What would be the practical difference in terms of quality, experience, and future prospect if a student studies at a 4-year undergraduate degree in a world famous university like Harvard compared to a top university in a developing country, like, for example, in an Indian IIT?

Suppose the syllabus contents are the same and and the major is highly technical like Electrical Engineering. My question is not limited to Electrical Engineering, any technical subject will do.

Future prospect means: researcher (academic/industry), entrepreneur, professional, anything that gives him money or/and fame.

The aim of this question is not to understand the career prospect of a student who graduates from a world famous university. The goal is to understand the academic atmosphere or academic culture and academic productivity of the university. My question talks about Undergraduate for a reason. Graduate and PhD degrees are mostly related to research. So, it is natural that a world famous university will offer more scholarships, source more funding for research and deal with more advanced technologies than that of a university in the developing world.

To my understanding the teaching methods, psychology of people, and goal of higher education play big roles there. For example, in the developing world a degree doesn't always mean that you learned something useful nor does a degree doesn't secure one's career because of various socioeconomic realities.

Given that the syllabus is the same, instructors may need restrict themselves into theoretical discussions only or conduct lesser labs because of the lack of sufficient instruments because of budgetary constraints. Moreover, in developed world teaching methods and syllabuses are also subject to continuous research and improvement which is not always true in the developing world.

Salary of professors and their living condition is also a factor in the developing world. Above all, the feeling of not being a part of developed world plays a big role in their motivation.

  • Syllabus contents mean not too much in my opinion. They should look similar anyway. Also, I think you could improve your question if you are a little more specific about e.g. what you mean on "future prospect". Experience shows that you can build a computer/software company and be successful without even finishing a university, so it really depends on what kind of career you think about.
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 5:13
  • I think one of the things that makes a big difference is "who gets in". Since only very brilliant people are accepted, they develop in an extremely stimulating environment that allows them to flourish.
    – Miguel
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 6:30
  • Could you edited those clarifications into your question? Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 8:38
  • 2
    IIT is a good school, and one can get into a top Western grad school after going there. Is Harvard even good at EE? Anyway, possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/q/90/19607
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 14:24
  • My perception is that for a technical subject, a school like Harvard would get you precisely nothing, and might even be a detriment. Ivy League-type degrees are beneficial in areas like finance, law, & politics, where who you know is far more important than what you know.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 17:55

4 Answers 4


Even if you could learn exactly the same thing in both places (you can't), another difference is your peers. If you are surrounded by people who are smarter and more driven you'll be more likely to raise your own standards. The best project in the class at Leading University will be different from the best project at Third Tier U.

Also, if you attend school with people who are likely to get great jobs, you'll have contacts with people who have great jobs, increasing your own opportunities.


I had listened to a talk from a 'top' school in the US while in asia. One student asked that question. The answer the speaker gave was that the most notable (although not only) difference was resources. In the mechanical or aerospace department, it's the difference between having a car engine testing unit and a full wind tunnel, in architecture it's the difference between computer simulation software or laser cutters and industrial 7 axis robots with water jet cutters, etc. Most of which are open to students in many departments.

This stems from both research funding, tuition, and a culture of large donations from alumni.

When students have access to these resources in an open way, they gain knowledge in leading methods in both academics and industry. This makes them highly capable of immediately integrating or impacting a research team or company.


I think the broadness and vagueness of the question severely limits its value. The specifics are dependent on which country you ask about (both the university, and career), if you are an academics or else etc.

Remark 1:

When I speak about good or less good universities I am not referring to one or another pointing system or international list. I am talking about what qualities I believe can make a university good or one may consider when choosing a university.

Remark 2:

University is not high school. It is not about sitting in a room and learning a book from page 1 to page x and you win if your x is bigger than others.

  • So along remark2, syllabus doesn't matter much. I am pretty sure that the syllabus of many mediocre university for Calculus 101 is pretty much the same as in Harvard or MIT. The difference is not that they teach 3 theorems more in MIT.

  • Universities with international reputation makes an impression on your resume/CV. If you go for a career where it counts then it counts. Again, effect may vary by career, major, continent/country and industry.

  • Better university attracts better students and better faculty. Better students mean better peers, healthier social environment for study, also potentially better and more influential alumni network. Better faculty may mean better teachers or better researchers. An internationally famous researcher may be a mediocre teacher for low level undergrad classes, but can be an invaluable mentor or recommended. Again, effect may vary by career, industry etc etc

  • Better universities are often leading research universities, which means students has better access to cutting edge technology, better equipped labs and wider research networks. Also, higher probability of exchange programs for grad or undergrad students for short research visits or attend conferences. Universities are also regularly invite leading scientists to give talks - again, internationally reputed places has better selection to pick from.

  • 3
    " I am pretty sure that the syllabus of many mediocre university for Calculus 101 is pretty much the same as in Harvard or MIT." I have taught calculus at several different universities. We definitely covered more, and covered it deeper, at the "better" universities.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 17:10
  • 2
    Since you mentioned MIT, the first semester calculus curriculum at most universities is not nearly as ambitious as this: ocw.mit.edu/courses/mathematics/…
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 17:13
  • 1
    @Anonymous Any speculation on the extent to which the "covered more, and [...] deeper" was enabled by having a better or more uniformly prepared student intake? Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 17:27
  • 2
    @dmckee: That, combined with its natural consequence of higher expectations on the part of instructors and peers, is (IMHO) essentially the entire reason.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 21:40
  • Most universities, especially early undergrad years, follow a handful of textbooks. I know it is generalization, but any number of the textbook market backs this up. I agree that the depth can be different, but depth most cases do no meant one more chapter in the same book or one more line in the syllabus. The devil is in the details. Also, if this would be the only difference between universities, it can be easily corrected by yourself reading the relevant extra chapters in one of the standard textbooks.
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 7:30

Well, even though the syllabi of both the institutions are the same, there are two main differences that always occur:

  1. The teaching method that is followed at each institution. For example, at one place the same material is taught very extensively with a lot of assignments, group works, presentations as well as DIY type of learning which might not be the case at the other place.

  2. Studying at a world famous university may give your career a kick start as you become a brand after completing your degree from there. Of course, studying from other institutes will also make you eligible for masters degree or other jobs but what might be lacking is the brand name.

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