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Do I need to go to a big-name university?

I'm currently in High School and trying to look into what I want to do after I graduate. I know that I will be going to college, and that I want a degree in Computer Science, however, I'm not entirely sure where I want to go (I haven't started the application process yet).

I already have built up a decent amount of experience in programming (over the summers I have been hired to program at a local university), and I'm pretty capable of teaching myself most of the material I've come across through either books or web documentation.

I'm interested in whether it is worth it to get a degree from a major, big-name computer science university for $50,000 each year, as opposed to going to a local state school for only $20,000. For my Bachelor's degree alone, this would be $120,000 more than the state school.

I've also heard that where you get your Bachelor's doesn't matter much if you plan to get a Master's degree. Many people recommend going somewhere like a state school for your Bachelor's, and then try to get into a more major school for your Master's. Has anybody found any truth in this?

Basically, is going to a big name computer science school for a Bachelor's degree really worth the added expense?

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marked as duplicate by Mark Trapp Oct 27 '11 at 4:52

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Have you looked at majoring in Software Engineering instead of Computer Science? –  derekerdmann Dec 20 '10 at 3:05
I haven't really looked into it much. Are there any particular advantages? –  Serplat Dec 20 '10 at 3:11
How good are you? –  user1249 Dec 20 '10 at 10:08
@Serplat, I am unfamiliar with the US educational system, but if you are good you will want the best. Please read Gödel, Escher, Bach (even if you think it is a bit silly) and report back how you like the concepts presented about computability etc. –  user1249 Dec 20 '10 at 22:52
@Thor: agreed. don't settle for any less than the best you can do. –  Paul Nathan Dec 21 '10 at 1:06

15 Answers 15

up vote 37 down vote accepted

I'm sure that having a big name school behind your degree will probably open a few doors once you graduate but after that what will keep the doors opening up is the experience you build working and the aptitude you have for whatever domain you're working in.

Personally, I graduated from a state school, had no problems getting a job out of school and no one really cared where my degree came from after that. Now that nearly 20 years have passed since I left school, where I graduated from is really the last thing people are interested in.


You may also want to check this question which closely related to yours.

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+1 and I wish I could give you more, I also graduated from a State school and have never had trouble finding a job. Experience, desire, willingness to learn and fitting into a team have been some of the characteristics that have helped me get the jobs I have, noone has ever really asked about the college I graduated from. –  Scott Vercuski Dec 20 '10 at 9:39
+1 so true. once you have that first job where your degree came from has less and less importance. –  Ali Dec 21 '10 at 2:46

If you want to work for Google or Microsoft, yes it's worth it. Aside from that, students at say MIT have a lot more networking opportunities and have much less depressing job fairs than my university did.

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MIT is a step above so yep. –  Adel Aug 21 '11 at 22:39

Here is one big reason why going to big-name school is a good idea: connections.

If you get into a big-name school, your professors are likely to be famous in their respective fields and have good connections. They can help you get a good job after graduation, or they can help you get into a good grad school, should you choose to do that.

Your classmates' parents are likely to have good connections.

Your classmates themselves are likely to get into high places eventually, meaning that you will have good connections.

Don't get me wrong, if you go to a state university (and there are state universities that are very good), and if you work hard, you may very well be very successful. However, if you get into a big-name school, and you work hard, those connections will greatly increase your chances.

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This is the point I was going to make, but i'm just +1'ing this instead. IF and ONLY IF the school has the kind of network that Stanford has is it worth the investment, and then only if you take advantage of it. Otherwise you're just pissing your money away. I'd spend the time writing great applications and the money by starting with a Junior College and see how you feel in a couple of years. –  karmajunkie Dec 20 '10 at 18:05
The problem is that if you graduate with $120K worth of debt that is a major problem, worse if you don't graduate! I would look at a state school, but look around for a really good one! they vary a lot in quality –  Zachary K Feb 13 '11 at 9:35
@Zachary: If you graduate from a top school with a major that actually has decent job prospects, $120k debt will not be a big problem. Also, chances are, you will not have such a debt. Top schools have lots of money, and they generally cover 100% of your "need". And if your "need" is low, that by definition means that your parents are able to pay. Also, if you are smart enough to get into a top school, not graduating should not be an option. Unless, of course, you are Bill Gates or Mark Zukerberg. :) –  Dima Feb 13 '11 at 14:57
Well I will say I went to a top 30 school, and didn't graduate until 12 years after I started. (though I didn't have any debt). So the possibility of not finishing school should not be dismissed! It happens, and depending on when you gradate job prospects may be pretty bleak. If you had got a CS Degree in say 2003 jobs were pretty hard to find. I can say I sure had problems find one in Boston in '03. –  Zachary K Feb 13 '11 at 19:39
If you drop out, or take a 12 year break from a top school, it'd better be to do something very lucrative, like found Microsoft or Facebook. Otherwise, you should probably stay and graduate, especially if job prospects are bleak. And if you have just graduated, and the economy is in the toilet, then you have much better chances to get your first job if you went to a top school. I am guessing one could get a job in Boston in 2003 with a CS degree from MIT, especially if one's professors were to pull some strings. And no, I did not go to MIT. –  Dima Feb 14 '11 at 1:02

The degree isn't worth it, but the quality education the degree is supposed to represent is worth it.

