April 18, 2008
Posted by Sam Jackson
Yesterday, EphBlog challenged me and other Yalies to defend Yale against Williams and other small liberal arts colleges. We stepped up to the plate and demonstrated a lot of Yale's merits which were previously unknown to a lot of the EphBlog audience; likewise I learned more about some of the advantages of Williams in greater detail.
My final conclusion was that more education and understanding would be better for everyone, since it became clear that both schools were great and had lots to offer and that it was in the best interests of students to find the place that is the best fit for them. (Also, a lot of David's troubles seemed to stem from his assumption that Harvard = Yale, a common mistake!)
EphBlog is a great community which, as I have written before, convinced me to keep Williams on my college list for much longer than any other small LACs and much longer than really made sense given what I was actually looking for in a school. I find myself in a position where I really value a lot of the benefits of smaller liberal arts schools--intimate communities, lots of faculty interaction, and much more--but at the same time have a compelling need for the resources of a larger school. That's why I was especially drawn to Yale--I thought it would help me bridge the divide between large and small schools, something of a happy compromise.
So, in the spirit of promoting discussion and communication, I am going to start a series where I discuss some of what Yale has to offer specifically compared to smaller schools, and how it compensates for some of its potential shortcomings in relation to them. Consider this part one, the introduction. Below is the first part of the original post that I wrote in response to David and others at EphBlog; it wasn't completed and would have been very, very long but you can see the complete discussion at EphBlog.
The second post / first real post is available here: Yale vs. Small Liberal Arts Colleges: part 2 (Money Matters)
David Kane of EphBlog threw down the gauntlet yesterday, insisting that Williams is better than Yale. David says that of the "scores of students that were accepted at both Yale and Williams" a majority of those choosing Yale are making a mistake, and that "most of them would be better off if they chose Williams." Are students as misinformed as David thinks about what life is like at Yale vs. an excellent, small liberal arts school like Williams? How does Yale compare when looking at the advantages and disadvantages of its size and institutional character?
I am not as quick to David to insist that any school--be it Yale, or anywhere else--is necessarily better for a given student. It's very important to consider which school is the best fit for a specific individual, and I think that approaching any one applying or matriculating population as homogeneous enough to just be relocated and have across the board better experiences is naive or worse. It smacks of the higher education marketing attitudes that I try so hard to attack here on my blog. I will do my best to demonstrate in this post ways in which for many--not necessarily all but many--a school like Yale can offer more than a small liberal arts college (like Williams) could. I will aim to deconstruct the claims made by David against Yale and also to a certain extent his criticism of Harvard where it overlaps. I am not trying to directly respond to the baiting (trolling?) of some Williams folks--just responding more in general, comparing Yale (FAIRLY) to small liberal arts colleges.
UPDATE: The debate at EphBlog seems to have been largely resolved, obviating much of the need for this post. David Kane, after extensive discussion, revised his original position based on a newfound understanding of life at Yale.
I stand corrected! My mistake was to assume that the Yale I did not know was similar to the Harvard that I know so well. It isn’t, at least in terms of average class size and faculty interaction. My mistake. And thanks to Sam/Anna/DHD/Yalie for the education.
1) If you are choosing between Yale and Harvard, choose Yale. You will be happier and get a better education.
2) I agree with Rory that Williams still provides more of the sort of faculty interaction that is the meat of a good undergraduate education then Yale does. But if Yale students really average two faculty-led seminars per semester, then the difference is much smaller than I ever imagined. Kudos to Yale!
3) I agree with current eph that we really need to know about class sizes. But, my main assumption was wrong, so I’ll save the detailed debate for another day.
4) Time for Williams to step up! Besides ending all lectures, we need to increase the number of tutorials, decrease the size of other classes, and so on.
I thank our friends from Yale for participating in this interesting discussion. If any find themselves in Cambridge, lunch is on me.
What follows are the remains of my post responding to David and others--I will salvage more of it and turn it into a post about Yale vs. Small Liberal Arts Colleges in general. David, Anna and I will see you when I'm back in Boston when school gets out ; )
Aside: In a National Bureau of Economic Research study on revealed preference for college admissions, showing a weighting of colleges based on how likely high-achieving applicants were likely to choose a given college given an array of other options, Yale ranks 2nd while Williams ranks 18th (Paper is from 2004 and you should read it). Increasing selectivity may have changed things slightly overall since then, but it gives us a reasonable baseline understanding of how likely someone is to go to Yale over other schools. Specific data for Yale vs. small LACs is available elsewhere, but I just want to establish that in general, people are in most cases highly drawn to Yale over other schools. This was given in the discussion, just wanted to provide data for it quantitatively for our hypothetical high-achieving student group.
The one other point I just want to frame here is the nature of this debate. It is NOT about whether college X is better than college Y for reasons ABC--that is College Confidential talk, that's not what I want to address. It's not constructive. What is the case is that one college may be better suited to certain individuals, pursuits, or fields of study. I will try to talk about both my own reasons for coming to Yale, typical reasons, and instances where Yale might not be the best choice compared to say Williams, Amherst, Wesleyan, Haverford, Swarthmore, etc. On to the comparisons..
Let's start with academics. David Kane insists that the quality of education can be measured based on how much direct tenured faculty interaction there is for a student over his/her career. He breaks this down into three points.
- How many professors know by name the typical student? By “professors,” I mean tenured or tenure track faculty. I think that, for the average first year at Williams, this is at least 4 if not 6. At Yale, I predict 1 or 2.
- How much written feedback does the typical student receive on his papers from professors? At Williams, this must be in the thousands of words. At Yale, very little. Most/all of the written feedback is from poorly-paid and harried graduate students. Some is from lecturers and adjuncts of various sorts. I bet Sam has received written feedback from no more than two professors in his first year.
- How much one-on-one conversation does the typical student have with professors? At Williams, this varies dramatically by student and does depend on how often you seek out faculty members outside of class. The same is true at Yale. But the average Eph gets around 10 times more direct interaction with faculty. The average Williams student in a single tutorial exchanges more words with that one professor in a semester than Sam Jackson will exchange with all his professors put together over the course of four years.
The market failure is that the typical high school student has no idea about this reality. She thinks that her interactions with professors at Yale would be, more or less, just like her interactions with professors at Williams, the only difference being that the Williams professors assign the books written by the Yale professors. If students really knew what they were getting, more would choose Williams.
Re: 1. How many professors know Yalies' names? I have taken 9 courses this year, 3 lectures last term. Anna Ershova answers for herself:
I took 4 classes last term and I am taking 5 classes this term; since I took German both terms with the same professor, there are only 8 professors total. Out of these 8 classes, 4 are lectures (by the way, I could have had more seminars, but chose to attend these truly amazing lectures instead). Three of my professors in these lecture classes *know* my name and *know* who I am (not just what my name is, but where I am from and what my academic interests are; furthermore, they say Hi when I run into them on the street).
My other 4 classes are seminars and my professors know me really well. The professors from last semester sometimes e-mail me personally to let me know if there is something going on/if they came across an article or a book that may pertain to my ethnic background/academic interests. For instance, I just received an e-mail from my Politics of South and North Korea seminar from last term informing me there was an event coming up that is related to the topic of my final paper.