Please help me make the best possible decision when choosing where to finish college.
December 7, 2012 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Are the advantages of going to a more prestigious/higher-ranked school worth it in the end? (Lengthy, perhaps unnecessary details inside.)

I have spent this last semester at a well-regarded public university that I spent 2.5 years of my life hoping to get into. I took easy-ish classes and never -really- had to study to get a high GPA at the community college I transferred from. I have applied to this college twice. For the first time, in the winter of 2010 for the coming fall, my application was denied. I was heartbroken, but determined to get in eventually. At that point in my life, I had obtained only crappy, mostly part-time customer service oriented jobs that paid barely minimum wage. I did not want to do that for the rest of my life. I was also somewhat dissatisfied with my personal life too, as all my friends were at college, which I, at the time, looked at as a beacon of knowledge, and living independently, which I longed to do.

The second time I applied, was this last winter, of 2011. At that point, I had obtained a salaried job doing administrative work, and while I didn't hate it, I wanted to do something that did not have me in a subservient position and that also paid more. So this time when I applied, it was really more of a career move. I have never been interested in much of the "student life" idea. I thought, at the time, if this college were online, or closer to my home, I would be just as happy, if not happier. Well, that time, I was accepted to the school. I was initially excited... for about a couple days. Then I only had doubts, which I shut away somewhere in the back of my mind. My doubts grew and grew until the point I had to put down a deposit for school. I felt like it was the wrong choice at the time, because I was so conflicted on my actual career goals (you can see my other question if you would like more detail) and dreading moving away, but after putting so much energy into this singular goal of attending this school, I did not know what else to do.

To fast forward: this last semester has not went well at all. I do not like it here. I don't like the fact my peers seem to forget that a whole world still exists outside of the walls of the university. I feel very out of place. It is almost like a live-in high school, with smarter, or perhaps just more pretentious, students. I miss my boyfriend, and my friends at home, even my old job at times. I was actually content with my life before I made this change. I had momentum with my schoolwork up to a certain point. I (unwisely, in hindsight) skipped prerequisites for a computer science course and knew I was in way over my head when the midterm came. I also did not remember enough calculus to get me through Calculus II. And my other computer science class, I bombed the midterm and figured I might as well withdraw before I outright fail. (However, this school has a policy that erases any Ws from your transcript your first term there.) That left me with one class, a philosophy class, which I am disenchanted with and disinterested in.

I am not staying in the city where this school is located next semester. I am moving in with my boyfriend, whose house I am at most of the week anyway. There is a college close to his place that is popular in our state, but not nationally known and it does not necessarily look as impressive on the resume as the school I attend(ed). It is mostly a commuter school, which I think I would feel more comfortable with.

Basically, I am trying to decide between trying to finish college at the current school, though I am moving away, or going to the college close to my boyfriend's city. I am roughly the same amount of credits toward a degree at each place. The less-prestigious college is about $4,000 to 5,000 less a year and is also more flexible with part-time classes. This is nice, because it would then be possible to finance my education while I go to school and finish without loans. The workload is also more balanced compared to my current school. The commute to the more prestigious, more expensive school is about an hour by car. Less-prestigious school is about 20 minutes. Also, I would pretty easily be able to major in both psychology and information systems without too much extra time or money spent there. (I have a lot of psych credits already.)

So, I am now deciding between Informatics/Information Systems and Psychology (in which case I would be aiming for graduate school in clinical psychology afterward). I am planning to take the next semester off and working and also volunteering at a crisis line to gauge my interest in actual work in the field of psychology. However, this question is still primarily about which school to pick.

I guess I should ask: what is the importance of prestige in an undergraduate degree? No one in my family has went to college and I don't really have anyone to ask who can give me an unbiased answer. (My bf went to the less-prestigious school and liked it well enough and he eventually found a job in his field after a few years.) The name does not matter to me personally, anymore, but I am trying to look from an employer or graduate school's point of view.

Sorry for the length. I would appreciate any insights you have. I may be making too big of a deal out of this, I realize, but I feel very confused as to which to pick. I have already wasted a whole $4,000 withdrawing from the two classes I mentioned earlier and I don't want to waste any more time and money than I need to. I am trying to remain somewhat anonymous, but if you would like to know the two schools in question, feel free to PM me.