As someone who has hired people I look for ability and understanding. Not if they went to a big name school.

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The thing that Joel Spolsky would tell you, because I read it in his book after I graduated from College - to my most ardent face-palm - was that the thing that employers are looking for is evidence that you were a member of some elite group.

I'm very confused as to what a 'big name' university is, I went to University of Wisconsin - Madison and we're in the top ten of a lot of rankings, but it hasn't helped me to conjure up any big interviews or the clairvoyance to find the location of any hidden programming enlightenment

Therefore, you can go to Ole MacDonald U for 5000 dollars a year and work your butt off to get a scholarship which you can prove lots of people didn't get and have the rest of your college paid for.

Or, you can go to Ms Pacman Community College for 4000 dollars a year work your butt off, get an internship with Dee Facto and Standard, which you can prove lots of people didn't get and you will be very well suited for GoogolSoft.

Or, you can go to Harvard.

If you truly had the opportunity (i.e. you don't have any kids), do whatever is hardest and cruelest on your body and you will be most richly rewarded.

Remember your first year of college will have a big impact on your last year regardless of where you go.

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I was thinking Carnegie Mellon, MIT, or Cornell as "big name". –  Serplat Dec 20 '10 at 3:37
@serplat Well, don't forget about us bastards in the middle. Madison, Ann Arbor and the Twin Cities have some pretty good stuff going on - not to mention a excellent dude to chick ratio. –  Peter Turner Dec 20 '10 at 3:47
+1 for 'Remember your first year or college will have a big impact on your last year regardless of where you go' –  Michael K Dec 20 '10 at 15:25
Cornell? The other "big name" schools that come to mind are UIUC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. Nothing against Cornell, but I'd rank them a bit lower than the other places I mentioned. Oh, and don't forget Joel Spolskey's alma mater: U Penn. –  TMN Dec 20 '10 at 17:26
The University of Wisconsin is a top 10 Computer Science school, significantly higher than a lot of 'big name' schools –  Bryan Rowe Dec 20 '10 at 18:34

Overall, I'd say that it probably doesn't matter too much, but things to consider: what the "big name" school is, what the "local state" school, and what kind of job you might be applying for.

I live in Illinois, so for me a "local state school" could be UofI, or ISU. Those 2 have a big academic difference in my mind. I'm guessing it's the same in your state. So if my son was deciding between Western Illinois, or Rose Hulman, I'd say it'd be worth the extra money for the better school (actually I'd advise he not go to Rose Hulman b/c I don't think he'd want to spend all 4 years of college surrounded by 95% guys but that's a different story). However if the choice was between U of I and Carnegie Mellon, there might not be much difference in the education, but a big cost savings.

I can tell you that where I work, having a big name on the resume will help get you an interview, and will help set people's impression of you: but the interview, your social skills, and your portfolio of projects you've worked on (hopefully in your free time, not class work) will be more valuable in the long run. It should be noted, that U of I would get grouped up with the "smart schools" when looking at resumes, so again while we might "rank" Rose Hulman above U of I, they are both in the top group of candidates, so the difference is probably not major.

If you do get a masters, that will probably carry more weight than you undergrad. You can also do 2 years of community college, or 2 years of state university and then transfer to the expensive school if you feel like going that route.

Most important thing for me when interviewing (aside from "does this person seem like they have some social issues" and "does this person know what he's talking about") has to do with what that person has done outside of school. Did they start/contribute to some open source project? Did they start some website? Did they try to write and sell a small application? Most important part. Seriously. It sounds like you got that covered if you're in HS and your already writing stuff.

Final personal note: I went on scholarship to a private university that wasn't a big name. It was a good school, well regarded, but I always felt it was beneath me, and felt almost like I had to explain to people why I went there (I paid almost nothing to go). A few years after graduating I went back to get a masters from a top academic school. Looking back, I don't think getting the masters will really help me at any point (I was already working for myself and doing well) but I guess it made me feel a little better about myself and a little less... "embarrassed" is too strong of a word.... bothered? disappointed? by my undergrad degree.

