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.


31 Answers 31


To tell you about my background, I went to a small, private liberal arts school and work at Google. So it's possible to land a good job without going too far into debt. But if I could make my college decision again, I would have gone with a big-name tech school.

Big name schools offer attention

It is difficult to land a good internship at Microsoft or Google if you went to school at some random school. While at big-name campuses Microsoft and Google recruiters will be begging for the best and the brightest. That isn't to say you can't get an internship/job right out of school at a top-tier company. It just means luck and nailing your interviews play a larger role. (Mostly because the interviewer isn't making any assumptions about your background.)

Big name schools offer a better curriculum

This is probably far more important to consider. People will tell you that you will learn the same things at less-reputable college. They are all wrong.

Bigger name schools teach a lot more rigor and cover a lot more of the esoteric corner cases. (For example, requiring that students learn to implement their own hash table rather than just reading a paragraph in the book.) This makes a huge difference if you want to have a career where you are truly innovating.

Anybody can write code, few people have the skills to change the world through software.

If you are good, money doesn't matter

I took out gobs and gobs of student loans. More than I would like to admit. But if you are working for Microsoft or Google, getting a 15-30,000 annual bonus isn't out of the ordinary. And if you are really, really good the sky literally is the limit.

Re: Masters degree

You shouldn't waste your time on this. If you studied hard from a top-tier undergraduate program, then you won't need it. (And the opportunity cost for the extra year or two isn't worth it.) However, if you are like me and didn't have a rigorous undergrad program I would highly recommend this option, as it will surely patch any holes in your undergraduate education. Even better, a lot of times your employer will pick up the tab depending on the program.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that you need to have an idea of what you are after. If you want to be a tech God in 10 years, then you should go to the best school you can get into. Internships and great jobs will pay for your loans.

But if you aren't sure about that sort of lifestyle, you can play it more conservatively. This won't limit you in any way, but it will require a lot more effort on your part to land a great job after you graduate.

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    Disagree in to the Master's degree. Adding an extra year to a four year program (assuming that it only takes you four years to graduate) is likely going to be a much better pay off in the long run as it could give the student a leg up on their initial job hunt and also means that later on in their career they will have it and might get a promotion to a higher level that they would otherwise need more experience to get.
    – rjzii
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:25
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    I got a Masters in Business Administration, and while I readily admit these are a dime-a-dozen, employers do seem to appreciate the business perspective it affords. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:30
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    "Big name schools offer a better curriculum" This doesn't match my experience... any citations?
    – Joe Z
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 5:25
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    Hrm. Well, here's Forbes' list: bit.ly/llrNp. My personal experience is that public schools, on average, tend to be not-as-good as private schools. However, public schools also tend to specialize. Public schools will often be terrible in several areas, and amazing in just as many others. Identifying these specialty schools can be very worthwhile, but very time consuming. If the OP only has one possible public school in mind, it will cut down on the research!
    – Joe Z
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 14:47
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    For what its worth, I went to a locally-known university in Bellevue, Nebraska. Its curriculum was absolute garbage from start to finish, and utter waste of my time -- by the end of it, I felt like I'd paid $20,000 on a fancy bullet point to put on my resume. I work for a good company making good pay, but its only because I work extremely hard; on the other hand, a friend of mind went to the better known University of Nebraska in Omaha, the course work was extremely rigorous, and picked up an internship with Microsoft. I have to agree, big school == better curriculum and more visibility.
    – Juliet
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 21:50

I have to say that I do not think you should take out that much debt to go to any university. Here's why:

How do you know what the economy is going to be when you get out? Loan companies really DO NOT CARE whether you are really hurting financially. The loans can never be discharged in bankruptcy if things go against you (except in very rare cases).

They are also not tax deductible (except the interest in some cases). So let's say you get a job making $120,000 a year. That's really $70,000 a year after taxes. The IRS doesn't say, "Oh, you took these loans out to get this job. It's a work related educational expense." There is a tremendous disconnect between the increasing amount of debt people have from school and the tax code.

So let's now consider this as if you were the head of You, Inc. (thinking this way can help separate yourself from the situation). Would you have your company take out debt that will stay with it for 20 years, is not dischargeable if things go against you, cannot be deducted against future earnings all in an uncertain economic environment with stagnant salaries? Are CEO's hiring a lot of people and making commitments right now? Not really because they aren't sure what is going to happen. By taking all this debt out and giving it to the school, you are being asked to make a very long commitment without any safety mechanisms and very imperfect information.

Do they really want you there if you don't have financial aid? I went to a school at Columbia University that treats everyone there like total garbage. They have this attitude that "We're Columbia. It's an honor for you to even breathe in our presence." It's fine at first, but when your financial aid paperwork is several months late, your tuition is raised dramatically without notice, etc. it gets really old. At some point, you realize that if they really wanted you to attend and it wasn't about ripping you off financially, they'd offer some non-loan based financial aid.

What's my point? People who don't offer a balanced package want your (borrowed) money. They don't care about your success as a student or what's best for you. They don't have an educational mission--it's just about taking your money until you can't qualify for anymore debt. Eventually, that shows up in the way you are treated.

What about graduate school? A lot of people I know borrowed themselves to oblivion to go to Columbia and can't really go to grad school because any more debt would be overwhelming. So they either go to a very cheap school or don't go at all. People only care about the LAST school you attended, for the most part.

Conclusion: Save your money, go to a good state school, get great grades and good letters of rec and then take out loans to get a graduate degree from a famous place. Your debt level will be lower, the degree will carry more weight within your profession and your salary will be higher with a master's degree than just a bachelor's degree. This will make the debt, already less than the undergraduate scenario, more sustainable.

