Prestigious Universities & Quality Education

Harvard, Princeton, London School of Economics. Prestigious universities with reputable academics and therefore a popular destination for students seeking high quality education. These universities score high on most rankings both internationally (THES rankings or the Shanghai Jiao Tong World Universities Ranking) and domestic (US News & World Report in the US and the Good Universities Guide in the UK). But… does that mean that students will get their high quality education?

The cover of Time (USA) and an op-ed piece for the Times Higher Education Supplement (UK) by Erik Ringmar seem to question this. Time observes that more and more students choose to attend small private colleges, even if they are admitted into the Ivy League institutions: competition for the Ivies is as fierce as ever, but kids who look beyond the famous schools may be the smartest applicants of all. Closer interaction with teachers is an important factor in this choice.

Walter Kirn, alumnus of Princeton, writes about the Ivy League X factor:

Although Princeton had far more money and mystique, its reading lists were composed of the same books, and its students were filled with the same questions. But the students carried those books with more aplomb, and they asked their questions with more confidence. That was the Ivy League’s X factor. It bred confidence…

The case of Ringmar and LSE has been discussed frequently on blogs and in the mainstream media. At an LSE Open Day speech Ringmar – a senior lecturer at LSE at that time – told the future students that the real teaching was done by PhD students and that the in-class student experience was no better than they would get at the far less prestigious London Metropolitan University – in fact they might see more of the academic staff there (his Open Day speech can be found here).

In the op-ed piece, Ringmar repeats his point that it’s not so much the learning experience that is valuable for students but that it’s a matter of being certified:

During their first year at an elite institution like the LSE, students spend much of their time asking themselves what all the fuss is about. Obviously they know about the reputation of the School, the famous professors, the important books, the talking-LSE-heads that constantly pop up on the telly. But, the students ask, if the LSE is so great, why are many of the lecturers so boring, many exercises so useless, and why do the academics never seem to have any time for us?

An LSE diploma is not a proof of what they have learned as much as of their ability to come out on top in a neck-to-neck competition with their peers. A London Met diploma just doesn’t do the same job.

Kirn seems to support this:

Even though we learned nothing at Princeton that we couldn’t have learned elsewhere, the place gave us a calling card whose impact and power were undeniable. I assume it has opened doors for me, but none of the gatekeepers have said as much.

Ringmar and Kirn are both right to some extent. The additional value of a Princeton or LSE degree over a ‘regular’ degree is not (only) in the quality of education but also in the way these degrees open doors in the future.

However, the selection of students will also affect the quality of education, assuming that quality is determined by more than just the student-teacher interaction. The interaction between the students themselves, inside as well as outside classes, contributes at least as much. And considering the effort students need to do to get in, this interaction might be a bit more challenging in those institutions.

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