Penn State vs CU Boulder vs UCSC for CS

I would like inputs on pursuing a CS major at these schools from a school perspective (excluding financials and school ranking)

  1. Penn State
  2. CU Boulder
  3. UCSC

All inputs are much appreciated.

They are all good. Have you compared the gen ed requirements, and CS major requirements and full set of courses for each, including how often each is offered? That should result in some clear preferences on your part. What school do you prefer for location, size, vibe, etc?


In the process of comparing Gen Ed and CS requirements. We are International, so have no chance to visit and get a sense of the vibe/location/size, only online research…hence the need to seek inputs from all of you here.

I understand. But you can plot out how many flights you would need to travel to each and the overall travel costs, and then how far from the closest airport each school is (which then requires a shuttle or uber).

Then think about how the various sizes of these schools impact class size, school spirit, ability to join clubs, etc. (PSU about 41K, Boulder about 30K, UCSC about 17K).

I also encourage you to look at career outcomes (they are all good for CS though) and read the student newspapers at each school, again that will tell you much about the community and what issues are in the news. For example, UCSC is having off campus housing difficulties that will not resolve during your undergrad years, so for at least two years it may be difficult to secure housing within walking/bike riding distance at an affordable price.

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Thank you for your response. What are the pros and cons of a big school as compared to a smaller school? I did notice UCSC class sizes are small, which is a pro but consequently clubs may be fewer.

Any other pros and cons?

These are all good schools.

CU Boulder is my favorite. Great area in/near the mountains, not far from Denver.

Penn State is in the middle of nowhere. Huge school. Lots of school spirit. Reputation as a top party school.


Is it easy to get research opportunities in a large school? I know UCSC provides lot of research opportunities for undergrads.

Most colleges have virtual campus tours. Also Q/A sessions with faculty, staff & students. Those might give you some idea.

What sort of weather would your student prefer? How important is ease of flying to/from home?

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One is huge, sprawling, middle of nowhere but has a small airport. Will be cold in winter. PSU

One is 40 miles from a major city. International airport. Mountains. Tons of nature nearby. And snow and world class skiing within a few hrs. Very progressive town - not necessarily the school. CU.

UCSC is coastal, windy but close to the heart of Silicon Valley. Major airport nearby. A second strong airport but not international a bit closer.

All three fine. #1 will be less expensive off campus and is a football Mecca if he’s interested in sports watching American style.

#2 will be fun to watch - they’ve got coach prime.

I’d go by affordability if that’s an issue. Weather or desire for nature. Or size.

All 3 are nice campuses in their own way. I do hear concerns about ucsc housing and on our campus tour of Boulder they said many students drive in from neighboring towns due to costs althiugh others on this board say otherwise.

I’d gather your questions and do an online info session of each and student panel if they have.

3 different schools - which is right for you outside the educational part ?


My comment about UCSC is that you are admitted into a “proposed major” and need to take CS major qualification courses to fully declare the major.

The link explain the process and the CS curriculum: UCSC General Catalog - Computer Science B.S.

Of the 3 schools, only UCSC’s CS program is not ABET accredited which is not a requirement for good CS programs however, ABET accreditation provides assurance that a college or university program meets the quality standards of the profession for which that program prepares graduates.

UCSC is pretty isolated so you would need to take travel/transportation into consideration. Transportation services for airport shuttles and other transportation. Getting Home for the Holidays

There are many posts on the vibe of the UCSC campus. Outdoorsy, down to earth and quirky are some of the descriptions.

Some quotes about the campus for the UCSC discussion thread:
Sometimes, true urbanites don’t like the wooded, decentralized feel of the campus…and just as many folks are thrilled with the sense of peace and open space. Overall, from my seat, top issues are: housing shortage/competition for off-campus housing with SC residents; UCSC’s slightly less good fiscal solvency rating relative to other UCs (not sure why this is so, and can’t find the document presently, but will look for it); no single central gathering area on campus (maybe some don’t care, but I always liked a plaza; UCSC has multiple). Plusses: dorm food quality vs. other UCs (except UCLA, which is also good), easy bus service to beach and town (my daughter has gone with friends several times and says it’s effortless, even with a board!), instruction equal to any other UC, some unique and interesting majors, internship and other opportunities in nearby Silicon Valley, nice participatory intramural and recreational culture. Also: I know dozens of adult graduates from my era (80s) and to a person they all loved their college years and love UCSC.

Best of luck with your decision.


Thank you all for your detailed responses. Every single input is useful.

Yes, we are doing as many virtual tours as possible.

I want to see if we have any blind spots in the the big school versus small school advantages/ disadvantages.

