Learning in a Crowd

Last week, I promised that I’d post a portion of my upcoming book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, that focuses on how to make attending a large public university a more intimate learning experience.

Since 84% of Californian students attend state public schools, I thought it was worth sharing. As I mentioned last week, picking a school by its reputation alone is a bad strategy.

So here is the excerpt:

One of the greatest fears that many incoming freshmen have about attending large universities is that they will be treated like numbers. It’s only natural for them to wonder whether they will get lost in the academic shuffle. Many of them unfortunately do.

According to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, only 28% of students at public universities graduated in four years. The number improved to 58% for the six-year graduation rate.

There are ways to make attending schools with tens of thousands of other students more productive and meaningful. Here are some of those ways:

Look for a university with a first-year experience. A growing number of colleges and universities are eager to help students successfully transition from high school by grouping them into so-called learning communities.There are many different ways that schools establish learning communities. Some schools schedule groups of students, who are often freshmen, to enroll in two or more courses together. The students may take some type of freshmaen seminar together, as well as other classes. When the classes are linked by an interdisciplinary theme, the professors will often collaborate.In other cases, students in a learning community will attend classes with many other students, but they will meet together in small discussion groups.

At some schools, the students also live in the same dorms. The Universities of Missouri, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, call their learning communities Freshmaen Interest Groups or FIGs, but they also go by other names.Studies from the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is a nonprofit group based at Indiana University that promotes student learning, show that students in learning communities become far more engaged in school college than those without the experience. These students talk more with professors and their classmates[md] — including those they may never have met otherwise. The students not only studied more, but did so in a more meaningful way.

You can find well more thanover 250 schools with learning communities by visiting the wWeb site of the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, which is housed at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The center, which is a resource for educational reform, also provides a primer on what learning communities are.Another resource to check out is The Residential Learning Communities International Clearinghouse that is compiled by Bowling Green State University.

Don’t be fooled by ratios. Obviously, kids have a better chance of flourishing in a class of 25 than a lecture hall of 250. Families, however, are routinely misled about the size of classes when looking at college reference books or school Web sites. The ratio of faculty to students at many universities looks great.

Who couldn’t live with a ratio of 13 students kids to one professor? But beware of misleading numbers. In calculating the figures, universities can include professors who may only teach graduate students. And it gets worse. Some professors take a portion of their research grant money and pay back a percentage of their university salary to bail out of their teaching obligation. The school uses the money to hire a temporary person and includes both academics in the faculty count.

How can you avoid being fooled? Ignore the ratios, and ask what the average class sizes for introductory courses are, as well as courses for upper classmen. You should get a sense of what kind of class sizes are typical for courses offered in your intended major. Once you begin taking classes in a school within a school, such as journalism, nursing, or architecture, the academic setting can seem much smaller. Also ask whether graduate students are teaching classes and labs. Obviously, a faculty member is preferred.

Ask who is teaching the introductory courses. A new study conducted by researchers at UCLA and North Carolina State University concluded that freshmen were at a significantly higher risk of dropping out if part-time instructors taught the introductory courses. The researchers suspect that part-time teachers had a harmful effect on students because they weren’t available to talk to students about their coursework.

Ask about undergraduate research and capstone projects. While graduate students have traditionally been the ones working with faculty on research, a growing number of schools have recognized that undergrads could greatly benefit from the same opportunity. And it’s not just students in the sciences, math, and engineering who are getting the chance.Also look for universities that offer capstone projects or courses for upperclassmen. A capstone project encourages students to apply what they have learned in their major field of study in a project where they are required to demonstrate a wide mastery of the curriculum.

Look for schools with honors colleges. An increasing number of public universities offer honors colleges. One of the more cynical reasons for the trend is to capture highly desirable students, who might have private schools on their shopping lists.An honors college tries to make an institution more personal by offering special classes, and sometimes the honor students live in the same dormitories. Before pinning your hopes on enrolling in a honors college, find out the qualifications.

Ask about the advising program. It’s unrealistic to expect a student to know what academic steps are necessary to flourish, much less graduate. The task can be a lot easier and rewarding if a student can rely upon a faculty advisor, preferably in his or her own major. At some universities, however, students must turn to a more impersonal advising office.

Consider a 3-2 program. Even if your child might thrive in a smaller environment, it can be extremely difficult to downsize if you expect to major in certain fields such as engineering, nursing, environmental management, and forestry.For a child who wants to become an electrical engineer, for instance, his or her options are confined primarily to universities.

Only a few liberal arts schools offer engineering degrees. Schools inside that tiny cohort include Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California; Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania; Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; Hope College in Holland, Michigan; Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; and York College of Pennsylvania, York, Pennsylvania, and Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.Countless liberal arts colleges, however, have tried to reach out to students, who desire a specialized major, by offering so-called 3-2 programs.

Here’s how these programs work: You attend a liberal arts college and take many of the prerequisites that you’d need for a more specialized degree, such as engineering. You spend three years at the college before transferring to a university which has a cooperative program.Washington University in St. Louis;, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California;A, Columbia University in New York City;, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, are five major institutions that welcome engineering transfer students. Duke is also a major source for 3-2 alliances for forestry and environmental management degrees.

Once at the new school, a student would spend two years studying engineering. After the fifth year, the graduate would walk away with two degree –a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science in engineering.A 3-2 program allows you to experience a more personalized academic setting, as well as eventually attend a top research university. You would ultimately earn a degree from a university that you may not have gotten into as a freshman. There are, however, a couple of disadvantages. Many students, once they get settled into their liberal arts college, lose any desire to move on for their senior year. The arrangement can also be costly since it will take five years to obtain two bachelor’s degrees.

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