Surprise: Public Universities Have the Best Academic Departments

We have completed an analysis of academic departmental rankings published by U.S. News, and one result may be a surprise: of the top 56 universities with the best academic departments, 34 are public.   After the top dozen or so universities, including familiar names such as Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, the list is dominated by public institutions.

Part of the reason is that the public universities below are leading research institutions, while a few of the elite private schools that show up in the top 25 of the U.S. News rankings are not really research-intensive.  Examples are Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Notre Dame.  Yet most of the other elite private schools do have a research focus along with many respected graduate courses of study.

Prospective honors students, more than most other students who are considering college, should pay close attention to the rankings of the academic departments in the schools they are considering.  Why do we believe that this is so?

1.  As the somewhat surprising departmental statistics below demonstrate, some of the strongest academic departments in the nation are at public research universities, where the disadvantages of large schools are mitigated by offering honors students relatively small honors communities and classes.

2. Conventional national college rankings often emphasize financial resources, selectivity, small class size, and graduation rates to the point that the actual quality of academic departments can be obscured.  But public university honors students typically have smaller classes and much higher graduation rates than those for the university as a whole.

3. Honors students interested in post-graduate research options should know that there is a strong correlation between highly-rated academic departments and the number of National Science Graduate Research Grants as well as the number of Fulbright Student awards.  Both of these awards are allied with careers in research and academe.

4.  Strong academic departments and an emphasis on undergraduate research, which is often a component of honors programs, also promotes high achievement in earning undergraduate awards, such as Goldwater scholarships.

Having listed the points we above, we also advise prospective honors students to ask honors staff about the reach of the honors curriculum and whether the best professors in strong academic departments are available to teach at least upper-division honors sections.

The departmental rankings below may include up to 15 departments from each university: undergraduate business, undergraduate engineering, and graduate rankings for biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, earth science, economics, education, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Universities whose stats do not include all 15 of the departments above may not do so because (1) they might not offer undergraduate or graduate degrees in the subject (e.g., business, education, engineering); or (2) the ranking of the department is in the lower third of the rankings and are not listed at all.

On the left is the cumulative ranking of academic departments, by institution.  Next we list the number of departments included in the analysis.  Then the actual rating is listed, with, for example, the 2.71 rating for Stanford indicating that of the 14 ranked departments, the overall average was 2.71 on a scale of 1 to 200, with 1 being the best national ranking a department can receive.  Thus the “average” department at Stanford is in the top 3 nationally.  The final listing is the 2014 U.S. News rank of the university as a whole.  Please note that if you are a student of the U.S. News rankings, the cumulative academic department rating is not the same as the “peer assessment” used in the rankings, though there is some correlation.  Public universities are in bold type.

 Dept Rank                   #Depts        Rating                 US News                     

1-Stanford

14

2.71

5

2-UC Berkeley

15

3.13

20

3-MIT

12

4.58

7

4-Harvard

14

5.57

2

5-Caltech

8

5.63

10

6-Princeton

13

5.77

.

1

7-Michigan

15

9.47

28

8-Columbia

13

10.85

4

9-Cornell

14

11.64

16

10-Chicago

12

11.92

5

11-Yale

13

12.00

3

12-Wisconsin

15

12.73

41

13-UCLA

14

12.86

23

14-UT-Austin

15

14.27

52

15-Penn

15

18.53

7

16-Northwestern

14

19.00

12

17-Illinois

15

19.33

41

18-Johns Hopkins

14

19.36

12

19-Washington

15

21.67

52

20-Duke

13

22.38

7

21-Minnesota

15

23.07

69

22-UC San Diego

14

23.29

39

23-Ohio State

15

25.47

52

24-North Carolina

15

25.80

30

25-Penn State

15

25.93

37

26-Brown

13

27.08

14

27-Maryland

15

27.40

62

28-Indiana

14

29.07

75

29-Wash U

13

29.08

14

30-UC Davis

14

30.57

39

31-Virginia

15

32.47

23

32-Georgia Tech

9

32.78

36

33-Emory

11

33.00

20

34-Vanderbilt

14

33.29

17

35-Rice

12

33.83

18

36-UC Irvine

13

34.31

49

37-UC Santa Barb

14

35.64

41

38-Colorado

15

37.00

86

39–USC

15

37.73

23

40-Arizona

15

38.20

119

41-Purdue

15

40.33

68

42-Dartmouth

8

42.75

10

43-Michigan State

15

43.20

73

44-Texas A&M

15

43.80

69

45-Rutgers

15

43.87

63

46-Florida

15

44.00

49

47-Pitt

15

46.00

62

48-Iowa

15

46.93

73

49-Stony Brook

14

47.08

82

50-Arizona State

15

47.27

142

51-Oregon

14

49.36

109

52-Massachusetts

14

52.14

91

53-Notre Dame

13

52.23

18

54-Virginia Tech

12

57.58

69

55-Illinois Chicago

15

58.07

128

56-Georgetown

6

59.33

20

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