Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis
Illustration by Kiersten Essenpreis

During my freshman year at Middlebury College, I remember a classmate complaining to me as we walked across campus on a particularly bitter January morning: “I knew it was going to be cold. I just didn’t know it was going to be this cold.”

She was from Southern California, and the one visit she made to the wilds of Vermont before starting college was in mid-July after her junior year of high school.

For parents who have just returned from schlepping junior all over the country in an effort to narrow down the list of colleges, I have to ask, “What were you thinking?” Summer isn’t the time to visit schools, and not just because you won’t get a good sense of New England winters. Colleges over the summer are just a bunch of buildings, some lovely landscaping and a few peppy student ambassadors -- walking backward, of course.

Why not go visit colleges when classes are actually in session? Admittedly, students spend fewer and fewer hours in class or engaged in academic pursuits (about 25 hours a week, according to the now famous study, “Academically Adrift”). But wouldn’t it be good to know something about the way classes are taught anyway?

Good teaching is rarely recognized and almost never rewarded in a way that counts. According to a 2005 study in the Journal of Higher Education, “teaching an additional hour remained a negative factor in pay and publishing an extra article a positive factor in pay.” That was true for large state schools, research universities and small liberal-arts colleges.

Teaching Devalued

If professors do enough research and publish enough books and articles, they will move up the academic ladder, even if they are complete duds in front of a classroom. An administrator at a large Midwestern university told me that professors used to offer a loose-leaf of publications for consideration by a tenure committee 20 years ago. Today, they offer a box full of them.

Students, meanwhile, complain about professors who use the same notes for 20 years, professors who never look up from those notes, and whose grading of papers consists of “great job!” or “needs work.” Teaching is rarely supervised by grownups. A Harvard professor told me that in her two decades teaching there, not a single colleague or administrator had ever set foot in her class.

How do you find out where your son or daughter can be taught well? First, don’t rely on the U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” rankings. The formula rewards factors that have nothing to do with teaching. They include the number of faculty members who have won important awards, such as the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal, and the school’s overall reputation in the eyes of its peers.

U.S. News sends administrators a survey asking about schools in the same general category as their own. Some have given poor grades to other institutions to boost their own rankings. A couple of years ago, the provost at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for instance, determined that 260 of its 262 peer institutions were of merely “adequate” quality.

Most base their conclusions on the level of prestige an institution has achieved. In this regard, provosts and presidents at other schools may have some sense of the level of publication of faculty members at other institutions. But they would have no way of knowing about the quality of the teaching.

There is also evidence that schools have fudged data about the percentage of adjuncts teaching at particular institutions. There is nothing inherently wrong with an adjunct and many are good teachers. But at some schools the adjuncts don’t have the time or inclination to engage with students. They can earn less than the minimum wage for their hours worked, because they are paid by the course. They don’t have offices, and few offer office hours. They have every incentive to inflate grades since the performance of many of these untenured instructors is evaluated only by students.

Observe Classes

Assuming students can visit a school when it’s in session, what should they look for? First, they might read the course catalog and then sit in on some classes that they might actually take during freshman year. The admissions office may try to impress visitors with an advanced seminar in constitutional law, taught by a senior professor and capped at 13 students. There is some small chance you will be able to take this class four years from now. But you may first have to sit through an introduction-to-political-science class with 600 students. Why not visit that one instead?

Then, look at who is at the front of the class. Professors often dislike teaching introductory courses. So they may be assigned to someone with little experience teaching, let alone in holding the attention of hundreds of young people in a large lecture hall. Schools that value teaching will make senior professors teach freshman. But even if they do, the teachers’ assistants handle more of the hands-on grading. In an age when you can watch lectures by great professors online, the interactive part of teaching -- grading and answering questions -- becomes more valuable.

Maybe your teenager is someone who can learn well in a large class. If your child is barely staying awake for his or her 50-minute visit, however, it doesn’t bode well for freshman year. Whatever the average class size and the quality of the professors, it is also useful to find out how hard it is to get into the courses a student wants. U.S. News rewards schools for having a higher number of smaller classes. But if schools get more credit for keeping the size at 19 and you are the 20th student who wants to get in, you are out of luck. Increasingly students are complaining that they can’t even get into the classes they need to graduate on time. Are you prepared to pay another semester or year of tuition if that happens to you?

Families who tour schools over the summer can often only ask their guides about these issues. If you go when school is in session, you can ask anyone lounging on the quad. It won’t be a scientific survey, yet it might be a more honest one. College tuition is probably the biggest investment a family will make outside of a mortgage. Doing some real homework will pay off.

(Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Naomi Schaefer Riley at www.naomiriley.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net