Does the college you go to actually matter?

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lu6cifer
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Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby lu6cifer » Wed Apr 28, 2010 1:52 am UTC

As a junior in high school, I've been pondering this question throughout the year.
I'm a pretty good student, and I have a bunch of extracurriculars among other things, so chances are I'll probably get into a good college.

But even if I attend a sub-par college--sub-par relative to my aspired colleges--how much of an effect will that really have on my life in, say, when I'm in my 30s or 40s? I realize that attending a better college can help you get into a better graduate school, giving you more opportunities in life, maybe land you a better job, etc...But if I go to, say, Carnegie Mellon for engineering instead of MIT, how much will that matter later in life? Will MIT graduates have better, higher-paying jobs because it's more renowned? Or does it have more to do with your performance in each university and your personal character than which school you attend?

EDIT: I realize that Carnegie Mellon is a very distinguished engineering (and computer science) school, in fact, it's one of my top choices. I was just using it as an example to compare against MIT.
Last edited by lu6cifer on Wed Apr 28, 2010 2:29 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby modularblues » Wed Apr 28, 2010 2:21 am UTC

First of all, Carnegie Mellon is a very respected engineering school (at least among those in the field!)

Going to an "elite" college may give you initial head start in the sense that (some) employers might be more attracted to brand names -- which may get you the interview, for example. But what you do during the interview and after you get the job is really dependent on you and not your school of course. Sometimes people might even have falsely high expectations from graduates of so-called elite schools. And more years down the road, where you went to school will matter less and less.

That being said, a solid undergrad education does matter, especially for science and engineering... which you can get in some good state schools in addition to "elite" schools.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Windmill » Wed Apr 28, 2010 6:07 am UTC

modularblues wrote:First of all, Carnegie Mellon is a very respected engineering school (at least among those in the field!)

Going to an "elite" college may give you initial head start in the sense that (some) employers might be more attracted to brand names -- which may get you the interview, for example. But what you do during the interview and after you get the job is really dependent on you and not your school of course. Sometimes people might even have falsely high expectations from graduates of so-called elite schools. And more years down the road, where you went to school will matter less and less.

That being said, a solid undergrad education does matter, especially for science and engineering... which you can get in some good state schools in addition to "elite" schools.


Bingo. I go to a state school, love it, couldn't be happier. I have gotten lots of interviews and feel like I've been taught the soft skills in addition to the hard skills necessary to survive in the job market. I met a fellow at a conference who goes to a technically higher ranked more renowned engineering program, and he was so awkward "I'm here to pass out my resumé to as many people as possible, must get a job" and had no internship or co-op experience. My college has really pushed getting experience before graduation, and I think down the road, I'll easily be able to get a job over someone like that because I've been taught, again, soft and hard skills.

tl; dr - Your life is what you make of it, even if you don't go to an "elite" school, you can still be successful and have a fulfilling career.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Mr. Freeman » Wed Apr 28, 2010 10:12 am UTC

Will it make a difference if you go to Carnegie Mellon instead MIT, no. Will it make a difference if you go to Carnegie Mellon instead of an unrespected university that barely managed to get accredited, yes.

If your choices are seriously between Carnegie Mellon and MIT then you don't have any issue whatsoever and you can stop worrying about it because they're both amazingly well known for being excellent.

Secondly, when you're in your 40s it will not make any difference where you graduated from. An engineer with 10 years experience beats a fresh MIT graduate with a 4.0 GPA every time.

For undergraduate education your college matters a lot less than for your graduate studies. I had a friend tell me once "Is any college going to tell you that the derivative of x^2 dx is anything other than 2x?" A lot of your courses are things like calculus, basic chemistry, and other prerequisites that don't have anything to do with your major. These aren't going to change based on what college you go to.

You really need to look at what you can afford. Is it really worth $200,000 ($50k per year times 4 years) for a bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon? Even if I was accepted there I would have declined because there's no way in hell I can afford that. That's literally the cost to own about half of a nice house. Most people need 30-year mortgages to buy a house. Even if there is a difference in how much money you make immediately after graduation, it is NOT going to cover the difference in cost between the two colleges.

