Why choose Cal Poly for Computer Science?

California Polytechnic State University located in San Luis Obispo, California (Cal Poly SLO for short), is a top university in the west coast of United States.

The word “polytechnic” means different things in different countries. In the US it means a university that offers industry-oriented as opposed to research-oriented education.

Cal Poly SLO offers 4-year bachelor’s and 2-year master’s degrees. A blended 4+1 program is also available to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time. PhD degrees are not offered since Cal Poly is not a research university.

Being industry oriented, Cal Poly SLO has strong industry connections so getting internships and jobs is easier than at many other universities. Top companies such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft come to Cal Poly campus to recruit students for internships and jobs.

Ranking

Many ranking web sites only include research universities. Cal Poly is not a research university, so it is not ranked on such web sites. Even when it is included, it appears lower on such lists. For what it is worth, Cal Poly ranks at 51 out of 739 colleges on Money magazine’s Best Colleges in America 2020, and at 58 out of 600 on Forbes magazine’s America’s Top Colleges 2021.

But if you change the criterion from research output to employment outcomes Cal Poly appears higher in the lists. Cal Poly SLO is in the top 20 to 25 on lists that are based on employment outcome:

Cal Poly’s footprint in top tech companies is especially impressive when you consider that Cal Poly is far smaller than other universities in terms of enrollment. Just 196 people graduated from Cal Poly in computer related majors in 2019. Compare that to 1,129 from USC, 704 from UC San Diego, 676 from ASU, 676 from UIUC, 661 from UC Irvine, and 507 from Purdue. (Data available here).

Is Cal Poly well known?

Cal Poly is not well known internationally, or even nationally. However, Cal Poly has a strong reputation in Silicon Valley. It is well known among top tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon, and that’s what matters.

Comparison to UCs

For largely historical reasons California has two state university systems: University of California (UC) system and California State University (CSU) system. UC has 9 campuses and CSU has 23. UC Berkely and UCLA are the most selective among UCs. Cal Poly SLO is the most selective among CSUs.

Cal Poly SLO falls below UC Berkely and UCLA, and above most other UCs, in terms of selectivity. See acceptance rates here. Cal Poly SLO is comparable to mid-tier UCs in terms of prestige.

Note that there are three Cal Polys under the CSU system. This article is specifically about Cal Poly SLO, the San Luis Obispo campus. When we say Cal Poly in this article, we mean Cal Poly SLO. Cal Poly SLO is far ahead of the other two Cal Polys in terms of selectivity.

Undergraduate focus

At other universities the priority is research, and the focus is on graduate and PhD students because the reputation of the university is based on the research output, papers published, how often those papers are cited, and so on. Cal Poly’s reputation is based on the quality of undergraduate education alone.

At Cal Poly undergraduates get to take courses such as Distributed Systems and Deep Learning. At other universities they are often reserved for graduate students, and the content of the courses are oriented towards graduate students. More on this below.

Small class sizes

At other universities it is common to have 200 or more students in a class, and the lecture halls are huge. You might as well watch a recording of the class since the class is not interactive. At Cal Poly the typical class size is 35 students. Professors know your name.

Professors who love to teach

At research universities professors are focused on research. They may also teach, but recognition for them comes from their research output. At Cal Poly you learn from professors who love to teach (and they are there to teach, not research, and they passed up industry job opportunities that pay many times more). Students who attend Cal Poly CS speak highly of their professors.

For contrast, listen to what a UC Berkeley student had to say on this topic: “As a current grad student [at UC Berkeley]: it’s a fantastic research university and a beautiful campus, but the undergraduate experience is terrible. Classes are giant and there’s very little faculty/student interaction, because the focus of the faculty is, for better or for worse, not on undergraduate education.”

Start in your major on day one

In some universities students declare their major by the end of the freshman year, or in some cases during the sophomore year. At Cal Poly you declare your major when you apply for admission, and you start in your major on day one!

If you have taken AP Computer Science in high school, then at Cal Poly you can take Data Structures and Algorithms course on your first day and start learning about stacks and queues and binary trees and graphs and so on. (For comparison, UC Irvine students don’t take this foundational course until mid-sophomore year.) By the end of your sophomore year you can be ready for software development internships, leaving your junior and senior years for advanced courses such as Deep Learning and Distributed Systems.

Learn by doing

“Learn by doing” is more than a motto at Cal Poly. Almost every CS course at Cal Poly has a lab component.

