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2013 January 22

Where you get your BS in CS matters

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:26
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I used to be a firm believer that only your final degree matters—if you get a PhD from a prestigious department, it doesn’t matter where you did your undergrad work.  My own history has lead me to believe this, as my Stanford PhD has been useful in opening doors that I don’t believe a Michigan State degree (my BS institution) would have.  But recently I’ve had cause to rethink this a little—where you do your BS does affect whether you go on to grad school, your chance of getting into a prestigious grad school, your chance of getting a fellowship to stay there, and maybe even your probability of finishing the PhD in a timely fashion. I got lucky in that my non-prestigious BS did not interfere with my getting into Stanford or getting graduate fellowships, but if I’d known then what I know now …

The Computing Research Association has recently released a report about where the CS PhDs in the US did their undergraduate work (thanks to Mark Guzdial for pointing me to it), and it is more lopsided than I thought:

Only one institution (MIT) had an annual average production of 15 or more undergraduates. Three other institutions (Berkeley, CMU, and Cornell) had an average production of more than 10 but less than 15. Together, these four baccalaureate institutions accounted for over 10% of all Ph.D.’s awarded to domestic students. The next 10% of all Ph.D.’s in that period came from only eight other baccalaureate institutions (Harvard, Brigham Young, Stanford, UT Austin, UIUC, Princeton, University of Michigan, and UCLA). In total, 54 (6.7%) of the 801 baccalaureate institutions accounted for 50% of the total Ph.D. production.

Of course, the top three institutions are the top three institutions in computer science by almost any measure (including size), so it is not too surprising that they produce a large number of BS students who go on to get PhDs.  Unfortunately, the report does not provide the rate of alumni going on to get PhDs in computer science by institution, but only in aggregate:

Fraction of BS awardees getting PhDs in computer science within 6 years, by type of baccalaureate institution. [figure copied from]

Fraction of bachelor’s graduates getting PhDs in computer science within 6 years, by type of baccalaureate institution. [figure copied from]

It is clear that the research institutions send far more of their graduates on to get PhDs, but whether this reflects a difference in the goals of their students, the advising they get, or the quality of the education is unknown.

The report tries to get a proxy for quality by looking at how many students from an institution got NSF fellowships or honorable mentions in computer science.  Of course, this may reflect advising as much as it does educational quality, as many eligible students never apply for NSF fellowships.  The tilt towards research institutions is even stronger by this measure:

Approximately 80-90% of all awards were made to students who completed their undergraduate studies at research universities, which is somewhat higher than their representation (76%) in graduate programs overall.  Over the last ten years, students from four-year colleges received 10% of the GRF fellowships (they represent about 11% of students receiving a Ph.D.).  Students from master’s institutions received fewer than 6% even though they represent about 15% of the Ph.D.’s and 40% of all undergraduate degrees.

The report lists the top 22 institutions by number of NSF fellowships their alumni got in computer science (covering 51% of awardees).  Not surprisingly, the top 4 are MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford, and UC Berkeley (Cornell which was 4th in number going on to get PhDs was 11th in number getting NSF Fellowships—is that bad advising about applying for fellowships, or too theoretical an orientation for NSF?).   Interestingly, there is one 4-year school that makes it into the top 22 list for NSF Fellowships: Harvey Mudd, which beats out bigger schools like UC San Diego and UC Irvine (the only other UCs besides Berkeley to make it onto the top 22 list—UCLA doesn’t make the list).  A few other 4-year schools do respectably (Olin College of Engineering, Swarthmore, and Williams College), but most get just one or two students going on to get NSF fellowships in CS.

My son is currently a junior in high school and has expressed a desire to go to grad school in computer science, so we need to choose colleges to visit.  I don’t think we’ll have the time or energy to visit 22 colleges, but I think we should probably concentrate our visits on the colleges and universities that are sending kids on to grad school in large numbers and getting NSF fellowships for them—he is more likely to have the peer groups and advising he needs at such institutions.  Looking at the named institutions in the top 12 for production and in the top 22 for NSF, I get a pretty short list—only 10: MIT, Berkeley, CMU,  Cornell, Harvard,  Stanford, UT Austin, UIUC, Princeton, and University of Michigan.  We might want to add in some more West Coast institutions from the top 22: University of Washington, Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, UCSD.

I don’t think we’ll visit all 14 campuses (Cornell is damned hard to get to—even worse than when I taught there 26 years ago, and UIUC is not much better), but at least this list is shorter than the other ones we’ve tried to compile, and we have prior evidence that these schools are good at getting many students on the path that he currently wants.  Harvey Mudd is the only small school on the list, and I wonder if we should add a couple of other small schools—Olin College of Engineering and Swarthmore, for example.  Of course, I don’t know when he or I will have time to visit colleges—we both have pretty full schedules this year.  He may have to apply to some without visiting them, and only visit if they accept him.



