Friday, June 02, 2006

Colleges vs Universities

My wife and I attended the memorial service for John Kenneth Galbraith held at Harvard on Wednesday. One of the speakers was George McGovern, who told this story (as reported in yesterday's Boston Globe):
McGovern said that when his daughter was applying to colleges, he once asked Galbraith "as a practical matter" what difference it would make if she attended Harvard rather than Wellesley. Galbraith, according to McGovern, replied: "Well, at Harvard, if you're lucky, you might get Galbraith once a week. At Wellesley, you might get one of my C-minus students three days a week."
The story is unfair to Wellesley, which has a good economics department. But if you change "C-minus" to "A-minus," Galbraith had things about right.

The most important choice a high-school senior faces when choosing where to be an undergrad is between research-oriented universities and teaching-oriented colleges. If you go to a place like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, you get a famous faculty. But the first priority of that faculty is their own research and writing (and blogging!?), and they are more likely to shower attention on grad students than undergrads. If you go to a place like Amherst, Swarthmore, or Williams, you get a faculty whose first priority is undergraduate teaching. But you do not have a menu of graduate courses to sample from, and you do not have as vibrant a research atmosphere to experience. It is a tough choice.