According to a UC Irvine student on reddit, he took Algorithm design course without writing a single line of code. Same for Networks course. An ASU student reports, “I have barely coded and I am a second semester sophomore with a 4.0.”

Not at Cal Poly. Here you start coding the very first quarter of your freshman year. When you take the Networks course you have to write code using sockets. When you take the Algorithm design course you have to implement graph algorithms, dynamic programming, and so on.

Curriculum and course catalog

This is probably the most important criterion — what could be more important than what you get to learn at the college?

Some universities are not good at keeping their courses current. For example this ASU student complains about being taught outdated technologies such as JavaFX and Swing. This is not an issue at Cal Poly.

The CS course catalog at Cal Poly is impressive. Cal Poly has courses on almost all important industry-relevant topics including Deep Learning, Distributed Computing, Distributed Systems and so on. (These courses are very important to prepare you for jobs at top tech companies such as Google.)

While some of those courses may be available in other colleges too, they are almost always intended for graduate and PhD students, and undergrads are not allowed to take them. (For example, this Distributed Systems course at Purdue is restricted to those who are enrolled for MS or Ph.D. programs.) At Cal Poly — thanks to their undergraduate focus — these courses are intended for undergrads.

Cal Poly offers 5 concentrations in Computer Science, including AI & Machine Learning, and Data Engineering. See details of concentrations. That’s in addition to Software Engineering, which is a separate major.

Internships and job opportunities

This is an area where Cal Poly excels. Thanks to ‘learn by doing’, Cal Poly has a strong reputation among tech companies. Top tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon come to Cal Poly campus to conduct on-campus interviews for internships as well as jobs. Read more about Cal Poly career fairs. See outcomes including top employers and salaries here.

Amazon has a software development office in downtown San Luis Obispo where Cal Poly students can work as interns year round, working 16 hours per week. For more info see here.

Apple, known for being picky about where it hires fresh graduates from, is one of the top employers of Cal Poly graduates. Apple hires more from Cal Poly — as a percentage of the graduating class — than from any other university. Apple hired 8.3% of all Cal Poly graduates according to a recent report. Stanford came in second, with 7.7% of graduates hired by Apple.

Why would Apple prefer Cal Poly graduates over graduates of more prestigious universities? Because Cal Poly teaches to the industry and Cal Poly students don’t just learn the theory, they ‘learn by doing’, and are ‘Ready Day One’.

Research

Cal Poly is not a research university. That’s not to say research opportunities are not available. Cal Poly offers research opportunities to undergraduate students. See here and here for more information. The William and Linda Frost Center for undergraduate research will open soon. It is funded by a $110 million gift specifically intended for enhancing the resources for undergraduate research.

Being industry oriented, Cal Poly does applied research. Also, undergraduates get to fully participate in research, thanks to Cal Poly’s undergraduate focus.

Diversity

One thing Cal Poly is not known for is diversity. Cal Poly is predominantly White. While this may be true for the university in general, College of Engineering tends to be more diverse, and Computer Science is quite diverse.

Student demographic information is available here.

Campus

Cal Poly campus, while beautiful, is not as impressive as some UC campuses. There are no fountains. No sculptures. No Gothic architecture. In fact, there is no common architectural theme for its buildings. If you had to location-shoot a movie on a college campus, you would not pick Cal Poly.

But keep in mind that universities that have more impressive campuses make you pay for it with significantly higher tuition. For example, if you are from out of state, UCs charge nearly $80,000 more than Cal Poly. Still want sculptures and fountains?

While Cal Poly campus is less impressive, it is not lacking in facilities or convenience. It has new buildings, for example the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms, Poly Canyon Village apartments and Vista Grande dining hall are new and modern.

What the campus looks like only helps to make the initial impression. People who went to Cal Poly and lived on its campus for 4 years overwhelmingly loved their experience. Parents who went to Cal Poly send their kids to Cal Poly so that they too can have the same experience.

Location

Cal Poly is not located in or close to a major city. It is 3 hours from San Francisco and 3 hours from Los Angeles. But it is located in a beautiful area, close to beaches, and San Luis Obispo has a nice downtown. If you’re an outdoorsy person you will not be bored. The Oprah show called San Luis Obispo “America’s happiest city”.

San Luis Obispo also has the nicest weather you could ask for.

Conclusion

If your objective is to eventually get a PhD then other universities may offer more research opportunities and a research-oriented education. But if your objective is to get a job at a top-tier tech company Cal Poly SLO is a great choice.

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