Are Universities for Learning or Creating?

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too”.

–English proverb of dubious clarity, ca. 16th century.

Undergraduates are filing onto campus, which means that for high school seniors, college application season is fast approaching. The age old question starts to haunt them—how do they know which schools they should apply to? Do they even know what they are getting into or what it will be like when they get there?

There is a lot of debate about the worth of universities with the rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the skyrocketing cost of tuition, and more jobs than ever requiring a college degree. I’m not going to re-hash that argument. I personally think that university are worthwhile, given that I’m in graduate school and thoroughly enjoy academia. But as a place, institutions of higher learning are very different that I thought they would be. Growing up, I thought that their main function was learning (and as a corollary, teaching). However, creation of new knowledge, something I didn’t think about as a 16-year-old, gets approximately equal, if not more priority, in many schools. In common parlance, this is called research.

I don’t think that it is controversial that both teaching and research are immensely important at universities. I love teaching. I love research. I love learning. During my undergrad at Brown University and my graduate work thus far at UC Berkeley, I’ve done all those things. But I realized something during grad school—time is finite. Tasks need to be prioritized. Deadlines are extended out of necessity. Tasks at the bottom of the to-do pile are sometimes never finished.

So, what are those things at the bottom of the to-do pile? This is as much an institutional question as a personal one. I like teaching, I care about my students, so semesters when I teach, I happen to be less productive in lab. Other grad students may care more about research, so from time to time their teaching suffers. Advisors may tell their students that teaching is important. Or they may tell their students that producing new science should be prioritized over teaching. This is all part of learning time management and deciding what you want to do with your life.

But departments also have their own priorities. An acquaintance of mine went out on the job market for professorships recently, landed many interviews and almost as many job offers, all at well known universities. My friend reflected on their experience to me, saying that some departments said that if young professors wanted tenure, they should have good ratings from students (that is, spend lots of time teaching well). Other departments said not to worry about teaching, and to focus on producing high quality research. Each department had different priorities (I admit that this is all hearsay, and I will not give any information about which schools or departments were involved, or who the candidate was). However, these priorities will immensely impact the undergraduate experience.

Schools like to sell themselves on having the “leaders in their field”, and those leaders giving lectures and teaching classes, not TAs. If you are going to be a “leader in your field” you are going to spend most of your time researching, or directing a research group. Unless your are incredibly talented as a lecturer (as a good number of professor actually are), you might not be the most clear and compelling teacher. That being said, I have learned from many professors who are both world class researchers and phenomenal teachers. If it is the case that the department wants you to spend your time researching, you want to spend your time researching, and you have your TAs do most of the work, that’s fine. But undergrads shouldn’t have to pay such exorbitant tuition, or go into debt, to attend those schools.

To put tuition costs in perspective, between 2000 and 2013, tuition has increased 33% at public institutions. At my alma mater (a private institution that definitely prioritized teaching), tuition in the 2001/2002 school year was $26,568, but in 2014/2015 it had risen to $46,408. (Note: these numbers don’t include “room, board and required fees”, which brought the cost of attending to $34,750 in 2001/2002 and $59,428 in 2014/2015.) This is a tuition increase of about 75% over those 14 years. Financial aid does exist for some people, but each institution has different policies for who qualifies and for how much.

Most undergraduates go to university to learn, not to do research, because they haven’t yet developed skills necessary for research. They expect the best possible learning experience, and their parents sacrifice their hard earned savings, or the students go into debt in order to get those four years of learning. So when they have a hard time getting in contact with a professor, or the professor basically regurgitates the textbook, they aren’t getting anything more out of a school that if they had remotely signed up for a MOOC and stayed at home.

My advice is this. If your are a high schooler thinking of applying to a top school that’s known for it’s research, know that there’s a chance that you will hit the jackpot and go to a school that has wonderful teaching and tremendous resources for research if that’s something you’re interested. in. You might, however, find yourself at an institution where you have all the research opportunities you want, but instructors who don’t know your name, and are more concerned with their grad student’s progress than your budding journey, so you’ll have to make your own way without them.

You could decide to go to a smaller, liberal arts school with less name recognition but a larger focus on teaching, (with probably less interesting research), and then choose to go to the big school for graduate school.

Of course, there is no list of which departments at which schools really care about teaching, and which don’t. Sometimes the most famous professors at the “best” schools are the best teachers, and sometimes they can be mediocre at teaching. But professors who care about teaching will always be good at teaching, even if their research is not cutting-edge. If you want to be taught things, find yourself a school that cares about undergrads. If you can learn on your own and want to try research, try for one of the name brand schools. Either way, good luck, and try not to stress out too much.


Cal Berkeley Cake feature image used with permission of Tiers of Joy Cakery

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