I really do hope you turn away from the loans. You can seriously mess the next 20 years of your life up if you are not careful.

  • Only follow this advice if you "can't" get into a top school. You want to play the odds, Ivy League grads have a better chance at high paying jobs than than state schools regardless of the economy. It's easier to climb the salary ladder when you start a few rungs up.
    – JeffO
    Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 14:20
  • @Jeff O: It's true if you can. The point I am making is that a lot of Ivy Leagues (like Columbia) admit people but not really. They admit them to get as much money out of them as possible, not to educate them. For example: undergrads at the school I went to graduated with an average of $80,000 in debt. Undergrads at the usual Columbia College school graduated with $17,000. If you can't get into the real Columbia where there is financial aid, then don't go. The point here is to get into a good program at a good school, not a bad program at a good school.
    – q303
    Commented Feb 1, 2011 at 2:07

You are asking the wrong question. You want to know if it is worth the amount of money. What you need to know is it worth your time. You can always make more money, you can never get the time back you spend. This is important, repeat this to yourself over and over. If at the end you are really concerned with is how much money you are going to spend, then stop here and go to the cheapest school you can find, because you aren't interested in what the private colleges have to offer you.

Let me tell you the difference between a public university and a private college (I went to one). At a private college, all the professors know who you are. This is important, you go to get coffee with them, you play golf with them etc. They really become your friends (I still have a couple on FaceBook, and I graduated over 10 years ago). This is important. You know what research they are working on, and what their interests are. Even if you don't want to do research, this is still important. They are genuinely interested in helping, and will open doors with people they know. Everyone says to get into a "great company" you need to go to a "Big Name" school. What really can help you is a professor who knows someone, and that will open the door for you. You generally don't get that at a state school (it's possible, but no one I knew had that happen at one).

Almost everyone who goes to those schools is pretty smart. They'll challenge you to work and really think. What you have to ask yourself is which person are you: do you want to go out and party every night, or discuss 18th century philosophy at dinner? There isn't a day that goes by that I'm not grateful for the people I met, and what I learned (although I probably should have tried a little harder). Going to college and learning the material is only a fraction of the experience. What you really learn there is how to think. If you're not being challenged, you're in the wrong place.

Since you mentioned Carnegie Mellon, you should have seen this already, or you haven't done your homework. I'll post it anyway just in case, you accidently let it slip by you.

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    +1 for "You can always make more money, you can never get the time back you spend.". Very true. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 4:57
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    +1 for social part. You can always learn what you have learnt from books, but the social part is very important. Commented May 25, 2011 at 5:57
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    I knew every single one of my professors, and they knew me by name, and I went to a state college.
    – Ramhound
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 12:45

I work for Microsoft as a development manager, so I'm responsible for hiring decisions for new developers on my team.

Ultimately, the thing that matters is your skills. Microsoft even has people at the "Technical Fellow" level (developers with $1million+ compensation) that don't have a college degree at all. Computer programming is an odd industry, with brilliant programmers coming from all kinds of backgrounds. So when I am looking at candidates, it is definitely more common that top programmers have a college degree from a good school, but I'm careful not to overlook people who are talented with different backgrounds.

The most common element I've seen of top programmers is not actually what college they went to, but whether they love programming. A lot of top programmers discovered their passion for programming early, often before even high school.

So this isn't going to exactly answer your question, but if you are the type of person that loves programming and it has been a hobby for years already, then you are going to do well regardless of which college. Though you will also make enough money that the cost difference ultimately won't mean much to you.

If you're not sure you are that type of person, then I would save the money. I've seen people from top colleges do poorly in the industry too, and that's a hard situation with $100k of debt.

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    Agreed. I've hired 40-ish developers and interviewed many more, and the basic question is whether you're a great programmer. And to be great, you need to have practiced a lot. (There's an often-quoted thing that expertise requires 10,000 hours or 10 years or whatever; that's about right. As a new grad you won't be an expert, but you need a solid base of practice.) It's tough to practice enough if you don't love it. That said, being a big fish in a small pond, having peers and profs who aren't the best-in-field, etc. can slow your learning, especially if you don't push yourself on your own.
    – Havoc P
    Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 14:57
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    For whatever reason, it seems like some CS college students think they're already really good developers, or smartest in their class, or whatever. But the truth is no matter how smart you are you suck until you practice for years. A strong school can be good for taking you down the necessary notches, while if your peers aren't strong, you might not be humble enough to learn. Even worse, if your first job isn't somewhere strong with strong devs... bottom line, eventually you need to find peers who make you feel like an idiot, if you want to learn. But it doesn't have to be at a school.
    – Havoc P
    Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 15:00

Go to a great school if you want to do research. Go to a good school if you want to work. Most employers will consider your choice of school a minor factor, provided that the institution you choose is suitably accredited.

A Master's will help a little in getting a job, and might increase your pay ... but again unless you're interested in research or something very specific, I'd opt for a 5-year co-op program (to gain work experience before even graduating) over a 5-year Bachelor+Master's. If you're good at what you do, a couple year's experience will virtually guarantee you a job, and after several years it will be more important than a degree.

So if you just want a good job and opportunity, I'd choose the cheaper-but-still-good route. Talk to your professors and stay in touch with your classmates; plenty of doors will be open for you.

Also consider a good foreign school, maybe something relatively close like the University of Waterloo, Canada (full disclosure: I went there). I'm not sure what foreign-student tuition is like but it's gotta be cheaper than a US private school.

