Does prestige matter? University of Illinois vs. Northern Illinois University
November 28, 2008 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Does prestige matter? University of Illinois vs. Northern Illinois University

I've applied and been accepted to both schools (Northern Illinois University & the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign). I'd like to pursue a undergraduate degree in Atmospheric Science or a closely related field. I have friends that attend both schools, and some have warned me that it would be harder to achieve better grades at U of I. I have since discovered that it also would be more difficult to obtain a higher GPA at U of I, given their hypomodal grading system (ie, A+ = 4.0, A = 3.8, A- = 3.7; versus NIU's A = 4.0, B = 3.0, etc.). I am a very good student, and have so far maintained a 4.0 GPA at my community college (and this is including several calculus courses).

So I guess my question is this: While I believe I would probably do better, and get better grades at NIU, would I still be better served to go to U of I, given the school's higher prestige as a research institution?
posted by capitalist.pig to Education (18 answers total)
U of I is the better choice, in my opinion. Prestige wins. An employer will look at the school you attended and judge you primarily by that; as long as you maintain a decent GPA at a good school, you're better off.

Oh, and get over that 4.0. It ain't going to stay unless you major in General Studies and graduate with an utterly worthless degree.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:59 PM on November 28, 2008

Agreed that Illinois is a better school. NIU is underrated, however.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:00 PM on November 28, 2008

Another vote for UIUC. The prestige of the school you go to most definitely matters.
posted by peacheater at 5:03 PM on November 28, 2008

Here's the link to grade explanations at UIUC. Both A+ and A earn a 4.0, unless atmos does something weird, but I'm almost positive this applies to the whole university and is not department nor even college dependent.
posted by chndrcks at 5:05 PM on November 28, 2008

Prestige matters.

Even a B+ student at Harvard is still a Harvard grad.
posted by Spurious at 5:12 PM on November 28, 2008

I think you shouldn't base your decision on which school you suspect will hand out A's more easily. I can't believe I'm saying this (given I was exactly like you four years ago), but you should focus more on actually learning and enjoying undergrad life than whether you end up with a 3.75 or a 4.0.

If you have any grad school aspirations, UIUC would be more favorably viewed than NIU, even if your GPA ends up a couple fractions of a point lower. Ditto for employment, except the grade difference would matter even less.
posted by pravit at 5:12 PM on November 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Pravit is right.

MAYBE your first job will care about your grades. But your second job won't. All they will is the school you graduated from.
posted by Spurious at 5:13 PM on November 28, 2008

Chndrcks: Thanks for your clarification regarding that.
posted by capitalist.pig at 5:22 PM on November 28, 2008

It depends on what you want to do with your degree. If you plan to go into the workforce directly, then more prestigious universities do have more prestigious career fairs. A friend of mine and I had nearly the same undergraduate performance (and were admitted to the same graduate university - my department being a bit tougher but she's smarter). But her employment options directly from undergrad were better - she just had more employers and better employers shopping for students.

But if you want to work in a field that requires some graduate level schooling - like atmospheric science research - then you should go to the university with the department that seems to offer most of what you want, and the most opportunities to study just what you want. The reason I was able to go from a very unprestigious university to a prestigious university for graduate school was because my unprestigious university had a very respected department in my field. I didn't know this going in - what high school student does? - but I did recognize that the courses being offered were exactly what I wanted to study, and that's why I went there. I was accepted to another university which was both socially and academically more prestigious, but offered less of the topic I wanted to study right away (European premodern social history). And it turned out that reflected the fact that it didn't have a strong faculty in that topic, though excellent faculty in other topics - my husband thrived in their heavy emphasis on modern international history.

So for graduate school admissions, it's not the university's prestige that matters, but a department's, and sometimes a sub-department's or individual's. And if you know what you are interested in, you should follow that.

There are other factors, of course. Richer universities offer more opportunities for enrichment or research experience; they might offer more financial aid, if they are very rich. But I have to warn you that sometimes extremely prestigious, rich universities can offer poorer teaching - because the more prestigious the faculty, the more they can limit their teaching responsibility if they want to. And then you find that you may be "taking" a course with an expert in something, but all you get is lectures; your actual teacher may turn out to be a graduate student who is still learning how to teach and struggling with their own work. (In the sciences, TAs tend to be younger, less experienced teachers, but experts in the area; in something like history, you get older more experienced teachers, but they are expected to teach topics well outside their own knowledge. They may be learning with you.)
posted by jb at 5:28 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

You say you think you'd do better at NIU. I'm not sure exactly what you mean. If you think you would learn significantly more there, or have a better shot at opportunities to do cool stuff — research with professors, say, or internships, or whatever — then that's where you should go. (And, on preview, jb's right about prestigious departments vs. prestigious schools. If NIU's a big deal in the Atmospheric Sciences world, that's a good reason to choose them too.)

