How much harder is it to get an undergraduate degree (say, in computer science) at a highly competitive university compared to a less rigorous institution?

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    It depends on the state university, but generally yes. The students at a place like Stanford or MIT are simply more able than those elsewhere, and this is reflected in the difficulty of the coursework. – Potato Apr 19 '15 at 19:05
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    Given that "state university" also covers, say, Berkeley and Ann Arbor, I'd consider removing the reference (not only as you might step on some toes), replacing it with something like "...compared to a less highly ranked/less competitive university." – gnometorule Apr 19 '15 at 19:18
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    There are a lot of different ways to compare the difficulty of programs. One is the minimal standards: if you're willing to seek out the easiest possible courses (and take hard courses only if they are absolutely required), how hard is it to graduate? Another is the typical difficulty, which can differ substantially from the theoretical minimum. And then you could ask how many students challenge themselves with particularly demanding courses. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 19 '15 at 19:24
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    I'm not exactly an impartial observer, but my impression is that Stanford's CS program is actually easier than Illinois' CS program. Admission, on the other hand, is a different story. – JeffE Apr 19 '15 at 19:38
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    The word "correlated" sounds exactly right to me: there must be some positive correlation between the ranking of a program and its rigor/difficulty. To say more than that you'd have to give much more precise definitions of all the terms involved: they are all a bit fuzzy. For one thing: the least you can do to get a degree at a university can be very different from, say, the average amount of training/learning/work that students do, which in turn can be very different from what the best students / students who plan to go on to graduate study do. – Pete L. Clark Apr 19 '15 at 22:45

Your intuition is correct; I nevertheless do not think is it easy to quantify how much harder (or easier) is one degree compared to another. It is imperative to also define how we measure "hardness"; eg. hours per week? success rate? span of material covered? etc. Clearly one adapts the difficulty of the lecture to the audience. I am not talking about trivializing a topic (that can happen too and it is wrong) but actually as an educator you have to strike the right balance.

To give a small anecdote from Greece: My very close friend graduated Physics and decided to go a second degree afterwards in EECS in NTUA. EECS in NTUA in Greece is one of the most prestigious and hardest to get in schools in the country (occasionally it is actually the hardest). In this programme he had to do a particular Physics class and while he was good, he had to put a lot of effort on it. So at some point he asked the lecturer (I am paraphrasing) : "I am a physicist, I know this stuff and I know you give them really hard problems on this subject. I see the class fighting to keep up; is it worth it? It is extremely unlikely they will use this material." the answer was : "Yes, you are right; but they are the best (theoretically) in country so I need to drill them the hardest." The lecturer was adapting the lecture to the audience. And I have heard complains from academics in minor schools for the exact opposite thing (under-qualified audiences).

To recap: Yes, the same class taught in a top school and in a average school will almost surely be harder in a top school. That is natural and should be expected to a certain degree. Quantifying the difficulty of it though is useless unless you have a particular "yardstick*.

Disclaimer: I am not a physicist nor did I attend the institution mentioned above aside a few lectures here and there.

  • In general I think the answer is spot on, but I'm not sure I quite understand your anecdote. How does someone with an undergraduate degree in physics know what will and won't be used by EECS students? Isn't it plausible that knowing more physics than other electrical engineers will, along with other skills, make one a really good electrical engineer? – Pete L. Clark Apr 19 '15 at 22:52
  • Probably yes, it will make a better engineer. The question was done by an EECS student who knew Physics; not by a graduate. I used it to show that in top school one might cover an unusually high level of material even in subject that one would not expect it because the lecturer is adapting the lecture to the audience. – user8458 Apr 19 '15 at 23:42

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