Also, look at what the colleges are focused on. A lot of colleges simply use their undergraduate program to fund their graduate studies because they really only care about the latter. Sure, their undergraduate program is good, but it's not the actual focus of the university. In a lot of larger universities you'll listen to the prof. lecture in a huge lecture hall, no questions allowed, then you'll go to a recitation given by a TA to explain what the hell happened in the lecture, and then you're on your own unless you can manage to get to your professor's office hours early. Most of the time the professor will be working with graduate students on research and doing things that AREN'T TEACHING. This isn't the case with ALL large universities but it definitely warrants looking into. Tour the colleges and ASK STUDENTS YOU SEE ON CAMPUS how many classes are taught BY THE PROFESSOR.

I looked into Carnegie Mellon because they had a robotics minor and they've kicked serious ass in the DARPA challenges. I talked to the recruiter/interviewer during the application process and discovered that those are graduate students ONLY. You don't get to do anything interesting until your a graduate student. I look on their DARPA team website and discovered that it's comprised of mostly professors and people with no affiliation to the college other than the team. People that work for GM and other companies are working on the Carnegie Mellon DARPA vehicles. There's a few grad students on the team because they're doing research into some specific area that happened to be useful to the robot. For example, someone might be on the team because they're researching image processing algorithms and the robot needs those to identify where it's going. According to this recruiter, there was ONE undergraduate student on the team and his ONLY job was to make sure that the GPS waypoint data for the course got loaded into the robot properly on race day.

There is no way in hell I would every pay fifty thousand dollars a year to attend Carnegie Mellon and finance projects like this if I was going to be told "no, you don't get to do the interesting projects because you aren't a grad student, go do something that doesn't cost us any money".

Also, look into the Colorado School of Mines, it's totally awesome if you want to do engineering.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby KestrelLowing » Wed Apr 28, 2010 1:03 pm UTC

Disclaimer: I'm still in college, not in the workforce yet, so take everything I say about hiring with a grain of salt

Short answer: Maaaaaybe?

Long answer:
It really depends on what you're doing, and what you plan to do later in life. I understand that you want to be an engineer, and you've got something going for you there because there's this lovely thing called ABET accreditation. If the school doesn't have it, don't even think about it. It makes your degree essentially worthless, even if you did learn a lot. If it's accredited, you'll get at least a decent education.

That being said, there are of course levels of engineering schools, of course. Going to a top engineering school (MIT or CM for example) will help open some doors initially that you wouldn't have before, if you want to go work right away. The problem is, HR (human resource) people at companies tend to handle the hiring process for everyone - even when they know nothing about engineering. HR people tend to be more impressed by 'more impressive' schools. If you go to a top school, chances are your application will definitely get through the first screening process, and if they have to narrow down the resumes, the person going to a more prestigious school with the same GPA as someone else will most likely get in. After the first screening process, it doesn't really matter.

That being said, I think it really depends on what you want to do later in life, and what you're willing to do now.

If you want to get that dream job at NASA right out of college (first off, pinch yourself and stop dreaming), you're going to need to go to a top college, be the top of the class, have tons of work experience, and possibly some research experience too.

If you're willing to go through 3-7 years of not so dream jobs and then work your way up, a very top school isn't as important. Engineering experience is much more important than school. Realistically,this is what you'll be doing, even if you do go to the top schools. Experience is key.

Finally, if you want to continue to grad school, a very top school isn't all that important. You need to be in a good school, but if you do well and have undergraduate research, you'll probably get in where you would like (although graduate admissions seem to be somewhat odd - there are many people who didn't get into their safety school, but got into their 'reach' school). Getting to do undergraduate research is quite a bit easier when the school is not so prestigious because you won't have as many students wanting to do it. The number of slots open doesn't really change with schools of the same size, but the difficulty of getting those slots does.

