U.S. News Rankings at Odds with Quality of Academic Departments

Comparing the departmental rankings of leading public research universities to the overall rankings of the same schools by U.S. News yields striking disparities, emphasizing the impact that selectivity, class size, and financial resources have on the U.S. News listings, to the detriment of other factors.

(See also Rankings, Academic Departments: Private Elites vs Publics.)

As we have pointed out elsewhere, honors students have fewer concerns about class size because honors classes in the first two years tend to be much smaller than regular classes; and while selectivity is a driver of graduation rates, honors students have a six-year rate average grad rate approaching 90 percent in major public honors programs, with many significantly higher than 90 percent.

We have also commented before that the strong faculties at leading public research universities are competitive with many private elite national universities.  Soon we will update our post that compares the most recent departmental rankings of both public and private research universities.   In the meantime, below are the public research universities with the highest overall departmental rankings, listed along with their U.S. News ranking to illustrate the disparities.

The fifteen disciplines surveyed are business (undergrad); engineering (undergrad); biological sciences; chemistry; computer science; earth sciences; economics; education; English; history; math; physics; political science; psychology; and sociology.

Please note that many universities with highly-ranked academic departments (e.g., Indiana, Minnesota) do not have correspondingly high rankings in U.S. News.  The converse is also true: some highly ranked universities (e.g., Virginia) don’t have the highest ranked academic departments.

One of the main reasons for this kind of discrepancy is that U.S. News emphasizes selectivity and small class sizes, and some public universities with extremely strong faculties are not highly selective (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Washington) or have larger classes than many other universities.  But many class sections over the first two years, normally large for non-honors students, are usually much smaller for honors students. The takeaway for prospective honors students: selectivity for the university as a whole and the size of all classes at the university are less important for you than for non-honors students.

We certainly recognize the excellent instruction that occurs at, for example, William & Mary, Wake Forest, Lehigh, Carlton, Swarthmore, Williams, etc., regardless of whether or how highly their academic departments are rated.  But for highly qualified students who are looking at large research universities, we do believe the rankings of departments matters quite a bit.

Not included below are universities that do not have ranked departments in at least 13 of the 15 academic disciplines.  Notable among these is Georgia Tech, with its nationally renowned engineering programs and a very strong business department.

UC Berkeley has an average national departmental ranking of 3.33 across the 15 disciplines mentioned above.  Please bear in mind that the rankings below include all national universities, public and private.  All of the top five universities below–UC Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCLA, and UT Austin–have no academic departments among the 15 disciplines surveyed that are ranked lower than 30.

University U.S. News Rank Avg Natl Dept Rank
UC Berkeley 20 3.33
Michigan 29 9.40
Wisconsin 47 12.40
UCLA 23 12.43
UT Austin 53 14.93
Illinois 42 19.47
Washington 48 21.33
Minnesota 71 23.13
Ohio State 54 26.27
Indiana 76 26.43
North Carolina 30 26.53
Penn State 48 26.53
Maryland 62 28.33
UC Davis 38 28.57
UC San Diego 37 28.80
Virginia 23 33.60
UC Irvine 42 34.33
Colorado 88 36.93
Arizona 121 37.53
UC Santa Barbara 40 37.86
Purdue 62 42.20
Texas A&M 68 44.00
Florida 48 44.47
Rutgers 70 45.60
Stony Brook 88 47.00

Once Again, The New Republic Weighs in on the Ivies, and Here’s our Response

Once again, The New Republic  is featuring an article that discusses the pros and cons of an Ivy League education.  This time, the article comes in the form of a review of New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

In the TNR review, called “It Doesn’t Matter if Your Kid Doesn’t Get into Harvard,” author Nick Romeo claims that Bruni is too focused on the ability of college grads from non-Ivy institutions to achieve material success on a par with Ivy grads.

“He’s not asking his readers to examine a cultural obsession with success, so much as assuring them that they can still impress others without attending highly selective undergraduate institutions,” Romeo writes. “Just look at all the people who run huge companies or work at prestigious consulting or law firms, he says. Not all of them went to Ivy League schools! There are ‘myriad routes to a corner office,’ as he puts it. He never seriously considers the possibility that college might shape students into adults who are not interested in a corner office.”

Romeo prefers the earlier challenge to Ivy education published in TNR: William Deresiewicz’s now famous article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” which appeared on July 21, 2014, and has now been “shared” more than 200,000 times.  Deresiewwicz’s article argues that many less elite schools, such as public flagships, allow bright students more latitude to discover themselves in the midst of fellow students who are not all driven or overly-focused on channeling their lives toward one thing: an Ivy admission.

The fact is that college at its best is not an either/or proposition that pits learning for its own sake against training for a career.  In almost every college in the nation there are at least three broad types of students–those who are in alive with self-discovery and intellectual excitement, those who want to get out in a hurry and find a high-paying job, and many others who are open to intellectual expansion but are acutely aware that the “real world” awaits.

The subtitle of Bruni’s  book is “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”  But Nick Romeo argues that what Bruni describes “is not a bracing cure; it’s a soothing balm for upper-middle class parents whose children do not quite manage to scale the highest peaks of prestige.”

We see Bruni’s book as less an antidote than a balancing argument to the one proposed by Deresiewicz.  While many smart “kids” do and should value intellectual stimulation, they and their parents need to be practical as well.  If Bruni over-emphasizes the “antidote” of achieving career success equivalent to that of Ivy grads without attending an Ivy school, his message is one that parents and prospective students need to hear.