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I know that Microsoft tended to spend a lot more effort recruiting at certain big-name universities when I was there. I know that Google and a number of other high-profile companies have their favorites, as well. So that much is worth it, if you want to be doing higher-profile work straight out of the gate, or if you want to work for a startup that prizes having a certain degree of intellectual horsepower. Regardless of how misguided you may argue that presumptions about an individual's smarts based on their institution may be, there are certain starting advantages to being at a place whose reputation precedes your own. If nothing else, more companies will be trying to recruit and hire you.

However, more importantly, you may want to reconsider your math. Many private universities, including big-name ones, will expend far more effort on your behalf finding financial support that will make that total cost more bearable. When I applied to a state university, all of the scholarship programs they offered were my problem to investigate, discover, and separately apply for. The private university, which was also on the order of 3-4 times more expensive than the state school, immediately offered me one scholarship, and then located another when I expressed my concern that I wouldn't be able to afford the plan I was offered, a sympathetic faculty member hunted down one more. My tuition was almost, but not quite, free, and far less than the cost of the state school, by the time everything was done.

So look beyond the apparent cost, and make sure that it really is as expensive as it looks before you discount it entirely. If you're an above average student, there's a lot of scholarship money available.

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I was definitely planning to apply to both the big-name and the state schools, and I'm hoping for good scholarship and financial aid money. However, I can't be entirely sure of how much I will get. If the costs come out to be relatively similar, I would definitely choose the big-name school. –  Serplat Dec 20 '10 at 3:33

Yes, I would say so - and it may not be as expensive as you think.

I went on a scholarship to a second-tier private school, TCU, which is now notable for its football team going to the Rose Bowl this year. I got a fine education there, and my career has been pretty successful, although I learned all my programming skills on my own.

Since then, I've had friends who went to Harvard, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and other big-name schools. They all laughed about the cost thing. Those schools are dead serious about making sure you can afford to go there, and have huge endowments running into the billions. If you can get in, it might cost you less than going to a state school.

It's easier to get into big-name schools than most people think. If your SATs and grades are good, there are things you can do to boost your chances, especially if you start before you're a senior. Contact the schools you're interested in, and they will refer you to alumni in your area who can advise you on that.

You really do get a better education at those schools. Seriously. On average, the faculty is more expert, and your fellow students are smarter. You may have to work harder than at a less prestigious school, because they'll teach you information with a shovel rather than a spoon. Also, you won't be a big fish in a small pond, which can be intimidating if that's what you were in high school. But that also means you can make lots of really interesting friends.

There are always plenty of interesting activities around those schools. For instance, I sometimes attend an open-source conference hosted at Harvard or MIT in the autumn.

If you live in a state with a top-tier, exclusive state university, you can get many of these advantages by going there. Examples include UC Berkeley and the University of Texas - but not all states have those.

If I could do it all over again, I would have shot for Stanford and Harvard. My parents would have freaked, but I would have been happier in the long run. I occasionally go to both universities on business, and walk around campus looking at the students and the faculty and the posters for really interesting things, and think, "I was a moron for going to TCU and not here."

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The big differentiators are these - in my opinion -

  • connections.

  • professors who have done good work and aren't fleeing industry

  • funding for research (which undergrads can participate in)

  • more equipment

  • better engineering cultures

Technically, a BSCS is a BSCS.

Practically, an education is more than your classes. That's where a competitive advantage for a big-name school comes into play (thinking MIT or Stanford here).

You should know that private schools sometimes offer full-ride scholarships. I highly regret not applying for MIT or other private schools.

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Although there are great programmers who have gone to less expensive schools or no school at all, but the odds are you will be surrounded by better developers at the big name programs. Just playing the numbers game. This is a benefit if you want to do a startup and find partners. Alumni are leading many of the companies doing the hiring.

A graduate degree is better for teaching and is not going to be a benefit if you want to be a programmer. Go for an MBA if you want to go into management.

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I would disagree with those who say that you need a degree these days - in my opinion that's just lazy recruiting.

Although I have a degree (in Mechanical Engineering) I am currently studying toward my MCTS qualification and personally think that this, coupled with some good (and not neccessarily expensive) training in computer theory, would be more valuable. It took me years to clear my debts and looking back I don't feel that my degree has helped me that much.

The MCTS training books are about £30 and the exams are around £90 (and I've had to buy 2 of each). I've almost completed the certification in about a year but this has by no means been a full time endevour. Compare that with the cost and time to complete a degree!

If I as starting now - I'd probably invest in a training course or two and then embark on a recognized qualification such as the MCTS (or whatever floats your boat).

