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