Rigor level at different colleges / subjects / majors -- how different, and how to tell?

This came up in another thread:

So here is the new thread. The questions:

  • How different is the rigor level at different colleges, subjects, and majors?
  • How does one tell how different the rigor level is where there may be significant differences?

Note also that “rigor” may have multiple definitions, such as intellectual difficulty and workload, which may not necessarily all increase or decrease together as one compares different courses.


Thanks for getting this started, @ucbalumnus! Here’s hoping it will spark discussion.

There’s definitely a lot of conventional wisdom about all these on CC (and elsewhere), like the idea that computer science is more rigorous than English, or that Princeton is more rigorous than Northern Kentucky. These generally get unquestioningly vectored, but I’m not entirely convinced, given the ways things like accreditation standards and such work.

Honestly, I tend to think that inputs drive outputs—so if the same student went into comp sci or English, or attended Princeton or Northern Kentucky, that would drive the rigor rather than the major or the college itself. But I recognize that I am in the minority here. So let the discussion begin!


Several colleges such as Harvard and Princeton offer their courses online through EdX. Watch them, and see for yourself whether they match or exceed the rigor of similar courses at your institution.


I’m not sure you can. Even a class taught within a single department at one school can vary significantly in content and rigor depending on the professor teaching it that semester. In grad school I TAed for a course 6 times with 5 different instructors, and I was struck by how differently it was taught each time.

Comparing syllabi can help, but only a small minority of instructors make their syllabi publicly accessible.

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I am really happy to see this thread. I was actually comparing the first year classes listed for two CS/Game Design majors this morning trying to figure out how similar they are (or are not). It is definitely a slog. Hopefully you all have some good advice on how to make such comparisons.

When my S was looking at colleges a few years ago, one of the most significant criteria was the types of courses and the rigor of these courses. We found the content and the level of rigor can vary a great deal from course to course, even if they’re supposed to be comparable (or equivalent). It isn’t going to be easy to find all the differences, but I’d suggest to start with course syllabus, recommended books, lecture notes/handouts (sometimes you can even get a sense of the pace of a course by looking at them), and ultimately, problem sets and tests/exams (surprisingly how much is available online these days).

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Your suggestion to look at notes reminds me of something my husband did when he started teaching at his alma mater, the US Naval Academy, back in 2006. He ended up teaching some of the electrical engineering classes that he had taken about 15 years earlier and thought they didn’t cover as much material as when he took them. Being a truly nerdy guy, he still had all of his college notes and books (and yes, we still have the boxes today even though I really, really want to throw them out). He was able to find some of his old notes and compare them to what he was teaching, which confirmed that the class he was teaching in 2006 only covered about 80% of what it covered back in the late 80’s. So, even the same class can change over time.


I can see analyzing English literature being more intellectually difficult than designing a computer algorithm or program for many computer science majors…

However, the other dimension of workload may be more quantifiable. Some courses (labs, art studio, art performance, big term projects, etc.) tend to consume a lot of time that is not always accounted in the credit values of the courses. But there still can be considerable variation.


And I suppose that feeding into all this is the widespread idea that, say, writing logically consistent papers is easier (and thus a less rigorous pursuit) than evaluating a triple integral in a cylindrical coordinate system.

But based on my daughter who’s an industrial engineering major, no, for some people it’s precisely the opposite.


A combination of writing well and understanding logic may not always be easy to find.


A mathematician once told me: math is easier than science.

His argument was that scientists create mathematical models to simplify and clarify what we are seeing in nature. If math was indeed more difficult, then why are mathematical models simpler than the reality that scientists are trying to understand?

It was a good point.


As a trained physicist (but not a practicing one), my take is that there’s beauty and simplicity in nature that we rarely fully appreciate. If a model or theory is so messy and convoluted, it likely isn’t the ultimate truth.


The same material can be taught at multiple levels of intensity as well, reflecting the expectations of the prof/college. For example, in a humanities course that can include whether or not primary research is expected, the level of intellectual rigor in analytical work, and the balance of depth versus depth.

