Friday, June 10, 2005

Nurture versus Prestige in School Choice

It's interesting what you pick up at conferences. At the Hybrid Learning thing at Northwestern last Monday, I ate lunch with the group I facilitate in the morning, which had representatives from various Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. We had a good conversation. One of the group who was an instructional designer had been an undergrad at Northwestern. He had started in the six year Med School program and then transferred to Philosophy. He said that most of his professor were terrible --- very arrogant. Then he transferred to Illinois State, where he said he got a much better education.

If you compare tuition at NU to tuition at ISU, they are amazingly different. And no doubt NU is the more prestigious school. From where does that prestige arise? Surely it is a combination of the research records of the faculty as measured by the ranks of the various academic departments, the SAT/ACT scores of the students in attendance, and various measures of resource abundance - number of computer labs and how they are equipped, size of the Library, etc. On all of those metrics ISU comes up short. But at least for this one student, none of that mattered. What mattered was that the instructors care. At ISU, they do.

One of the themes through out this conference (it was just a one day event) is that most professors don't know how to teach (but they think they do).

Some posts back I talked about the human capital approach versus the signaling/screening approach to higher education. ISU sure looks like human capital and NU like signaling/screening. The latter is probably what generates the big economic return from getting a college degree. The former is what makes going to college a valuable experience for the students who attend. I'm not sure what it means for the prospects of improving pedagogy broadly. Something else to scratch my head about.

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