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While spending a sabbatical at Harvey Mudd College a few years ago, Professor Michael Moody learned an important lesson from a struggling student. Moody, perplexed by the student’s unflagging desire to remain in school despite poor grades, suggested Harvey Mudd might not be a good fit. Why, he asked, do you want to stay at a school that’s clearly so challenging for you?
“You don’t understand,” the student replied. “This is the only school for me. It’s the first place where I’ve felt normal.”
Moody, now the dean of the faculty at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, says the conversation was an eye-opener for him. In a sentence, the student had captured the essence of the small college engineering experience. Schools like Mudd, Moody saw, were offering a distinctive alternative to the big, research-oriented universities that pride themselves more on their Ph.D. programs and less on their undergraduate teaching. The smaller breed of schools were replacing unapproachable professors with committed teachers and swapping high washout rates for a close-knit community spirit that made students feel as if they were part of a family.
“There were a lot of students who felt that way,” Moody says. “They were so much a part of the community that they didn’t want to be torn from it.”
These days, that kind of satisfaction isn’t the norm in the world of engineering education. Today’s educators worry young American students are shying away from engineering. At the same time, surveys by the Princeton Review show engineering students tend to be generally unhappier and particularly disenchanted with teaching quality. When Princeton Review’s Best 366 Colleges recently published a list titled “Professors Get Low Marks,” for example, seven of the worst 10 schools were engineering colleges. Similarly, a compilation of “least happy students” included five schools with a large percentage of engineers.
None of this is lost on administrators at colleges such as Mudd, Olin and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology , all of which pride themselves on their student happiness and graduation rates.
“There’s a direct correlation between student happiness and the quality of education at the good institutions,” says Gerald Jakubowski, president of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “At places like Olin, Harvey Mudd and Rose-Hulman, the faculties have a deep desire to challenge and work with the students.”
Beyond the Research Model
Small school proponents claim their philosophy of working with students is more than lip-service. The underpinning of that philosophy lies in the mechanics of how colleges pay their professors. At big state institutions, they say, engineering professors are hired and measured on the quality of their research.
“Core values in the big schools hinge on the faculty members’ ability to bring in dollars,” says Ziyad Duron, chair of the Engineering Dept. at Harvey Mudd College. “Your research dollars are expected to offset a certain portion of your salary. And you need to bring in a certain amount annually because you need to support five or six graduate students.”