TLDR: What is the importance of the name-brand of your school when looking for jobs (in the technology/information industry)? And what is the importance when applying for graduate school (in psychology)?
posted by sevenofspades to Education (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Prestige is important for networking and for your first job. After you get your first job, nobody really cares in IS. And honestly, great project work and internships are far more important than brand name in the first job anyway.
posted by bfranklin at 12:32 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unless you are planning to go into a fairly-specialized professional program - law school, med school, etc. - it's not really of great importance. From a job-hunting-OUTSIDE-of-academia perspective, it is of next to no importance - I've been in IS for a decade, and I have never, not even ONCE, heard of anyone being impressed by a prospective new hire's college. One of the things I love about IS is that it's generally a meritocracy, anyway - your chops are more important than your background.
posted by julthumbscrew at 12:35 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

N=1, but the way I've come to view the whole thing is that having a truly top-tier school on your CV is likely going to serve you very well and potentially be worth the cost, but that an expensive, great but not top-tier school just doesn't buy you much, except perhaps in the local market where companies really get that students from the school are, on average, going to be a cut above or whatever.

I did psych grad school too, and at the end of the day they might sort of mentally weight your GPA a little differently based on the school it came from, but mostly they'll be looking for a really high GPA regardless and, more importantly, your GRE scores. PM if you have questions.

Good luck!
posted by jimmysmits at 12:40 PM on December 7, 2012

It really depends on what field you want to go in. You yourself acknowledge that the prestigious school is harder; in certain fields/company, that matters. For those areas, the toughness and "bubble" are features, not bugs. If you're not planning on going into one of those places that values themselves on the intellectual rigor of their employees, than go where you'll be happier.

If your school #2 has a strong and supportive alumni network in the area where you plan on pursuing your career, then you're probably better off doing well and enjoying yourself more there.

FWIW, I went to a top-tier undergrad and 2nd-tier grad school. The level of student ambition, recruiting opportunities, and career prospects of the former were far superior.
posted by snickerdoodle at 12:48 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Prestige in an undergrad degree has very little importance. The academic reputation of a school does matter for grad school, but that is different from being prestigious. Most name-brand schools have good academic reputations, but there are some small schools that few non-locals have heard of that have excellent academic reputations among grad schools.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:51 PM on December 7, 2012

I guess I should ask: what is the importance of prestige in an undergraduate degree?

A lot of this depends on what you want to do with your life.

If you want to be a clinical psychologist or a counseling psychologist, I really don't think it matters that much-- you get a counseling Master's or you get a Psy.D. and then that's what you do. These are very "practical" degrees that are required for certification/credentialing purposes, and reputation doesn't matter that much. I'd almost say the same thing about "Information Systems". I'd even say the same thing if your plan was to be a physician or a nurse: the "prestige" of the degree doesn't matter because the focus should be on doing well and getting good grades to acquire the necessary credential that leads to the fixed career that's available with the credential.

However, your school matters quite a bit in terms of getting yourself set up with internships and the like or doing research or making connections to get "prestige" jobs. It sounds like your work experience tends to revolve around administrative jobs unrelated to your field. If you see your degree in "Information Systems" as leading to a career in something like Computer Science, then I would say the school does matter for the following reasons:
  • Rigor of the classes you are taking (the problems you had in your CS class were a feature, not a bug. They're going to be harder and you'll learn things on a deeper level)
  • Access to internships to give you experience in your field
  • Recruitment opportunities from high-prestige employers
If these issues aren't a factor, then you'll probably be fine back home.

I don't like the fact my peers seem to forget that a whole world still exists outside of the walls of the university

That's kind of the point, actually: for them, their job is to study right now... it's not something they're doing on the side or part time to further their outside lives/job. They are pursuing their studies full time away from their home communities so that it leads to a career later, which may well be disconnected from where they grew up.
posted by deanc at 12:53 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I work at a small firm (150 people) who is actively recruiting undergrads in IT.

We seek the top notch students from the best schools. However, most of those people already have jobs (Flag here). We either go for students that aren't as good from those same schools or the best students from not as good schools. We often STILL look at the not-as-good students from the best schools.

In my own experience (prestigious school with loads of alumni connections) that if for your first job and for internships, you are better served by the better school.
posted by sandmanwv at 12:58 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mention that you're the first in your family to attend college -- congratulations, this is really impressive!

As someone from a working-class-ish background who attended a state school for undergrad, and a prestigious school for grad school, I will say that one of the greatest benefits I got from the prestigious school was that it taught me how people who are accustomed to wielding power operate in the world. It taught me how people find leverage and use it. Being around people used to getting and maximizing all the opportunities they could get their hands on for several years was in and itself worth the price of admission. I would love to grab my younger self by the scruff of the neck and scream "you have so much more power than you know -- you just have to TAKE it." I don't know if that's a lesson you feel like you need; I just want to say that there is much more that you can get out of a "prestigious" school than just the instruction or the piece of paper; you can pick up an understanding of (and entrée to) an entire culture to which it can be otherwise incredibly difficult to gain access, if you come from the sort of family that isn't already there.
posted by ariel_caliban at 1:11 PM on December 7, 2012 [11 favorites]

The prestige of the university only influences your first job out of college. However, studies have shown a strong correlation between this initial salary and what you end up making over your entire career. Is it causal? Maybe. Do you want to take the risk that it is not?

