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Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?


Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 67,296 Senior Member
    Of course few people will say their major was easy, which is why I don't care to share my opinion on a public board, but that doesn't mean all majors are equally rigorous even at an Ivy/equivalent.

    What is the "easy major" may not necessarily be the same at each school. For example, the level of math intensity among economics majors varies greatly*. The most math intensive programs (at places like MIT, Chicago, and UC Santa Cruz) require multivariable calculus and/or other sophomore level math (of course, even more math is recommended for pre-PhD students). The least math intensive programs (at places like Penn State and Florida State) do not require any calculus at all. Others (at places like Cornell and Minnesota) are in between, requiring single variable calculus. Still others offer a choice (e.g. Harvard and Berkeley offer single variable and multivariable calculus based intermediate microeconomics for economics majors).

    *For the purpose of the discussion, more math means harder for most students, although it can be the other way around for those who are strongest in math and really like it.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,914 Senior Member
    edited April 2017
    @Farquhar : Nope still grey, and not all public colleges are created equal. Predicting rigor and even competence is tricky. Just because an instructor was appointed to teach a course in their expertise does not mean they are enthusiastic about teaching undergraduates. This itself can lead to lackluster instructional experiences even at an elite private institution. They can care about their research which is what gets them the most recognition. I'm going to stick with clustering with grey, so I guess we can generally agree that those in higher clusters of selectivity may generally set the bar higher, but among dots in each cluster, the correlation may diminish and depend on other things. Like perhaps a smaller Ivy or private will have more consistent rigor than a larger more selective one. If they belong to the same cluster all we can generally say is that "both are more rigorous or have more rigorous pathways than places in lower clusters". From what I have seen, I would guess that among selective, you can basically put all the schools in the 1350/1600 and up in the same cluster and you can maybe separate out those schools with the STEM slant (or STEM universities with huge engineering scenes) as engineering programs tend to maintain more stringent grading standards. But again, even in this cluster, there were schools that were very rigorous before they became as selective as they are today. Comes down to institutional culture per data point in cluster. I feel this is a question that we kind of know the answer to using my model. More interesting to figure out why and how some places or departments at some schools became more rigorous than normal.

    Like which selective schools are "certainly harder than an average state school, but most instructors are not putting expectations too far beyond the usual"(this exists. Trust me. These places make the class go faster, but give the same level exams or assignments and maybe even content as a standard state school. You just need to keep up. In addition, the competition makes it such that there will not be a curve because the course doesn't challenge that student body to the same level that it would at the more average state school) and which are: "damn, this school has so many professors that do things at a completely different level/differently that would even shock my friend at X elite school which supposedly has identical or similar SATs". Ironically, the latter schools are often the ones most derided for grade inflation, but if we talk STEM, I would argue that it is justified if you compare the level of many of those courses to many other elite schools. Again, beyond that threshold I set, I don't think current and ever growing selectivity will make schools rise in rigor (I mean some of these very newly minted schools with the HYPM level SAT/ACT ranges have gained that popularity by selling higher quality of life to students and a generally "happier" experience. Adding more rigor to adjust to the student body/have the same intensity of academics on average as those places will not help with selling this alternative model so you will get academic complacency as students already accept it as "challenging enough" and many do not necessarily desire the same level academics as offered at the more "stressful" schools). Same can likely be said for schools outside this elite cluster.

  • CanuckguyCanuckguy Registered User Posts: 1,127 Senior Member
    Vernon Smith, economist and Nobel Laureate started life as a physics student who switched to EE to avoid a certain course, then switched again to economics as a graduate student.

    He once said the following:

    Caltech was a meat grinder like I could never have imagined. I studied night, day, weekends and survived hundreds of problems,
    I was majoring in physics, but switched to electrical engineering, which was in the same division (Mathematics, Physics and EE) as a senior. In this way I did not have to take the dreaded "Smyth's course," required for physics majors, but not EE, and received my BS on schedule in 1949
    After Caltech, Harvard seemed easy, and I got virtually straight A's. ...Graduate school is an endurance test, but was not that demanding for me after having survived the undergraduate meat grinder.
    The difference between Harvard and Caltech? "At Harvard they believe they are the best in the world; at Caltech they know they are the best in the world."

    Comparing physics to economics? I don't think he is being totally fair, but I do get his point.
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 11,554 Senior Member
    edited April 2017
    "And for international students the results were even more skewed - the best students seemed to generally be concentrated in the top 3 or 4 schools in their home countries."

