Purdue University campus in fall: colored leaves in front of the civil engineering and chemical engineering buildings.

So You're Thinking About Going To College

Where Should You Go?

My cousin contacted me, as her son was in his next-to-last year of high school and was trying to decide where to go to college. He was considering Purdue University among others, and I went there, worked for the university, and still live just a few blocks away, they asked if I had any thoughts on the matter. Here they are.

2 Jan 2016

Jordan (and Holli and Greg) —

Your mom says you're interested in education, good for you! And considering Purdue, also good! She asked if I had any thoughts on that. Definitely. Here we go. If you get no further than the second paragraph:

On-line "schools" are mostly an expensive hoax. Small schools can be OK, especially if you are looking for a small career in a very small place. But, the world is large. Go somewhere large, with good programs in what you aren't taking. For education that especially means STEM or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Details for all that follow.

Some background: I went through Purdue, undergrad and grad school. I worked for the university after the first semester and then in a staff position for a little over a year after grad school. I'm not trying to sell you on Purdue specifically, but on a large school with a broad range of strong programs. However, my examples will have to come from what I've seen, and I'm pretty vague on schools in your region.

I still live here in town, just about 5 blocks from the campus. Now I do some consulting but mostly I write and teach one-week technical courses. I develop software and write course material at home, then teach the courses all over. But largely in the Washington D.C. area now.

I once thought I wanted to be a professor, but then I worked for one. I saw that, at least in a research setting, professors put most of their time into getting and maintaining funding. Marketing to get the grant, then reporting (with a fair amount of sales mixed in) to keep the agency happy and the funds flowing. What I was interested in doing was teaching, and teaching what I'm interested in instead of filling whatever slot the department needs to fill. So now I do things like create and teach cybersecurity courses to people from the NSA and DOD (which is less interesting and more frustrating and even frightening than you would expect and hope), and enterprise-level Linux things to everyone.

"The Rise and Fal of
For-Profit Schools"
The New Yorker

As for my complete lack of respect for on-line "schools," to the point of referring to them in so-called "quotation marks," I encounter a lot of people who are somewhere in the process of becoming disillusioned with them. You might or might not learn anything from one of these on-line operations. If you do, guess what: you managed to learn something on your own. Which you could have done anyway without the large payments. Some on-line operators have gone out of business, other have been shut down. The others? Well, not yet.

Right before Christmas I taught a class in the DC area. One student who tended to show up early and chat before class had been in the Marine Corps for several years and now worked for the Corps as a civilian. We got to talking about short training courses and their limitations, versus college courses that went on a few hours per week for a number of months in a row. He said that the Marine Corps would pay for him to go anywhere to study anything, "as long as it's a real school." It could be completely unrelated to the USMC mission — dead languages or art history from an Ivy League school — as long as it was a real school. Nothing founded by televangelists, and certainly no on-line ripoffs, they were very blunt about this. (Note: If you want vague or sugar-coated answers, do not under any circumstances ask a Marine.)

The on-line "schools" have had a huge presence in the Washington DC area. Places like Phoenix University marketed themselves heavily to the Department of Defense. There were large buildings with Phoenix's name around Washington mixed in among the defense and intelligence contractors. Then there were further absurdities like the University of Western Michigan setting up storefront operations in suburban Virginia and Maryland. Over the past one or two years these on-line and remote operations have been disappearing fast as DOD and the government in general have been deciding that they would pay less or none for these.

So anyway, studying education at a real school. Good! Something the country really needs!

You have made me consider something I had never considered before, thanks for that. In most academic areas there are schools that stand out. Physics: Cal Tech, Princeton, Harvard (all these off the top of my head and in no order). Engineering: Purdue, Georgia Tech, University of California, MIT. Foreign languages and ancient history: Indiana, Chicago, Yale, Georgetown, U.C. Berkeley.

Or you can do it the other way around: name a school and say where it excels. Purdue: engineering and agriculture. Iowa: engineering and writing. Indiana: performing arts and language. Georgetown: foreign relations.

But, I can't match up anything either way about education.

Enter two more suspects into my story: a friend with a son who is taking education at Purdue (I think he's looking to get a history degree with a teaching certificate, or else it's an education degree with a strong history emphasis). Plus another friend who is a reference librarian at Purdue. From the two of them:

Education is a somewhat unusual field college-wise. Some college degree is required, but there's also an apprenticeship where the craft of doing the teaching is really learned. Most states have had a state teachers' college. Usually with the obvious name, like Indiana State Teachers' College. As far as I know, all of them have generalized at least somewhat to include some other fields and changed their names in the process. That example is now simply Indiana State. Those that were originally the state teachers' colleges are pretty interchangeable as far as their education programs go. None stand out as especially better or worse.

The way the friend with the son here put it is: Within Indiana there are four obvious choices to learn to be a teacher: Purdue and Indiana, plus Indiana State and Ball State. If you're looking for a job within the state of Indiana, it's very likely that where the hiring person went to school will, consciously or not, and appropriately or not, have a large influence on their decision. But outside of the state, a large university with a broad range of programs like Purdue or Indiana will be seen as a distinct tier above the former state teachers' colleges.

Purdue's College of Education is very adamant that passing is not adequate. A degree in Education requires at least a B average. I don't know if that's just in Education courses, or across all classes, but it's significant that it's a requirement.