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It's different around Silicon Valley. If you want to be in technology and not serving frappucinos at Starbucks, you either need a degree in something, already have so much experience that nobody's asking about your degree, or your resume needs to include, "Walked on water. Raised the dead." The latter is certainly possible - I know a few people without degrees in that group - but that's not an MCTS, it's something like being a maintainer of a famous open-source project. –  Bob Murphy Dec 20 '10 at 14:51
And maybe it is lazy recruiting. But imagine you're a hiring manager in a recession with dozens or hundreds of resumes to plow through for one opening, and you need to pick five to follow up on tomorrow. Your choice is to carefully consider them all, or go home on time. In that position, most managers will pitch the resumes that don't list degrees straight in the waste bin. I wouldn't call it lazy, I'd call it an efficient use of limited time. –  Bob Murphy Dec 20 '10 at 15:00
I can't argue with any of that as it really is 'the way things are' but an efficient use of limited time may not be the best way of getting the best candidate. –  DilbertDave Dec 20 '10 at 20:06
Although I understand that I probably wouldn't absolutely need a degree, I know that I will be going for one. I have a feeling that not getting a college education would hurt me too much, both in knowledge and potential connections. –  Serplat Dec 20 '10 at 21:10
Currently in the UK there are riots (and I do mean riots) about the increase in student fees, the US probably has a different system. Getting a degree here is expensive and in many cases (and in my opinion) unnecessary. As for connections, well I've not done so badly using Social Networking ;-) –  DilbertDave Dec 21 '10 at 8:16

Another factor to consider is whether or not there is a co-op program that can let you mix work terms with school terms to further your experience in the field. This may be found at the state school or the big name school. In my case I did go to what is a big name near me in the University of Waterloo and thus got some rather cool experiences that I'm not sure I would have had if I had gone to a school that wasn't infamous for its Computer Science program. I was accepted and had some scholarships that helped cover some of the costs so don't forget to look at scholarships and other possible funding sources for wherever you do choose to apply.

Lastly, if you can know you plan on going on to do a Masters look into getting into a research team while you get your Bachelors as that kind of experience may be quite useful for those higher degrees like a Masters or PhD. I just have my Bachelors but I figured this was worth mentioning.

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I am not American so I don't know much about the university system over there. That said, there are two things you need to consider.

  1. Comp Sci is a vast field and goes beyond programming. If you are interested in the field then get the degree otherwise may be sw engg. is the better option for you.
  2. if you are doing masters then you have to consider whether the big name univ is good enough education for spending the extra money, and whether the univ you do graduation from is going to affect your masters.
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$120,000 sounds like a lot of money. (OK it is a lot of money.) But if it gets you into a $100k+ per year job within (say) 2 years of graduation, then you should be able to pay off that debt quickly.

The question is:

  • Are you good enough to get that 100k+ per year degree if you go to a top rank university? (If the best you can achieve is mediocre results, then think carefully ...)

  • Would you be able to get that 100k+ per year job with a degree from a local state university? (If you can get exceptional results, then maybe yes ...)

Also consider whether you are going to stay in the industry (are you sure IT is the best career for you?).

And consider the option of "bootstrapping" by doing a first degree at the local university (with good marks), earning / saving some money in your first job, then doing a higher degree at a better university.

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If it gets you a $100k Job. Thats a really big if! What if you graduate in a downturn (Like say NOW) and you find that you can't find any job? Trust me it happens. Been there, done that (thankfully I didn't have any debt) –  Zachary K Feb 13 '11 at 19:43
@Zachary K - yea ... maybe a $100K job within 2 years is a bit ambitious / beyond what most can achieve. But if you've got a Masters (or a PhD) and solid experience, then it is not out of the question. –  Stephen C Feb 14 '11 at 3:23
@Zachary K - Re: downturns - the chances are that this one will be over before the OP graduates. Anyway, a degree from a top rank university + a good marks should be enough to get you your first job fast ... even in a down-turn. (If you slacked off and got mediocre marks, maybe not.) –  Stephen C Feb 14 '11 at 3:27
you are far too sanguine about paying off $120,000 of debt even on a $100k year job. Remember that you are paying interest on that debt as well, and in the US your $100k is going to be more like $75-$66k after withholdings. Yes, you can do it, but you have to be very disciplined: you probably shouldn't be buying nice cars or condos or having kids until you pay it off. By contrast, when I graduated from college in 1984 with $6000 in debt, and evantually landed at $21k/year job. I was able to pay off my loans in three years with my bonuses. I don't know how students manage it today. –  Charles E. Grant Feb 18 '11 at 19:23

Are you kidding me? With the TRASH I've seen some of these courses teach, employers should be using where you graduated from as a reason not to hire you.

I hope employers in the coming years begin to completely disregard your education based on where it was taught.

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