RPI of old(one view), note to those considering technical institutes in general.

Full Disclaimer - I attended in the late 1980’s, much may have changed, but some lessons learned at the end may be helpful to some prospective students/parents, and are true of engineering curricula in general.

I’ll also say my experience is drawn from data points gathered by an immature, mostly depressed younger self, and partly I’m writing this to exorcise some demons.

The institute functioned primarily as a filter to identify the elite 20% or so with the intelligence and or grit to endure the somewhat grim ordeal that was its educational experience, and the 'tute really existed to identify them on behalf of those coming to campus to hire. Another 20% or so would be culled due to outright failure or the attrition of those self-aware enough to realize they weren’t a good match for the 'tute’s draconian style of pedagogy. Of the remaining 60% many were merely casualties of the process, though with pretty good job prospects nonetheless.

With some notable exceptions (A. Bruce Carlson, Don Millard, Prof. Balaguer, and my Semicon & Elec. Devices prof.) the professors were drawn from the left-hand side of the Bell curve in terms of aptitude and motivation to communicate and convey knowledge and understanding. Their job was primarily to arrange a suitably difficult obstacle course for students to overcome, and observe and classify the results. ‘Teaching’ was not their concern. Broader context, purpose and meaning were also to be supplied entirely by the student. The overarching theme was adversarial. The institute’s primary mission of filtration meant that extra assistance that might help a particular student grasp a key concept more easily was given stingily, less it mess up the curve on the other side of the filter. I have to admit, there is a certain logic and brutal beauty in what the 'tute was doing, but it’s not suitable for everyone, and I think the middle 60% could have learned a lot more, a lot more pleasantly, in a more pedagogically friendly environment. The 'tute in that era was viewed with real animus by a significant minority of the student population, including me. Wise thing for such people is to leave, but such people, self included, typically have crappy grades, and options are limited, and one needs to accept heading to a much ‘lesser’ institution in that case - why not make a wiser pick in the first place? Hindsight. Hopefully things have changed for the better.


  • Know thyself. Do you really, truly want to be an engineer/scientist? Do you prefer to be around people mostly like you, or do you prefer more variety? If you have any doubt whatsoever about these questions, take up engineering/science at a broader university instead, you’ll have more options if you change your mind later. Or, consider one of the few lliberal arts colleges that also offer engineering.
  • It will be hard, necessarily so. You will require a lot of self motivation, even if the program is more ‘friendly’ than the one I described above. You will spend time in the pain cave. Your time management skills will be vital. That said, mastery of a challenging subject can be incredibly rewarding.
  • Fully engage. Attend every class, do every reading assignment, every homework problem. Be aware when you don’t get something and act immediately to seek resources to correct it. Falling behind is like being dropped from a peleton, it can be exceedingly difficult to catch up.
  • NEVER CHEAT. If you are a person of conscience, as I was/am, it is incredibly self-damaging. The shame and regret, and (deserved) loss of self-respect/esteem will leave a mark, and is difficult to recover from, trust me. It is far, far better to fail honestly and try again than to cheat and ‘succeed’.
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@EightiesParent Thank you for you thoughtful reflections. I attended undergrad in the early 80s (not RPI) and much of what you say resonates. If you read some recent threads here you will see some comments about RPI of the past, when you attended, being a solid peer of MIT and Cornell among others, vs now where some question its rank, quality, cost and value. What was the perception in the 80s, and if you are in a technical field, how is it viewed now. Any other insights would be appreciated.


I too wonder things have changed with even institutions like RPI trying to survive.

An under-looked aspect of RPI in relation to colleges with more balanced curricula might pertain to entering scores on the math portion of the SAT. At this time, even RPI’s rarefied math range registers pretty similarly to that of top liberal arts colleges. For students who have an interest in quantitative fields such as math, chemistry and physics; see the benefit of an association with intellectual peers; and value teaching, it seems that colleges outside of the tech-focused group might offer an appealing alternative.

@Spark2018, when I attended in the 80’s, RPI indeed did have a more prestigious reputation than it does currently(though, it’s still pretty highly regarded), in fact I turned down an Ivy to go there. What I’ve gleaned since is that RPI was not the only such technical school to have a reputation for a grim educational program. Those who did it on the level truly did achieve something, yet many of my RPI friends who studied hard and did well at RPI do not harbor especially warm feelings for it. While I’m in tech, I’m not close enough today to the hiring of recent grads to know what the current view of RPI is. However, about 10 years ago my company hired a recent RPI grad, and he was highly thought of by his managers and peers. My former employer, a large, well known networking company, still regularly recuits there.

