Parents and students are swamped with information about colleges: college directories, magazines and view books all offer a variety of facts and figures. Some of the information is useful, much of it is useless, and occasionally it’s simply inaccurate.
Today, in the fourth installment of a five-part series, we'll try to sift through the particulars when it comes to a few more areas: professors' salaries, majors, sports, and inside information.
This may seem like an odd area of inquiry, but think about this: colleges boast about their new multi-million dollar gyms and the big-name speakers they bring to campus (at $70,000 each), but they don’t often discuss how much they pay the teachers that will be in front of you in the classroom.
Since teachers, like everyone else in a free market, are attracted to high salaries, it seems obvious that the colleges offering the highest salaries typically have the best teachers.
It may also surprise you to know that many of the teachers at top universities make less than $20,000 per year. In fact, you could go through your entire freshman year and never have a teacher who makes more than $20,000 per year (teaching a full load of classes).
When you discover this kind of information, you will probably be irritated to learn of the new $30 million gym and the new $4,000 teak trash cans. Why don’t colleges spend more money on hiring good teachers? Because they don’t think good teaching will attract you like big-name speakers and shiny new buildings do.
The problem in finding out average teacher salaries is obvious: colleges control this information. Colleges are unregulated; therefore, they don’t readily report this information unless they think it to their benefit.
While this information is reported in a few somewhat obscure publications, the only way a typical applicant can get it is to have a good college counselor. Assessing a college’s average teacher salary should be balanced by the amount of access you will have to those teachers. Many top colleges lure top teachers with high salaries and the promise that they won’t be required to teach much (if at all). Many of the highest paid college professors in the country don’t actually teach.
The other side to teacher’s salaries is teaching assistants. Teaching assistants are graduate students, many of whom are 21 to 25 years old, who are paid little to teach classes. They usually have little or no teaching experience, and teaching is usually not their primary focus (and often not even their only job). A few decades ago, TAs were only used to assist professors by researching for them, proofreading, grading exams, and assisting in classroom management. But now, as many as 50% of the classes at some universities are in the hands of TAs. Sometimes TAs teach in exchange for being able to take graduate classes for free (an academic barter system) and sometimes there are paid stipends, usually about $14,000 per year.
This abuse of the TA system is why many people get very upset about the use of teaching assistants. Many TAs are good, but students and parents expect a little more for the enormous price of tuition. Your high school cost less than your college, and yet your high school teachers may be paid much more than your college teacher. Certainly, a college that uses $14,000-per-year teaching assistants should not be charging $45,000 per year in tuition. (One of the great ironies – and mysteries – of college tuition is that colleges charge so much more now than they did just ten years ago, but they are spending less on teacher salaries. Where does all that money go? Yeah, sports teams, shiny new buildings, expensive marketing and rock star professors who don’t teach.)
Specialties & Majors
If you wish to specialize or major in something very specific, such as industrial engineering (consider Cornell & Georgia Tech) or Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (consider Brown), then you should investigate the college’s specialties. Most college English, history, philosophy, religion, art history and engineering departments have strengths and weaknesses. And small, private colleges are bound to have more extensive weaknesses.
If you are interested in specific scientific, technological, or medical areas of inquiry, then large public universities will be much more likely to accommodate your interests. The problem with majoring in a narrow, specialized area at a small college is that often the college’s ability to accommodate you rests on the shoulders of a single professor, and when that professor leaves, so does the major.
For example, a small private college may offer a concentration in genetic engineering, but they may have only one professor who actually teaches genetic engineering. If that professor leaves, so does the entire field of genetic engineering. Similarly, if that professor does not teach a semester, then there won’t be any genetic engineering courses offered that semester. (It would be rare for such a professor to teach continuously for four years.) No college can make guarantees that any single professor will be at the college in the future. If genetic engineering is your area of interest, you would be better off attending a larger college that has at least four to five professors who regularly teach genetic engineering courses.
In conclusion, if you’re very interested in concentrating in a specialized field, it’s important to discover whether the college offers that area of concentration and how many professors actually teach courses in that area. All colleges publish course catalogues and most publish them online, so you should peruse these catalogues to investigate the courses offered and the areas of expertise of the professors.
