Research Universities: What You Need to Ask

In my last blog post I complained that too many high school students pick schools based primarily on size. And most of these students only want to look at schools that are large.

Here is where I vented: My Pet Peeve: Picking Colleges by Size

What’s more important, I argued, is a school’s mission. Today, I want to explore a bit about what the mission is for large research institutions.

Research Universities

The prime mission of private and state flagship research universities is to generate research and produce graduate students. Schools like Yale, UCLA, MIT, University of Michigan and the University of Texas attract professors who enjoy stellar credential in their fields of study.

Undergraduates foot much of the tab for these expensive graduate programs and for star professors who rarely ever teach. While producing graduate students is labor intensive, it’s much cheaper to teach undergrads because they can be taught in large lecture halls.

And guess who ends up interacting with these undergrads the most? Graduate students. Particularly in the sciences, grad students often get their degrees for free and in return they teach undergraduates.

Does this arrangement mean that students who attend large universities, particularly state institutions, will be corralled into large lecture-style classes for four (or more) years? In some cases, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but not in others.

Getting Personal Attention at a Research University

How do you get personal attention if you attend a research university?

Pursuing a major that isn’t impacted may also lead to smaller classes. Honor colleges within state universities can be another way to avoid some monster lecture-hall courses for the brightest students.  Here is where you can learn more about honor colleges.

You should also contact faculty at a university — email is probably your best bet — and ask what is the average class size for introductory classes and what is the average class size once you get into your major. You should also ask students who attend the university and/or recently graduated this question. They would have no motivation to buffalo you.

Earlier this year, I met a recent UCLA graduate, who had earned an English degree.  One of the first things that I asked him was how many students were in his English classes. While the young man said his professors were smart, he shared that he had been frustrated because the class sizes were too large. Even his upper-division English classes had at least 100 students in them. Consequently, he never got to know his professors.

The UCLA English major did smile, however, when he recalled the one class that he truly loved. He took a senior English seminar class with just 15 students. He said he worked so hard in that class and thoroughly enjoyed it because of the intimate setting.

Undergraduates at Harvard

You shouldn’t assume that just because you attend a private research university that your professors will be more accessible and you will be able to skip lecture-style learning. I begin my book, The College Solution, with a story that appeared in The New York Times that focused on a movement at Harvard to improve the undergraduate education. Here’s an excerpt:

A curious story appeared in The New York Times one day about the university that’s the academic equivalent of the Yankees.

The article captured the concerns of faculty, who worry that the teaching taking place at Harvard University isn’t meeting the school’s own vaunted standards.  In fact, a professor lamented that some undergraduates, after spending four years at Harvard, don’t know a single faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation. (Here is the link to the story: Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research.)


One student, who was interviewed, suggested that undergraduates ought to know that professors are too focused on research to put much effort into what happens in the classroom.

“You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” a Harvard senior and a Rhodes scholar told the Times’ reporter. “You go to a liberal arts college for teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”

And he had more to say: “I think many people (at Harvard) spend a great deal of their time in large lecture classes, have little direct contact with professors, and are frustrated by poorly trained teaching fellows.”

So what’s the bottom line? If you want an excellent academic fit, you’ll need to do a lot more than look at the size and reputation of a university. Please dig deeper!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also write a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Some students are just fine with large classes, teaching fellows and little personal attention. My son spent 12 years at a private college prep school and is just itching to start his freshman year at a flagship state research university specifically so he can have vast amounts of academic choice, be relatively anonymous among his peers and get out from under professorial glare. I think he’ll do well there.