  1. My daughter applied to some schools that she hadn’t visited, so obviously I don’t think that’s a bad plan.

    Then, you have acceptance and financial aid data to help when deciding on visits. Unfortunately, those accepted visits often are crammed into just 1 month (all acceptances are supposed to be out by April 1 and decisions are due May 1).

    Once he’s a senior, many schools may be willing to schedule overnight visits, which can make visiting easier for him to do alone. For example, he could fly to Boston and visit MIT, Harvard, and Olin, attending classes and spending one night in each place before coming home.

    Summer visits are non-ideal, but can be better than no visits at all.

    You may want to check the common data set for those schools. My overall sense is that they’re not guaranteed admits for anyone, which means he would still need a financial and admissions safety school (maybe that’s UCSD?).

    People apply to a widely varying number of schools (we know people who applied to 1 school and to 20 schools and pretty much everything in between). Each application comes with an application fee and its own set of essays. It costs to send the SAT and ACT scores to each school. Any school that requires CSS Profile will be another payment per school. FAFSA is free, but there is some pain associated with more than 10 schools. Many schools will require additional essays for honors colleges and/or scholarships. So, you may want to trim your list of 14 schools (or not).

    Applying to college can be like taking an additional school course, especially fall of senior year.

    Comment by Jo in OKC — 2013 January 23 @ 08:06 | Reply

    • The fees for admissions applications are not likely to be a big problem (though I’ll probably grumble when it comes time to actually pay them). The essay writing will be a problem, and most likely that will be the main constraint on how many applications get filed. He hates writing essays in response to lame prompts, and application essays have some of the lamest prompts imaginable for essays, bearing no relationship to anything that a STEM student will ever write for a course (except freshman composition, which has the second lamest prompts for essays).

      It’s too bad that our finding a good match for him is not enough—there may not be an opening for him at the best-fit school.

      I agree that none of the top schools can really be considered safety schools, but I believe that University of Michigan (41% accepted), University of Illinois (68% accepted), University of Washington (58% accepted), and UCSD (38% accepted) all come pretty close to safety schools for my son. The non-California ones all have slightly lower standards for out-of-state students (claiming the reason is “geographic diversity”, though the only diversity they are interested in is the color of people’s money), and he is near or above their 75%ile on everything on the SAT. He has taken a few college courses already, he should be able to get good letters of recommendation from college professors, and he can show passion for two rather different fields (computer science and acting), with over 8 years of learning programming and 12 years of acting before college. Unless he botches the application essays, he has a high probability of getting in at one or more of the public universities, even if his odds of getting in at MIT, Stanford, UCB, and Harvey Mudd are fairly low.

      We are aware of the pain of college application (though only second-hand), since the student that he studied physics with last year was a senior and intensely applying to many colleges. (He ended up at Pomona and is quite happy there, though it had not been his first choice when applying—he had hoped for Stanford.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 January 23 @ 09:04 | Reply

  2. I’d add Olin because it is somewhat different from the other choices and reasonably convenient if he’s visiting the Boston area anyway. Though, I could be wrong about the school, perhaps it has become more similar to other engineering institutions in the last few years.

    Comment by kcab — 2013 January 23 @ 09:29 | Reply

    • Olin is interesting, but I’m not sure that the tiny size (346 students) and particular mix of subjects will be a good fit for him. He is more interested in computer science than computer engineering, and Olin’s strengths are more on the hardware side. The project-based learning may appeal to him—or not, depending on the projects.

      I think we ought to consider Olin, and we’ll try to visit there if we visit Boston this year.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 January 23 @ 09:52 | Reply

  3. If you ever run into information that would provide a similar calculation for Mechanical Engineering I’d love to see that. Thanks!

    Comment by schoolsuccesssolutions — 2013 April 10 @ 13:05 | Reply

    • You can extract that information from the same resource that CRA used:
      Their selection and formatting of tables is rather awful, but you should be able to download the selected data and use spreadsheets or other tools to get the information you want.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 April 11 @ 08:58 | Reply

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  8. I realize this is a dated post, but I have a follow-up question for you. My son is interested in computer science but has absolutely no interest in grad school. Should he still aim for the schools you describe in your post, or is this a case where the school does not matter quite so much? He has very high test scores and loads of college credit already but really isn’t necessarily interested in selective schools.

    Comment by Carol — 2015 February 25 @ 04:45 | Reply

    • A student interested in going into industrial work, not research, may not be as concerned about what fraction of students go on to grad school. Instead he or she might be more interested in what companies hire at that school. Finding out what schools specific companies hire from and what companies recruit at specific schools may be more valuable, but that information may be a bit harder to collect.

      I think that right now there is about a 50-50 chance that my son won’t go on to grad school right away—but if he doesn’t it will probably be because his start-up company is taking all his time, not because he decided to go work for Google or Apple.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2015 February 25 @ 09:15 | Reply

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