Where to Find the Best College Professors

How do you know if the college or university that your child ultimately attends will provide him or her with an excellent education?

You won’t.

College pricing is inching closer to transparency thanks to net price calculators, but it’s largely impossible to form an educated opinion about the strength of a school’s learning environment beyond checking  an institution’s graduation rates. (Colleges and universities are fighting against  academic transparency, but the time will come — hopefully soon.)

Today I wanted to share one simple way to get some sense of whether the professors are good teachers. As I mention in a chapter in the second edition of The College Solution (specifically the chapter entitled What University Professors Do), the main focus of professors at many institutions is conducting their own research while teaching undergrads is definitely not a priority.

 Evaluating an Institution’s Professors

To get some sense of whether the professors are doing a superior job of educating students, you should check out a couple of statistics in the big, thick annual guide that the Princeton Review publishes. Here is a link to the latest copy: The Best 377 Colleges, 2013 Edition.

Specifically, you should check out this pair of ratings that you will see on the left hand page of every institution’s profile:

  • Professor interesting rating
  • Professor accessible rating

The highest possible score for each of these professor ratings is 100. Students rate the professors at their own institutions. I want to emphasize that these ratings are hardly scientific. According to Princeton Review,  30,000 students were surveyed, which breaks down to about 120 respondents per campus.

Great Teaching Schools

One reason why I  think these ratings are worth consulting is because of the pronounced pattern that I noticed when reviewing the scores of many schools in the guide. Here is what I noticed in general:

  • Professors at liberal arts colleges received much higher marks than professors at universities (including the Ivy League schools).
  • Professors at private universities received better marks than professors at state universities.
  • Professors at state flagships — most of the public schools in the book are in this category – fared the worst.

Colleges vs. Universities

These trends make sense to me because of the missions and resources of these institutions. Liberal arts colleges exist to teach undergrads and thankfully professor research is secondary at these institutions. Consequently, professors are more likely to be hired because of they are great teachers. And when professors are teaching 15 to 20 kids in a class at a liberal arts college, the faculty should be far more accessible.

In contrast, professors at research universities are focused on their own research, which brings an institution prestige and  revenue. Even if they are lousy teachers, professors can gain tenure because research is the most highly prized. At these universities, it’s the grad students stuck with dealing with undergrads. And as a reality, how much access is a student going to have to professors when there could be hundreds attending his/her lectures.

Private universities will typically enjoy more resources than state institutions, which can shrink class sizes and provide more opportunities for undergrads.

In every category, I found outliers – schools that did better than their category would suggest and those who did worse.

Private Universities with Top Scores

Here are a couple of the private universities that fared better than most of their peers:

University of Notre Dame

  • Professor interesting rating:  86
  • Professor accessible rating: 96

    University of Notre Dame

Loyola Marymount University

  • Professor interesting rating: 87
  • Professor accessible rating: 97

Rice University

  • Professor interesting rating: 87
  • Professor accessible rating: 90

Private Universities with Poor Scores

Harvard University

  • Professor interesting rating: 71
  • Professor accessible rating: 69

Northwestern University

  • Professor interesting rating:  75
  • Professor accessible rating: 76

Johns Hopkins University

  • Professor interesting rating: 72
  • Professor accessible rating: 75

MIT

  • Professor interesting rating: 73
  • Professor accessible rating: 76

State universities with Top Scores

Many of the state universities that I saw hoovered in the 70′s in both professor categories although there were some exception, here are three notable ones:

College of William and Mary (This outlier in Virginia got the kind of high marks that liberal arts colleges routinely receive!)

  • Professor interesting rating: 93
  • Professor accessible rating: 92

    University of Pittsburgh

University of Kansas

  • Professor interesting rating: 81
  • Professor accessible rating: 83

University of Pittsburgh

  • Professor interesting rating: 81
  • Professor accessible rating: 83

State Universities with Poor Scores

Georgia Institute of Technology

  • Professor interesting rating: 61
  • Professor accessible rating: 63

UCLA (Other UC campuses also received poor marks)

  • Professor interesting rating; 69
  • Professor accessible rating: 67

SUNY Stony Brook

  • Professor interesting rating: 67
  • Professor accessible rating: 66

University of Washington

  • Professor interesting rate: 70
  • Professor accessible rating: 69

Liberal Arts Colleges

As a category, liberal arts colleges kicked butt. And not surprisingly many elite colleges got near perfect scores in each category including Sarah Lawrence, Bowdoin, Carleton, Middlebury, Kenyon, Davidson, Reed, Swarthmore, Whitman, Williams, Wellesley, Harvey Mudd (enginering/liberal arts hybrid) and Claremont McKenna.

What I think is more helpful to share are the scores of a just a fraction of the liberal arts colleges that did exceedingly well, but do not reject the majority of students.

Liberal Arts Colleges with Top Scores

Gustavus Adolphus College (MN)

  • Professor interesting rating: 99
  • Professor accessible rating: 99

    College of Wooster

Knox College (IL)

  • Professor interesting rating: 95
  • Professor accessible rating: 95

College of Idaho

  • Professor interesting rating: 95
  • Professor accessible rating:  93

College of Wooster (OH)

  • Professor interesting rating: 95
  • Professor accessible rating: 94

Centre College (KY)

  • Professor interesting rating: 97
  • Professor accessible rating: 98

Beloit College (My son’s school in WI)

  • Professor interesting rating: 96
  • Professor accessible rating: 98

Prescott College (AZ)

  • Professor interesting rating: 96
  • Professor accessible rating: 95

University of Puget Sound (WA)

  • Professor interesting rating: 94
  • Professor accessible rating: 99

And a final shout out to the nation’s two all-men’s colleges!

