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Does the school really matter?

  1. Apr 6, 2009 #1
    arent all the courses the same. do you really need a brand name? i mean is the education better at a big name school?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 6, 2009 #2


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    Theoretically, yes.

    In practice, no. And for several different reasons.

    1. Caliber of instruction varies widely among universities. Generally speaking, universities with more prestige and larger student body tend to have better professors.

    2. Difficult of courses varies among universities. The hardest section of say, introductory calculus taught at university x may be equivalent to the intermediate section taught at university y.

    3. Course variety varies among universities. Larger universities tend to have a much greater variety of courses which involve specialization of topics, simply because there are more people to take them.

    4. The name does matter somewhat. Everyone knows it shouldn't, but if you say I graduated from Middletown Community College vs I graduated from Harvard, I think you will observe a different reaction in whoever you are talking to. (This point assumes an actual even caliber of education. Even when the universities teach the exact same classes, people still assume the more prestigious one is better)
  4. Apr 6, 2009 #3
    I personally think the education level is about the same, my experience is UK but having compared the courses and content I studied to that of Cambridge/Oxford syllabus I feel like what I was taught was comparable. (I think this may be different if you go to a really really low calibre school, but I'm guessing most teach the same at undergraduate level. After all these really are the basics, which every lecturer knows inside out, so you don't need some famous physicist teaching you E&M, although it would be enjoyable!)

    However despite your education being the same, it would be naive to think going to a brand name school doesn't have advantages. You will find this out if you ever apply to graduate school, having the opportunity to do undergrad research under a well known advisor in the field you intend to continue you, and getting him as a referee, cannot be overestimated.

    Also in industry if you choose to take that route instead, with all other things equal (GPA etc) the employer is probably going to choose the brand with the prestige and weight behind it.

    It's hard to know what you want to do upon graduation, but if it is research then I would advise you to go to a university that has at least some people working in a field you are interested in, so you can get some research under them and have them as referees. I went to a school were no one did string theory, as a result I have done projects and research in other things, not stringy, yet I want to do stringy stuff for my PhD and am finding it v difficult to get a place. No way I would have known this before I started my degree though, since I had no idea what I wanted to do, so it is tricky.
  5. Apr 6, 2009 #4


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    Coming from a university that i'd say is probably fairly low on the pecking order of universities, it does matter. We have some TERRIBLE professors in all the departments. Our engineering department a few years back almost lost its accreditation because of how poor the department was doing. It's not just because they're terrible instructors, some of them infact seem to be very uneducated in their field. Outside of my field, I simply have to go by word of mouth from people in those departments but within my own department, I know some professors were actually very poor physicists. Even some professors have said the department has had to hire some people simply because they were the only ones they could hire. It's actually had terrible consequences for students as well obviously.
  6. Apr 6, 2009 #5
    The type of school absolutely matters depending on the individual.

    However, that's not to say that the usual ranking list from usatoday or whatever is the bible, end all be all ranking system. There are many factors to consider.

    One of which that most people would probably be concerned is with the student/faculty ratio. I happen to attend a rather large school, and for most of my lower division courses, I was essentially in a class size of a hundred or more, which basically...felt like not being in a real classroom setting at all. Some students are fine with that sort of disconnected learning, others aren't and need more personal time with the professor.

    Another point to note is the school you pick matters in terms of recruiting for jobs. For the schools that have a lot of national recognition, they shouldn't really have problems in terms of getting the Fortune 500 companies on campus. However, for regional work, there is an effect. For example, UT Austin may not be as big of a nameplate school as say NYU or Princeton, but if you were looking to work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, you'd have a better chance while attending UT as that is one of their primary/most heavily recruited schools for engineers.
  7. Apr 6, 2009 #6


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    I've frequently been amazed at how much weight people appear to place on school ranking. I suspect this is because in the USA there is a large diversity in the university pool - with some schools being small, private institutions, and others being big name ivy league juggernauts.