  • What proof do you have that most employers don't consider what school you went to as important?
    – Pemdas
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:26
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    I second, after talking with recruitment agencies. They don't consider it as much as experience..
    – Ross
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:27
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    @Pemdas: Look at job listings. They don't say "Degree at MIT or similar quality university required." They say "Degree or equivalent experience." The ones that are influenced by a pedigree, like Google, are generally well-known by their reputation. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:28
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    They don't say it out right, but believe me places like google, ibm, intel...ect have a list of list of schools that produces the best candidates. I am not saying its a deal breaker, but it definitely helps...a lot
    – Pemdas
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:31
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    Not if I'm not interested in the closed doors. It's like saying you should get a Ph.D. in 10 subjects just to have more doors open. And any company that blacklists you if you have a good resume and experience but not a top-end school is probably going to suck, or at least be filled with miserable elitists. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:40

My advice is simple: go to the best school you can get in to. You really only get once chance to get the best education you can find. If you’re only 17 or 18, you have no way of knowing where you're going to be in your career later in life. If you’ve managed to excel in high school and get into a really good college, go to that school, and save yourself an unnecessary roll of the die of fortune later in life, whether it be trying to transfer in to great school after two years at community college, or trying to get a great job after getting a mediocre college degree.

If you are planning on becoming a software engineer and you are good enough to get into a top school, then you will be earning enough money a few years into your career to be able to pay back your loans without too much trouble. All the top schools make it possible for everyone they accept to afford it. If you were planning to study philosophy and live in a small town, then my advice might be different, but assuming you live and work in a place where high-salary software positions are plentiful, like Silicon Valley, then you will easily be able to pay back any loans you might have to take out.

Additionally, there are other major intangible benefits to going to a top school: it opens doors, you make valuable lifelong connections, it has cachet, it improves your self-esteem. It also makes you into an insufferable elitist. Everything has a downside. But just remember, being an elitist is only a negative when you don't have elite status.

Employers do look at what school you went to. My experience is you have to be really good to even graduate from a CS program at a top school. Lots of people who get in drop out into other majors because they can’t cut it. Cornell’s is a very difficult program. You will not get the same rigor at Binghamton, just as someone who goes to San Jose State is not going to get the same rigor in the CS program as someone who goes to Stanford. (Those four examples are from my personal experience with their curriculums.)

When it comes to fresh-out-of-college junior software engineering positions, if you want to work at a place like Google or Microsoft, then having a big name school on your résumé really helps. They only people who are not from big-name schools that places like that even look at for entry-level positions are people who have already proven themselves as being awesome. Not everyone who is going to be a successful software engineer will have figured out how to prove that by the time they are 22.

As for your subquestions, (1) there may be some benefit to knowing top professors, but really it is the connections to your classmates that count. At a top school, many of the CS graduates will go on to either found successful startups or become top-level managers at successful software companies. You want to be close friends or at least acquaintances of those people if you don't end up becoming one yourself. Those are the really valuable connections.

(2) I think a fifth-year master’s degree comes out as a wash. In the long run it won’t make a big difference, although it may mean a slightly higher salary up front. I would only suggest doing it if you really want to.

(3) As for the third subquestion, I think the answer is that going to a top school probably also comes out as a wash, financially speaking, in the long run on average. It is the intangible benefits that make it worth going to the better school.

As a side note, my experience is that there is a qualitative difference in the education you get from a community college compared to a top 4-year university. You often hear people say “oh the first two years are same no matter where you go” but it’s not true. And I’m not just talking about computer science classes, but all across the board community college courses are dumbed down, especially when compared to top universities. You have a much, much better chance of getting into a top university when you’re still in high school than you will after two years of mediocre classes at community college.

  • Thank you for this comment. You bring up a lot of great points, and it's really helped me think about what I need to do. Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 16:44
  • +1 for "But just remember, being an elitist is only a negative when you don't have elite status"
    – Jas
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 6:37

I graduated from the CS program at Binghamton about 5 years ago. Based on my own experience, I would break this down into 2 questions:

  1. Whether it's a good program
  2. Whether it matters.

And I would answer those questions "no" and "maybe" respectively.

If you're considering CMU or Stanford, then you're probably smarter than I am, and I would say I was in the upper echelon of that program. The Binghamton program was NOT rigorous. Yes, I had a few classmates who couldn't get past the first couple of courses, but frankly, those were the types of folks that just didn't "get" programming. I am at best an average programmer, yet I was a TA and a tutor in the department. I had a coworker who studied CS at CMU and he told me about having to write an operating system in his OS class; in my OS class, we wrote a few C programs and listened to a 60-year-old man lecture about how he used to write programs on punchcards back in the day. I got an A in Algorithms despite being lousy at math, and an A- in Automata Theory despite barely understanding the subject matter. Most of the electives I took were taught by professors who either didn't know what they were talking about or didn't care. Class sizes in the CS program were around 100 at the intro level and eventually shrunk down to 30-40.

On the other hand, the lack of rigor in the program left me a lot of free time to do other things. I worked about 30 hours a week for the campus newspaper (doing both tech and non-tech stuff), did a second major in music, I TAed and tutored, did various internships, and graduated with ~60 extra credits. In spite of all that, I still had above a 3.7 GPA both in the program and overall.

From a financial perspective, it's hard for me to complain too much. Binghamton was ridiculously cheap, both tuition and cost of living, and the little debt I escaped with was paid off almost immediately. I've consistently made over 100k since my first year out of school (except when I took 6 months "off" to do a startup) and am a manager at my current job. That said, the role I've ended up in is in support/sales engineering rather than actual software engineering. I've wondered many times whether, had I gone to a more technically rigorous CS program, I would've ended up in a more technically rigorous discipline.

