I have been lucky enough to travel this month for a week to Korea, three days to Turkey, and four days to Denmark, and to speak with mechanical engineers in all three countries (both professionals and students). It was an intense experience, and I learned an amazing amount – but what also surprised me was how similar engineering is in every place.
I have always been very glad that I went to a large state school for my engineering education, rather than an elite school. The main reason I went to the state school was quite simply because I could afford it, whereas I could not afford, say, Harvard. But I was also quite confident that I could receive a quality engineering education without the hefty price tag. For a music degree, or liberal arts, or more “subjective” types of majors, perhaps going to Juliard or a famous art school is worth it. But I always thought that for engineering in particular, well, it’s a technical degree. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t?) matter where you learn it, because the concepts are universal.
And I still think I am correct. Technical concepts (like calculus or beam bending analysis) don’t vary depending on where you learn them. Since most of engineering is technical concepts, it mostly shouldn’t matter where you learn engineering. The two caveats I would add are that 1) this is for undergraduate education, not graduate research where there is much more variation between programs, and 2) there is of course a minimum (for instance, a non-accredited school might not be an acceptable education).
Of course there ARE differences between engineering programs at different schools – and obviously not all of your education is purely technical. Though it may not matter WHERE you learn calculus, it might matter HOW you are taught. The main element that comes to mind is project-based classes. MIT, for instance, is heavily weighted towards project classes, and you might not get as much hands-on learning in a large state school. But I knew a student at MIT (where tuition is about $40k a year) who had to take out $20k in loans each year. So my argument is that even if you think the atmosphere, professors, and project-based learning at MIT is better, is it $80k in debt worth of better?
And after my worldwide tour, I’m even wondering if the same concept holds true around the world. Math is math everywhere you go, fluids and heat transfer always follow the same laws and dynamics stay constant (ha!) in every case. But in every country I visit, engineering students have heard of places like Stanford and MIT, and dream of going there someday. And my question is – is it worth it for undergrad? Perhaps the U.S. still has the premier graduate programs, but does it really matter anymore where you learn that 2+2=4? And if it does matter, is the difference worth the cost?
So what do you say? When you are an undergraduate student in engineering, how much does it matter what skyline you see out your window? And how much would you pay to get the most elite skyline?