(LA Guy @ May 18 2005,11:42) Not to add too much fuel to the fire, but to state that one (world class) university is better than another can most charitably be described as simplistic. Â At best, an individual department can be compared against another. Â Even then, the the specialties and subspecialties are difficult to compare unless there is a one to one mapping. Â Some universities provide excellent liberal arts educations but few research opportunites, some provide both. Â Some schools turn out the movers and shakers of the world, some excellent scientists and mathematicians. Â Some schools are primarily research institutions that happen also to have an undergraduate program. Â Some universities offer the auxiliary but unassociated experiences of being located in NYC, or Chicago, or LA, or Williamsburg, or Berkeley, or New Haven, all places that offer learning experiences beyond the classroom. Â If you want to see the brightest analytical minds, you'd do well to visit Caltech or MIT. Â I'd bet good money that you're not going to see the next POTUS, nor even the next several presidents, being graduates of these universities though. Â And unless something drastic happens, the best engineers in the world are not going to have their degree from Harvard (which offers no engineering degree.) Why do we need to get into a pissing contest about this, huh? Â Seriously.
Gimme a break, LA Guy. Â You and I both know Harvard is the best.
For what it's worth, the only thing useful about ranking schools is that it allows employers/grad schools to sort through applicants in an extremely efficient -- though inaccurate -- manner. Â It is the case that someone who goes to Podunk St. will not be, on average, as qualified for a certain grad school/job as a Harvard grad. Â But that says nothing about the quality of the teaching at a school. Â For example, most law schools have their entire faculty predominantly comprised of former superstar students from Stanford, Harvard, and Yale law schools. Â To the extent the quality of teaching varies between Yale Law and a second or third tier law school, that can be attributed to the fact that a different teaching style is required for various quality levels of student. To the extent my argument is correct and generally applicable to undergraduate programs as well, a good student can receive a fantastic education if he chooses to major in a department with a smaller student body and chooses to interact a lot with professors one-on-one. Â If the student does that, the only thing preventing him from getting as good an education at Podunk St. as he would at Yale would be that he will not be interacting with as many bright students on a day to day basis. Â But I think you mostly learn from your professors, not other students -- at least to the extent you attend class and stuff.
I think that your observations about the "average" student are generally correct. However, I think that there are several factors you haven't taken into account. First, I've observed that student bodies tend to redistribute themselves. So, for example, a top student coming out of MIT (undergrad) is more likely to stay a top student, and perform *objectively* better, if he went to Podunk U for grad school than if he went on to say, Caltech. Second, I think that employers are most interested in the top percentile of each class. I haven't seen that much of a discrepancy between the top percentiles of classes from *most* top tier universities. Of course, the top ten percentile from an MIT graduating class is head and shoulders above the same percentile from say, a small liberal arts college. Even then, individual exceptions about. Third, the ability to take tests, while a useful measure in some ways, (a high ability usually indicates the analytical ability to synthesize a limited number of concepts, devotion to a task, the ability to communicate effectively, etc...) it is not a particularly good measure of general intelligence or interestedness in a subject. Because test taking is held in such high esteem by educators, or maybe because testing is the easiest way to attempt to gauge intellectual potential, a good test taker will always benefit at the expense of others who have poorer test taking abilities. At the graduate level and beyond (i.e. in the "real world"), this ability suddenly becomes much less important, and so a Harvard Law grad might suddenly find him or herself less capable than a graduate from a less prestigious program. I'm going to post this now, because I really need to work, but reserve the right to edit for consistency and coherence, among other things, later.