Google Analytics

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Continuum of Quality

Claire's post on French Universities brings up an interesting point. In most countries universities are almost all funded and run by the national government. The country divides the universities into a small number of groups and tries, with varying degrees of success, to keep the quality within each group about the same. This system keeps the quality of the elite schools reasonably strong but a student who just misses admission at that level, like the Grand Ecoles in France or one of the IITs in India, ends up with a weaker education and lesser job prospects down the road.

The United States, outside of the military academies, does not run any universities directly. Rather most universities are either run privately or by individual states. These schools form a near continuum of quality from the best research schools in the world down to small community colleges. We have no large gaps, if a student just fails to get accepted to school A then they can go to school B with nearly as strong a program. Also universities in the US often have strength in different areas; one can find schools whose CS department have a much greater reputation than their university as a whole (and vice versa).

Since US universities report to different masters they compete, trying to increase the reputation of their schools both informally and in published lists like the US News Rankings. Some of this competition leads to spending not directly related to education or research such as athletic programs and student amenities. But much effort does go into recruiting top faculty and students including from outside the US.

Fifty computer science departments have a stated goal of becoming a top ten department in the long term. 80% of them will fail but the process will strengthen CS research across the board.

21 comments:

  1. While the US system isn't without its weakness (like cost to students, limitedness of state school options, etc.), the dynamicness also has a lot of other advantages. One nice one is that schools often develop there own character. The student cultures at say MIT, Yale, Berkeley, and Rice are all quite different, yet access to excellent educational opportunities are certainly available at all of them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Seems the US have the perfect university system, at least the best on this planet ...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Seems the US have the perfect university system, at least the best on this planet ...

    Heh heh. "perfect" and "best on this planet" are very different things.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Of course you could say something entirely different about the K-12 education in the US.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Canada, as usual, seems to be a mixture of both. It has a system of all public universities but there are no "Grand Ecoles".

    Of course certain schools are better than others and some seem to be good across the board, but it is not uncommon to have a top notch department in an otherwise rather mediocre institution, and until very recently the government made no distinction in quality across universities.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Fifty computer science departments have a stated goal of becoming a top ten department in the long term.

    Most of those just pay lip service to that goal. Unless the department has the means to back it up it won't lead to a change.

    Not surprisingly, the only CS department that has moved substantially in the rankings over the last twenty years is Princeton, which as a university overall is richly endowed and more importantly it received a very generous donation during the internet years.

    ReplyDelete
  7. University of Washington at Seattle is a name which comes to mind immediately as a place which has also moved way up in the rankings in the last twenty years.

    ReplyDelete
  8. University of Washington at Seattle is a name which comes to mind immediately as a place which has also moved way up in the rankings in the last twenty years.

    While this is a common perception in the field, looking at a ranking from that time, lo-an-behold, UW-Seattle appears in the top ten back then. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense Tompa, Lazowska, Russo, Ladner, Snyder, Beame, Eggers, Levy, Zahorjan, Notkin and other well known researchers have been there since the 80s.

    ReplyDelete
  9. University of Washington at Seattle is a name which comes to mind immediately as a place which has also moved way up in the rankings in the last twenty years.

    probably doesnt hurt that Microsoft is nearby and gives them cash now and then

    ReplyDelete
  10. Theoretically US universities are "privately" run. However, how much money does a university such as MIT get directly each year from the government, in the form of taking huge overheads from NSF and other grants? Is this comparable to how much money, say, the French government invests in its top universities? Obviously, schools such as MIT get a lot more money from the federal government this way than do many other US schools, so they are obviously not completely privately run. At American universities, all research money comes from government or outside research agencies, so what is really the difference between the source of research funding in Europe and the US?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hmmm. Even if Washington was "top 10" 20 years ago, I think that it has still risen considerably in peoples' estimation, in recent years. I've recently heard of multiple assistant professor applicants, across areas of CS, taking job offers at Washington over job offers at Berkeley and Stanford. Would that have been common 20 years ago?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I've recently heard of multiple assistant professor applicants, across areas of CS, taking job offers at Washington over job offers at Berkeley and Stanford.

