Thursday, July 31, 2014

Musings on College and University Quality...

Most college and university ranking systems aren't worth the paper they are printed on or the space they take up on the almost spaceless internet. First of all, if one wants to compare and contrast colleges and universities one has to compare not only apples and oranges but apples with apples. Apples and oranges first. Harvard, Brown, Yale, Berkeley, Indiana, Northwestern, Texas at Austin..., are research universities. Amherst, Vasser, and Bard are research colleges. The College of Saint Rose, Knox College, and Dixie College are not research universities or colleges. They are more teaching colleges. They are in other words different. Both forms, research colleges and teaching oriented colleges, are worthy if different "professions".

Second, one can compare and contrast colleges and universities within categories. Indiana, for instance, is a major research university. It is a member of the elite Association of American Universities and has been so since 1909. Ball State is not a major research university--it is a second level research university at best--and it is not a member of the Association of American universities. Ball State, in other words, is a research university but it is not of the same ilk as most of those universities in the Association of American universities. It must also be remembered that Ball State was once a normal college, a college to train teachers. This legacy lives on. The same holds, by the way, for other old normal colleges turned universities. SUNY Albany, for instance, is a second level research university at best and it is not a member of the Association of American Universities,

I have long found that the best way to get a handle of the quality of a college or university is to look at their faculty, where their faculty took their degrees (in major research universities most faculty have degrees from major research universities), to look at the size and quality of their libraries, and look, in particular, at the quality and size of their bookstores beyond the textbooks they carry (and I don't mean school shirts here). By and large, the more supplementary texts a bookstore has the better the university. Now I realise bookstores are in decline for a number of reasons amongst them the fact that students don't read as much as they did when I was a student or indeed don't seem to read much beyond text messages on smart phones. Still it is no accident or coincidence that the Coop Bookstore at the University of Chicago is one of the finest bookstores in the world and that the University of Chicago is one of the finest research universities in the world. Ball State's "bookstore", on the other hand, seems to have more "Ball U" t-shirts than supplementary reading material. Feel free to choose which bookstore you prefer. I suspect most students these days will chose the latter. And that is why American education and American liberal arts education in particular are dying a slow painful death. American higher education, it has been bittersweet knowing you.

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