For what it's worth, I hated college. Effectively, it was the equivalent of being trapped with a lot of spoiled kids who thought they were special snowflakes that were going to grow up to change the world. But the degree was useful, I have to admit. If you have a solid career plan (or can at least get one before you graduate) a prestigious name will benefit you more than the money you save. $5k a year is not that much of a price difference in the long run. If it were $10k or $20k, then that would be a different story.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:24 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a very successful Fortune 500 company.

I've seen recruiting done only at schools with a prestigious reputation. I've seen resumes rejected from candidates solely based on their undergraduate school. I've seen employee rankings that included their undergrad and their post grad schools as a given measurement of their future potential. I've seen promotions based on what school someone attended. And I've seen layoffs where what school you went to impacted if you were let go.

Here is the rational - no recruiter or manager EVER got called to the carpet about a failed new hire if that person has educational pedigree. I don't care if that new hire was from Harvard and embezzled a million dollars, the background is not questioned. "He went to Harvard? I wonder why he failed. Must have some problems at home, poor guy."

But if the new hire from Southern Kentucky misspelled a word on a PowerPoint, people whisper. "He went to Southern Kentucky University? Of course he couldn't hack it here in the big leagues with a degree from SKU."

I've seen it. I've heard it. It can matter. At least at big companies with the luxury to recruit the best and brightest.
posted by lstanley at 1:28 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I went to a top-tier undergrad and 2nd-tier grad school. The level of student ambition, recruiting opportunities, and career prospects of the former were far superior.

My experience has been taking classes at top-tier schools and taking graduate classes at a highly-reputed school with a "graduate school for working professionals" program. The former were highly rigorous. The latter went over the material without being too difficult and allowed the students to get the "M.S." ticket punched at night while they were working. I'd encourage anyone pursuing a research career and/or wants a job with Google or Microsoft to go to a top-tier school. If you're working for a government agency or government contractor and you get an automatic salary raise and improved career prospects for getting an M.S., not-that-rigorous night school classes are fine.

If this is all about money, many studies have shown that people with equal qualifications who attended schools with different levels of prestige had the same average salaries. How does that work, though? Well, take two people who want to be doctors. One goes to Columbia, but the other got into Harvard but for various reasons decided to attention University of Georgia. Both go to med school, but one goes to Harvard Med School and the other goes to a lesser known med school, somewhere (and it's free because he gets a scholarship!). The guy from Harvard Med school gets various research fellowship opportunities, publishes a lot of papers, and ends up as head of clinical research at a nice university med school, because that was his ambition-- to be known as a brilliant researcher pushing the boundaries of medicine. The guy from the anonymous med school does well and does his residency in plastic surgery. Then he makes bucketloads of money, though presumably doesn't have the "prestige" of people a big-shot research director.

You can make really good money working for google, but you can also make really good money running a network of fast food franchises.

If it is purely about the money, and you are just as qualified/ambitious as anyone else, you will find a way to make decent money (on average). If you have some specific ambition that exists at the intersection of prestige and opportunity in a specific field that's tough to get into, then prestige matters.
posted by deanc at 1:34 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're not really sure about what career you want to pursue, I would say go with the school that will leave you with the least amount of debt, especially in this economic climate. There's no guarantee that you'll make a certain amount of money right out of college if you go to a more prestigious school. Saving yourself the hassle of student loans is a wonderful gift you can give your future self.

If you do choose the school closer to your boyfriend, make sure you can still see yourself going there even if you guys break up. Not trying to be doom and gloom, but it's a possibility.

Good luck!
posted by thank you silence at 1:40 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding deanc.

The only way to maximize your experience at a prestigious college is to immerse yourself in campus life because academics and resume value are just part of the picture. If you can't jump in there, participate in some activities, and spend lots of time on campus, then you're losing one of the biggest advantages that the prestigious college offers you. Because the campus is set apart from the world, the college experience is uniquely suited to forming close and lasting relationships with your fellow classmates. They are all presumably bright, many are ambitious, and some are probably well-connected. But even more important, they can expand your view of the world, and I'm betting a few of them could become your life-long friends. But it takes confidence to put yourself out there, and you have to be at a place in your life where you're willing and able to do that.
posted by MelissaSimon at 1:45 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing deanc.

One very important question is what level of prestige differential we're talking about. If it's Harvard/MIT/Yale/etc. vs. Southern Kentucky University, I'd say stay where you are. If it's two institutions closer together in prestige, say University of California at Berkeley and University of Minnesota, then I'd go for the money.
posted by 3491again at 1:45 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work for a well-known, highly-regarded tech company. I also interview there. I will say that the second-tier schools are just not as rigorous. They don't go over the same concepts. It's not necessarily that the students there aren't as intelligent or hardworking, but they just aren't exposed to certain things--and that unfortunately makes them not as employable.

I think that the prestige of the university is not as important as the prestige of the actual department you're majoring in. A good department will have companies actively recruiting from them (read: easier to find a better paying job) and a bad one will have you doing all the leg work on top of difficult classes. A good one will send you to the conferences/study abroads/competitions. The second-tier university will not say a word about them.

My university had really smart grad students give us small group tutoring, which was invaluable to me, especially for the 3rd year classes. They also had so much funding/research for the grad students, that the undergrad were able to be teaching assistants (which is one of the best ways to learn, in addition to being very easy money).

And while it's true that this only matters for your first job, take a look at this page. Statistics show that your first job will affect your earnings FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.


But with that said, if you're not going to be on campus, you're wasting a lot of the money anyway. When I was an undergrad student, I tried very hard not to be on campus. But between classes, projects, group projects, down time, lunch time, job search, study group, and just meeting with friends/mentors to talk about things, I spent 6-10 hours on campus every day. I also had a part time teaching assistant gig at school, but that was mostly grading homework at home.

Which is to say, for the people who are "live-in high school" students, university IS their whole life. They don't have time for anything else. Going to university is not a three-hour-a-day thing or a twice-a-week thing. It's a fulltime-and-then-some thing. Heck, when it got busy, I was at school from 6am until 2am (yes, that's 2am, not pm) to finish my projects. And I'm not stupid or a particularly bad procrastinator. That's just how hard the STEM (including computer science) majors are, especially at a rigorous school.

So if you're working off campus (especially if you're doing so full time), and living an hour away, and in general not invested in going to school because you feel like you don't fit or you'd rather spend time with your boyfriend, then go to the cheaper, closer school. You're not only NOT getting the extra benefit of a "prestigious" school, but you'll ruin your transcript with bad grades because you won't spend enough time/effort to succeed.


I'm not saying you're lazy or stupid or can't succeed, because I don't know anything about you besides what you wrote. But I think you don't care enough to succeed. For the people I studied with (who succeeded), this was their passion. They can't imagine doing anything else. Some moved several states to be at this university. Some moved several countries to be at this university. Some broke up with their significant others because they didn't have time. I almost lost my best friend because for several months, I didn't have time to get a 15 minute coffee with her.

And is it worth it? For me, absolutely! I have a full time job that I love, where I make more than a decent amount of money. I have a wonderful relationship, bought a beautiful house in my beloved city, and adopted two gorgeous cats. I'm intellectually stimulated, emotionally fulfilled, and financially secure. My company is paying for me to do grad school part time. I've been working for less than 3 years.

But is it worth it to you? Only you can decide. And even if you make it through, if you only do the minimum, then you probably won't get very good results. In that case, just take the easy route and go to the closer school.
posted by ethidda at 2:11 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not trying to be harsh here, but it doesn't seem like you gave your dream school a fair trial A semester isn't necessarily a long enough time to get a good feel of a place or give you enough time to meet "your people." It can be hard to settle in to a place if you aren't taking advantage of the community aspects of the college. You didn't set yourself up for success if you took classes without knowing the content of the prereqs-- that could have happened anywhere. Every school has its share of good and bad classes. So I ask, what drew you to this school? You worked so hard to get in there must have been something you found attractive. By withdrawing do you feel relieved or like a quitter?

There is no perfect, ideal life route. Just make sure that your decision would be the same if your bf wasn't in the picture. Also, have you gotten written confirmation that your credits will transfer smoothly over to college #3?
posted by oceano at 2:14 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've worked in almost my entire working life in top-tier industries, and everywhere I've worked, it's been about 50/50 elite and non-elite undergraduate schools running all the way up to senior management. However, among those with graduate degrees, the proportion shifts dramatically in favor of elite -- at least 80/20 in favor of those degrees being from the top 10 or so programs nationally. When you consider that elite schools are maybe 5% of BAs and 10% of graduate degrees in typical programs, that's a big enough difference to say that there's probably a fair amount of causation in that correlation.

I disagree about having to be on campus, join the clubs, rush the sororities, etc. That's a pretty small portion of the benefit of going to an elite school. Someone who is so powerfully outgoing as to forge a really strong and useful network out of school is going to make up a far more useful network out in the world.
posted by MattD at 2:30 PM on December 7, 2012

Princeton University press release: Elite Colleges Not Necessarily Best Ticket to High Earnings. Short version: Except for low-income students, who do gain disproportionately, college works as a high-pass filter.

(And my take-away is that college generally has a relatively low educational value, but the top schools have a strong socialization value.)
posted by straw at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to the question of whether a prestigious university on your resume will in-and-of-itself get you a better job. But in terms of the value of the degree to you, I think you've said it all when you say that at the community college, you could skate through and not really study, but still get good grades, whereas at the prestigious school, you realized it would take serious work to succeed. What's the point of spending any amount of money or time on a program where you're not required to do any work and thus not really learning anything or gaining new skills that you couldn't have simply learned on your own? The point of an education should be 'value added' - that it's really adding to your ability to learn how to work hard at something challenging, teaching you new skills and information that you didn't know before, etc. Otherwise, it's a waste of your time and money. If the community college were doing these things for you (and some of them are fantastic, don't get me wrong!) I'd say don't spend the extra $$ for the pricey place. But it sounds like it's not.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:16 PM on December 7, 2012

Usually I would say stick it out for more than one semester, but frankly, if you can graduate from undergrad without debt, do that. A nice name on your diploma can open doors, but so can zero debt.

For what it's worth, I went to a state commuter school that was not at all prestigious, and I think you'd be happier there. Adult students are more common, people tend to have lives outside their campuses, and there's a lot more diversity.

I say go get your degree at a commuter school and graduate as quickly as you can with as little debt as you can.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:34 PM on December 7, 2012

Oh, and in my experience at a low-prestige commuter school: there are some great professors in the liberal arts and social sciences at these schools, professors who are glad to have reasonably-engaged, smart, passionate, and interesting students. It seems like you've waffled a bit on what you "should" do as a major, but both my undergraduate philosophy and psychology professors were great at my commuter college. I ended up being a big fish in a small pond there, thrived academically with the personal attention they gave me, and they've never failed to support me with letters of recommendation and such since. Really, do what you can to get in and out of there fast, with a high GPA, and as little debt as possible. A 4.0 in psychology has got to beat a lower GPA in IS even if the degree isn't as "useful."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:49 PM on December 7, 2012

You need a four year degree.

We can quibble about where that four year degree should come from till the cows come home.

You should do whatever gets you a degree.

I think it's a little hinky that you suddenly dislike this school and think it's a bad match after doing community college and then getting a full time job. I think you're being seduced by the idea that you could leave school and join the workforce.

Your reasons for wanting to leave the school are superficial and short-sighted, and your plans to resume your education at this other school near where your boyfriend lives (more on that in a second) sound sketchy. If you had already applied to transfer and gotten in, I would say, great, do it, BA good, Student Debt bad! But you're not actually going to that school. You're just seeking solace in the idea that there is a school that you could go to. Realistically, if you drop out right now, the earliest you could start attending school again is almost a year from now.

You've already taken some time off due to not getting into your chosen school and then reapplying. So the reality of the situation is that a while back you breezed through community college, then you got a taste of the working world, and now that you're back in school and it's kind of hard, you're looking for any excuse to bail.

OK. Another thing. I made the mistake of dropping out of a prestigious school to move in with my boyfriend in another city. With similarly sketchy plans to eventually go to school in said city. At the time I had a million reasons why leaving school and moving in with Boyfriend was a great idea. A decade later it's obvious that it was all about the boyfriend (and certain other insecurities I had that are unsettlingly similar to yours), and those million reasons were mostly bullshit.

Bare minimum, I think you should do next semester at your current school. Even if that means you're on academic probation or you have to retake a class you failed. During the next semester, get your ducks in a row to transfer. Then, next fall, you can attend this other school if it's still what you want.

Dropping out of school is a really bad idea. It's hypocritical of me to expect you to listen to that advice, since I was in your exact same boat and refused to listen to advice from anyone. But seriously, dropping out of school is a really bad idea.
posted by Sara C. at 6:12 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am roughly the same amount of credits toward a degree at each place.

If you haven't applied yet, you are zero amount of credits toward a degree. In fact, you are negative credits toward a degree, because you will have a gap in your education if you don't attend school next semester. Let's say you have standing as a Junior at curent school. You're on target to graduate next spring. If you quit school, you are no longer on target to graduate next spring. You are now not on target to graduate at all. If you later resume your education at Other School, best case scenario, you are on target to graduate another three semesters after being admitted to that school.

And that's assuming there's no weird situation where something required for your degree at School A is meaningless for School B and thus becomes an elective, or School B has some degree requirement that School A didn't have and needs to be fulfilled by taking a specific course at School B. Both of which are things that happened to me when I transferred from a prestigious school to a less prestigious one. Without being accepted to School B and meeting with an academic counselor, you really can't know how close you are to graduating from School B.
posted by Sara C. at 6:33 PM on December 7, 2012

Honestly, if you want to succeed at your university, and at your career, I would urge you to live on campus instead of an hour away. And I would urge you to spend more time with classmates (even casual conversations would help your academics, because you'd be thinking about it) than at your job or with your boyfriend.

You are pursuing your career. He should be supportive if this is important to you. If he's not, you have other problems.
posted by ethidda at 6:39 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Usually I tell people "It's just college. Go anywhere, as long as you go." But that's usually for people agonizing between, say, a state school and a top-20 private university. You're in a different boat. A well-regarded state school is probably going to serve you better in the long run--if you commit to being there. College is basically another country--you can't make the most of it by commuting. I think this is where a lot of first-generation college students have the hardest time adjusting--they feel socially isolated and try to maintain their very important family and friend ties from back home. Going to college means letting some of those ties go. It's like joining the military or something. You have to immerse. It's really not easy for anyone (except maybe the most adventurous extrovert) but more privileged kids at least have been prepared for the separation in a way that you may not have. So they may be able to cope with it better, but I promise that they feel the same way. Also, as you have recognized, these kids are a little less mature, because maybe they've been more sheltered than you. That's annoying, but it doesn't mean you can't learn from them (or that they can't learn from you). And that's a valuable cultural exchange for both sides.

I would recommend talking to your advisor about your courses so you can build a more successful plan. Then I would recommend seeking out campus resources for first-generation college students, or a student interest group for people with something you may have in common (religion, ethnicity, language, sports, whatever). And finally, as someone said above, try to resist the urge to ditch it all for a full-time job somewhere. Odds are very good that the career you start now, with only 2 years of college under your belt, will be nowhere near as satisfying as the one you start with a degree in hand and a better idea of what you want to do.

Good luck! Be strong. It won't be easy but I think you will be really glad you did it in the end.
posted by elizeh at 9:10 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

College is basically another country--you can't make the most of it by commuting.

This is so strange to me, as someone who had a good experience at a commuter school, graduated with a 4.0 in my major, and then went out of state for a well-regarded MFA program.

You absolutely can be a commuter student and be dedicated, thoughtful, and driven. You also don't need to sever the emotional ties to your family, friends, or loved ones if you don't want to. These are not universally seen as positive values, and are highly influenced by your personality, class, and maturity level. Many commuting students are serious and engaged (often because they don't have time to waste); many students who live on campus are more focused on their social lives than their academic lives. These aren't universals, of course, but there just seems to be a lot of classism built into the idea that the only important intellectual work of the ivory tower is happening in dorms and not, say, classrooms.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 PM on December 7, 2012

I think elizeh's point is that OP can't make the most of the current school by commuting, or by seeing this as living her "real life" somewhere else and commuting (an hour, from another city?) to school every day. Her real life is at college. Even if she attended a more commuter oriented school, she should live nearby, make friends at said college, explore all the opportunities it affords, make school her first priority, and all the usual advice.

In other words, what's making OP miserable is trying to be in two places, not this school in particular. Now it could be that the best way to unify her life is to go to school in the more convenient location.

But dropping out and playing things by ear for a semester and then maybe transferring to some other school at some point down the road is the absolute worst thing OP could do.
posted by Sara C. at 9:31 PM on December 7, 2012

This is so strange to me, as someone who had a good experience at a commuter school, graduated with a 4.0 in my major, and then went out of state for a well-regarded MFA program.

I don't think anyone is saying that commuting to a commuter school is bad, or that OP would have a hard time if she switches to the commuter school. However, commuting to the current school is absolutely going to limit OP's ability to network, engage with her peers, and feel comfortable there.

It honestly sounds like most of OP's issues stem from lack of preparation (I seriously don't know how any counseler signed off on taking an upper level comp sci class without the prereqs, much less with only subpar community college experience). I was the first in my family to go to college as well, and struggled with many of the same issues. However, I absolutely think that I would have shortchanged myself had I given up and gone back home.

OP -- you got accepted. You're good enough to be there, even if you aren't as prepared as some of your peers. Leave if you are confident that you'll have as food a chance of getting the job you want when you graduate, but be realistic about the prospects.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:33 PM on December 7, 2012

But dropping out and playing things by ear for a semester and then maybe transferring to some other school at some point down the road is the absolute worst thing OP could do.

I don't know. As someone who has watched quite a few friends (and a husband) struggle with college plans that were absolutely wrong for them, I think there's significant value in finding a situation where you're happy, as I believe that happiness is a pre-requisite for success. Spending five thousand dollars to tread water and flunk classes for another semester (if that's what the OP believes might happen; she'd be a better reporter than we would) is a pretty bad plan, too. But it sounds like she has a solid plan in place if she doesn't return to the school where she's not happy.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:40 PM on December 7, 2012

No, it doesn't.

It sounds like she knows of a school she could apply to, after taking (at least) a semester off to work and be with her boyfriend.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I strongly recommend staying at the more prestigious school.

I was a working class kid who went to a small state "commuter school" for a year before transferring to a top tier undergrad. My first 1.5-2 years were miserable-- I missed my home, I missed my former values, I missed my boyfriend at home, and I was overwhelmed by coursework.

By the time I graduated, I missed home but was glad there was a healthy distance between me and my family, I had critically reassessed my values and come out a better (and healthier) person, I'd broken up with my boyfriend and found a new boyfriend who I got along with much better, and I'd become adept at managing my schedule, using my time productively, and doing excellent work. I'm so much happier with the person I've become, and I'd never go back and transfer back to my first school as I wanted to while I was struggling.

(I realize that the breaking up thing is scary but the flip side is that since you and your boyfriend are within reasonable distance of both schools, you guys might work out fine. I don't know your relationship so I won't make any guesses. An hour commute is a bitch though, I'd advocate for living closer to your school and seeing your boyfriend when possible, which would probably be best for building young adult independence anyhow.)
posted by stoneandstar at 10:02 PM on December 7, 2012

Oh, yeah, I agree with Sara C & elizeh. You're torn between two worlds; I was there once! It got much better when I built a social life at school. Nobody has to do the on-campus thing, but it's a lot of fun. And I completely agree that top tier is a completely difference experience than even second-tier, and your hatred for the "pretentiousness" will probably die down once you 1) make some friends on your wavelength, 2) get closer to graduation and see fewer freshmen, 3) learn to tolerate people who are different from you and engage with them intellectually even if you disagree with their lifestyles or attitudes. A lot of smart kids go through some weird identity transformations when away at college, but you're probably in a similar boat. I spent a lot of college feeling "more authentic" than other people at college because they were all from the East Coast and I was from a working class family in a bumfuck town in the Midwest, but despite my visceral annoyance at various fashions and social rituals, they were very smart and I enjoyed talking to them on an intellectual level.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:07 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a grad student in psych, not clinical. Our clinical program at my highly ranked state flagship institution is very competitive to get into, maybe even more competitive than any other of the PhD tracks we offer. This is true of clinical psych in general if you want a PhD from a top research school and not a PsyD - you will need a very high GRE and RESEARCH EXPERIENCE in a lab. Without the research experience most programs will not take you. This needs to be a factor you consider if you switch; does the lesser school offer undergraduates a chance to assist in labs? Do they even have active research? Grad schools might prefer the more prestigious name on a transcript but if you have high scores and experience the name won't matter much.

Disregard all this if you go for Information Systems; this seems like a much more practical route if you can master the computer science part (but frankly you will need computational skill for grad school in psych as well). But in general, spend some time thinking about the resources each school offers that will get you a jump start on career experience.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:10 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's been my experience from seeing plenty of people who commuted to their college that the ones who really succeed under these circumstances were the ones who lived with their parents. This is because, as with those who go to a primarily-residential university, going to college is considered to be their job, and their presence at home ensures that this is where their focus is (even if they do have outside jobs).

(I can also discuss side-by-side comparisons of career path of two people I know from the same background, same qualifications, and same career path, one who went to the commuter campus and the other who attended the nationally-ranked flagship campus and how their lives differed, but that's out of scope)

The people I know who showed up to college engaged, had very strong ties to their homes that they made constant efforts to maintain by going back regularly, or otherwise made choices that demonstrated that their primary focus was not on academic life and their classmates did not thrive academically. It's not to say they didn't graduate-- many of them did-- but it was a struggle and they didn't seem to make particularly phenomenal professional progress after they finished, which is something you wouldn't have expected from their academic pedigree.

You should also think long and hard about whether it's realistic to have an already-graduated live-in boyfriend who is going to be willing to see you all the way through the rest of your undergraduate degree and a possible graduate degree. In a commuter situation, most parents are willing to give their kids as much leeway and space as their kids need while they're studying for their degrees because, once again, they understand that it's their job. SOs not in the same position might not have that same capability.
posted by deanc at 9:04 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, the OP's life encompasses every aspect of her life that is important to her, including her education, her living situation, her family (especially as a first-generation college attendee), her relationships, her job (current and the one she would need to pay for the more expensive school) . . . everything. For many, college is not a fishbowl and it's privileged to say that the universal college experience is, or should be, like that. People come to and leave college with a whole host of experiences and the best colleges, IMO, are the ones who celebrate the real-worldness of that diversity, not the ones who close themselves off to the world as some sort of intellectual experiment.