Wherever you go, just make sure you do something besides class - and I don't really mean extra curricular. Do co-ops and internships or get into undergrad research. Those are the kinds of things that really matter.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby LaserGuy » Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:02 pm UTC

Mr. Freeman wrote:Also, look at what the colleges are focused on. A lot of colleges simply use their undergraduate program to fund their graduate studies because they really only care about the latter. Sure, their undergraduate program is good, but it's not the actual focus of the university. In a lot of larger universities you'll listen to the prof. lecture in a huge lecture hall, no questions allowed, then you'll go to a recitation given by a TA to explain what the hell happened in the lecture, and then you're on your own unless you can manage to get to your professor's office hours early. Most of the time the professor will be working with graduate students on research and doing things that AREN'T TEACHING. This isn't the case with ALL large universities but it definitely warrants looking into. Tour the colleges and ASK STUDENTS YOU SEE ON CAMPUS how many classes are taught BY THE PROFESSOR.


I think Mr. Freeman's thought are probably the best advice I could give on the subject. Many of the tier-I universities in the United States actually have pretty lousy undergraduate programs; they just rely on prestige and reputation to get bodies in the doors, so that their tuition funds can pay for research and athletics programs. If there are 2000 undergraduates in your program, what do you think your chances of getting a summer research position with one of faculty? For that matter, what are your chances of even getting a good letter of reference? You may end up with a degree that looks more prestigious, but you may also end up with a much worse education than someone who did a program at a smaller university with a larger focus on undergraduate education. My recommendation is to do your homework before you settle on any university. Especially if you plan on paying $50k/year to attend, you can afford to pay $2k for a flight out to visit first.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Vaniver » Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:07 pm UTC

What you do in college is more important than what college you attend.

Different colleges give you different opportunities: from my first semester at Maryland, I've had the opportunity to be involved in research, which isn't true for most institutions. At a Harvard or a Yale, you might be rooming with a future president, which isn't true for most institutions. At an MIT, the quality of fellow engineering students will probably be a step above the quality of fellow engineering students at CM.

Going to a 'worse' university and making the most of it is better than going to a 'better' university and barely scraping by or failing. But it's hard to seize opportunities that don't exist.
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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Ratio » Wed Apr 28, 2010 11:03 pm UTC

Although employers are impressed by a top name school, what they do a lot more, is look to see who else in their employ went to the same place, and how well they worked out.

Some large companies can build up a large profile on one university, or individual department in a university, based entirely on the quality of past employees comming from that school.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Poochy » Thu Apr 29, 2010 12:32 am UTC

I remember seeing a study that showed a greater degree of correlation between being accepted to an Ivy League school and being successful after graduation than between attending an Ivy League school and being successful after graduation.

The top schools are top schools because they only let in the best students. Now, having your degree from a top school may give you a head start when you're looking for a job fresh out of college, because the employers will know that the school has a higher frequency of talented students. But from what I've seen, your personal performance and accomplishments has a much greater weight because it's hard data on you personally; the school you went to is merely a secondary criteria in lieu of hard data. Of course, people who tend to have major accomplishments tend to be the same people who did well enough to get accepted to a top school in the first place.

That said, if you want a good challenge, and/or to be surrounded by other smart people, the top schools are a good choice. But don't choose to go to a top school just because you want a higher-paying job after graduation. It should be a matter of intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic.

The short version: "Elite" schools don't magically make people successful. It's the other way around - successful people get into "elite" schools. Having a degree from an "elite" school just signals that you are likely to be one of those people.
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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Masily box » Fri Apr 30, 2010 10:04 pm UTC

Poochy wrote:The short version: "Elite" schools don't magically make people successful. It's the other way around - successful people get into "elite" schools.


This is true, but let me point out that this has important consequences. At a place like Yale, MIT, or Harvard, you'll be surrounded by amazingly brilliant people, and that can make a world of difference. I owe at least 50% of my own Ivy League education to what went on in my dining halls and 3 a.m. bs-ing sessions in the common room (and I don't at all mean to belittle the classroom side of things by saying that). Of course, if you're looking for them, you'll meet intellectually stimulating peers wherever you go, but there's a lot to be said for places where almost everyone is like that.