So to make a short story long :) based on my experience, if you want to be challenged and really learn CS -- and if you think you have what it takes to make it through -- I would go to a better school. There's a lot of noise in the media about people drowning in student loan debt and 100k is certainly a lot of money, but most of the people crying about it studied impractical subjects at crappy schools. With a CS degree from CMU or Stanford you should have that paid off in no time.

If on the other hand you're not too interested in school and are just going through the motions, going to Binghamton might be a decent idea. You'll save a ton of money and won't necessarily hurt your financial prospects for the future. But know that your degree won't sell you -- you'll have to do that yourself -- so spend your free time wisely. I review hundreds of resumes a year, and on the occasions when I get Binghamton resumes with no work experience, no internships, no personal dev projects, etc., they go right in the trash. And anyway, if you're not too interested in school, then maybe you're not ready for college yet -- in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I wasn't.

Best of luck.

  • Martin, thanks for your comment! Getting something specific from someone who went to Binghamton is a huge help. Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 16:46

My honest opinion. A CS degree is not worth 100K+. In the end you will probably end up paying closer to 150-175K by the time you pay it back. Private schools are for rich students, poor students, and students that get scholarships.

I do have one suggestion though. It is possible to still get the "big" school credentials with out paying that much.

Where you go to school for your first 2 years really doesn't matter. Go to a community college and get the intro classes and liberal arts crap out of the way. If you do well then it is highly likely that you can get a merit scholarship as a third year transfer student to a well known private institution. Plus, you save a ridiculous amount of money.

  • I would agree this with statement. It is the school that you get your BS degree that matters. It does mean anything if you did the first two years at a community college. The first two years are very standard across the schools.
    – Jeff
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 3:44
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    In my experience it is much harder to get into a top school as a transfer from community college than it is to get in as a high school senior. In my class in the CS department at one of those schools, almost everyone started as a freshman. Most of the rest transferred from other top schools. I don't know of anyone who transferred in from community college. Just saying.
    – nohat
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 4:53
  • I have to agree with nohat. In my experience, very few community college students transfer to top-tier private institutions. It may be more than simply "private colleges don't want community college grads." It could be that the type of student that goes to a CC isn't suitable for a private 4-year. However, CC's are a great way to knock out the first two years of your 4-year degree at a state university. Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 5:24
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    The exact opposite is true. In fact many top schools are partnering with local community colleges to offer a program they call "2+2", as proof look at Monroe Community college and their affiliations with the University of Rochester and RIT. monroecc.edu/auditsheets.nsf/Welcome?OpenPage?academics
    – Pemdas
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 6:44
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    Actually, you have no facts only personal observations based an extraordinarily small and statistically insignificant sample size.
    – Pemdas
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 21:58

You don't need to go to a "big name" school to get the benefits.

Instead, what you want to look for, is this:

What companies show up for recruiting events at each school.

You can get 80% of the benefits at 20% of the cost simply by attending a well-know in-state school.

For CS in NY, I think you'd want Stony Brook. (Check out undergrad CS rankings, not total-school ranking). They also offer an accelerated BS/MS, and Google et al show up on campus to o recruit.

SUNY-Stony Brook:

The Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook is one of the forces helping to advance the future of technology. We offer two undergraduate programs, Computer Science (CSE) and Information Systems (ISE), both leading to a bachelor of science degree. Both programs have an excellent reputation, and in the most recent Gourman report of undergraduate computer science programs Stony Brook was ranked 15th in the nation and second in New York State.


I saw this on HN and had to respond. I was accepted to some big name schools, but went to Binghamton for financial reasons. I was a biology major at SUNY Binghamton, graduated in 2006. While I was there I taught myself CS. I've been a software engineer at Google for 4 years now.

Having interviewed many people since, I can tell you the school has zero effect on hiring. It's all about talent.

Going to a big name school will make your resume standout from the millions of resumes Google gets every year. It may be a little harder to get an interview if you go to a lesser name school, but that's all.

My advice: do something spectacular that makes you standout. That's what I did.

  • 4
    So what did you do?
    – Mark C
    Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 1:50
  • It is all about talent. However, when you are a big fish in a little pond, you really don't know how much/little talent you have. It is far to easy to be satisfied as the big fish in the pond. When you are at a school with nothing but other big fish then not only can you gauge your "bigness" more accurately but it forces you to become better just to compete. While lesser schools can teach the exact same curriculum, they can't duplicate the affects of competition in forcing students to excel. The affects may be short term, but employers benefit hiring even average people from top schools.
    – Dunk
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 15:44

I think many people are missing a major point here: the college admissions themselves. Getting in is a much bigger deal than it's being made out to be here. Apply everywhere that looks good to you. There's something called "financial aid" which will help you out, assuming you actually need help. If you get into a place like Stanford or Cornell, by all means go (assuming you actually want to go, not just for the name). And if not, at least you tried. You have a year left, so I would focus more on trying to keep your options open for now, and only make the decision when it actually comes to that time. A lot changes in your junior year, and even senior year (I know from experience), so don't make any decisions yet. For all you know, you won't even be interested in CS in another year, or college for that matter.

  • "Financial Aid" is another way of saying student loan debt. Sure, it may "help you out" now by paying your college tuition, but you're going to have a ton of debt to pay off in the end. The OP's question, I believe, is attempting to ascertain whether the benefit of a top-tier school necessarily outweighs the risk of student load debt. I look at the amount of necessary "financial aid" as a negative on the balance sheet of decision-making rather than as a positive. Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 16:54

Point 1: Cornell also offers 5th year Master's degree.