    Ranking has always seemed somewhat subjective to me. When I was a graduate student, it did not seem to me that my undergraduate education was all that different from that of my peers. We'd covered the same general topics, and even studied from the same textbooks.

    I think name can matter a little in networking situations. If you happen to have gone to the same school as a potential employer, you have something to talk about.

    Personally I think there are other things that are a lot more important to consider when choosing a school - like whether or not the professors appear to be good teachers, whether the school is putting an effort into keeping its programs modern, how content current students are with the education they're receiving, opportunities you will have for research, work, volunteer activities, etc.

    In the end, some people may be inpressed by an ivy league school name, but they will also be impressed if you can juggle.
  8. Apr 6, 2009 #7
    If you are really interested in the subject and have some natural talent and appreciate hard work, you can get a good education anywhere. A great institute does often mean more money which means better professors (in theory). It's amazing how much a brilliant professor who can actually teach can actually teach though. Some of my best learning in undergrad was from discussion with professors at my college, so going to somewhere with great minds (professors and fellow students) does improve your education. That being said, everyone doesn't need that kind of learning and it isn't necessarily associated with name.

    Name, however, does help getting into grad school. While the courses may have the same names everywhere, they aren't the same and grad schools know it. Your marks will mean different things depending on where they were obtained.
  9. Apr 6, 2009 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    Lately, my colleagues and I have been referring to the belief in 'big name' cachet as the "East coast malady".

    Does it help your career to be associated with famous people? sure. Does that mean you will get a superior education? no.
  10. Apr 7, 2009 #9
    I think Mark Twain suggested, Never let your schooling interfere with your education.

    Don't forget that you will learn much (or you should) from the interactions with your fellow students, not just from the professors. A more selective school may offer you greater chances to learn from your peers.
  11. Apr 7, 2009 #10


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    Not always the case! Depending on what university you go to, and this seems to be the case in bigger schools sometimes, you could find you're surrounded by terrible people! I knew someone who went to Berkeley and someone actually stole his homework and tried to turn it in as his own! You could also wind up being way smarter then everyone around you. I think it might depend on how big the department is...
  12. Apr 7, 2009 #11
    As several people have said it mostly depends on the professors. How ever if you got to a big enough school there are several professors to pick from for each class. Most people try to get the easier one(or sometimes avoid the really bad one). I like going to a school that is big enough to give you a choice on who you want to take the class with.

    With regards to the professors, I don't think that because a school is rated higher it has better professors. I go to a school that(I didn't previously know it) has some of the best Engineering minds in the country. I'm sure some people have heard of The University of Nebraska but no one has heard of the University of Nebraska at Omaha(there are actually linked but the professors and so on aren't the same). I'm not trying to give an advertisment for UNO but my point is that you should look deeper into what the professors and research are like. Also smaller schools can mean a better chance to get into research as an undergrad which can be huge for grad school.
  13. Apr 7, 2009 #12
    To further some points, while better schools have more renown and competent professors, this does not always translate into better teachers. Quite often, the opposite in fact is true: good professors make lousy teachers.

    Going to a better school does not mean you will receive a better education. It means you will be taught by experts and have harder tests and problem sets. You are competing with strong students, it is only natural the bell curves will be shifted. This is why brand name schools are a good filter institution; if you survive in them you have shown you are more than capable.

    It has been my opinion that the very best schools divert too much from the standard curricula. I dont know how students handle it; they are either genius or worked in advanced through standard pre-reqs. On the opposite side of the pole, bad schools have too many idiots and tests become too easy.
  14. Apr 10, 2009 #13
    I go to a relatively small uni. The standard of the tests are pretty low and there's very few courses to choose from. But on the flip side, laboratories are pretty good and I get one on ones with professors.

    And Howers is absolutely right! Brilliant professors are not necessarilly brilliant teachers and vice versa. Of course, if you're lucky, you get one that is both. And if unlucky, one that is neither.
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