Gauging program excellence
When students and families begin looking at colleges, the goal is to find a college that’s a good fit. One part of the decision about where to apply is often based on the perceived strength of programs in students’ areas of interest. But families may well be stumped on whether a department or program is strong.
The biggest clue is the access to professors, according to Twin Cities education consultant Vita Cohen. “Is it expected that professors will know and interact with students? Is there an atmosphere of friendliness, openness and welcome? These are the most important things to look at,” she said.
This kind of access is easy to find at Minnesota's Private Colleges. We share three examples — from the perspective of a student, an administrator and a professor — that illustrate what families can look for when hunting for program excellence.
A learning process
When Robert Carlton took an advanced microeconomics class last year at Carleton College, he recalls the problem sets that students had for assignments. One was to figure out a firm’s optimal behavior, given a particular production method or cost function. “My professor, Jenny Wahl, took time to sit there with me to talk about the problem and the best way to solve it; it was a real learning process,” he said.
Wahl sees her job as building on what students know, encouraging them to examine their assumptions carefully, and helping them use resources and tools to analyze issues in a critical, rigorous and objective fashion. “In a nutshell, my goal is to ‘eliminate fuzzy thinking!’” she said.
Carlton chose to major in economics and math because he especially enjoyed the classes in the subjects. He’s been impressed with how, when he walks down the hallways at Carleton, all the professors’ doors are open. “They put students first and are willing to discuss anything from problems in class to life in general,” he said.
As Carlton prepares to graduate in the spring, he’s focused on wrapping up a math project he’s working on for 3M. “They challenged us to come up with a model that beats their own for forecasting Post-it demand,” he said. He’s also completing his senior thesis — a 40-page academic paper that examines the relationship between drug and alcohol use. Both projects take the knowledge and skills he’s gained in his major programs. “I’ve experienced teaching at its finest; now I can display to the community what I’ve learned,” he said.
According to Concordia College provost Mark Krejci, there are many ways to gauge the quality of teaching and programs at an institution, but students should look for strong faculty-student interaction. “When faculty actively engage and mentor students, it makes all the difference in the student experience,” he said.
That is one of the things private colleges offer, according to Krejci. “Students aren’t lost in huge lecture classes but they’re in small classes with direct faculty contact.” He lifts up Concordia’s Chemistry Department as one example of what happens when this is done right. “Our organic chemistry labs are very inquiry-based versus a canned science lab. All students are involved in scientific discovery when they create a new chemical — their “pet molecule. Faculty serve as guides for a process that results in students designing and executing the research,” he said.
Students come first
At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), the same kind of focus on students occurs, although the coursework is vastly different. “Our classes are small, our student to faculty ratio is low and students really have a chance to immerse themselves in learning with our five-hour studio classes,” said Karen Wirth, chair of the Fine Arts Department. And once students declare a major, they get their own studio space (open 24/7) — unusual for undergraduates, she said.
Wirth believes the strength of programs at MCAD is evident from looking at the work on display throughout the building. “The entire school is an exhibition space; you can really see how students are thinking and learning,” she said. “Our operating model is ‘students first;’ prospective students feel it when they come here.”
As part of its mission, MCAD aims to connect students to the outside world. In the past year, three undergraduate photography students’ work appeared in the New York Times, a film student’s work was featured at the Cannes Film Festival and a freshman developed an online exhibit space mentioned in Wired and Glamour magazines. “Where student and alumni work shows up is telling,” she said.
When it comes to gauging excellence in a particular academic area, Cohen said that answers to the following questions will offer clues to the quality of a program:
- Is there a range of upper-level classes in the program versus mostly introductory or survey classes?
- Do professors or graduate students do most of the teaching?
- Do undergraduates do research and attend conferences?
- What is the access to professors outside of class?
- To what level do students have mentors, do internships, study abroad and do independent study?
- What are the facilities like?
Cohen also recommends that students or parents call that department and ask to talk to a student. “Students are very honest; they’ll tell you what excites them about their program — and what’s missing,” she said.