Thoughts on Undergraduate STEM Education

How to choose a school, or: An ode to the small private liberal arts institution

Nov 21, 2020

It's the end of November and high-schoolers nationwide are collectively exiting college application season and entering oh-god-oh-please-just-let-me-get-accepted-somewhere season. I've recently had discussions with students, parents-of-students, and friends-of-parents-of-students about the advantages of one school over another. In particular, about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education at the undergraduate and graduate level. As both an engineer and hiring manager of engineers, I've seen hundreds and hundreds of resumes and talked to hundreds of candidates at a variety of career seniority levels. I have a few personal opinions about the state of STEM curricula and how to choose a school.

First off, it has been a while since I was an undergraduate student. I have also only personally attended one school as an undergraduate student, and two schools as a graduate student. My first-hand experience is narrow. That being said, I do believe most of my criticism here is endemic to higher-education, generally.

Second off, I realize this advice may be a little bit late since most students have already chosen where to apply and are now anxiously waiting for that large catalog-sized envelope in the mail (A size #10 commercial envelope is surely a rejection--a single sheet of 8 1/2 by 11 provides more than ample room to disappoint and console). Hopefully the student, parent-of-a-student, or friend-of-a-parent-of-a-student reading this has already diversified their portfolio of college application fees.

The state of STEM curricula

Arguably, the goal of an undergraduate degree is to acquire a set of skills valuable to future employers. (It is an argument with some nuance). To that end, it seems wise to choose the school that will provide you with the largest and most-relevant set of skills. Unfortunately, it is widely recognized that there is mismatch between what most students learn and what most jobs need. There is a lot of discussion available about why this is and how to fix this. The "Why is it this way?" question is important to understand as it relates to choosing a school.

When it comes down to it, I think the buck should stop at the administration and faculty of universities. These are the people ultimately defining and teaching the curriculum. I recognize that they might be subject to external forces that prevent radical change, but if not them, then who? The federal government? Stronger employer relationships? New employer hiring practices? It sure feels like it would be a net-positive to optimize for employment outcomes among graduates. To be clear, I personally think a broad liberal arts education is valuable, despite my focus here on job-specific training. I don't think these are mutually exclusive curricula.

On one side of the problem is the university administration. I was never a professor and so I have less personal experience dealing with this organization and fewer direct comments about it. For the most part, understanding the underbelly of the beast isn't necessary to picking a school. I'll instead focus on the front-lines: the professor.

Professors are really busy. They have an absurd number of responsibilities. Research groups might vary from 2 to 20+ students and staff, and the professor is effectively the CEO of this group: raising money, building the team, and setting the overall vision. Then, on top of that, they try to teach and participate in teaching-adjacent activities. Many are inhuman in their ability to get things done, but all are bound to the laws of physics governing time and space.

On that topic, not all professors at large research universities see education as their primary motivation. Certainly many do, but hiring biases do not always preferentially select for teaching acumen. Many professors go into academia because they enjoy research. Being research-focused also has financial upsides for the institution. Top professors can bring in tens of millions of dollars in research money, of which the university will take a 30-50% cut depending on the university (to some extent, there is an ROI calculation involved). Between personal ambition and institutional demand, teaching is not always a priority for the faculty.

Moreover, professors, for the most part, do not come from industry. This exists to the degree of rarity that those that do have industry experience "provide unique perspective and skills." It should be telling that actually seeing how the real world works is a "unique skill" in educators. It's hard to define a relevant curriculum if you've never had to learn the relevant skills.

Not everything is so bleak, though. There are academic departments across the country doing an excellent job at training undergraduates. I think my alma mater, Harvey Mudd College, is one of them. A few things help: being deliberately teaching focused and not having a graduate school are both complementary to one another as well as complementary to the educational goals of the institution.

Being deliberately teaching-focused means you are hiring professors who want to teach, an unfortunately rare trait. Not having a graduate school means their focus is entirely on undergraduate education. Not having a graduate school also means that research is necessarily limited (though still present and vital!), and provides a feedback loop that focuses on undergraduate education.

Graduate students, unlike undergraduates, work for professors full-time (or more than full-time for many students). As a professor, you can count on graduate students to stick around for multiple years, becoming subject-matter-experts in their own right. These graduate students are the people actually doing the research that the professor's grant money supports. Undergraduates, on the other hand, can usually at most work about 10 hours per week with faculty due to their courseload. Frequently, undergraduates do not start looking for research opportunities until their second or third year, leaving them only a year or two to participate before graduation. If undergraduates are your only source of labor, they suddenly have to take on the work that would previously have been reserved for graduate students. While the ambition of the research is necessarily lower, the type of research performed shifts towards something that directly benefits the undergraduate.

How to choose a school

I think the distribution of outcomes for students coming out of an undergraduate-only teaching-focused college like Mudd are going to have a higher mean and smaller standard deviation. Mudd graduates are almost uniformly great and they all got to do great work during their undergrad. On the other hand, a large research university (UCLA, UT Austin, et cetera) has an extremely wide distribution of outcomes. I think there is a high likelihood that at some point a particularly outstanding undergraduate got involved in a high-performance research group and achieved some results that just weren't accessible to Mudd grads due to Mudd's focus on teaching rather than on having a large research budget. I think this happens with low-enough frequency that the opportunity cost of going to the small undergraduate-only school is trumped by the better on-average quality of education.

Another consideration is that you probably don't actually know what you want to do with your life (In the I-want-to-be-a-doctor sense, not in the help-me-combat-this-lingering-existential-dread sense). Moreover, you probably don't know what it actually means to be a scientist or engineer. And that's OK, but you might want to consider choosing an institution that won't punish you for this indecision. Oftentimes, changing majors is expensive: both in time and the extra tuition cost associated with that extra time. On the UCLA admissions page, they write "not all programs permit new advanced standing students to change into them after admission." I personally didn't declare my engineering major until the end of my sophomore year, mostly because it took me that long to understand what being an engineer meant

The summary of all of this is if you are in the top 0.1% of students and think you can put yourself out there and get involved in world-leading research as a freshman and intend to go onto a top PhD program, you will be best suited at a large research university. For nearly everyone else, I think the small, usually-private, undergraduate-focused liberal arts schools are the right answer. For the reasons above, the quality of instruction at undergraduate-focused schools is often superior to those of large research universities.