Re: the EE course at the Naval Academy noted above, in which the course now teaches only 80% of what was taught a generation ago, I wonder if new material has been added, and how valuable/relevant the 20% that has been lost is now (I know people who still mourn the end of slide rules, but who would agree that not everything they learned is still useful)).

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Lots of adjunct professors teach at multiple schools. Often the same course (sometimes with a different title). For example, when we toured Catholic University they mentioned that they have numerous adjuncti professors that also teach at Georgetown, GW, and/or American. I wonder if the course rigor of the class would be the same at each of the schools. She was accepted at Catholic, GW, and American so I think she could have handled the work at any of them. D chose Elon and same thing there. Many adjunct professors teach at Wake, Duke, or any of the NC’s. Some also teach at CC’s. She has friends that were accepted to Wake and UNC. So far, they have all been very challenged with the rigor at Elon. These are freshman courses though so perhaps higher level courses would have more variation.

I think this is so subjective. D thinks her non engineering courses are way easier to get As. H felt the same way back in the day and said there was a huge drop in rigor between his undergrad engineering courses and his MBA courses at the same school.

Seems like more kid change out of STEM majors because they can’t hack the math and physics (or o chem) than those that start out in humanities but that could also be because of a stronger weed out process in those majors.

My D has chem E friends spread out all over the country. They essentially take the same courses and seem to have the same challenges regardless of being at a regional directional or a T10.

Interesting question though!

It would seem that standardized scoring profiles at the 25th percentile level can serve as an indicator of how uniformly rigorous a college can be. Caltech, for example, which reports a 25th percentile SAT score (EBRW + math) of 1530, can expect its students to assimilate material throughout the curriculum at a somewhat higher level than, say, Harvard (1460) can; Williams (1410) can design a curriculum more uniformly rigorous than Bates (1210) can; and Harvey Mudd’s reputationally high rigor seems substantively dependent on its extremely high 25th percentile score (1490).

Of course, schools with internal academic divisions or honors programs would be more difficult to analyze in many cases because isolated standardized scoring profiles may be unavailable.

Note that all colleges mentioned in this post were chosen from the higher levels of academia. The comparisons, then, should be considered on a relative basis only.


A couple of my observations on this topic:

  • Course rigor can vary a great deal, but it’s mostly determined by the students who take the class, and to a lesser degree, by the professor. So a course that is taken by uniformly stronger students is likely to be more rigorous. A professor can make a course more or less rigorous relative to the strength of its students and its grade distribution will deviate from the school’s norm as a result.

  • Some subjects are inherently more rigorous than others. For example, there’s nothing more rigorous than mathematics, because everything in math has to be rigorously proven. Rigor is often, but not necessarily, associated with difficulty. What makes certain subjects extremely difficult is the level of abstraction, imagination, intuition and/or counter-intuition that may be required for their understanding.


That seems to be putting an awful lot of weight on a test score. We get many posts every year from kids with high test scores but low GPA. Doing well on a test, and doing well every day in the classroom require a different set of skills. I don’t think you can make the jump that classroom rigor will be higher just because test scores are higher.


Grade distribution can be set somewhat independently of how difficult the instructor makes the course material, especially in large lower level courses graded on a curve.

While upper level math courses like real analysis and abstract algebra can be high on the intellectual difficulty scale, courses like calculus for business majors are much less so (although it may be the case that some business majors find the latter to be intellectually difficult for them).

Also, the other dimension of rigor, which is time cost or workload, is usually not that high for math courses.

The “weed out” process may be mainly applicable where the major capacities are limited, such as at Purdue, Wisconsin, or Texas A&M engineering, or nursing at many colleges. Attrition from biology or chemistry may be indirectly related to pre-med “weed out”.

The greater switch-out than switch-in may be based both on limited capacities in the majors and the prerequisite sequencing needs that make switching in difficult to do if the student has not previously been taking the needed prerequisites before deciding to switch to the major.

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