For the past couple of years at City I have taught a section of the First Year Seminar required of all entering students. I enjoy teaching it because it gives me a chance to get to know my students well (the classes are smaller) and to help them adjust to college life. I have noticed that the profile of the entering students has started to shift towards students who are admitted to more selective private schools, but opt for City because they are unwilling to go into debt. When some of those students go to my webpage and find out that I attended a selective private college and taught for a few years at an elite liberal arts college, they come into my office to ask me, in essence, whether they made the right choice. These students are usually some of the better prepared students and they worry that they’re missing out on a better education elsewhere.
I try to give them an honest picture. I tell them that what they’re not getting at City has to do mostly with resources and support systems. Fancier private institutions have nicer facilities, less bureaucracy, counselors and other administrators whose job is to help students get through college, and more money available for talks, events, etc. I also tell them that at least at some of those schools, classes are smaller and students are able to develop relationships with their professors. Of course, these factors impact their education, but the question is how much? The classes I teach at City are not substantially different than those I taught at an elite SLAC. It is true that because some of the students are not as well-prepared, I have to often go over very basic elements of how to write a paper, develop an argument, and so forth. But in my experience going over the basics helps all students.
When I reflect on my own experience, I definitely took my share of forgettable large lecture courses while I was in college and experienced my share of uninspired teaching. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a senior thesis and two junior independent projects with excellent philosophers and that no doubt played a role in my choice of profession. But with some effort, it seems to me that talented students at large public universities can find this kind of mentorship as well.
What else are students who opt not to attend a selective private institutions missing out on? Would you advise a student to consider transferring to a more selective private institution if they have the option?