If you’re a high-school senior—or the parent of one– starting the college application process, you probably know something about U.S. News & World Report’s famous rankings. You may have done some research and familiarized yourself with concepts like “academic reputation” and “strength of faculty.” Maybe you took a campus tour and admired your Dream School’s shiny new athletic center, with its retractable sky roof.
This is all to the good, but if you want to make an informed college choice, I urge you to think about something more important than all of these considerations combined. Think about us, the professors. Think very carefully about the professors who will be teaching you. And think about those who won’t.
A college’s rock star scholars—the ones who burnish its reputation for “strength of faculty”—likely won’t be standing before you in a classroom. So forget about ever taking a course with that Nobel laureate, or the sage whose TED Talk actually did, in fact, end global hunger. Those folks and many more will be on “research leave,” or working exclusively with Ph. D students. Sure, you (alongside 500 others) might spend a semester sitting at some legend’s knee, but for the most part a college’s distinguished faculty is strictly ornamental. Among professors, the reward for exemplary scholarly achievement is the right to avoid dealing with undergraduates.
If you find this arrangement to be odd, or even absurd, you’re not alone. For decades, critics have been fretting about a massive fault line that rests at the core of American higher education. Put simply, the needs of professors are dangerously misaligned with the needs of students. Scholars need to produce large quantities of highly specialized research in order to advance their careers. Undergraduates, for their part, need to be educated. College administrations have developed the world’s least sensible human resources strategy to deal with this contradiction. The “solution” goes a long way in explaining which types of professors will be dealing with undergraduates like you.
Think of your prospective college faculty as being divided into two unequal tiers. In the first, smaller tier, we find those on the “tenure line.” This category includes the celebrities mentioned above, and lots of less well-known researchers. These scholars are usually referred to as “assistant,” “associate,” or “full” professors. If an assistant publishes up a storm of peer-reviewed research, she’ll likely “climb the ladder” to the rank of associate. This means she’s been granted tenure—a status that endows a scholar with a good salary, proper working conditions, robust academic freedoms, and guaranteed lifetime employment. At elite colleges, tenure-line professors are expected, above all, to conduct and publish research. They are essentially paid a lot to teach a little.
Which bring us to those who are paid a little to teach a lot. These professors, who comprise more than 75% (and growing) of the academic labor force, are referred to as “contingent faculty.” If you take a course with them, don’t worry about their credentials; they possess the requisite advanced degrees. Don’t worry about their teaching skills; for whatever it’s worth, they may be more committed to your education than their tenured counterparts. But do worry about their great misfortune.
These scholars are poorly paid, and professionally disrespected. Lacking the protections of tenure, they possess little job security and, by extension, scant academic freedom. A typical undergraduate studies with about forty professors en route to the bachelor’s degree. I’d guess that on most campuses far more than half of your instructors will be contingent faculty.
You won’t find a college in America that admits to this cruel division of labor in its glossy promotional materials, or on its website (whose homepage features an image of a be-goggled chemist sharing a hearty laugh with a be-goggled sophomore). Nor are you likely to find a college that talks honestly about “massification.” This refers to the growing practice of herding undergraduates into larger and larger classes. Opinions differ as to what constitutes massification, but if there are 25 students or more in a class, academic rigor is likely to suffer.
A seasoned college instructor will tell you that a class of 12-15 pupils provides the ideal learning environment. That intimacy leads to personalized attention and mentoring relationships—the gold standard of the modern undergraduate experience. Unfortunately, I’d estimate that, even at elite schools, students are massified in upwards of 50% of their courses. At financially strapped public universities, of course, the percentage will be higher.
College shoppers need a different ranking system. Its lead criterion would not be strength of faculty, but how that faculty interacts with students. This more accurate rating metric would up-vote schools that compensate their contingent professors fairly. Pride of place would be granted to institutions that incentivize tenure-line scholars to care as deeply about undergraduates as their next peer-reviewed article. This type of teaching-research balance, incidentally, tends to be valued at Small Liberal Arts Colleges. It is also prevalent at Honors Colleges—an emerging sector that is perhaps the best-kept secret in American Higher education.
In this way of looking at things, the top schools would be the ones where the best professors are routinely placed in small classroom settings. Experiential learning would be treated as more than a photo-op. Mentoring would be valued. My definition of a well-mentored undergraduate, by the way, is one who is thinking coherently about career options by senior year. This meshes well with what Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding from American colleges. Namely, that a bachelor’s degree prepare you for a job.
College tuition costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. At that price point wouldn’t one expect schools to place their most valued employees (i.e., tenure-line faculty) in front of their paying customers? Instead, we offer our clientele a two-tiered system that exposes them to poorly treated instructors.
All of which is unfortunate. More than any other factor the success of your college education depends on your encounter with professors. En route to your Bachelors, you’ll spend about 1600 hours in our company. If all goes well, a few of us will influence you greatly and maybe even alter the trajectory of your life. The sky roof can’t do that for you.