Picking the Right School for an Education Grad Degree

Is it more important to go to a great school or a school near where you want to teach?

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When California resident Joshua Arnold gained acceptance to Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, his decision to attend seemed simple—the school is first rate, and Harvard offered him a full scholarship. Harvard's mix of innovative theory and practical experience was exhilarating, but Arnold isn't sure how well it prepared him for the challenges he faces as a principal in South Central Los Angeles, knowledge he might have gained had he gone to ed school closer to home. "My program never talked about educating Latino students in the ways I needed or wanted," Arnold says. "Educating Latino students is not as much of a concern in Boston as it is in Los Angeles. In L.A. it's a really critical issue."

For students seeking graduate degrees in education, deciding whether to stay close to home or head cross-country to study with leading scholars in the field can be complicated. Both former students and school officials agree that no school is perfect for everyone. Some questions to ask: How much does a school's prestige mean to you? Can you afford it (school systems aren't known for their generosity, so you may be talking long-term debt)? Do you like the school's curriculum? And will it teach you what you want to know based on where you plan to work?

To take Harvard as an example, Katherine Merseth, a senior lecturer at the graduate school of education, says the school's academic excellence, small size (40 to 60 students), and access to financial aid make it a competitive option for everybody. More than half of Harvard's students go on to teach outside Massachusetts, Merseth says—proof of its appeal to applicants nationwide. Many public university teacher-education programs are very large (up to 1,000 students), and their sheer size makes it difficult for them to be nimble and alter their curricula based on best practices, she says.

Unlike the grad schools Merseth describes as subpar, Appalachian State University's Reich College of Education exemplifies the benefits of attending a high-quality program run out of a public institution. Reich's dean, Charles Duke, says Appalachian's ability to offer excellent but affordable teacher education in convenient locations is what leads so many future North Carolina educators to choose Appalachian.

Mountaineer pride. "A degree from Harvard or Stanford is certainly prestigious, but having one won't help you become a better teacher any more than a degree from Appalachian will," Duke says. Reich College attracts faculty from across the country who bring the latest, most inventive teaching methods with them into the classroom. One plus: Faculty are also responsible for instructing students about the challenges they might face in different areas of the state—the very component Arnold says was missing from his otherwise positive experience at Harvard.

Starting to wonder if this is a public vs. private issue? Think again. Appalachian shares some qualities with prestigious Stanford University, a top private school. As at Appalachian, where nearly all the graduate education students go on to teach in North Carolina, about 80 percent of the graduates from Stanford's prestigious Stanford Teacher Education Program go on to teach in California, says Rachel Lotan, the program's director. STEP's broad appeal to future California teachers and its deep ties to schools in northern California give it a state-school feel in some respects.

That said, students are never far from reminders of STEP's illustrious reputation. STEP graduate Debra Allison smiled when she found out President Barack Obama had considered appointing Linda Darling-Hammond as his secretary of education (former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan was his eventual choice), not only because Darling-Hammond is one of the nation's leading theorists on education policy, but because she's one of Allison's former STEP professors. Allison currently teaches Spanish at a high school less than 5 miles from Stanford's campus and says 77 percent of her coworkers are also STEP graduates. Though Allison had initial reservations about attending Stanford because of the expense (she could have attended several California state colleges at a much lower cost), she chose Stanford after realizing that STEP represented an investment in her career.