Point 2: Cornell's financial aid, like most of the Ivies, is grant-only. This means you will not have thousands of dollars in college debt, unless you go and get private loans. That said, I went there when that was not the case and I'm not having too much trouble paying them off.

Point 3: There's a social aspect to everything, and no, I'm not talking about class. Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond? Sometimes being the little fish can force you to work harder than you would otherwise.

I know like everyone likes to act as if you get the same education anywhere, and perhaps you do in terms of quality of instruction. But courses are curved, and if you're competing with people who were filtered more heavily the competition is simply going to be stiffer.

Flunking out my first year at Cornell completely revised my work ethic. I went from being the person who never did anything that I was in high school to someone who understood that smarts wasn't everything- that hard work is required. It's possible I would have learned a similar lesson elsewhere, but I'm not so sure I would have.

And the last social aspect is that I actually had friends at Cornell. This may not be relevant to you, but I never had friends in high school and I haven't made any since college- I'm not saying I couldn't have been friends with kids at SUNY B, but that it would have been a lot harder. I personally am the sort that tends to turn off people who aren't complete intellectual geeks.


Just finished my degree in Australia. I would agree with Mathew, repeating exactly what he said. And if money is already a concern then go to SUNY Binghamton. I do not think this would close off any doors. IMO all your long term career opportunities will be developed early on in your career depending on what sort of role you wish to take earlier on.


To save yourself a fortune, go to a junior college for the first two years, and then transfer to a big-name college. The final degree looks exactly the same to an employer.


Your situation and mine is probably vastly different (being as I'm from sweden), where as I'm I currently not sure I can answer it prably. That being said I'm going to try.

a) most computer sciences courses isn't from my experience closely connected to the demands of real jobs within the it industry-. Sure most programs promise to give you a good theoretical foundation to build on. However, is it worth 3-4 years of debt? I'd say no.

b) Who'd you rather hire, someone who has 3 years of university education or someone who has 3 years of practical experience. In most cases I'd say the latter.

So, I guess the real question comes down to, do you really need the academical references to "make it" within the it industry. I'd say no, the first job is always the most difficult to get but afterwards your lack of formal education probably won't make much of a difference.

  • The participial experience is highly dependent, you have to make sure you are hiring someone with three years experience as opposed to one year, three times. Likewise, a diligent student should take advantage of internship opportunities and any chances they get to work with their professors on projects that could also give them practical experience.
    – rjzii
    Commented Jan 10, 2011 at 14:12

Here is my experience: I went to a public liberal arts state school with a small CS program, graduated in 4 years with about 14k in student loans. Decided to jump into the job field versus going in for a masters right away and now work for one of the main wireless providors for the US.

Overall I had a great experience and enjoyed going to a smaller school and had a closer relationship with my professors, however there were some trade-offs. The main being the number of connections I had coming out. I have no doubt if I had gone to Georgia Tech it would have been easier to find a job coming out, but I don't regret my choice at all. Make the most out of where-ever you go.


I wanted to add one minor point that I didn't notice anyone mention. I graduated 10 years ago (2001) from a smaller university and I've worked in 4 different jobs since then (always by my choice to make the change).

In ALL of those positions, only my very first job asked me about my school and my grades at all. Since then, education is the absolute lowest thing on my resume in terms of "highlights."

Now, I'm not saying education is useless, but once you land that first position where you went to school and what grades you obtained become extremely insignificant compared to experience and your skill set. So while a degree at a top end school with top end debt might open connections for you right after graduation, its benefit is not very long lasting and ultimately your ability to perform your job out weighs everything else...

Think about that when you're considering taking on debt...


Attending a top-tier university can provide a tremendous boost to your early career and will certainly get you noticed at a lot of great tech companies. However, student loan debt is one of the most dangerous kinds of debt and can put a lot of pressure on your life-decisions after college.

First of all, student loans are not bankruptable. This means that no matter what, you will repay this debt. There is a great infographic at Consumerist.com which explains the current state of student loans in the United States (it's not pretty).

With debt, the-person-you-are-now is making commitments for the-person-you-will-become. The greater your debt, the greater the burden you are placing on yourself in the future. This isn't necessarily a bad thing (commitment can be wonderful), but to what extent do you want a high school senior (the-person-you-are-now) making commitments for a college graduate and potential spouse/parent (the-person-you-will-become)? This isn't to say that you should have zero debt, but it might help you in your decision-making.

You may be able to benefit greatly from attending a top-tier school at the expense of the potential of great financial burden to your future self. If you get to your fourth year of college and decide you want your life to take a different direction, you may not be able to do so because you absolutely must find a high-income job in your field of study in order to pay off your student loans.

Here's my story:

After graduating from high school, I went to Georgia Tech. I didn't know what I wanted to study, so I waffled between computer engineering and electrical engineering during my freshman year. While my in-state tuition was paid for by the HOPE scholarship program, I decided to get a "Plus" loan of several thousand dollars so I'd having spending money while in college. At the time, I justified the debt by telling myself that I would land a high-salary job right of college, so a little debt now certainly couldn't hurt.

Towards the end of my freshman year of college, I felt a call to discern becoming a Catholic priest. As a 19-year old, I figured that was as good of a time as any to enter into a formal discernment program, so that summer, I become a seminarian for my local archdiocese.

I transferred schools in the fall to a small private Catholic college and began majoring in philosophy and taking some theology courses as well. Thankfully, the archdiocese paid for my education, so I didn't take on any additional debt while finishing my degree.

