Friday, June 02, 2006

The Best of Both Worlds?

Greg Mankiw sets up the two ends of the spectrum for undergraduate education at highly competitive colleges:

The most important choice a high-school senior faces when choosing where to be an undergrad is between research-oriented universities and teaching-oriented colleges. If you go to a place like Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, you get a famous faculty. But the first priority of that faculty is their own research and writing (and blogging!?), and they are more likely to shower attention on grad students than undergrads. If you go to a place like Amherst, Swarthmore, or Williams, you get a faculty whose first priority is undergraduate teaching. But you do not have a menu of graduate courses to sample from, and you do not have as vibrant a research atmosphere to experience. It is a tough choice.
That's the way people typically see it. But what about the places intermediate between the two? Dartmouth fancies itself to be a place that provides the best of both worlds--the resources to support a research environment combined with an emphasis on undergraduate rather than graduate (Ph.D.) education.

I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1980s, and until I started working with Martin Feldstein on my thesis, I thought the experience was an exercise in anonymity--not enough interaction with the "famous faculty" relative to the big lecture courses that seem designed to support the graduate student teaching fellows. (That's not to say there were no luminaries involved. My Teaching Fellow for Principles of Economics was Dan Dolan, who at the time was a law school student at Harvard. He is currently the CEO of this company--you can see him in the video at the bottom of the page or in virtually every in-flight magazine in the domestic airspace. I thought he did a pretty good job as an instructor.)

I did some snooping on the Harvard website to see if the undergraduate economics program looks much different than it did nearly 20 years ago. The two files of relevance are Economics department's list of courses and the Registrar's file of enrollments for the spring term.

  • Greg's introductory course (Social Analysis 10) has 662 students this term.
  • The intermediate macro course has two flavors, one with lots of math that has 148 students (Econ 1011b) and one with less math that has 259 students (Econ 1010b).
  • The econometrics classes come in two flavors as well, Econ 1123 with 176 students and Econ 1126 with 56 students.
These numbers are about the same as I remember (fewer in the introductory course, more in the macro course). With the exception of the last one, I think the enrollments are too large to suggest that there is anything but an anonymous relationship between the faculty member and most of the enrolled students. And to me, that was a real turnoff.

One thing that has changed is the number and size of interesting field classes, where enrollments can be smaller. The idea

Breadth of offerings--way more than we can offer at Dartmouth
There are 37 undergraduates enrolled in the graduate courses

So it's the best of the both worlds if the product of time with faculty x quality of faculty is higher.

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