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MAR 17, 2020 • 16 min read
Trying to distinguish between top institutes of technology around the world can be difficult no thanks to their similar names!
In this blog, you’ll uncover the true differences between five of the world’s top institutes of technology so you can be better prepared to make an educated decision when the time to pick a university comes.
First up, some definitions.
When tertiary education was established, most US universities focused solely on liberal arts educations, so the term institute of technology was coined to refer to places that focused on technology.
In layman’s terms, an institute of technology is just that; an “institute” that specialises in technological subjects including science and engineering.
Today, most institutes of technology still offer technological majors, now more commonly referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) but also offer non-STEM degrees such as English and Economics.
Not all STEM-focused universities are named Institutes of Technology, but we will discuss this more later.
Although the terms “university” and “college” used to be distinct terms that referred to places that did or did not have a graduate school, today the terms are used interchangeably in the US.
Now, all institutes of technology in the US can be informally referred to as a college or a university but not all colleges and universities around the world can be referred to as institutes of technology.
It seems confusing but is the same basic idea as squares and rectangles.
You may encounter the term ”polytechnic institute” while searching for top technical universities - this is simply another way of saying “institute of technology.”
In the US, there are three stand-out institutes of technology: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
Take a look below to discover which university may be right for you.
MIT and Caltech are both private universities while Georgia Tech is a public university.
The biggest advantage of going to Georgia Tech only applies to students who are from Georgia.
If you are from Georgia, you have almost double the chance of getting into Georgia Tech (37% vs. 19%). On the flip side, the high acceptance rate also means that Georgia Tech is less selective than the other two universities and therefore does not have as many of the top students in each field.
If you’re a Georgia resident, your cost of attendance is only $27,970 USD a year, about half of what it costs for out-of-state students. While it’s easy to be drawn into the seemingly cheap cost of attendance, Georgia Tech does not have as much financial aid to give out as private universities do so your net cost may be much higher than originally anticipated.
For example, the average financial aid package at Georgia Tech is $14,753 USD and the university meets about 66% of all students’ financial needs. With out-of-state tuition reaching up to $48,566 USD a year, you’ll still need to come up with about $33,813 USD a year.
MIT and Caltech, on the other hand, have much more substantial financial aid available because they are private universities.
If your family income is less than $80,000 USD, MIT ensures that you can attend the university tuition-free.
The average need-based MIT scholarship award is $42,801 USD. With a tuition rate of $70,240 USD a year, on average MIT is cheaper than Georgia Tech, regardless of the original sticker price. Not to mention, 71% of MIT graduates graduate with no student loan debt! And, according to Payscale’s 2018 Return on Investment (ROI) report, MIT is the 3rd best university in the country in terms of ROI.
The same report lists Georgia Tech as the 12th best university in the country in terms of ROI and Caltech as the 10th.
Speaking of Caltech, Caltech meets all US citizen and permanent resident students “demonstrated financial need” through grants, scholarships, student employment and some loans. Caltech also offers aid to international students but it is not need-blind, which means that the university will take your financial aid needs into consideration when you apply, which may affect your chances of being admitted.
If you’re from Georgia, Georgia Tech is the most affordable tech university.
If you’re an international student, MIT is the most affordable tech university and it’s need-blind!
If you are a US citizen or permanent resident and your expected family contribution (EFC) is relatively low, MIT and Caltech offer similar financial support.
However, if your EFC is high but you have good grades, MIT will be more affordable because it offers merit-based scholarships, which Caltech does not.
Public universities tend to be very large and Georgia Tech is no exception. With over 15,000 undergraduates, it is by far the largest of the three institutes of technology.
In comparison, MIT’s 4,000+ undergraduates is a nice middle ground between Georgia Tech and Caltech, which has just over 900 undergraduates.
Each university’s size attracts a certain type of student. If you want to meet a new person every day and avoid people you don’t like, Georgia Tech’s massive undergraduate population gives you the flexibility to do so. However, if you feel more comfortable in an environment where everyone knows your name, then Caltech is the way to go.
The size of each university affects more than the campus culture, though. These factors also play a huge part of the resources and learning environment you’ll experience.
For example, while most freshman (first-year) courses at MIT and Georgia Tech can have well over 200 students in them, Caltech’s entire freshman class is around 250 people, so the majority of its classes, even the introductory ones, are much smaller.
As Crimson’s APAC Strategy Director, Geoffrey Kyi, says, “Caltech’s tiny population of intensely focused minds facilitates a rich research-first culture, starting from the faculty, on to the graduate students and finishing with undergraduates.”
With such a small student body, Caltech students tend to be very helpful. As a result, the level of competition between students tends to be relatively low. The small student body also gives you plenty of of face-to-face time with your professors and allows you get to know them on a personal level.