In my last semester of my senior year of college, I discerned I wasn't being called to become a priest and decided to leave the seminary program of the archdiocese. I left college with a BA in philosophy and about $6,000 of debt that I had brought with me from my Plus loans at Georgia Tech.

I had no clue what I was going to do with my life after leaving the seminary program. What was I going to do with a philosophy degree and who on earth was going to recognize the small college I went to? I started doing some work for the company my dad worked for and slowly started getting back into the tech field. I was learning to code in VBA in Access and Excel and even picked up some knowledge of MySQL at that job. I wasn't making a lot of money, but I was beginning to discover work that I loved to do.

Two and a half years after I graduated from college, I got engaged to be married. I had been making monthly payments on my student loans for the past several years, but I decided I wanted to pay off the debt before the wedding. I had built up a decent bit of savings, but a good chunk of it was wiped out when I wrote a $3000-$4000 check to pay off my debt. Was it a huge sum? No. However, I realized that the debt I had acquired as an 18-year-old for lifestyle was affecting what would be available to my wife and me as we began our marriage.

My wife recently gave birth to our first child and I'm happily advancing in my career in the software world. It sure would be nice to have a BS in Computer Science from Georgia Tech when looking for jobs, but I'm pushing forward with what I have. Could I have gotten started faster with the degree from Tech? Absolutely, but not having the degree has not prevented me from having wonderful opportunities to advance my career and my life.

At 18, I thought I might want to be an engineer.
At 19, I thought I might become a priest.
At 22, I had no clue what I wanted and simply got a job.
At 25, I started a marriage with my wife.
At 25, I began pursuing a career in the world of software development.
At 26, we welcomed our daughter into the world and began a family.

I changed my life's direction a lot after graduating from high school. How I see life now is markedly different than when I was eighteen.

I know there are plenty of successful people who have been perfectly fine building up $100K+ of debt and going on to fantastic lives and careers. Plenty of other answers provide great reasons why you would benefit from a top-tier education and I would agree that it can be extremely beneficial at the beginning and potentially throughout your career.

Personally, as a husband and father, the risk of tremendous debt outweighs the potential benefits of a top-tier education, so if I were talking to the 18-year-old-version-of-myself, I would ask him not to take that much risk.

  • This was a wonderful answer. Great points, and you're totally right. Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 16:49
  • @itaiferber I'm glad you found it insightful! I'd be interested to know what path you eventually find yourself on and how it works out. Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 18:02
  • When I get responses from colleges, I'll be sure to post my decision. ;) Commented Jan 31, 2011 at 18:12
  • I think the phrase "risk of tremendous debt" is a bit of a fallacy. You are not gambling here, you can either choose to take on debt or choose not to. The only risk is whether or not you will be able to pay it off. I would consider few academic endeavors worth over a hundred thousand dollars in debt, but taking on debt in order to invest in a quality education can be worth it.
    – amccormack
    Commented Feb 1, 2011 at 4:57
  • @amccormack I suppose the phrase "the risk of tremendous debt" is somewhat of a tautology (though I'm not sure I would call it a fallacy); debt inherently carries risk. In my particular answer, I'm not so much speaking to the risk of not being able to pay the debt (in the case of student loans, it's not if, but when and how), but rather the risk of having to alter future life decisions because I am forced to repay debt. Debt is not always a bad thing, but you still need to evaluate the degree to which you let your current self make obligations (debt) for your future self. Commented Feb 1, 2011 at 12:03

I transferred into Binghamton and graduated a few years ago (Transferred from a tech school to do language classes/study abroad). Some information that you might find useful:

  • If you're interested in CS and looking at Binghamton, also look at Stony Brook, and vice versa.
  • Binghamton has a 5 year Bachelor's + MBA program that you might be interested in - make sure to consider what you want to do outside of your major as well, and whether or not each school has it.
  • Microsoft does active recruiting at Binghamton and interviews Binghamton grads along side Ivy League grads, I'm fairly sure Google does as well. Many companies recognize Binghamton as a good school (it is called a Public Ivy); the best companies just don't care about school name. On the other hand, when I was looking for jobs in Japan, no one had heard of Binghamton, though most are familiar with all of the Ivy Leagues.
  • The head of the CS department at Binghamton is making an active effort to improve the rigor and quality of the program, and the number of good professors had definitely increased from the time I entered to the time I left. That said, it's still a mix, and if you seek out easy professors and don't venture beyond the core curriculum, you'll mostly get what you ask for.
  • Binghamton is not Silicon Valley. It doesn't mean you can't get to Silicon Valley, but it does mean that you're not already there.

Eventually it's going to come down to what you've actually learned and how proactive you are, so either way, don't let the school you pick define you.


if u study hard for the big school and if u can make it there i would say go for it.

my simple advice would be that to live in the present.


I achieved some success in programming, so what I can say about IT / programming

a) You can learn everything yourself. A lot of high-quality open source projects, just start reading and you already receives a lot of information about high quality code. In university you will see a lot of 'for education purpose only' code. You don't need to learn a lot of maths / fundamental things/ bool algebra, just start working on some project / start you own tutorial project and refer to wiki when you feel like 'this is interesting, let me know deeper about it'. Again, in university you will get a lot of information just because they need to teach you something and get your money.

b) You need to get a real work (but not a pizza seller) as early as possible. Work should be related to your profession. Even if you are repairing computer and reinstalling windows with 5$ per hour rate at start you receive a real experience. Of course, you should not stop on it and you need to move on the next level. Just regularly ask yourself, what do I need to learn in order to earn more?