If you’re interested in studying U.S. history, British literature, or pre-medical studies, then nearly every college (other than technical ones) will be able to provide you with a solid education. However, it’s still worthwhile to peruse the course catalogue to see what’s offered; you may decide that you prefer one college to another because of the specific courses that are offered. For example, you may find that Duke’s English department concentrates heavily on feminist and queer theory, Marxist gyno-reflexive interpretative poetics, and identity deconstructionism – none of which interests you. If you simply wish to study British Renaissance poetry without the clouds of radical theory over your head, then you would be disinclined to consider Duke.
Therefore, investigating the course catalogue of every college should help inform your application decisions and may engender new questions about the college (which you should direct to the admissions department or the academic department in question).
One final note on course catalogues: most colleges publish course catalogues every one to three years, and they publish a description of every course that could possibly be taught. This means that many (if not most) of the courses published in a course catalogue will not be taught in any given year. Often, course catalogues are more intimations of what may be taught than actual descriptions of what will be taught. If you find one or two courses in which you’re very interested, you may be required to wait two or three years before these courses are actually offered (if ever).
The danger is this: You may find a college that offers, for example, 70 English courses in its course catalogue, and you find only fve that interest you. This seems okay, but it may take two years before some of those courses are offered, and some of them may never be offered. Each course described is often only taught by one professor, and if that professor leaves, the course may never be offered again. If that professor takes a sabbatical, a leave of absence, or a maternity leave, then that course may not be offered that year. It’s dangerous to choose a college (or a department) because of a small number of desirable courses. In the above example, those five courses may all be taught by the same professor, and that professor may leave the college the year you arrive. Then you’re stuck with 65 other courses that don’t really interest you. So if you decide you like a department, be sure you’re interested in the majority of the courses offered.
Inside information includes all those things you hear about a college that aren’t published. You hear things from friends, parents, teachers, and hopefully from a well-informed college counselor. In fact, your college counselor should be a fount of inside information on colleges. Some inside information is available in chat rooms, but those are not very trust-worthy. In order for the information to be credible, you should know and trust the source.
Good inside information should be like talking to someone who drives the car you’re thinking of buying and can tell you their opinion. Such opinions aren’t definitive, but they are helpful.
Such inside information may lead you to the fact that Williams College has banned beer pong (and other drinking games): if you’re caught hanging around a ping-pong table with a beer, you could be suspended from college.
Or perhaps you’d learn that the University of New Hampshire has had “search and seizure” problems: some students feel the school unlawfully searches dorm rooms and seizes “evidence” to be used in disciplinary hearings. You might even learn that Princeton’s famous professor Peter Singer seems to think that bestiality is okay; in fact, Professor Singer thinks that bestiality is only a taboo that will soon go away once conservatives and the church stop ridiculing it. Ironically, Professor Singer is an undergraduate professor of ethics (which would be funny if it weren’t so perverse).
Even more shocking is that Princeton President Harold Shapiro went out of his way to hire Singer. This sort of “inside information” may cause you to think twice about applying to a college that thinks people like Singer should be teaching.
Inside information can help you get a feel for a school, so ask around because most schools aren’t publishing this sort of information in their view books.
If you wish to play sports at college, then clearly you need to know everything there is to know about the team and the college’s sports program. Most college coaches (or their assistants) are approachable and affable to potential recruits. If you are a serious potential recruit, then a coach may be your greatest ally at the admissions office. If you have any potential (and interest) in playing college sports, then it would be to your advantage to contact the college’s athletic director or the team’s coach as soon as possible.
One word of warning: college athletics is very serious business. In most cases, you will be required to make an enormous commitment to the team, which will inevitably infringe on your academic pursuits. (Of course, sports programs will typically deny that they diminish a student’s academic achievement.)
Collegiate sports may be important to you even if you don’t intend to participate. Despite the fact that many professors dislike highly popular sports programs (football, basketball) and recruiting-intensive admissions offices (the Ivies), most students believe that collegiate sports add to the overall college experience. Students from Boston College to the University of Florida will attest to the ways that sports teams improve the social atmosphere. It’s certainly the case that a greater sense of community spirit improves the overall social life – and you can feel this difference on college campuses. You can go from a spiritless school (Tufts, Emory) to a school full of spirit (Boston College, University of Georgia) and almost immediately notice the difference. While having a successful sports program isn’t a necessity, it adds to the overall college experience and is one of many factors that should be considered.
Next week's installment of 'The College Decision' will look at freshman dropout rates and the netherworld of college information. For more, check out the past three installments: