As the school year starts, I think a bit of a commentary on school quality needs to be made. Schools are in a bit of a pickle these days, and not just because of rising tuition. I am familiar with a couple of schools, but let me rail on one. The school shall remain unnamed, to protect the guilty.

There are, in my opinion, only two factors in the quality of an Engineering School. The quality of the faculty, and the size of the classes. The quality of the faculty is difficult to judge from the outside, but certain assumptions can be made. Young faculty (under 30) isn’t going to have much actual experience teaching, so the students are going to get to learn while the professor does. That may not be the best environment. Watch out for a number of classes being taught by grad-students, or post docs. These can be told usually by the instructor being listed as “Dr Smith” as opposed to “Professor Smith”.  These folks are usually on their first or second class. In a reasonable environment, they will be given notes and previous tests to look at to work up their own material. The lazy ones will just take a problem from each of the previous tests, leaving people with access to previous tests (Greek Houses have extensive test files, although often not of engineering classes) with an advantage. Smart ones will take a problem from each of the previous test and make a subtle change to it, leaving people who have memorized previous tests running off a cliff like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.

Famous faculty is also problematic. A good friend of mine told me of his days at MIT, where he took a class with Prof. B****, of stereo fame. The only problem was he saw Prof B, one time on the first day of class, and after that, the class was taught by a post-doc. There are at least 3 professors that I know of at a Land-grant school who have paid out for teaching so they could do research. Herein lies a problem. If you took a job at a land grant school, you should know you aren’t going to be able to devote your life to research. You are gonna have to teach. If you wanted to be a researcher full time, you should have gone to Sandia or one of the other national labs. Don’t get me wrong, I have had great professors at land grant colleges. They can, however, be overwhelmed by…


You want to know how good your school is? How big is Thermodynamics I course? If the answer is under 40, you are in good shape. If the answer is under 50, you are ok if it is taught by a real Professor with tenure (hopefully). If the answer is over 50, you have a problem. If the answer is over 70, you need to find a new school, no matter who is teaching it.

So I know a land grant school, with new stadiums and a great sports history. They just scraped past ABET accreditation, so tightly that the student body knew how tight it was. The website says the average class size is 24 in one place (but says “hard to pinpoint” in another). The Thermo I class size was over 80 the last semester, taught by a first timer. If you look at education in “bang for the buck” you are getting a wet firecracker here.  What sort of bang are you getting for your buck?