Both Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Yale are top schools. (I attended both; one as an undergraduate, one as a graduate student, neither as a CS major). Their curricula aren't all that different. Yet CMU's CS program is far more highly regarded than Yale's. (And I'm beginning to think that this view is not about the "program" but something else.)

One thing that I did notice, or feel, is that CMU's CS department seemed more "authentic." That is, their CS students really seemed to "bond" with the program. The attitude of Yale's typical CS student seemed to be more like that of "doing a job." Assuming, as I do, that the students are roughly the same caliber, what could be the differences in teaching that give one group of students more enthusiasm or passion than the other?

Between two highly regarded schools with not too different CS programs, what are the "intangible" factors of one over the other that would produce two crops of students that are very differently regarded by Silicon Valley?

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    $\begingroup$ Even though you ask about CS you aren't asking about teaching CS. This question is probably more relevant at Academia: academia.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ – Buffy Jul 31 '18 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Buffy: Re-worded, re-focused, the question. $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Jul 31 '18 at 23:24

Fair warning, I am not intimately familiar with the programs, and my answers are based in some stereotypes of the institutions and the CS programs. However, given that my answer is based on student selection, institutional reputation may not be a bad way to think about it.

While Yale is, by any measure, a top-tier institution, CMU is (at least by reputation) possibly the top computer science program in the world, and at an institution that is otherwise ranked lower than Yale. I would expect, then, that self-selection among students would play a huge part in this. The sort of student who would aim for CMU for CS would be doing it because the opportunities for CS at CMU particularly appeal to them.

By contrast, the sort of student who would aim for a CS degree at Yale would be the sort of student who is aiming at Yale first, and also wants to major in CS.


While I know a few CMU faculty (and none at Yale) I don't really know anything about their programs. However, I will speculate that much of the difference is in where the graduates wind up later and what they do. How many earn doctorates? How many go on to become movers and shakers in the computing world.

Moreover, many of the faculty at CMU are world leaders in their fields, though that is also true at Yale. (Some Yale faculty graduated from CMU, actually).

But the biggest factor may just be the relative size. CMU has quite a lot larger faculty in CS than Yale. It has six designated faculty specialties, some of which are larger than the entire Yale faculty. The size leads to a lot of synergy, especially as the CMU faculty aren't limited to one specialty area and several contribute to more than one.

CMU also has a number of associated institutes, mostly government funded, to do important research.

I doubt that the quality of education at Yale at the undergraduate level is much different from that of CMU, however. But the same can be said of many other institutions as well.

  • $\begingroup$ Economies of scale/speciallization seems to make sense. $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Jul 31 '18 at 23:57

Here is my standard advice. Spending the price of a house on an undergraduate degree is a stupid mistake. One of two things happens. You lug around a giant slug of debt until you are 50, or your parents are treated to a nine-lives retirement. This advice is inapplicable if you have $300,000 sitting around to burn. If you can get a big scholarship that makes the price unstupid, you can go for it then, too.

Be smart. If your state has a quality university system, avail yourself of it. Follow the advice in Joel Spolsky's article (https://www.joelonsoftware.com/2005/01/02/advice-for-computer-science-college-students/). Try to get a co-op or internship and gain some real experience in undergraduate school.

When do you get interested in the big-name schools? This is for graduate school if you deem that necessary. If you are a star, someone else will be paying the freight for you to study. In graduate school, you can gain access to the big-name professors in a reasonably small class.


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