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As a soon-to-be graduating high school senior in the U.S., I'm going to be facing a tough decision in a few months: which college should I go to? Will it be worth it to go to Cornell or Stanford or Carnegie Mellon (assuming I get in, of course) to get a big-name computer science degree, internships, and connections with professors, while taking on massive debt; or am I better off going to SUNY Binghamton (probably the best state school in New York) and still get a pretty decent education while saving myself from over a hundred-thousand dollars worth of debt? Yes, I know questions like this has been asked before (namely here and here), but please bear with me because I haven't found an answer that fits my particular situation.

I've read the two linked questions above in depth, but they haven't answered what I want to know:

  1. Yes, I understand that going to a big-name college can potentially get me connected with some wonderful professors and leaders in the field, but on average, how does that translate financially? I mean, will good connections pay off so well that I'd be easily getting rid of over a hundred-thousand dollars of debt?

  2. And how does the fact that I can get a fifth-years master's degree at Carnegie Mellon play into the equation? Will the higher degree right off the bat help me get a better-paying job just out of college, or will the extra year only put me further into debt? Not having to go to graduate school to get a comparable degree will, of course, be a great financial relief, but will getting it so early give it any greater worth?

  3. And if I go to SUNY Binghamton, which is far lesser-known than what I've considered (although if there are any alumni out there who want to share their experience, I would greatly appreciate it), would I be closing off doors that would potentially offset my short-term economic gain with long-term benefits? Essentially, is the short-term benefit overweighed by a potential long-term loss?

The answers to these questions all tie in to my final college decision (again, permitting I make it to these schools), so I hope that asking the skilled and knowledgeable people of the field will help me make the right choice (if there is such a thing).


Also, please note: I'm in a rather peculiar situation where I can't pay for college without taking out a bunch of loans, but will be getting little to no financial aid (likely federal or otherwise). I don't want to elaborate on this too much (so take it at face value), but this is mainly the reason I'm asking the question.


Thanks a lot! It means a lot to me.


Edit: Thanks to everyone for your wonderful responses! All thought-out and well-written, and I wish I had the time to write comments on all of them. Hopefully, I'll be able to when I get home from school and work later tonight...


Edit 2: Wow! Unbelievable that I've gotten this many helpful responses in such a short amount of time! I haven't had the time to properly sit down and respond to many of these, but I really appreciate the effort, and I will do so tomorrow. Big thanks to everyone who posted!


Edit 3: For those who are interested, I got into CMU, Cornell, and Binghamton, and decided on Binghamton. CMU and Cornell gave me no financial aid whatsoever, while Binghamton, being a state school costs less than $20,000 a year including room and board. When I got the admission letters, the decision was hard, but after visiting Binghamton and realizing just how good of a school it is (state schools are severely underrated in the United States; it's a terrible problem—for what it's worth, it turns out that Binghamton was even more selective than many of the private schools I applied to, not that that inherently means much, but just as a metric), I couldn't pass up. Besides, I visited on a terrible, rainy day, and was still impressed, so I knew it was the one. ;)

Doing some actual financial analysis, I realized I would never be able to pay off the $60,000 a year required for CMU or Cornell, only making choosing Binghamton feel even better.

While this question is specific to my case, I hope this can help someone else in my position.


Edit 4: I've recently been made aware that students in a similar position have been stumbling across this question, and I wanted to give a short update. I'm incredibly happy here at Binghamton, and if I had to go through the college process all over again, I wouldn't have chosen any other school. I think most students tend to be happy regardless of where they go, but for me, Binghamton has been a great experience.

What I want to tell students is this: I know that it's hard to judge schools without paying attention to their names and reputations — I doubt Carnegie Mellon will ever be considered a bad school for studying Computer Science — but don't ignore schools just because you've never heard of them! Don't be afraid to make practical choices. I know that Binghamton isn't a world-famous university, but from what I've seen, our curriculum is more rigorous, and lays down a better foundation than many top schools that I've heard of, and for much cheaper. We focus a lot on getting students internship, job, and research opportunities, and we have very strong connections to companies like Microsoft, Bloomberg, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and several others. We're a very practical school — we might not be famous, but if you come here, you're going to get an excellent foundation for your career, and almost certainly an internship or a job. Plus, we're small enough that students can get to know their professors well (I have several friends who are first-name basis with their professors), which certainly helps if they're interested in doing research, which we do a lot of at Binghamton.

I didn't know any of this when I chose Binghamton, and it's one of those things you can only learn about a school once you go there — details like this won't be stressed on brochures and magazines, and you learn about it through experience. So, what I want to say is, don't go picking schools solely on whether you've heard of them or not, and consider state schools. The better ones, like Binghamton, are very good choices.

Take this with a grain of salt: of course, if you're motivated, skilled, and hard-working, and if you push yourself to succeed, where you go doesn't matter as much because you'll be noticed wherever you are. I got very lucky with my internships and job opportunities, and my experiences have definitely been flukes, but if you are constantly improving your skills and apply yourself, you can further yourself much more than your school will ever be able to.

If you're a student, and you have any questions about this topic, please don't hesitate to email me. I'd love to help answer your questions: itai@itaiferber.net

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closed as not constructive by Yannis Rizos Mar 8 '12 at 14:11

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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@itaiferber: it's when reading statements like this that I realize how lucky we are in France that the best school are also public school. It may be hard to get in, but you don't have to pay for the privilege. Which doesn't mean, of course, that you don't have to pay for your apartment, food etc... during your studies :) –  Matthieu M. Jan 10 '11 at 8:11
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Please explain how this question is different than programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/28139 –  Walter Jan 10 '11 at 10:50
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Walter, mostly because just being told 'You'll make connections.' didn't cut it for me. I wanted answers that better responded to my current situation, and that's what I got. –  Itai Ferber Jan 10 '11 at 11:29
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I can't help but feel that this question has recurred multiple times on this site. –  gablin Jan 10 '11 at 16:45
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Since you are considering SUNY Binghamton, you should also consider SUNY Stony brook because they have a better CS program with the same tuition. –  Chao Xu Jan 30 '11 at 11:39

33 Answers 33

You need to visit these schools (once you know where you've been accepted). I assume you plan on doing this or have already done this, but it is really important.

Based off my college experience, your visits will likely pare down your decision to two or three schools. You should sit in on a class, talk to some students (not on your tour), and spend the night in the dorms. This will give you a much better perspective for what the next four years of your life will be like both academically and socially.

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Since earning my undergrad in 97, I would say 30% of what I have learned came from an online resource, 10% from books, 60% by doing something with what I've read online or in a book. I have bought a total of 8 books on CS in the past 12 years, 7 of which are now paper weights (C++,MFC,VB).

That being said, the degree makes an an excellent tie breaker. For promotion as well as a foot in the door.

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My advice:

  1. Go to the better university.
  2. Check to see what the curriculum is like by talking to students.
  3. If the curriculum does not involve a lot of programming, look elsewhere.
  4. Check the reputation of the school out.
  5. Talk to Career Services and find out what companies visit the school to hire CS majors.

I am still in college, I started at a public university only to transfer to a private university that met my advice above.

At public university we barely did programming and if we did these assignments took me ~30 minutes before class to complete.

At private university if I don't start the assignment a week in advance I fear I may not complete it correctly. Professors hold your assignments to such high standards and run their own tests on your code to make sure you do 110% error checking.

While I was at my public university many of my professors told me that I would not be satisfied with my education if I stayed and encouraged me to transfer to a much more challenging and demanding university. I am thankful and glad that they did this for me.

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