Wabash College (IN) and Hampden-Sydney (VA)  got identical stellar scores:

  • Professor interesting rating: 98
  • Professor accessible rating: 98

Women’s colleges also did extremely well, including one you probably haven’t heard of – Sweet Briar College in Virginia (98/98 ratings).

Bottom Line:

As I’ve said ad naseum, you should not be impressed simply by a school’s brand name. What matters is the type of education that a student receives at a college or a university.  And you’re not going to find that out just by taking your cues from the college rankings.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Responses to Where to Find the Best College Professors

  1. K D October 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    I looked up a university my daughter is interested in and the new Princeton Review does not have the Professor Interest rating nor the Professor Accessible rating for that particular school. Do you know if that is an error in the book (some of the page numbers listed in the index are off)?

    • Lynn O'Shaughnessy October 21, 2012 at 1:01 am #

      Hi KD — I don’t know why the book wouldn’t include the ratings for all schools. Maybe it’s just a mistake.

      Sorry.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Erin Severs January 26, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    I think it is very unfortunate that this review does not include community colleges. I am a professor at Mohawk Valley Community College, a SUNY system c.c., and feel that we offer students the best of both worlds. We have low costs for students (less by far than private colleges and notably less than state universities), we have excellent teachers whose focus is student learning (our own research is secondary), and we have small class sizes (the bulk of our courses are capped at between 20 and 25 students with only a few large lectures of 40 students). We also have wonderful resources for our students including a wonderful tutoring center offering tutors in every subject at no cost to students and a cadaver lab (with four cadavers) for our pre-nursing students, among other things. In addition, my colleagues and I are passionate about teaching and are well supported by our institution. The college has a heavy focus on professional development with a fantastic set of in-house institutes that are low cost, take place at various points all year round, and are open to all faculty and staff. They also encourage and fund us attending professional conferences and other opportunities for professional grown and learning. And we are encouraged to be innovative in our work – new ideas are embraced and we really work together as a community to offer the very best to our students. I love my college, my colleagues, and my students, and wouldn’t consider teaching anywhere else.

  3. DRM January 26, 2013 at 11:44 pm #

    Is there some reason why you don’t think Professors should be conducting research? You make it sound like research is the devil’s work or something. How else do you think Profs stay on top of the most current information?! Why would you prefer textbook teaching over up to date information? How do you think our country advances, but for research? Do you realize that there are very few outlets in this country for non-teaching research positions? You need to clue in and realize that these stereotypes of University Profs who “don’t care” are the exception, not the rule. Giving us a bad name just because we are driven to explore is unjustified. I for one rarely see a student in my office, and I have an open door policy [and, I will add, excellent teaching ratings]. I can’t name a single peer in my position who doesn’t care about their students, and who doesn’t make a top notch effort at teaching. Perhaps students’ lack of success should also be attributed to the efforts of the students. You can’t teach somebody who doesn’t want to learn.

    • Erin Severs January 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that professors shouldn’t be conducting research. I think the point here is that at large research universities, that research becomes the focus, putting students on a back burner. No doubt there are many professors like yourself who can balance between focusing on students, their learning, and the betterment of your practice teaching them, AND moving your field forward with research, innovation, and publishing. However, for many professors, this balance cannot be managed (and the data behind this article would seem to agree – I could also provide significant anecdotal evidence to this end). For some professors, there is no interest in a balance in the first place – they are interested in their field and teaching is what makes their research possible. The students of these professors are greatly disadvantaged. Either way, when your institution puts greater pressure on faculty to research and publish than to connect with students and teach well, inevitably, that institution is going to provide a lower quality education.

      Of course this is an age-old argument: are we teaching people or are we teaching a subject matter? To me, that question is simple. My students are the driving force behind everything I do professionally and I was hired at my college because of that commitment and passion.

      It is unfortunate that there aren’t more non-teaching research opportunities for those whose passion is more focused on their discipline. Truthfully such research-oriented professors can be ideal teachers for graduate students and others who share such passion for the research and the subject matter. Such research is vitally important, but things being as they are, the least that can be done is to create awareness – students should know what they are getting (or are likely to get) when they attend a large research university: large classes often taught by graduate assistants (who are more focused on their own studies than teaching, generally speaking) and teachers who are less available and less engaged in teaching because of their focus on research.

  4. Erin Severs January 27, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    “Perhaps students’ lack of success should also be attributed to the efforts of the students. You can’t teach somebody who doesn’t want to learn.”
    Part of what I consider to be my job is inspiring an excitement about learning – I primarily teach developmental coursework and deal with students who don’t seem to want to learn all the time (“seem” is the key word here). What I find with these students (not all of them, mind you) is that there are powerful reasons behind bad attendance, poor or missing work, and/or a bad attitude. Very often these reasons are connected to bad educational experiences in the past and bad associations with school. If I can turn those feelings around and help students to feel good about learning and about being in school, I find these students are fully capable of succeeding and ultimately having very positive college experiences.

    And while students are ultimately responsible for their own success, their efforts toward that success can be largely tied to professor engagement. I believe there is a ratio out there: out of five students, one is going to succeed and one is going to fail no matter what the environment or what the quality of teaching. However, those other three students’ successes or failures are going to be largely dependent on the learning environment and the quality of teaching. Teaching and learning is a partnership. It takes effort and engagement from both sides to be fully effective – you can’t put it all on the students.

  5. Susan February 3, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    I wish there was a source for finding out how much students feel they are actually LEARNING in these schools. It’s one thing to find your professors interesting and accessible, but can be quite another to find their courses rigorous, demanding, and ultimately valuable.

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