From the librarian: The education-specific part of an education degree is a field somewhat in search of theories. There is always new jargon, because tenure requires publication and that requires coming up with something new, but the new jargon is largely just that. I suppose that the exception is math, where every couple of decades a "New Math" system of talking about learning math appears and changes the way teaching is done. Mathematics is mathematics, it's been around since ancient Greece, while these supposed usefully innovative ways of teaching it tend to be dumpster fires. So be glad there aren't "New History" and "New English" and "New Chemistry" recurring disasters.

Consider what the school does in fields other than education.

STEM is a much-used acronym today, over-used or abused at times, but it is very important. The world wants new technology much more than it wants new insights into authors' use of metaphors. This is where a large school with departments doing research in engineering and science would give you a huge advantage over having gone to a small school.

To use Purdue as an example, its chemistry department (2 Nobel prizes so far, both related to boron for some reason) has a program where they take educational chemistry programs out to elementary through high schools. The physics department does something similar. The engineering school exists to train people to be engineers, but it is also involved in cross-disciplinary programs. Engineers will need to work with non-engineers, so there are some very practical programs for engineering students where they work with teachers (or people learning to be one) and ask "What could we design to solve problems or teach concepts in classrooms?"

Another thing to consider is: What if you become exposed to some new area and decide that's what you really want to do? If the university has a program in it, then that's a relatively easy transfer and much of what you've taken so far is relevant.

Statistics were showing that the supposed 4-year degree was taking something between 4.5 and 5 years on average. Students were starting out with specialized courses in their area of interest in their first year. Electives from other areas were put off until the last year or maybe two. Those who only decided in their 3rd or 4th year that they really wanted to do something else were looking at a lengthy extension.

So, one thing they did at Purdue a couple of years ago was to change things so the first year and a half is pretty similar no matter what you're headed toward. That way a major change in degree objective may have relatively minor impact.

Mitch Daniels'
open letter

See the enclosed "Open Letter" from Purdue's president, and the enclosed press release about "time to degree trends." There are difficult trade-offs. They want to get students through without lowering some very high requirements.

Purdue's president has a business background, and the university's marketing has focused on the value of education versus the price. Tuition has stayed the same for three years, and although it's plenty high to start with, and will have to increase soon, the lack of increases has been unusual. The number of semesters needed to complete a degree will be a big part of that financial value, and notice that some schools have seen added semesters as a way of making more money.

George Will
on Purdue

Looking at things more broadly, at a large school you have some really cool opportunities to see things or people that aren't exactly relevant to precisely what you're studying, but it's part of the broader educational program. George Will was at Purdue right before Christmas (and seems to have come away in some state of conservative ecstasy), Madeleine Albright was in town earlier. The Dalai Lama was here a few years ago. The physicists Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been here more recently. Plus (of course) loads of astronauts. A guy I know has briefed two of the past three U.S. Presidents. Small schools don't have very much along those lines.

West Lafayette and Bloomington (where Purdue and IU are located) aren't like the rest of Indiana. I'm accustomed to, spoiled to, going to the grocery store and hearing several different languages, and what English I hear is actual English and not the hillbilly dialect of much of Indiana.

Money. Unfortunately, this an awfully big deal.

Here's another area where my bigger-is-better theory seems to help. I managed to get an undergraduate job in the department where I was studying. As an engineering student, that happens. In education, not so much.

But a big university is like a medium-sized city, and it provides many more random opportunities than a smaller school. The history-education son of my friend has a job with the university, in some maintenance area I think. That's similar to what my librarian friend did while getting an English degree.

Watch out for living expenses. One thing I notice is that undergrads enjoy a much more opulent lifestyle than I had, and I'm pretty sure that's pretty universal across most all schools today. But then I didn't graduate with any debt.

Like I said, university buildings are about five blocks up the street from where I live. It's an apartment complex, obvious student housing or at least it was ten or more years ago. Now it's at only about 50-60% occupancy, the majority are students from east Asia or south Asia, a mix of undergrads and grad students. I'm paying $770 per month for a 2-bedroom place.

The American undergrads largely demand far swankier accommodations. A pool, an exercise room, a shuttle van between the new complex further out and the campus. A quick search online shows that many undergrad students pay more for their housing than I do, maybe $1700 for a 2-bedroom apartment and so a little more per person than what I pay, but then I'm working and not paying any tuition. And I'm certainly not taking out any loans to pay rent!

Similarly, meals can really add up. The dorms here have several meal plans, with varying numbers of meals per week at the dorm plus varying amounts that can be used at several local restaurants. Restaurant meals beyond that would add up fast.

Be very skeptical of advertising. Indiana is notorious for having very little regulation of billboards along highways, and next to no enforcement of what regulation exists. So at least there's a lot of data to observe. I notice that the top-tier schools like Purdue and IU have almost no advertising. I think that along I-65 from Louisville KY to here there are just two Purdue billboards, and one of those is to sell football and basketball tickets to support the academic side. So really, just one billboard at the south edge of Tippecanoe County. IU is very similar.

Ball State and Indiana State, former teachers' colleges, do a lot more advertising. The community colleges do even more. The for-profit "schools" advertise the most of all. Think about it — If they need to advertise that hard, what does that mean about their product?

OK, that's far more than enough. Hopefully you can find something useful in all this. Let me know if you have any questions.

— Bob

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