    Yep. Part of the reason is because almost everywhere outside of the US, the top unis select almost purely for academic prowess rather than holistically. On CC, we hear of a ton of kids who are amazing academically who did not get in to a tippy-top because of holistic admissions. Another is because, outside the US, people aren't forced to be unable to attend the best uni because of cost (pretty much every good non-American uni, besides Keio and Waseda, is a public). Still another is that our tippy-top privates have relatively small undergraduate student bodies (compared to Oxbridge, UTokyo, PKU & Tsinghua, etc.). Finally, resources in the US are more broadly distributed. Compare Oxbridge's endowments with any other UK Unis and they are not in the same league. Here, we have a lot of rich unis and colleges and even many public flagships can afford equipment that makes an Oxbridge prof jealous.
  • theloniusmonktheloniusmonk Registered User Posts: 1,240 Senior Member
    great thread, I think the answer to the original question is there is little correlation between selectivity and academic difficulty. Academic difficulty is imo, largely based on the professor. If you have one that says, if you show up, participate, do the work, you'll get a B, vs. 10% of my class will fail, 15% will get a D, 35% a C, the rest As and Bs, well, that's totally different. Next is probably culture - competitive (schools where freshman have to apply to their major, and only a few get in) vs collaborative (cooperate and graduate).

    When I applied in the good old days, it was the less selective colleges that were more difficult as their strategy was to accept a lot and weed out a good percentage of them. Some of those weed out course have been mentioned - organic chemistry for pre-med, electromagnetism for EEs, switching theory for CS among others. But now the focus is on 4-year and 6-year grad rates, so I don't think this strategy is there any more.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 67,296 Senior Member
    edited April 2017
    Re #305

    Less selective colleges with hard majors may still weed students out, though mainly by default because the courses in those majors cannot be made easy enough for minimally college ready students to pass at high rates.

    Some more selective colleges practice weeding due to capacity limitations. For example, a 3.5 GPA may be needed to get into or stay in a popular major.
  • EyeVeeeEyeVeee Registered User Posts: 549 Member
    So, a student who wants lots of academic challenges needs to consider how prepared his or her classmates will be for the desired level of challenge

    I would suggest that @WildLupine 's sentence summarizes the answer to the OP question nicely. In general terms....yes, more selective colleges tend to be more academically challenging, if for nothing more than the abilities / preparedness of the other students. Specific examples and personal histories to the contrary are noise, not signal.
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 11,554 Senior Member
    @EyeVeee: "In general terms"

    And generalities are just that. Nobody attends or chooses from generic schools that can't be determined. They attend specific schools and should do the research to determine what rigor/level/opportunities they may get.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 67,296 Senior Member
    edited April 2017
    Re #307-309

    A student considering less selective safety schools may want to consider its offerings of honors or otherwise more rigorous options of courses, and whether his/her likely majors are considered rigorous majors or joke majors at each school.

    For example, ABET accredited engineering at a minimally selective school still has to have the rigor needed to meet ABET accreditation, even if it may less rigorous than at Caltech. But if the economics major there does not use calculus, that can be a sign for a prospective pre PhD economics major to look elsewhere.
  • odannyboySFodannyboySF Registered User Posts: 412 Member
    edited April 2017
    One piece of data: I used to work for a famous college textbook publisher. We did two editions of each textbook: one regular and one simplified. I'd imagine this is common practice. So even though kids taking the same class like Econ 101 might not be getting the same curriculum, even though they're seemingly using the same textbook.
  • CanuckguyCanuckguy Registered User Posts: 1,127 Senior Member
    I think the best answer to the OP's question comes from the VP of Research and Graduate Studies at MSU:

    ... these ignore the fact that virtually all colleges have easy majors. Given the widely acknowledged practice of admitting wealthy applicants, legacies, and athletes with significantly below average scores, and the nearly 100% graduation rate at the Ivies, the conclusion has to be that there are paths of little resistance through most elite colleges. Surprisingly, it might be easier for a student of average ability (that is, relative to the overall population) to graduate from Harvard (once admitted), than to graduate from a typical state university -- the key is choice of major.

    I find his honesty refreshing.
  • QuantMechQuantMech Registered User Posts: 7,630 Senior Member
    If the comment that Canuckguy quoted in #312 were amended to say that it might be easier for a student of [slightly above] average ability to graduate from Harvard (once admitted), than to graduate from a typical state university in the following list of majors {list here}, then I would believe it. However, there are routes through practically any university (excluding Caltech, Harvey Mudd, the service academies, and a few others) that are not so hard to negotiate for a student of slightly above average ability. "Average ability (that is, relative to the overall population)"--the interpretation of that phrase is different if it is the overall population of college students vs. the overall population in general.
  • planner03planner03 Registered User Posts: 1,275 Senior Member
    I have recently seen a lot of fb posts from parents whose kids have made the Dean's list or are being inducted into college honor societies. These kids were very average high school students and attend noncompetitive admission type colleges. Did they all suddenly become top scholars after high school, or are the colleges they attend just not that rigorous? I tend to believe the latter.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 67,296 Senior Member
    Some may be late bloomers.
This discussion has been closed.