But if you are dedicated for 5 year in college, you have no ideas about what a real job is. May be you will not have a salary compared to success just graduated student in 5 years. You will definitely have much more then those unlucky who waits for years after graduation just to receive a $100k per year job.

c) Think about trends , agility , financial issues and 5 years range. Will your university agile adapt to changes in economy? Can it predict anything and adjust its courses? I doubt in that. You can adapt much faster, just because you are young and your mind is fresh. We have a WWW, and you can get a lot of relations using social networks / friends and so on. Just do your job well, and information about you will be spread. You can speed it up - publish about yourself on youtube, have a blog. If you go to university you pay for a brand. Again, there are no hidden knowledge which can be transferred to you only in university because it is illegal to transfet it without university. Almost all information is widely available, just don't allow WoW,drugs and alcohol to waste your time.


I earn six figures in the US, with visa support, paid housing, paid cell phone, paid medical care, relocation support, and a four day working week.

I am totally self-trained.

By the time my peers had left university, I had represented a leading company to governments, military and distributors internationally, prototyped new hardware and software systems, skilled up on some rare areas, learned Mandarin Chinese and a bit of a few other Asian languages, travelled extensively, and grown a large professional network. They are now floundering, and I have since lived in three other countries. Oh, and I did start university - late - but was instantly given a scholarship that sent me overseas, from which I never returned.

There is only ONE way to succeed in the interesting areas of IT, and that is to maintain curiosity and interest and to continue learning every day. Formal education is a false prop that does not prepare most people for the realities of a fast-changing IT industry. If you want to be a systems admin and sit around all day, fine... but you can do this without theoretical training. If you want to actually build interesting stuff in leading edge areas, work in startups, etc. then there's no reason to have any more formal knowledge than you can learn yourself through casual reading.

Work, like life, is about pragmatism. An education is something else entirely.

The type of education I would recommend is a liberal arts, because it is going to open your mind to all sorts of things that you will enjoy throughout life and let you spend time with other people who are enjoying the same aspects of life that can be harder to do when you're employed full time. Trust me on this. It's really the aspect that most people miss. You can easily develop a great computing career on the side, based upon odd jobs and personal interest, in order to have the best of both worlds.


If you can actually get into Stanford, Havard, etc you should go, because the contacts and networking opportunities are probably more valuable than the education that you will receive. Plus, you'll get a stellar education.

If the choice is state school vs. a private school that isn't in the top tier, and you don't have the cash to pay for 60% or more of the costs, it's a no brainer -- you're not getting a value for your money. In effect, you're putting yourself in a lifetime of debt for landscaping and ivy.

When I was looking at SUNY schools for computer science, Stony Brook and Buffalo were considered to have the best programs. That was back in the 90's though.


I attended MIT and graduated from UW-Madison with degrees in Computer Science, Physics and Math. I have over 20 years of experience in the computer science field. Currently I am managing director of a small technology company. I currently have and have held recruiting and hiring responsibilities for over half of my career.

That said, when I am looking at a candidate, I am looking for desire, capability, understanding and experience much more so than I am looking at what school did the person attend. In my vicinity there are innumerable small private schools, large public institutions and local city colleges. Obviously, some of them produce better results than others. But, I look at each candidate individually and not, "oh, this school isn't good enough."

My advise to you is attend the best school you can afford. Graduating from a second tier school, you may not have the immediate opportunity to work at top tier employer. But those jobs are few and far between and have a lot of competition. There is no guarantee you will win one of those jobs even after attending a spectacular institution.

As others have pointed out, passions change. I thought I was going to be a Chemical Engineer when I was in high school. If you saddle yourself with an exorbitant debt, you may find yourself locked into a career that you don't find satisfying or rewarding.

Finally, after a few years of work experience, the difference between a B.S. and a Masters in Comp Sci is pretty negligible. When I am checking resumes, recent work experience weighs much larger than a degree or school. A Masters may help you out of the gate, but it will also delay your entry into the field. In the long run, an MBA will open more doors than a Masters in CompSci. If you want to do truly cutting edge research, you will almost certainly need a Doctoral degree. You probably don't want to get your Ph.D. from the same institution where you do your undergrad work. If you're in it for the money, don't spend more than you can afford, get into the workforce as quickly as you can and you can work your way into a significant salary very quickly.


Not having kids, I swear that extra 10k per year does not make a big difference at certain level of salary. All that happens to you is that you get used to the extra income and pick up ever more expensive habits, which enslave you. http://xkcd.com/792/ In order to fight this, I make sure to give away 5% of what I make to charity. Bill Gates blew all of his inheritance away. Is it all about $$$? If so, then become an investment banker and hate your life.


I cannot say what is best for you. My story:

When I was your age, I did not know what the f I wanted to do. As far as my parents were concerned, I have had it made at the age of 17 whereas I managed to get a HS diploma (not a GED) and not have any criminal record. They were utterly impressed. Of course, for me that was nothing, I was bored while in high school.

I ended up in a large state school because: A) I could not pay for anything else; I depended on fin aid 95%. B) Did I mention that I did not know what the f I was doing? At the last few months I realized that I needed to pass SATs, TOEFL, have a recommendation from at least 2 teachers who did not think that I was a complete f-up (that was tough), write an essay perhaps.

So, I get in, I get a 2.0 GPA my first semester, then I get pissed off at myself, get better grades. Financially I live like a king. I end up borrowing 2 thousand per semester - everything else is taken care of by the state. I hate gen ed classes, and I put them off as long as I can. I take technical classes that I like, and at the end of it (6 years, lol), I pull of 3 majors (sounds more impressive than it is because many classes served dual purpose). While the school was not the greatest, its computer science dept was in the top 20 nation-wide.