At MIT, on the other hand, classes tend to be very competitive and many students crack under the pressure of the insanely rigorous course load. The larger classes typically mean that you’ll be lectured by the top professors once a week and then meet in smaller groups led by a teacher’s assistant or graduate student to discuss the week’s materials. On the plus side, having more students per class means that you have more people to learn from and be inspired by!
Aside from their difference in size, each university also has separate subject strengths.
MIT and Georgia Tech are better known for their engineering programs whereas Caltech is better known for its pure science programs.
Case in point, Caltech only has about four engineering majors to choose from where MIT has over 18!
Caltech also focuses solely on its strengths: math and hard sciences. Although it does offer a few humanities and liberal arts majors such as English and business, these programs aren’t ranked very highly so attending Caltech to study something other than math or pure sciences might not be the best decision.
On the other hand, Georgia Tech offers a plethora of degrees in all fields, ranging from computer science to digital media. Similarly, none of its non-STEM programs are ranked in the top 20 QS World University Subject Rankings except for architecture.
MIT, on the other hand, has some of the US’ best humanities majors as well as top programs in engineering, science and math. The breadth of MIT’s strengths is much larger than Caltech’s and Georgia Tech’s, which means if you’re interested in studying something outside of STEM or technology or simply want to minor in another subject, MIT is the way to go.
MIT is situated in the heart of Cambridge, a funky city walking distance from Harvard and other universities such as Boston University. Cambridge summers are extremely hot and the winters are brutally cold.
Georgia Tech is located in Atlanta, a bustling city with hot summers and mild winters.
Caltech has the best weather out of the three universities by far. It is in a rather suburban area near Los Angeles named Pasadena and it’s almost always sunny and 21℃.
This may seem silly but if a student is picking between MIT or Caltech and they are interested in studying math, they tend to make their decision based on the weather!
What can I say, not everyone can handle the freezing Cambridge winters.
By far, Caltech’s starting salary is by far the highest, cashing in at around $105,500 USD a year.
MIT’s average starting salary of $87,812-$88,381 USD (without bonuses) comes in second, which puts [Georgia Tech’s median starting salary] (https://www.academiceffectiveness.gatech.edu/2017/07/18/spring-2017-career-and-salary-data-now-available/) of $70,000 USD in third place.
However, all of these starting salaries are way above the US’s national average starting salary of $50,359 USD a year so regardless of which institute of technology you choose, you’re bound to make more than most graduates.
If you thrive in a small, suburban environment and are looking to major in math or hard sciences with the thought of perhaps becoming a professor in the future, Caltech is the institute for you.
Acceptance Rate: 8% (2017) Undergraduate Population: 961 Percent of International Students: 8% QS Overall Ranking: #4 Engineering and Technology QS Ranking: #26 Total Cost of Attendance (without financial aid): $72,084 USD a year Average Starting Salary: $105,500 USD
If you can handle insanely cold winters and want the absolute best educational experience in either a STEM or humanities field, MIT is the place to be.
Want to see exactly how MIT’s subject diversity plays into everyday life? Take a look at the video below!
Acceptance Rate: 6.7% Undergraduate Population: 4,547 Percent of Undergraduate International Students: 10.3% QS Overall Ranking: #1 Engineering and Technology QS Ranking: #1 Total Cost of Attendance (without financial aid): $70,240 USD a year Average Starting Salary: $87,812-$88,381 USD (without bonuses)
If you crave a typical college feel coupled with excellent engineering and computer science-focused academics, Georgia Tech is the place to be.
Acceptance Rate: In-state: 37%, out-of-state: 19% Undergraduate Population: 15,142 Percent of International Students: About 3.9% QS Overall Ranking: #69 Engineering and Technology QS Ranking: #24 Total Cost of Attendance (without financial aid): In-state: $27,970 USD a year, out-of-state: $48,566 USD a year Median Starting Salary: $70,000 USD
Two of the top global institutes of technology are Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) and ETH Zurich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich)
With over 23,753 undergraduate students, NTU is more than double the size of ETH Zurich.
On top of that, over 30% of NTU students are international students!
At between $5,907- $51,907 USD a year for tuition only, NTU can either be very cost-efficient or very expensive, depending on what you study and where you are from. The cheaper fees are for Singapore citizens and the most expensive are for international students who want to study medicine.
You should also expect to pay between $8,778- $17,340 USD a school year (about nine months) for your living costs and other expenses.
NTU doesn’t offer any scholarships or grants but you can obtain loans, even as an international student, to help cover your costs. You can also recieve bursaries that are offered by private organisations and/or individuals to help cover your living expenses.