    Every year there are candidates who snub a top four department for a department in the next 6-10. Usually these are people who are wary of the pressure cooker environment of tenure in the big four; and not a reflection of the comparative quality of the alternative destination.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Lance, while you're right about the disadvantages of tiered systems like IIT, one advantage of those systems over the current US one is their vastly more meritocratic admissions policies. When you apply to the IIT's or the University of Tokyo, they care about how well you do on an exam, not whether you were vice-president of the Key Club and got straight A's in Phys Ed.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I do not think that the IITs produce great students because of the quality of the equipment available or the professors or the university. The quality of the students results from the best students coming in and the best students graduating out. The student who just missed the IITs may be missing out on capitalizing on the name brand, but actually gets a pretty decent education in one of the next-tiered universitites. Then, they mostly do well in life too. So, the implication in the post of all or nothing is a misnomer.

    ReplyDelete
  15. When you apply to the IIT's or the University of Tokyo, they care about how well you do on an exam, not whether you were vice-president of the Key Club and got straight A's in Phys Ed.

    Let me tell a story about when I was in high school (in the US). I knew a guy who was third in class rank (out of about 200) because he was careful not bright, was involved in lots of generic activities, president of the honor society, etc.. That guy got into none of the top schools he applied initially, and manage to squeak into Cornell off the waitlist. On the other hand, I knew a girl who was a phenomenal writer (the stuff she clearly didn't spend much time read much nicer than stuff I worked hard on.) She didn't do any of this collecting activities crap. (Although I think for example she was involved in the literary magazine.) She went to Princeton and I believe was accepted to several other top places. I don't really think this anecdote is that atypical -- I think most admissions offices in top schools are less stupid than people think they are. Also, accepting or rejecting people on the basis of one exam seems fairly specious to me, unless the exam is a lot better designed than almost every standardized test I've ever seen. At least, I think it's hard to make an exam which distinguishes well at the top end of the curve.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The US system works very well, because for various reasons USA can attract some of the best students or scientists from abroad. On the other hand, if you transpose it to France or India, it would probably not work, because French and Indian institution can not compete financially with top US institutions (they cannot offer higher salaries or scholarships), hence the need to train their own elites through a competitive system.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I don't really think this anecdote is that atypical -- I think most admissions offices in top schools are less stupid than people think they are

    The problem with the US admissions process is that it is easy to hack if you know how the system works and if you have enough financial resources. If you're not that bright, it's OK because you can sign up for a dozen activities and if your admissions counselor really likes you he'll use whatever resources he has to help you out (and if you're at an expensive private school, then he will have a fair amount of resources and leverage with universities). If that fails, Kaplan will teach you how to score well on the SAT without really studying, and if your parents graduated from a certain university you'll get legacy points.

    Also, accepting or rejecting people on the basis of one exam seems fairly specious to me, unless the exam is a lot better designed than almost every standardized test I've ever seen.

    I tend to agree, but I don't think the IIT and French exams can be compared to US standardized tests. I'm not sure about IIT, but the French exams are not multiple choice and last (usually) 4 hours per discipline.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I tend to agree, but I don't think the IIT and French exams can be compared to US standardized tests.

    You better give IIT's entrance examination. Students clearing the exams are at par to first year undergrads in US universities (I am talking about Science). The system goes by a standardized test which is not only multiple choice, but subjective too (problem solving). I never heard any US universities taking their engineering prospectives by such gruelling examination session. What works for the US universities is the quality of the faculty, good grad students around the world and financial condition.

    I personally like the US system because after the university education, the students are really good. But when you consider population of overa billion and the social environment in India, this system will suffocate and you are left with no choice.

    The last thing, I would like to mention is the second tier of institutions in India. They also end up getting good jobs but they generally don't get admission in US grad schools. With due respect to Prof. Fortnow it is entirely wrong to say that students from second tier institutes end up with nothing or little.

    SKU

    ReplyDelete
  19. You better give IIT's entrance examination. Students clearing the exams are at par to first year undergrads in US universities (I am talking about Science). The system goes by a standardized test which is not only multiple choice, but subjective too (problem solving).

    Is there a place online to see what typical sample questions look like for different areas?

    ReplyDelete
  20. So what I am getting is that the US system works basically because there is a tonne of money.(esp. at top schools).

    This attracts top (international) professors who attract top grad students who then do spectacular research.

    China and India can't replicate this (yet) because I am guessing they are not willing to spend enough to entice Lance Fortnow to move to Delhi or Beijing.

    Maybe France or Germany could, but they choose not to.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Is there a place online to see what typical sample questions look like for different areas?

    http://momupload.com/files/17440/IIT05.zip.html

    ReplyDelete