I had a blast there. I did not have to worry about finances. My school loan was 24k after 6.5 years (I spent the last summer in some program abroad).

It has been 5 years since I am out of school. I worked at a few places. My first job sucked; second was half-decent, third is getting better, and next one will hopefully be pretty good.

Have I worked for great big name companies? No. Do I feel like I got the best education? No. Do I wish I have gone for masters right away? Yes, but I could not.

However, I would like to think that I am not the dumbest person in the world. I can fill gaps in my knowledge on my own time, and that is what I am doing. Both me and my classmate from the same college are going through some course work at http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm. There is also, I kid you not, khanacademy.org that I selectively watch. I have also taken a night class at a somewhat prestigious school. I plan on doing MS in a well-known school once I am ready.

If I wanted to, I believe I could get into Google or a similar company. It would require me to study for their interview like crazy (I like puzzles and tests), but I am not sure if that is what I want.

I prefer small companies (small is beautiful). Some people were not happy at Google. http://techcrunch.com/2009/01/18/why-google-employees-quit/ I might sound bitter, but I think not. I realized for myself that I absolutely do not care to impress others with the name of the company that I work for. All I want to do is get a decent pay, do something that I do not hate and think is helpful.

Now, I arrived at this understanding by the age of almost 30. When I was 17, I did not give a f about much. When I was 21, I thought I wanted to pursue a PhD. It is hard to say what is best for you. When I was your age, I could not have known that.

This is not to tell you what to do; this is just my story. I have a co-worker who was a construction worker for 3 years out of HS, then he got bored, and got his BS and MS from a small, not-well-known state school. He is now a VP at a large company. The thing is - he was always bright and capable. His school did not spoil him.

In the long term experience trumps education. Some on SO have started coding at the age of 6,7,8 ... which is CRAZY to me. I do not think they have problem with employment/salary. I was not one of those. I am also not a genius. And, I have not gone to a big name school.

However, I am happy regardless, and while I make less than 100k/year, I am comfortable. How your story turns out - I do not know. I am happy with the "choices" I have made (I have not had that many choices actually, given how poor I was). One thing I love about myself;) is that I am pretty much unconditionally happy, and I do have some funny stories to tell from college days. I do not know if I would enjoy as much having a very competitive class with hard regimen. College is partly for having fun.

That said, I still have a healthy envy of those who went to better schools, and I do want to get MS even if it does not help me $$$-wise that much. What I want to do is close some gaps in knowledge. With education inflation these days, any stupid a-hole can get a BS degree in something. While doctorate is not for me, I do want to get an MS and finally feel like I know something. Practical knowledge helps, but some theory-heavy classes are best learned in a lecture as opposed to by hacking things together.

Hopefully this helps. Good luck!



Your question implies that if you received a scholarship or reduced tuition that you would attend a "Big Name School" because you would not be incurring the tremendous debt. I would then suggest to live in a state one year before attending college so that you receive instate tuition. This rule varies state by state, but the rules for Georgia can be found here

I have a friend who moved to Georgia and lived here for a year before going to school. By doing that he reduced his tuition about $9,000 per semester. In addition he qualified for the HOPE scholarship, which will pay your tuition so long as you maintain a B average.

Living a year away from home before school is a big deal. My point though, is that there are usually ways to reduce costs once you have found a particular school you want to go to.

  • I hadn't thought of that. Great advice. Commented Jan 30, 2011 at 18:39

I say if you end up getting into a few big name (Ivy League) private schools, GO FOR IT!!!

I went to a Public School and to be honest, I thought the education there was lousy and the student talent was lackluster.

At the private schools you had mentioned, the curriculum will probably exceed most public universities. In addition to the excellent curriculum and staff at private schools, you will also be surrounded by such brilliant minds that you will gain valuable knowledge from your peers and will be a great motivational aspect. When it comes to the factors I've mentioned, price is irrelevant.

I don't think there is much coincidence that the top founders of tech companies came from Ivy League schools. They may not have graduated, but you get the point.

On the other hand, if you feel like you have an idea and understand how to execute your idea, you'd be be wasting your time going to school. School can always wait.


Almost all the SUNY schools are excellent choices. Geneseo and Binghamton are both good solid schools. I think its important to note that he is not talking about a place like UT where there are 500 people to a class room. The school he is talking about will have relatively small classrooms.

IMO- I would go with the SUNY school for now..There is nothing saying you couldn't transfer to CM or something later. Keep in mind the current employment climate. You DO NOT want to graduate school with a 100k in debt in an employment environment where the salaries have dropped considerably, as have initial opportunities.

Also keep in mind, that there is nothing saying you can't go to a big name school for your graduate degree..which as someone else has mentioned many times is at least assisted by your current employer.

Also since you seem to be in the area RIT, UofR, Alfred, and UB are all excellent choices that wont break the bank as well.


I'm going to offer just a small perspective into this.

Most employers don't care which school you went as long as you demonstrate appropriate levels of proficiency for the position you're applying for. You can acquire the proficiency through personal projects much easier than school projects (most of the time).

However, some employers only hire from the "best" schools, especially for entry level jobs.

If you really, really want to work for these companies when you graduate, you should go to a school on their "approved" schools list.


If you want to find a good job, go to a state school. If you want good jobs to come looking for you, go to one of the big schools.

You may find that one professor that has that one connection at a good company or you can sit in a chair and see them lining up at the door during career day.

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