As we have noted many times, there are far more bright students than there are places at Ivy institutions, and these bright students should be able to find, and should know that they can find, both intellectual and career equivalence at colleges outside the Ivy League, including public honors colleges and programs.

It is well known that admission to any highly selective college can be capricious, subjective, and even approach the formulaic.  Ivy colleges are wonderful, in most cases, for students who are both brilliant and fortunate.   Students who are “merely” brilliant at one brief point of their lives need to know that the rest of their lives can be as fulfilling in all ways as the lives of their more fortunate counterparts.


UW-Eau Claire Rhodes Winner: Personal Attention for Honors Student Made the Difference

By Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire

Tayo Sanders II was a talented high school student with a passion for science and an eye toward a career in medicine or engineering the first time he stepped onto the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.

While bright and ambitious, at that time the word research didn’t mean a lot to Sanders, nanoscience sounded like a foreign language, he’d barely traveled outside of Wisconsin, and he’d never even heard of the Rhodes scholarship.

Tayo Sanders: "I can't imagine myself as a Rhodes Scholar if I had gone to school anywhere else."

But a friend’s father who was a physician and a UW-Eau Claire graduate convinced him that his alma mater, a regional public university with a nationally known chemistry program and highly accessible professors, would be a good fit for Sanders, a first-generation college student with limited financial resources.

Turns out, his friend’s dad could not have been more right.

In November 2014, Sanders was named one of 32 American students who will make up the 2015 Rhodes scholar class. In October — after graduating from UW-Eau Claire and then completing a summer internship at an investment firm in Washington, D.C. — he will begin his studies at Oxford University in England, where he will pursue his doctoral degree in materials while immersed in research alongside some of the world’s most respected scientists.

As a Rhodes scholar, Sanders joins an elite group that includes U.S. presidents, members of Congress, artists and others who are known internationally for their contributions to their chosen professions.

“In many ways, it still hasn’t fully sunk in,” says Sanders, who is one of just a handful of students from a public regional university to ever be selected as a Rhodes scholar, arguably the most prestigious scholarship program in the world. “When my professors suggested that I apply to be a Rhodes scholar, I didn’t even know what it was. And once I looked into it, I didn’t think I had a chance. But they convinced me to try and helped me believe it was possible.”

“I can’t imagine myself as a Rhodes scholar if I had gone to school anywhere else.”

UT Austin Plan II Honors Student Is Making Biomedical History

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in a news update by the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin….

A UT Austin undergraduate’s research could help change the way doctors diagnose diseases with known protein biomarkers like multiple sclerosis and leukemia.

Courtney Koepke, a Plan II and biomedical engineering junior, is an undergraduate research assistant at UT Austin’s Laboratory of Biomaterials, Drug Delivery and Bionanotechnology.

“As a freshman entering college, I didn’t know much about research or understand the important role it plays in the continual advancement of society,” Koepke says.

That changed when Nicholas Peppas, a biomedical engineering researcher at UT Austin, was a guest lecturer in one of Koepke’s classes. Intrigued by his presentation, Koepke looked into the research he and his lab were doing.

UT Plan II student Courney Koepke--"the rest, as they say, is history."

“As I read some of the recent publications from the lab, I realized I wanted to be a part of the research that was being conducted and a part of the group of individuals truly aspiring to change the world,” she says. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Koepke began working in Peppas’ lab at the beginning of her sophomore year. The experience has not only served as a vehicle for intellectual discovery, but also self-discovery.

“The motivating idea behind research is the discovery of new knowledge, which drives innovation and improvement in all areas of society,” Koepke says. “Being a part of that societal improvement and something bigger than oneself is something every undergraduate student can benefit from. Furthermore, research can allow undergraduates to uncover their strengths and weaknesses as well as likes and dislikes at an early age.”

The research Koepke is conducting is focused on molecularly imprinted polymers, or plastic antibodies, which are created in a lab to mimic naturally occurring antibodies.

“My research focuses on plastic antibodies as a recognition element for disease because over time naturally occurring antibodies become unstable and useless for recognition,” she says. “The goal of my research is to create a diagnostic tool to recognize protein biomarkers for disease. Using plastic antibodies as the recognition element in a diagnostic tool would allow for quicker and easier diagnosis of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, meningitis and leukemia.”

The liberal arts component to Koepke’s education has made a big impact on the way she approaches her work. As a Plan II student, she’s worked closely with students from a variety of backgrounds, who have exposed her to diverse opinions that challenge and expand her worldview.

“Taking classes such as world literature and philosophy has helped me mature intellectually in ways my science and engineering classes never could have,” Koepke says. “Liberal arts classes have forced me to question society and how it’s structured, as well as humanity and what our duty to it is as individuals.”

Koepke serves as president of Texas Engineering World Health, an organization that aims to create more equitable global health through innovation in medical technology.

Last year, Koepke and her teammates designed an app called Audiometry Made Easy, which provides a free audiometry test to assess hearing loss. It’s an important resource, especially in developing countries where a normal audiometer is an expensive and widely unavailable tool. The app is currently available in the Google Play store, and has received feedback from people using it around the world.

Koepke is also an active member in Women in Biomedical Engineering and she recently joined Texas 4000, through which she will bike from Austin to Anchorage in the summer of 2016 to raise money and awareness for cancer research.