For several years, we have kept track of U.S. News rankings of academic departments so that we can give readers some idea of which universities are strongest in 15 academic disciplines: biology, business, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, engineering, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology.
Sather Gate, UC Berkeley
We use this data for a variety of posts, including some that compare public and private university departmental rankings. In other posts we have shown the relation of departmental rankings to other factors, such as U.S. News rankings and lists based on academic reputation. In yet other posts we have listed the disciplines and then grouped universities under each discipline.
But in this post we simply list 75 public universities in order of the aggregate average of 15 academic departments. One caveat: not all of the 75 universities had a ranked department for each of the 15 disciplines. Nevertheless, for those who prioritize high quality in a university across the board, the list could be useful. Students often change majors, and it is reassuring to know that the new major may likely be as strong as the original choice.
UC Berkeley is far and away the leader with an average department ranking of 2.13 nationwide. This is all the more remarkable because many universities do not have even a single department ranked in the top 75.
The 2020 edition of Inside Honors was to have included in-depth ratings of 33 programs and somewhat shorter reviews of an additional seven programs. The COVID-19 issues facing universities will delay the next edition until October 2020 and has reduced the original number of programs that committed to participate. Most of the top-rated programs in previous editions will likewise be rated in 2020.
One positive: The new edition will include a new narrative section that summarizes each program and each profile will be longer, averaging 3,500 words.
The 33 programs that will now receive full ratings are below:
Central Florida (UCF)
College of Charleston
South Florida (USF)
Below are the seven programs that will receive unrated reviews:
North Carolina Charlotte
South Dakota St
When parents and prospective students think of the advantages of an honors college or program, they often cite smaller classes, talented instructors, priority registration, orbetter housing as being the most important.
But it is extremely important that they do not overlook another advantage that can have the greatest long-term impact on the student’s satisfaction and success: the structured undergraduate research programs that are increasingly affiliated with honors.
The University of Houston Honors College has taken steps to ensure that students not only know about research opportunities but also receive early training in how to conduct research and continued advising for leveraging their research into prestigious fellowships.
The program, called HERE (Houston Early Research Experience), is designed specifically to identify and prepare highly talented students, honors and non-honors, for the process of applying for generous fellowship opportunities. The research along the way promotes more contact between students and professors, more learning in depth, and a greater chance to obtain financial support both for upper-division undergraduate work and for graduate school.
“The HERE program at the University of Houston is an high-impact educational practice that enables fellowship advisors to identify and prepare potential applicants early in their academic careers,” according to Dr. Ben Rayder, Director of Scholarships and Major Awards for the Honors College. “Even though the program is still relatively new, we have already begun to see pipeline effects for student participation in applying for major awards and other experiential learning programs that effectively prepare fellowships candidates.”
The HERE program accomplishes the following:
•Recruits rising sophomore and junior honors students to pursue faculty-mentored research and apply for major awards upon completion of the program
•Integrates theoretical and applied knowledge early in the students’ academic year
•Raises big picture questions that students must collaborate with one another to answer
•Develops foundational research skills
•Builds relationships between students and faculty members
Although the HERE program is designed as an introduction to research and fellowship applications, participation requires a significant commitment. Students meet for five hours a day for a two-week period, during which they submit assignments via Blackboard, work on group assignments, and make final presentations to the group.
Ultimately the honors students receive advising and pursue opportunities in faculty-mentored research, study-abroad activities, service learning projects; most also follow up with preparation and advising related to prestigious fellowships, such as Goldwater Scholarships for undergraduates or Critical Learning and Fulbright Scholarships for seniors.
“The Houston Early Research Experience,” says Honors College Dean, William Monroe, “is proving to be a critical entry point drawing UH students into the substantial range of opportunities available to them for undergraduate research and other high impact experiential learning opportunities.”
Dr. Rayder did a presentation on the HERE program at the recent conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council in New Orleans.
Although rankings of international universities are not especially important for some academic disciplines, rankings of engineering and technology are of significant interest because so many U.S. companies who employ graduates in these fields have extensive international contacts, including multiple office facilities abroad.
Whether you are working for an American engineering or tech company at home or abroad, you will have colleagues from across the globe. At least one measure of your credibility with them could be based on the worldwide prominence of your alma mater.
Below are the top U.S. universities in engineering and technology, according to the Times Higher Ed rankings. The schools are listed in numerical order according to their U.S. ranking with their international ranking alongside. After the top 100 in the world, the rankings begin to group in increments of 25 or 50. World rankings up to 250 are included.
Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. For years now, I have kept an updated list of the departmental rankings that U.S. News publishes so that I can add them to the biannual profiles I do of honors programs. When the 2020 rankings came out, I wanted to see whether there was any clear relationship between the departmental scores and the academic reputation scores. Then I compared the latest reputation scores with those published in 2015 to see how much had changed. Finally, the table below also includes changes in university rankings and the most recent rankings for social mobility.
(I would welcome comments on this post. Please email email@example.com.)
It appears that the social mobility metric has had some impact, especially if the ranking is very strong, as in the case of many UC campuses and Florida institutions. There is no clear relationship between departmental scores and academic reputation scores. Departmental rankings do have a modest relationship to the overall U.S. News rankings, but there are many inconsistencies. Academic reputation scores do seem to show some “grade inflation” since 2015; often this is the case even when the U.S News ranking has dropped significantly.
The table below includes data for 100 public and private universities.
The cumulative rankings that I do for 15 academic disciplines requires some explanation. U.S. News only ranks graduate programs for most departments. Here are the disciplines for which I have cumulative departmental rankings, using the most recent data (2018): biological sciences; business (undergrad); chemistry, computer science; earth sciences; economics; education; engineering (undergrad);English; history; mathematics; physics; political science; psychology; and sociology.
Not every university has a ranked department in each of the 15 disciplines. I averaged departmental rankings for every university that had at least six ranked departments. For universities with, say, fewer than 12 ranked departments, the total ranking will be artificially high because only the best departments are ranked and I cannot include unranked departents. Most universities have 12-15 departments that are ranked, and so the overall average will be more useful for them. And some of the universities with a small number of ranked departments are specialized, such as Georgia Tech and Caltech. Clearly, even ranking only six or seven departments for those schools and getting a strong result is not misleading.
Universities with fewer than 10 departmental rankings: Colorado School of Mines; Georgia Tech; Miami Ohio; American; Brigham Young; Caltech; Dartmouth; Drexel; Fordham; Georgetown; and RPI.
It should be said that universities with relatively low departmental rankings can legitimately receive high rankings because of other meaningful factors, such as grad and retention rates and class size. Some excellent universities do not have an especially strong research focus or a lot of graduate programs. Dartmouth is one prominent example.
The universities below appear in rank order of their 2020 academic reputation, according to U.S. News.
At last, there is a major study that goes a long way toward answering this important question.
Dr. Art Spisak
Making good use of the increasing data now available on honors programs and their parent institutions, two honors researchers have recently published a major paper that compares honors students and non-honors students from 19 public research universities. Out of 119,000 total students, a total of 15,200 were or had been participants in an honors program.
The study is extremely helpful to parents and prospective honors students who rightly ask how an honors education differs from a non-honors education: How will participation in an honors program shape and differentiate an honors student? Will an honors education be the equivalent of an education at a more prestigious private college?
Feelings about the undergraduate experience: “In their undergraduate experience, students in the honors group reported a more positive experience, on average, than those in the non-honors group.” Both groups attended classes with similar frequency, but honors students reported greater activity in the following areas:
finding coursework so interesting that they do more work than is required;
communicating with profs outside of class;
working with faculty in activities other than coursework;
increasing effort in response to higher standards;
completing assigned reading;
attending to self care, eating, and sleeping;
spending more time studying;
performing more community service and volunteer work;
participating in student organizations;
and, while spending about the same time in employment, finding on-campus employment more frequently than non-honors students.
Participation in “high-impact” activities: These experiences contribute to undergraduate success and satisfaction as well as to higher achievement after graduation. Some of these are restricted to upperclassmen, so the study concentrated on participation by seniors in high-impact activities, including undergraduate research, senior capstone or thesis, collaborating with a professor on a project or paper, studying abroad, or serving in a position of leadership.
“Those [students] in the honors student segment of the senior sample had markedly higher cumulative college grade point averages.” The cumulative GPA of the honors group was 3.65; for the non-honors group it was 3.31. “A grade point average of 3.31 is located at the 38th percentile in the overall distribution within the study sample, and a grade point average of 3.65 is at the 69th percentile.” The authors found that the very significant difference was “particularly impressive” given that the high school GPAs of honors and non-honors students did not vary so significantly. Honors students were also 14% more likely to have served as an officer in a campus organization.
Students in the honors group were 77% more likely to have assisted faculty in research projects, 85% percent more likely to have studied abroad, and 2.5 times more likely to have conducted undergraduate research under faculty guidance.
Intellectual curiosity: Honors students expressed a statistically significant but not dramatically greater degree of intellectual curiosity; however, their intellectual curiosity was aligned with the “prestige” of an academic major. The study did not measure whether this attachment to prestige reflected a desire for greater intellectual challenge or for higher salaries associated with many such majors. (Or both.) Both groups placed similar emphasis on the importance of high pay after graduation and on career fulfillment.
