A few days ago, I received two similar letters from parents asking a very common question, if the quality of college education is declining as rapidly as many people say, where do you think my daughter or son should go to school? I sent a note putting this question to Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept and an outstanding blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
This was his reply (published here with permission):
I get the question from time to time. My multi-part answer:
1. Most colleges and universities have a lot of intellectual rot, but usually some good professors and programs. If you figure out who the professors and what the programs are, and if you have the discipline to stick with them once you are there, you can get a good education at most of the highly ranked research universities and liberal arts colleges. (This is by no means easy, but it is possible,)
2. Within that top tier, however, there are definite exceptions: places where it isn’t possible to get a good college education or so difficult it isn’t worth the effort. Brown and Wesleyan would top my list of DNA (Do Not Apply).
3. Depending on your ability, your politics, your intellectual seriousness, and the subjects you are interested in, you may have some very good options. If you are interested in science and the sheer brainpower, try to get into Caltech. If you love the Great Books, St. John’s in Annapolis or Sante Fe may be right (but don’t mistake St. John’s as “conservative.”) If you aren’t put off by the idea of physical remoteness and you are ready for a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, Hillsdale could be a good choice. If you want to study business, try Babson.
4. Generally, if you are interested in the sciences or engineering, your range of good choices is much broader–at least to the extent that you are willing to write off the liberal arts. A lot of research universities have rigorous science programs but very weak and very politicized humanities courses. You won’t learn how to write very well and you will probably emerge with contempt for the humanities, since virtually all you will encounter will be from people who substitute shabby propaganda for thoughtful inquiry.
5. If financing a college education is going to be a challenge, give serious consideration to attending a two-year community college and then transferring in to the college you want to graduate from. There are a lot of junk courses in community colleges too. You have to be careful and deliberate, but the average community college curriculum isn’t that different from a four-year college, except that it has fewer specialized courses that reflect the vanity of the professors.
6. If you are 17 or 18, it isn’t a bad idea to defer college altogether. If you go to college now, you will be prone to many kinds of mistakes that you would know how to avoid in a few years. Lots of college courses are designed as snares for the 18-year-old mind. They are meant to make you feel smarter and more sophisticated than you are. That may feel good at the time, but you’ll eventually wise up and realize that you have wasted a lot of time and money.
7. Never go to a college that has weak writing requirements–except perhaps if hard science is all you want to do. Writing papers for your courses is a chore but it is the single most important part of your education. Spot-check by asking current students at the college how many papers they wrote in the last semester, and how long they were. If you get an answer less than five papers, or a total less than 30 pages, you should keep looking.