Differences in Universities

I just finished my first quarter of (non-degree) classes at Stanford, and I've been a bit surprised at some of the differences between Stanford and other places I've studied, most recently at San Jose State University.


Stanford is a lot harder than SJSU. My view is undoubtedly colored by taking two of Stanford's hardest computer science classes (in terms of workload) at the same time, but I think it's true. I set out to destroy the curve in my two SJSU classes, and succeeded in at least one of them. In contrast, I worked incredibly hard at my Stanford classes, and I'm going to be relieved if I get at least a B in both classes.

The Stanford students seem to be willing to put a whole lot more effort into their classes than the SJSU students, but that makes sense: a huge fraction of the SJSU student body holds a full-time job. Stanford students just flat have more time and energy to give to classes.


You actually get something for the thousands of dollars more in tuition at Stanford. SJSU is in the midst of really horrible budget crunches, to the point where this year they can't even afford to photocopy and distribute the course information sheets. Instead, that information is distributed only via the Web.

In contrast, in the classes that I took at Stanford, every class session had handouts with the lecture notes printed on them. (I doubt if this is true for all Stanford classes, but I imagine that the distance-learning classes demand more formal preparation.) One interesting side effect of this is that the Stanford students didn't seem to take notes in class, while SJSU students did.

Computing infrastructure

At Stanford, there were very well-equipped computer labs with well-developed infrastructure for getting on-line. At SJSU, there might have been labs, but I never saw any. At SJSU, they had just instituted a policy that all CS students were required to purchase laptops. (In reality, many students had not bought laptops yet, but I imagine that as the teaching staff wraps their head around that requirement, that the students will buy more.)

An interesting side effect is that I saw more laptops at poor SJSU than at wealthy Stanford, and that getting wireless access seemed to be more straightforward at SJSU than at Stanford.


Stanford is much more isolated from automobile traffic. One effect is that students leave bicycles everywhere. They have these lovely bike racks, but Stanford students just leave bikes on the sidewalks, while at SJSU they are in locked, controlled-access cages. Clearly that's partly due to the university not cracking down on sidewalk bikes (at UIUC, they would've impounded them), but also because someone can't easily drive up and throw a load of bikes in the back of a van.

Stanford students also have a hard time conceiving of going off-campus. Both I and my husband found Stanford students really reluctant to come to our house for study sessions, even though we only live two miles from campus and even though we have a nice environment for studying. By contrast, my SJSU colleagues were quite happy to come to our house (seventeen miles from SJSU).

Concern about theft

Stanford also seems to be much more isolated from crime, perhaps in part because it is far from the outside world. At SJSU, they would lock classrooms for the ten minutes between classes, while at Stanford classrooms -- even the ones housing sophisticated A/V and computer equipment -- seemed to be unlocked all the time. Partly this might be because Stanford had more money to spend on installing their systems in a theft-resistant manner, in addition to being harder to get getaway vehicles close.

Finally, the wealth of Stanford might spare it from some crime. Its students are wealthier, and because a Stanford degree is so valuable, have much more to lose if they get kicked out. The isolation from the surrounding urban areas reduces crimes of opportunity, and the lushness of the campus probably also keeps ne'er-do-wells out. I don't know if it's so much that someone from a lower socioeconomic bracket would stick out like a sore thumb, but I bet they would feel like they stuck out. I can imagine some thief from a poor background walking around SJSU and feeling at home, but at Stanford sweating bullets because he was sure that there was some secret handshake that he didn't know.

(Note that I don't think poor people are less honest than rich people, but they steal different things. Poor people steal TVs; rich people defraud retirement funds.)

Ducky Sherwood