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What is the difference compared to a student in a top engineering school within a comprehensive university?

@TomSrOfBoston LOL when I saw you pop up. Let’s cut to the chase … Yes, Northeastern is a great school, no doubt. When we were applying their your insights were of great assistance.

I think the comments of EP apply equally to any STEM major. As an engineering major in the 70’s at Ohio State we were required to schedule a non-credit engineering orientation class that met for about 5 times. It was there in a lecture we got the talk, “Look to your right. Look to your left. Only one of you will graduate with an engineering degree” I understand this was not unique to OSU but it was uncannily accurate.

@EightiesParent no one should pay to go to a school you described.

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As @EightiesParent mentioned, many students who wanted to leave, has too lousy of grades to transfer to a relatively comparable college.

What CollegeGrad79 is referring to is called failing in. Students end up staying to get a degree, any degree, whether they or not they like the field or are miserable/happy. It can be masked by only reporting avg GPA and sophomore retention measured by returning for the second year.

Hadn’t heard of the term “failing in.” Had quite a few friends who did though.

i knew a lot of folks back in the day (mid-80s) that “failed-in” and indeed that was what we called it. i think the overall environment in most schools is more student friendly than it was way back then. There is much more info available on-line and schools have had to become somewhat gentler in their approach because of it. It’s also much easier for a current student to at least consider transfer than it was pre-internet. Now a student can do leg work all online and at least see if they would be accepted as a transfer . .

@eightiesparent @spark2018 Your beliefs about RPI quality don’t appear to be supported by actual rankings. I’m not sure if this is good or bad but you give the impression that RPI is sinking-at least relative to its standing in the (I’m guessing here) 1980s. I don’t think the actual ratings which are based largely on reputation support that amount of swing.

In 1983 it appears that US news did not rank RPI-perhaps they only ranked the top 25 schools. At that time they were ranking CalTech at 12, CMU at 13 and MIT at 10. in 1996, apparently the first time RPI made the list (which was apparently extended), RPI was ranked at 39 but the following year it disappears, suggesting that it fell below the top 50. It reappears the following year at 48. From then until 2004 it hovered in the 40’s. MIT and CalTech stayed mostly in the single digits while CMU was mostly in the low 20s although it occasionally fell to 28. Between the years 2008 and 2015 RPI had an average rating of 42.75-with ratings as high as 41 but hitting 50 once (2012). During that same interval, MIT averaged 5.9, CalTech averaged 7.1 and CMU averaged 22.9.

Reputation is notoriously hard to change quickly. I don’t think RPI’s reputation has tanked. In fact I think it has gotten a bit stronger. It is highly ranked regardless.


Tech schools like RPI can appeal to those students who really want a school that is more singularly directed in tech and the sciences. I knew students who felt they finally found a place for themselves when they arrived at schools like RPI, MIT, Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, Stevens, etc. They found a larger core of people like themselves with similar interests. Some of them had suffered terribly in highschool because they did not fit into the mainstream culture and these school provided a haven of sorts to them.

There can also be a camaraderie to get through the intense curriculums these schools have, when there are so many students all on the same track. With those schools that have a large variety of offerings, it can be a distraction, temptation, problem to be in the other courses of study, taking those courses with the same sort of students and issues that were problematic.

These schools, however, are rigorous and have a type of culture that is not for everyone. And if you don’t do well at college, your transfer options can be limited Schools like RPI often have steep grading curves. Non tech majors may still not meet the desires of some students who really want out of the environment and into a more mainstream general education type school.

@lostaccount Please read my other posts. I’m out here defending against what I consider suspect criticism.

Has anyone in this thread heard of the Square Root Club? At the Toot, it was when the square root of your semester GPA was larger than your real GPA. For non-STEM folks, this means your semester GPA was less than 1. For those who took Complex Variables, it could only be worse if your GPA was imaginary.

I remember helping my fraternity brothers and in some cases pledges either avoid or get out of the square-root club. (In the 80’s).

@StudentsR1st We were just telling our son last week about the test files all the frats had in the late '70s.

@CollegeGrad79 I thought the bad tests were just as helpful as the good. At some point houses were told requiring pledges to show us their tests and attend study sessions was hazing. It singled out the pledges. We did support each other and sometimes a few houses would work together.