If you just mean better grades, I agree with the consensus above — all else equal, choose a prestigious degree over an easy A.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:32 PM on November 28, 2008

Pick the school that offers that has the best reputation in the area that you want to study. Unless NIU has a more well established program in the area you want to study, go for UI if those are your only two options.
posted by toaster at 5:36 PM on November 28, 2008

If you are trying to compare Atmospheric Science at the two universities - check out how large the department is, how diverse, are the faculty doing things you are interested in (I don't know how much diversity there is in Atmospheric Science - probably less than history).

And most of all: are they offering courses that excite you, both within Atmospheric Science, and in the rest of the university?

Just to finish the prestige not always best evidence - which is especially true in diverse fields, like history: if you were really serious about studying Middle-Eastern studies, you would be better off at the University of Arizona than at Yale, because they have great people at Yale, but a fraction of the number of the equally great people teaching at Arizona, and fraction of the course offerings.
posted by jb at 5:42 PM on November 28, 2008

Yes, prestige matters.

It matters doubly so if you plan to ever move away from your home state or region -- people in IL know that NIU is a good school, so, probably, do people in WI and IA. But unless NIU has a really world-class atmo/enviro sci department, odds are people in NY and CA and TX have never heard of it and they're likely to -- uncharitably and falsely -- assume it's a second- or third-rate diploma mill for people who couldn't get into Illinois.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:43 PM on November 28, 2008

I went to a top-20 school in town, so it's very well-known around my area. A lot of people go "oooh, you went to such-and-such" but the only practical consideration it merits, for a slob who went into the workforce after graduation, is more student loans. It may be different in other fields, but in engineering, it means fuck-all, and I really wish I'd gone to a state school where I'd have been able to stand out rather than a prestigious school where I just learned to despise the children of rich people.
posted by notsnot at 6:11 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

notsnot: UIUC is a state school.

"Maybe I could get a better GPA at a lower-ranked school" should play absolutely no role in your decision, for several reasons: 1. nobody cares about the difference between 4.0 and 3.8, and 2. if you're getting worse grades because the classes are harder, that is a good thing. You learn more that way.

Here's the real reason that prestige helps. It's not for snotty people who will read your resume after graduation, although yes, you do get that. The real reason is that higher-ranked schools tend to attract better students, so that you learn more from your peers. I'm not talking about the difference between #1 and #2 or #1 and #5, but there's a big difference between #5 and #105.

The one thing you need to be careful about is, as people have said, often a lower-ranked school can be much more highly-ranked in one or two departments. You can take advantage of this if (a) you know which departments those are, and (b) you are absolutely sure those are the departments you want.

I don't know NIU, but I'm sure that many people get a fine education there. You may well have good reasons to pick NIU over UIUC, but "I might get better grades" is an extremely bad reason to do so.
posted by sesquipedalian at 7:48 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Prestige doesn't matter as much as performing exceptionally and going somewhere you enjoy so that you may do so.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:07 PM on November 28, 2008

I'd have to agree with Solon and Thanks -

That Prestige thing is really fuzzy in value, and may not be worth the cost that comes with the additional stress/time with a harder system. I do believe having more time to do well, and do the activities I wanted to do was much more value in the long run (research, clubs, work, lectures, reading for the fun of it?, being well rounded). There is a catch: If the program doesn't have kids chained to their desks, there far more time for many students to be not taking their studying seriously (time = bikini equation). This can be a major distraction and enabler for slacking off.

And I disagree, a 3.8 is not a 4.0 - a higher GPA carries with it a lot more value and carries a hard meaning, then the 'prestige.' Especially when applying to grad schools. Often the teachers of these schools are no better or worse then the more renowned school - but they are a lot less likely to be jaded with students and more sensitive to an overachiever.

Last: This obsession with 'prestige' is only going to win you points with people who already hang their hat on this idea social class. Do you really want that?

Back in the day, this was important - there was a large material difference in the type of information being taught at both schools. This is not true anymore - but the idea of a 'better' education carries on because of this need qualify credentials that are essentially the same. Its just branding. Question then, is how important is the elitism to you? In the job race - you may loose to someone from Harvard for only that reason, but there are other jobs. If your ego needs to be #1 though (thats ok, we all have our wants), then you will have to pay for that right with your hide. Always remember (time = bikini).

If there is not a material difference between two school's programs, and one will cost you more in time or money - the obvious choice is being brilliant in the easier program. Then have tons of (time = bikini) time.
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 3:17 AM on November 29, 2008

Find out at which school you will be more likely to be able to get a job in research as an undergrad. If you can get some work experience in your field this will help you with getting work or getting into grad school later.
posted by yohko at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2008

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