My son is finishing his freshman year at an Ivy. He loves the school but says the professors and classes are not great. Some are bad. But all these kids get great jobs. My daughter is a rising senior but not Ivy bound. I want her to have a good education, what do I look for?


Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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Great schools and great students usually go hand-in-hand. The reason so many kids from your son's Ivy go on to awesome jobs is because of the standout prestige of the school - that it's a known entity among employers - that what it takes to get admitted there offers recruiters a base level of screening - that these students are among the nation's very.brightest and best - and that the level at which these students operate is unduly high. Ivy League kids typically have superior mental crunch power and skills. They also know how to handle pressure; the Ivies are intense and competitive. Who wouldn't want to hire one of these newly minted grads?

But back to the the teaching quality at your son's college. Yes, the teaching at an Ivy, and really anywhere can be sup-par. Sometimes it can just be awful. I don't want to generalize, or be critical of the Ivies or any college, but even the most highly qualified faculty members - by virtue of their academic accomplishments and research - can still be bad teachers. By now you've had enough exposure to teachers at the K - 12th level for both your son and daughter. Do you recall the teachers your children loved? The one's that made them want to learn? Were engaging and interesting? That somehow broke through difficult concepts and delivered on that "aha" moment where your kids got it? That's what makes a great teacher - someone who can teach! .

Of course, at the college level we all have an image of what that should look like. And it's somewhat romanticized and idealistic. It's a professor who leads vibrant, scholarly discussion. It's an instructor who is engaging, passionate and maybe even provocative. It's someone who get's his or her students to think differently, and makes learning relevant. Sometimes it's a professor who truly is transformative, and significantly impacts a young scholars journey in the world. It's almost always someone who is just fired up about the subject he or she is teaching and the kids he wants to inspire.

I'm not going to count that out for your son. My feeling is that he probably has had a spotty experience so far, and he will eventually find several professors who challenge him as he continues on in the next three years. At many colleges, freshman year is used to knock out the basics. As your son begins to ramp up and take classes in his major, or in some electives, I believe he will have exposure to inspirational teaching. I do know of a student at an Ivy who speaks of a few professors in his major who are kind and accommodating instructors and truly want their students to learn. However, they are boring teachers. They lack the personality to make the material engaging. This student reports that it's painfully obvious how much the professors care, and want kids to like their class because they're aware they now teach to empty chairs. Due to the uninspiring teaching, kids sleep in, and because they're smart and capable - teach the concepts to each other instead. This can be a good thing and bad thing that happens in this scenario.. Kids can still learn and be just as inspired by their peers. It's not awful that college kids learn resourcefulness and find a way to get their needs met. There will be bad teachers in the world, bad bosses and so on. It's how you determine your way around an obstacle that may matter more. No matter where someone goes to school, teaching quality will vary.

But back to your daughter. Bad and good profs are everywhere. And as the anecdote above illustrates, this can happen when even the most well-intentioned teacher tries his or her best. Perhaps professors at an Ivy are more engaged in research and professional work outside of the classroom. That's just a thought, not a scientific based observation. Plenty of faculty at lesser than colleges are distracted too.

It's possible that at smaller, more intimate liberal arts colleges and even at more rural ones, the learning experience is more consistent because faculty really want to be there and teach. Also, bigger schools tend to have bigger classes which are impersonal and lecture driven. You indicate your child is not Ivy bound. Because I feel that peers are so instrumental in the learning experience, I would still target better schools if possible. It's the kids that raise the bar. Academic standards at say Towson University will potentially be different than they are at Skidmore, or Cornell. All three schools might sport standout professors and even teaching, however due to the differential in the profile of students admitted, the teachers do have some duty to skew coursework appropriately.

One thought is to focus on a honors college. Many schools offer an honors college within a college. This is generally a more academically elite group of kids within a larger college with classes and experiences that may be more high quality in nature. Another option is to focus on a school like Northeastern, which is not only highly ranked but features a co-op program where so much of the learning is internship/practicum based. You should also ask about mentoring or other unique programs for learning at a given college. James Madison University has dedicated coursework and a mentoring program that provides students access to Google executives. The University of Delaware just launched the Horn Innovations Fellow Program which I will dub, "Shark Tank Comes to Campus." Here students learn in small groups and have unique access to industry leaders, specialized coursework, and other enrichment opportunities. The point is, these days education and learning at the college level does not just hinge on what happens in a few classrooms. It happens in many ways and in many contexts. For your daughter, you may just want to seek out these newer, relevant niche experiences.

In mentioning the above schools I do not mean to suggest students at any of these colleges graduate any less armed to take on the world than an Ivy Leaguer. Or that they are not as smart. Far from it. (At Towson, you need to a be a rock star to win admission to their communications program.) Here's the thing - there is college, and there is real life. And there are book smarts, and there are street smarts and business smarts and emotional smarts. Who succeeds in life and why is a very complicated and layered issue. Undoubtedly, the right college or major, can launch a kid and keep him or her out of living in your basement those first few years out. Choosing the right school is a multi-dimensional decision with many variables. You said your son loves his college, maybe top or consistent teaching is less important.

I share all this to challenge your idea of what an education looks like today. And what should matter as your daughter begins her journey. Best of luck with this next child!

Keenan Patel, University advice

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