At $1,169 USD a year, ETH Zurich’s tuition is substantially less than NTU’s; however, living costs and miscellaneous expenses run between $15,498- $25,549 USD a school year, which is much higher than NTU’s living costs.
Unlike NTU, ETH does offer scholarships but they are mostly for graduate students so as an undergraduate student you may have a hard time finding funding.
NTU is the most cost efficient tech university if you don’t plan on studying medicine.
Although NTU is a fairly new university, it is one of the fastest growing universities in the world and it’s only getting more prestigious every year.
The university excels in a multitude of subjects and according to QS, has seven subjects ranked in the top 15 globally:
Materials Sciences (#3) Chemistry (#11) Engineering and Technology (#12) Communication and Media Studies (#12) Electrical and Electronic Engineering (#12) Chemical Engineering (#14) Mechanical Engineering (#14)
NTU excels in STEM-based subjects but doesn’t shine in other humanities-based subjects.
On the other hand, ETH Zurich is older and is more widely recognised than NTU, for now.
Aside from its stellar academics and rankings, a big part of its global recognition is due to the fact that Einstein studied there.
ETH Zurich has 14 subjects ranked in the top 15, including: Earth and Marine Sciences (#1) Architecture (#4) Engineering and Technology (#4) Environmental Studies (#6) Mathematics (#8) Computer Science (#9) Physics and Astronomy (#10) Statistics and Operational Research (#10) Agriculture and Forestry (#11) Electrical Engineering (#11) Biological Sciences (#12) Chemistry (#12) Chemical Engineering (#12) Materials Science (#15)
Unlike most of the universities above, ETH Zurich does not offer many majors outside of the typical STEM subjects. It offers one course titled “Humanities, Social and Political Sciences”, which is still focused on understanding sciences but through a humanities-based lens.
The most obvious difference between the two universities are their locations: Singapore and Zurich.
Like the US universities, these locations appeal to different types of students. Both are rather expensive cities to live in but Singapore also has the charm of typical Southeast Asian city, including cheap and delicious Hawker food, whereas Zurich has the ease of a European city.
The weather is also dramatically different. In Singapore, you can almost always be certain it will be sunny and about 30 degrees; however, Zurich experiences all seasons, including snowy winters.
The difference in weather alone can help you decide which university you prefer!
Remember when I said that NTU is more cost-efficient than ETH? When you factor in starting salary, this is not necessarily the case.
NTU’s average starting salary is $30,621 USD. In comparison, ETH’s average starting salary is $71,259 USD. On face value, it seems that ETH is much more valuable come salary time; however, as we’ve already seen, the cost of living is much higher in Switzerland than in Singapore.
According to a 2018 report by NUMBEO, Switzerland is the second most expensive country in the world to live in, Singapore comes in 8th.
So although ETH’s starting salary is more than double NTU’s, you’ll be paying more than double in living costs while you’re at uni and will pay a much higher cost of living in general after graduation.
If you want a cutting-edge experience at a university that is quickly rising through the global rankings, NTU is for you.
Acceptance Rate: N/A Undergraduate Population: 23,753Percent of International Students: About 30% QS Overall Ranking: #12 Engineering and Technology QS Ranking: #5 Total Cost of Attendance (without financial aid): $5,907-$51,739 USD a year for tuition only, depending on citizenship and degree Average Starting Salary: $30,621 USD
If you want to study in Europe and ensure that you receive a top, globally recognised STEM degree, ETH Zurich is a strong choice.
If it was good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for you.
Acceptance Rate: N/A Undergraduate Population: 9,262 Percent of International Students: N/A QS Overall Ranking: #7 Engineering and Technology QS Ranking: #4 Total Cost of Attendance (without financial aid): $1,169 USD a year for tuition only Average Starting Salary: $71,259 USD
Attending a university just because it’s an “institute of technology” or a “polytechnical university” won’t ensure that you are getting the best tech or STEM education possible.
In fact, only three of the top 10 universities in the world for engineering and technology are named “institutes of technology.”
Some universities that are named “institutes of technology”, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute don’t even crack the top 200 global engineering and technology universities; however, it doesn’t mean that those are not great universities to attend.
The logic works in reverse as well.
Just because a university has a certain title, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have other strengths. For example, MIT is the number four Art and Design program in the world and NTU is number 12 in the world for Communication and Media Studies, neither of which are tech-based fields!
The truth is, university names simply do not matter.
The best way to decipher which universities excel in which subjects is to research the specific courses you are interested in. Take a look at the QS World University Subject rankings, university websites and even Quora to figure out which university is the right fit for you.
If you do find yourself deciding between MIT, Caltech and ETH Zurich, you now know each university's strengths and weaknesses. Just remember, it’s not all about the name.