Why Attend a Large Research University?

These days, we hear a lot about the importance of class size and the benefits of teacher-student ratios on campus.  If there is such an advantage, why would anyone choose to attend a large university? 

People talk about the 300 student lecture halls at the University of California and what it’s like to sneak in late and sit in the back of the class, or sleep in late and never get to class!  Stephen Pastis, the comic writer of “Pearls Before Swine,” says,  “When I was at the University of California at Berkeley, I went to some classes that must have had more than four hundred students in them. I almost always sat in the far back of the auditorium so I could read the newspaper. I remember that I stayed late one day to ask the professor a question, and when I got up to him, all I could think to myself was, 'So this is what the professor looks like.’”   

I laugh every time I read that quote. It illustrates the point so nicely.  In recent years, however, I have become a big believer in the large university for some students. One particular student, Heather, had a perfect high school record with a transcript full of AP classes. She had stellar ACT scores, outstanding community service and leadership and her pick of almost any school in the nation.

Still, she had a hard time choosing between a top-ranked liberal arts college and UC Berkeley.  There were tremendous advantages to both schools. Never mind the sports, clubs, daily campus newspaper or large protests on campus, it was the catalog of classes that finally tipped her choice to Berkeley. She read about classes in African Art, Begali, Catalan, epidemiology, Vietnamese and Yiddish!  Heather was to become a science major and would only take four of these “interesting” classes during her college career, but she loved the fact that her future friends were to speak Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian, and major in engineering, molecular cell biology, and Eastern philosophy.

Heather's attitude was that college was a chance to learn everything about everything. She was an aggressive learner who wanted to an exposure to unusual topics.  She saw the large research university as her dream come true.

I talked to Heather a few times during her college journey and asked her how it was going. Her report tells a lot about how the right kind of student can make a huge school into a small one and get every drop of learning out of a magnificent offering. 

This is her report:

1.   In large lecture halls, she always arrived early and sat in one of the front rows.  She reported that in most of her classes, the professor would try to engage students in discussion (despite the 300 bodies in the room.) Heather often raised her hand, and was called on several times. 

2.  She went to her professors’ office hours at least once for every class she took. In one case, she said the line to see the professor was so long that started helping students at the back of the line so she could work through the crowd to get into the office!

3.    She never missed class and impressed her graduate student instructors (GSI’s) so much that professors greeted her whenever they crossed paths on campus.

4.    She was motivated to do outstanding work and during her junior year was called aside by a famous professor (they’re all famous at Berkeley) as one of the ten students that he would mentor for the rest of her stay.

5.   As a result of that connection, she got an outstanding letter of recommendation, a prestigious summer internship, and personal career guidance.

6.    She was accepted to five top universities for graduate school and is now working toward her PhD at her first choice school.

Heather found her “perfect fit” at Berkeley because she was an eager learner and, unlike Stephen Pastis, sat in front, participated without even noticing the crowd behind her, and naturally rose to the top of the class.  These are the best reasons why a large university is exactly right for some students. 

Others will learn best in a smaller setting.  (I’ll talk about that in a future blog.)



-- All the best from www.PerfectFitCollege.Net