Diversity: The study found that African American students were only 52% as likely to be in an honors program as they are to be in the larger university sample. Latin American students were 58% as likely. These figures may be due in part to the fact that, as a group, the 19 research universities “are located in states that are somewhat more white than the nation as a whole, but most of the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Research 1 universities do not, in general, have enrollments that are especially representative of ethnic and racial minorities.” On the other hand, LGBQ, transgender, and gender-questioning students “appear to be slightly over-represented among honors students.”
Low-income and first generation participation: These students “are significantly and substantially under-represented in the honors group.” Pell Grant recipients are 30% less likely to be in honors than in the non-honors group; and 40% of first-generation students are less likely to be in the honors group.
Test scores and HSGPA: There was a difference between honors and non-honors students, but it was not dramatic. “Regardless of which test score was used, the honors group had scores that were about 10% higher, on average.” (In our ratings of honors programs, we have found that honors test scores were about 17% higher, based on actual honors scores and the mid-range of test scores in U.S. News rankings.) The average high school GPA for the honors group was .11 points higher than for the non-honors group.
The study used data from the 2018 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey for 2018. Although the study only used data from Research 1 universities that comprise only 3% of all colleges and universities in the nation, R1 universities enroll 28.5% of all undergraduates pursuing four-year degrees.
Research centered on honors education is increasingly important: An estimated 300,000-400,000 honors students are enrolled in American colleges and universities today.
Although a recent study suggests that traditional dorms with hall baths might be better than new apartment-style residence halls in promoting strong connections and higher GPAs, the study does not take into account the positive impact that living/learning programs provide in the newer residences.
The study, summarized in an Inside Higher Ed article, found that the first-semester, first-year GPAs of African American students at an anonymous liberal arts college in the South were higher (2.3 vs 1.9) for students in traditional dorms. The same was true for white students but the improvement was minor (2.9 vs 2.8). The four-year study involved 5,538 students, including 800 African American students.
Accepting the premise that more social interaction enhances a sense of belonging and that this leads to improved academic performance, the study seems to favor traditional dorms that guarantee a high degree of social contact. But the idea that students in apartment-style (or suite-style) residence halls live in relative isolation does not fully consider that in newer honors living/learning residence halls, most of which are suite-style, students not only associate with a ready-made cohort of similar residents but they have a full range of honors programming available to them.
These include honors social activities within the dorm; faculty and outside speakers for honors students; access to in-depth research and faculty support; honors study-abroad programs; and smaller classes in the first year.
Non-honors living/learning communities such as those, notably, at Michigan State University, provide subject-area or cultural themes that bring students together in their residence community.
It is also true that traditional residence halls can offer living/learning programs. A better way to analyze the impact of traditional and suite-style dorms on student socialization and academic performance would be to compare GPAs between students in traditional living/learning dorms and students in suite-style dorms with living/learning programs.
A few honors colleges and programs have purposely built new residences that are traditional in design, based on the premise that they are more effective in promoting collegiality and a sense of belonging. For parents and prospective students, especially those looking at honors programs, it would be a good idea to consider the programming and the design and amenities of residence halls, in the order of importance to you.
The Inside Higher Ed article did not report on the types of programming in the residence halls involved in the study. The link to the actual study states that a $43 payment is required for access, so the full details are not reported here either
Serving a major public university as president for 19 years is a strong legacy in itself, but outgoing University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft and her husband, Steven Greenbaum, also announced in May a $20 million donation to help build a new honors college building. Then, on June 1 at a retirement gala for her, they donated an additional $3 million to endow the position of Dean of the Judy Genshaft Honors College.
Together these donations should propel the university and the JGHC to even loftier status. Under Genshaft’s leadership, USF has already risen to “preeminnent” status among Florida’s universities. The status, designated and approved by the Florida Board of Governors, is based on 12 benchmarks, including graduation and retention rates. The designation leads to greater funding to attract new students, recruit faculty, and promote research. The only other preeminent universities in the state thus far are the University of Florida and Florida State University.
Artist’s rendering of new home for Judy Genshaft Honors College at USF
The major part of the donation to the JGHC will fund almost half of the total cost of a new honors building, to be built just to the north of the Muma College of Business. The five-story building will feature office, classroom, meeting, and lounge spaces for students and faculty.
JGHC Dean Charles Adams says that the gifts “will allow us to greatly enhance our programmatic and curricular offerings, and expand our enrollment,” which is planned to increase from the current level of 2,200 students to around 3,000 students in the next five years. The honors college is already known for its large number of interdisciplinary, honors-only class sections.
