutions. Count how many faculty are teaching in that area, of both types.
6) Read the fine print about who can get into the courses that interest you, and how often they’re taught. There’s a big difference in availability between a course taught every year that’s open to max enrollments and a course taught once every four years that’s only open to 12 hand-picked students.
7) Watch out for “paper programs”: a lot of institutions create named programs of study that are more or less ad hoc collections of courses being taught in service to other disciplines or degrees. There’s a difference between programs that have dedicated faculty lines and resources and those that express a general interest by faculty who are primarily associated with other departments. Look to see where faculty positions are actually invested. (Usually this is clear if you look at a program or department’s listing of faculty: there will be a distinction between tenure-lines in that department and affiliated or associated faculty.)
If you do a bit of that, you may get a rough sense of where a given institution has invested more or less curricular energy. Even that isn’t necessarily a good guide to the viability of study in a given area: one professor that really satisfies your interest in a subject is worth more than four who don’t. Whatever you do, though, don’t put too much weight on these kinds of judgments. You or your family may have one idea about what you need to study, but in a great many cases, you’re likely to be wrong in a variety of ways.