Sunday, October 12, 2008

A letter to my grandson about choosing a college

Not long ago, my son called. My grandson was beginning the college application process and considering American University, among others. He was interested in international economics. Could I write with advice about the process in general and AU, specifically, he asked. I though my response might be of interest to other high school seniors, their parents and grandparents.

Dear Grandson

A couple of days a ago, your dad called me and said I might be able to provide some helpful advice about your college plans; also that you were considering American University as a possibility. Of course, I hope you will also feel free to write or call me yourself if you have questions about college related matters. No matter what I am doing, I will be happy to take time to answer your questions, assuming that I have something to offer.

About international economics I have nothing to offer off the top of my head. My own field is international development, which is somewhat related, however it is much easier to find out about graduate than undergraduate programs, I have written to the director of undergraduate economic studies at AU, who I know quite well, and also to two other colleagues who might be helpful. As soon as they get back to me I will pass their thoughts along.

For now, let me say something about choosing a college in general and then about American University. Of course the undergraduate experience I know best is my own (and that of your great grandfather) at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth is one of the best of a genre of institutions that focus predominantly on undergraduate education but also have a few outstanding graduate programs. In the top tier, I would also rank Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams. Other fine institutions in this model that I know something about include Haverford, Wesleyian, Trinity, Grinnell, Bowdoin, Bates (in Maine) and many, many more. The advantage of such institutions is that you are likely to get more attention from top ranked senior faculty. This was my experience at Dartmouth where I was in the history honors program my last two years and developed a very close relationship with an outstanding historian who supervised my honors thesis. Probably this would not have been possible if I had attended Princeton or Stanford, which were more graduate-oriented institutions that I considered. Among the other “Ivy League” universities, I have heard good things about Brown, which a daughter of a friend attended.

Graduate institutions may offer a somewhat larger faculty and a more prestigious one, however if you are applying you should make sure that the faculty members you might like to take classes with actually teach undergraduates. At AU, with a student population about equally divided between graduates and undergraduates, I have not taught an undergraduate course for many years, though I might do so next year. My own view is that if you are going to a university with strong graduate as well as undergraduate programs, you might want to consider one that offers “Collegiate Living’. The flagship of these is Yale, with residential colleges that have traditions going back many years, however there are a relatively small number of others - perhaps 100 - that also have all or some of their students living in residential colleges. You should check out the Yale website to get a feel for this educational model at its best. Middlebury, from which your Aunt graduated, is another. You can find out more about collegiate living by checking out “The Collegiate Way” website with its online newsletter. I believe the site also lists all the universities that have collegiate living. I believe that Rice, which I know you are considering is one of them,

Now about American University. I will learn more about the Economics Department from my colleague and will pass the information along. And, of course, your dad can share his experience. My feeling is that AU is the best of the three Washington-based Universities as far as undergraduate education is concerned. The campus has become quite beautiful - more beautiful than when your dad attended - and the faculty is stronger too. A number of senior faculty do teach at least one undergraduate course, however many undergraduate courses, especially in the first and second year are taught by younger ‘temporary faculty’ who are not on tenure track. I should say that many of these are fine teachers, including several who were my doctoral students, but they do lack the depth of research experience that more senior faculty offer. Building a relationship with a senior faculty member can be helpful when you are applying to graduate school.

The great strength of AU, as your dad will tell you, is its accessibility to Washington DC. AUs students have been rated as the most politically active in the country in the National Survey of Student Engagement and I can personally attest to the fact that it is true. Going to a city based university such as AU as opposed to one located in a rural area, such as Dartmouth, is largely a matter of taste. Personally, I enjoyed the somewhat isolated setting of Dartmouth, with fewer distractions and would choose it again. If you decide on a city location, however, I would definitely choose Washington DC and would give AU serious consideration. Incidentally, AU has a significantly larger undergraduate student population of women than men (about 65 - 35 per-cent). I don’t know whether you would rate this as a positive or negative feature. Of course if you went to AU, I would be available as a resource and would be able to get to know you better. Naturally that would be fun for me and, perhaps, for you as well.. I would not give that much weight in the overall picture of choosing a college, however.. Sadly AU does not have residential colleges, though it does have one other live-in faculty member and one with his office in a dorm. Another weakness of AU, though with less impact on undergraduate programs is that its programs are somewhat uneven in quality. Some, such as public affairs, political science, justice law and society, and of course, international service are among the very best in the world. Others are more average or even below average. Most of the science programs would not be rated as strong - there are no Ph.D. programs in the sciences - but the biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics departments have some truly exceptional teachers. Not having significant graduate programs is probably a benefit for undergraduates; they receive more personal attention from very high quality faculty members.

That’s probably enough for one email. Let’s keep in touch as you make your college plans.


Your grandfather


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My feeling is that AU is the best of the three [sic] Washington-based universities as far as undergraduate education is concerned."
You mean, I suppose, AU, GW, and Georgetown, but there's also Catholic (and Howard) and i guess some might throw in Geo Mason and U MD, though admittedly not in DC proper.
I would tell your grandson -- not that anyone asked me, of course -- that if he's self-motivated and willing to take the initiative, he can have contact w faculty and get a decent or good education in many different kinds of institutions. You didn't mention by name any Western or Midwestern schools in your letter: e.g. Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, U Chicago (although conservative in economics); also Michigan State has a v. well-respected undergrad/honors program . I don't know about "collegiate living" in those places, however, assuming one thinks that that is important (I'm not sure, based on personal experience, that I do).
Among the relatively small number of young people w whom i'm acquainted, two recently went to Wesleyan in CT and both seemed to have had pretty good experiences there. Neither was doing int'l economics, however.

11:54 PM  

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