The famous, elite institutions are also good for other things that you might not expect at first. If you do end up studying under big names in your field (which isn't that hard to do, if you show some initiative), their connections and recommendations carry a huge amount of weight and will help you in you career. Also, these universities maintain their reputations through the success of their alumni, which means that they've perfected the art of selling their students as a product--look for the university's "office of career services" (or something along those lines), which will help put you in internships and jobs, help you write your resume, find extra lines to put on your CV, and so on. The richer the school is, the more likely it is to have research fellowships, summer internships, and the like to spare. Another thing to consider is the school's curriculum: the elite universities are more likely to have a more flexible, interesting, and rewarding curriculum, since they're able to cater their programs toward students who actually want to learn.

Now, whether all of that is worth a hefty price tag depends on you and your circumstances. But, then again, the best of the best schools are actually more likely to have generous financial aid packages than are slightly more middle-of-the-road institutions.

People are probably right when they say that what you do while in college is more important than what college you go to. But that doesn't mean that your college choice is unimportant.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby Dark567 » Sat May 01, 2010 2:16 am UTC

Masily box wrote:
Poochy wrote:The short version: "Elite" schools don't magically make people successful. It's the other way around - successful people get into "elite" schools.


This is true, but let me point out that this has important consequences. At a place like Yale, MIT, or Harvard, you'll be surrounded by amazingly brilliant people, and that can make a world of difference. I owe at least 50% of my own Ivy League education to what went on in my dining halls and 3 a.m. bs-ing sessions in the common room (and I don't at all mean to belittle the classroom side of things by saying that). Of course, if you're looking for them, you'll meet intellectually stimulating peers wherever you go, but there's a lot to be said for places where almost everyone is like that.


This is something I feel like I missed out on by attending a state school...

As an engineer I doubt the difference between CM and MIT will be very different unless you decide to go into a field other than engineering degree. A few top-tier financial firms(i.e. Goldman Sachs, D.E. Shaw) love to hire top engineers from top Universities, and pretty much restrict their pool to engineering graduates of MIT, Caltech, Stanford and a lesser known school called Franklin Olin.
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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby stormgren » Sat May 01, 2010 3:37 am UTC

Wow, really? CMU for CS or engineering is absolutely top-tier. In CS Carnegie Mellon is comparable to MIT and in particular aspects it is a better school--namely programming language theory and algorithms/data structures research.

Likewise, engineering. To those in the field, there's no difference. You'll get more recognition from an outsider as an MIT grad, I suppose.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby sikyon » Mon May 17, 2010 8:07 pm UTC

I'm doing my undergrad in engineering, and I've had alot of Co-Op experience.

I can tell you that people pay attention when you've graduated from MIT. I've been part of hiring sessions for top teir jobs (I just sit around in the room because it's part of a general meeting) but people talk about these places with reverence. If you graduated from MIT, that's an acutal talking point that people bring up when presenting your name in interviews. Sure, if you don't have the experience you need you won't get the job, but you can bet it IS a factor. It will give you that edge you need in a highly competative environment.

If you wanted to make alot of money you should have gone into buisness anyways. If you wanted a sweet job that challenges you and makes you happy, you are going to need that edge because so many people want the same thing.

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Re: Does the college you go to actually matter?

Postby skselby » Mon May 17, 2010 10:49 pm UTC

Here's a couple more data points:

1. Mid-career it doesn't even matter what your degree is in much less the institution. We have a random assortment of degrees in our IT department. Once you have experience, skills, connections and references it just matters that you have a degree.

2. A master's degree is a "check box" item for many middle management jobs. Grad school is way easier before kids and career kick in. Even at a diploma mill, it takes a fair amount of effort to complete a master's degree later in life. Which leads me to my next random musing...

2. If you plan on going to grad school, you need to take this into consideration when you select your undergrad program. A degree from, and high gpa at, a top undergrad program will help you get into grad school. I lucked into grad school and might have planned differently had I thought about getting into grad school when I was selecting an undergrad program.


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