  1. Are classes hard to register for at Penn State given its a large school?
  2. Are research opportunities hard to come by given there are many students in contention.
  3. Access to professors.
  4. I was also told Penn State alumni network is very strong and is a distinct advantage. Is that so?

It’s going to be competitive to get research at all these schools, with better chances after your first year. Your chances will also be better if you get high grades and are willing to stay on campus for summers. As a CS major why is research important to you, as opposed to something like interning in the summers? What are your career goals?

Ask the schools what proportion of classes are taught by profs either email your AO, or ask at the virtual sessions you attend. For some, profs will teach the class and TAs will have recitation sessions. For other classes, TAs may teach. It just depends.

Look at the size of the gen ed classes and CS classes (you can generally see that in the registration systems, many are public).

PSU always says that about their alumni network…I doubt there is data for that, but for you as an international does that matter? You will be expected to return to your country after undergrad (unless you continue with your schooling here).


Course registration PSU



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I meant to ask about internship opportunities as well. How is it in PSU?

UCSC is big on research from what I heard. Interdisciplinary research opportunities as well as internship opportunities with silicon valley being close by.

Alumni is often around the world, not just in US, and wanted to know if it is indeed a pro for PSU.

Weather and ease of flying are both moderately important.
But overall academics, opportunities, clubs, internships would trump weather and ease of flying.

Any other inputs here will be a great help, Thanks in advance!

This is incorrect. Boulder is 25 miles from Denver. Public transportation (RTD SkyRide) is available directly from Boulder to Denver International Airport (DIA). An extra perk: public transportation including the SkyRide is free for all full-time CU students.

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All 3 are solid. They’ve laid out weather etc.

Are you flying from east to west or west to east.

All three are accessible with a bit of work. All three are solid. They are different she’s and environment.

I know two PSU grads and both said alumni is overrated. I’d believe it. Many will try to be helpful but most can’t just give a kid a job.

@mountainsoul - depends on where from in Denver. Forgive me a few miles. The airport is 40 miles. Thx

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Note that Penn State has secondary admission to major for those starting in the engineering division. For CS, the minimum college GPA is 3.20: Undergraduate Advising | ETM - New and Re-enrolling Students - Summer 2020 or Later | Penn State Engineering


CU Boulder makes it easiest to stay in CS: you only need to take the proper sequence of courses and get a C in all CS and gen ed requirements.
UCSC has a set of 5 core courses that you must register for and pass, each, with a B (much more difficult to get than in HS).
Penn State is the most stringent overall since it requires a 3.2 GPA by the end of sophomore year but you can trip or flounder in one of the 5 core courses as long as you recover in the others, since only a C is required as a baseline for each of these 5 courses (ofc if you get a C you need a few excellent grades elsewhere to still have a 3.2 - your 20 courses must be 3.2 overall and you better balance any C with an A in another subject.)

Alumni network and career center are behemoths at Penn State and the career fairs (internships included) are booked a year ahead by companies from PA, VA, MD, DE, NYS, NJ, as well as OH, MI, or MA - its engineers even compete with VTech engineers in VA.
That being said, yes, it only means you can use the university’s connections and the university will help you make use of those, not that a person will hand you a job - or, for an international, an OPT - on a plate. You’ll have to participate in the career center training sessions, attend the career fair, interview, etc.
I would recommend joining the Engineering Living-Learning Community for 1st years (unless you’re in Schreyer). E-House is really cool because 1° you can meet 2nd year engineering students 2° its rooms are, like, double what the typical freshman room is 3° you have priority to stay for your 2nd year if you participated in the various engineering-related activities they offered (so you don’t have to worry about finding housing off campus).

Obviously CU and UCSC will have career fairs geared toward the West Coast.

State College (where University Park is located - Do check that’s where you’ve been admitted) is a college town, meaning most everything focuses on college students: small shops, activities. There’s a bus service with many routes that hit most off campus “student villages”. If students want to visit a big city, they can take the Megabus to NYC or Philly or visit DC (all about 4-5hours away). The area’s nickname is “Happy Valley” because students tend to spend 4 happy years there (no relation to Sally Wainwright’s show!)
AFAIK there’s no shortage of off campus housing ( if rent is 1 in State College, X2 in Boulder, X3 in Santa Cruz.) Cost of living is not going to be as high in a PA college town as in the West. The airport is very small and has no direct flights, you have to stop in Philadelphia or Detroit (usually) to get there.

If all 3 are affordable, I’d go with UC Boulder: fewer academic restrictions, cool town.
2nd, it’d really depend on how much you can afford to spend on housing&general cost of life.


You have mentioned research a number of times. Why is this important for your student. I’m going to give my opinion…the vast majority of college undergrads do not do research.

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