These comments are making me sad, because so many of them are coming in with a narrow and personalized definition of "success" rather than addressing what it is that makes the OP happy. She was content with her life before this semester. What's so terrible about that? Maybe she doesn't want to be in the toxic kind of work environment that excuses a Harvard grad from embezzling millions of dollars, but shames a Kentucky grad for spelling a word wrong. Maybe she wants something other than the rat race for money. Maybe there is nothing wrong with her relationship with her boyfriend, as some of you seem to be suggesting, and they are actually really happy together and want to maximize their happiness.

In any event, it hardly matters where you get your undergrad degree in the end, unless you're aiming for the ivory towers of academia or business and are willing to network with very particular types of people at those top tier schools. And it doesn't sound like you are, OP, which is FINE. You have every right to be happy without that particular definition of success.

I went to one of the best public universities in the U.S. At one point, I lived across the street from campus. At another, I lived across the city. Either way, I excelled academically and made use of the resources I wanted and needed. Whether or not you succeed as a commuter is up to you, OP. Whether or not you want to skate by, or to challenge yourself, is up to you. With debt comes a lot of anxiety, so the idea of the freedom of no debt may be more compelling for you. I would encourage you, even if you choose the less prestigious school, to take classes that ARE hard for you. Make yourself grow. College is a great, mostly safe environment for that and I do think you'll look back later and appreciate giving yourself more challenges to overcome. That kind of development is a powerful thing. And if the less-prestigious school offers the better environment for you to grow in, then that's the better place for you.
posted by weeyin at 10:41 AM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

weeyin: These comments are making me sad, because so many of them are coming in with a narrow and personalized definition of "success" rather than addressing what it is that makes the OP happy. She was content with her life before this semester. What's so terrible about that?

There's nothing terrible about that. But OP isn't asking if she can be happy in a commuter school (she already decided that she would be happier), but what the benefits are for her career. Specifically, she asks:

What is the importance of the name-brand of your school when looking for jobs (in the technology/information industry)? And what is the importance when applying for graduate school (in psychology)?

I couldn't answer the second part, but my point on the first part was this: I went to a public state school, but its Computer Science department is one of the top ten in the nation. This means that our AVERAGE new grad salary is $80k/year PLUS bonuses. This means I had internships for TWO summers before graduating. This means that I got offers from Amazon, Microsoft, AND Google when I did graduate.

I have met many, many very intelligent students in the Computer Science field. I both participate in the recruitment as well as the interview process, and deal almost exclusively with new college grads. I can tell you that the caliber just isn't the same. Maybe it's as simple as because tech companies are more likely to go to the top-tier universities to do interview-training... but whatever it is, do you really think it's worth it to save a bit of money (in the grand scheme of things) now and have an easier time for two years, but be behind (compared to where you would've been) for the rest of your life?

Why does OP want a four year degree at all? Because while her admin job is nice right now, it probably won't be fulfilling 20 years down the line. She probably won't make enough to have nice benefits and enough money to support her children and the flexible hours to take care of them, if she chooses to have children. It means if her partner becomes unemployed, they might plunge into a financial crisis.

Going to university and getting a 4-year degree ultimately means more financial freedom and a more secure, smooth-sailing life--but only if you don't drown in the academics and the financials in the meanwhile. Which 4 year degree? Which university? All that is a personal choice, and it's perfectly fine if OP decides that she wants to take the easy route. But we would be doing her a disservice to coddle her and say something like, "Yes, take the easier route, you'll be just fine." because chances are, she'll be fine, but not as fine as if she took the difficult route.
posted by ethidda at 12:29 PM on December 8, 2012

weeyin, I think everyone has been making a good faith effort to tease out what the OP's goals are and try to explain the best way to get there, whatever those goals may be, as well as explaining the realistic consequences of various decisions. Many of the responses tend towards the "I wish I had known what I know now when I was faced with a similar dilemma" variety. Many of us have seen the various outcomes from different angles and are well-placed to comment on that. The problem always occurs when someone's preconceived notions of how to accomplish a goal conflict with the actual means of accomplishing that goal.
posted by deanc at 12:51 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

These comments are making me sad, because so many of them are coming in with a narrow and personalized definition of "success" rather than addressing what it is that makes the OP happy. She was content with her life before this semester. What's so terrible about that?

It's not terrible, but it's a problem specific to a lot of first-generation college students. They miss their lives from before and have a hard time adjusting to new social and class norms. In light of that, I think it's wise to encourage pressing forward. From personal experience, what I thought would make me happy (going back to my old life) really would have meant I would have missed out on a lot. Going to a challenging school for four years teaches you a lot about dealing with different kinds of people, working hard, accomplishing a goal, working through difficulty, &c. There are a lot of intangibles there. Plus, you learn a hell of a lot, and it's a really helpful skill to learn how to learn effectively.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:11 AM on December 9, 2012

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