Great news for undergraduates in STEM fields: The Barry M. Goldwater Foundation has more than doubled the number of annual scholarships it awards to sophomores and juniors who have outstanding potential to do research. Along with the Truman Scholarship, generally awarded to college juniors, the Goldwater Scholarship is the most prestigious undergraduate award. It is also closely linked to success in achieving prestigious post-graduate scholarships.
More good news: 252 of the Goldwater Scholars in 2019 are young women.
UConn Has Four Goldwater Scholars in 2019
In previous years, only a few public universities had three or more Goldwater Scholars in a given year; the maximum allowable is four scholarships. In 2018, seven public universities had three or more scholars. In 2019, the number increased to 40 public universities.
“From an estimated pool of over 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, 1223 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 443 academic institutions to compete for the 2019 Goldwater scholarships. Of students who reported, 241 of the Scholars are men, 252 are women [493 total], and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Sixty-two Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 360 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 74 are majoring in engineering. Many of the Scholars have published their research in leading journals and have presented their work at professional society conferences.”
In 2018, the foundation awarded only 209 scholarships.
“Scholarships of up to $7,500 a year are provided to help cover costs associated with tuition, mandatory fees, books, room and board. A sophomore who receives a Goldwater Scholarship will receive up to $7,500 in each of his/her junior and senior years. A junior who receives a Goldwater Scholarship will receive up to $7,500 in his/her senior year.”
“Many of the Scholars have dual majors in a variety of mathematics, science, engineering, and computer science. Scholars have impressive academic and research credentials that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 92 Rhodes Scholarships, 137 Marshall Awards, 159 Churchill Scholarships, 104 Hertz Fellowships, and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.”
The public universities with four Goldwater Scholars in 2019 are listed below:
Those with three awards in 2019 are below:
The College Board has developed a new data-driven tool designed to give college admissions officers the ability to evaluate test scores in light of an applicant’s educational, social, and economic background. The effort is the Board’s latest attempt to offset criticism that its tests favor the affluent, Asian students, and white students.
The new tool could also increase Latino and African American enrollment without the specific consideration of race or ethnicity, otherwise known as affirmative action, an approach that the Supreme Court might soon disallow.
So far, 50 colleges have been using the tool; it will expand to 150 later this year and be available to all schools in 2020.
The tool utilizes 15 factors (listed below) and provides a spreadsheet for admissions officers to use in analyzing the factors in relation to scores.
The new approach is certain to draw criticism, however. Students who live in relatively affluent neighborhoods, attend strong high schools, and enroll in advanced placement courses will receive low “adversity scores” and may find themselves relatively less likely to be admitted to some colleges.
Another issue: the data is based mostly on census block and other federal data, not on individual financial information. A wealthy white student might live in a gentrified neighborhood with inaccurate data indicating that it is still a lower income area. Similarly, a disadvantaged student might live just inside a census tract with high median income stats. Students will not receive a copy of the score–another area of controversy.
Students who attend highly competitive high schools in states with automatic admission based on high school class standing, such as Texas, already find it relatively harder to graduate in the top 6th or 7th percentile of their class. They are admitted “holistically” if they are not in the top percentiles; low adversity scores might narrow their chances even more. Or help them…who knows?
On the other hand, if the new tool on its own can lead to the higher enrollment of students now benefiting from automatic admission, Texas might be able to abandon the rule altogether.
High School Information–Four Factors
Average senior class size;
Average percentage of students taking the SAT;
Average freshman SAT score at colleges attended by SAT-taking graduates of the applicant’s high school;
Percentage of students at the high school who participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
High School AP Opportunity–Four Factors
Number of unique AP courses taught in that high school;
Percentage of the senior class who took at least one AP exam;
Average number of AP Exams taken by graduates who sat for at least one exam;
Average AP scores across all AP Exam takers and exams.
High School Percentiles–One Factor
The 25th, 50th, and 75th old SAT percentiles on Critical Reading, Math,
and Math + Critical Reading scores for graduates.
Neighborhood and High School Context–Six Factors
Undermatch Risk–Academic undermatch occurs when a student’s academic credentials substantially exceed the credentials of students enrolled in the same postsecondary institution.
Crime Risk–The Crime Risk represents the likelihood of being a victim of a
crime–not the likelihood of committing a crime.
Family Stability–Family stability is a combined measure based on the proportion of two-parent families, single-parent families, and children living under the poverty line within each neighborhood, or across the neighborhoods of past students attending that high school.
Educational Attainment–Educational attainment is a combined measure that looks at the pattern of educational attainment demonstrated by young adults in the community. ESL participation.
Housing Stability–Housing stability is a composite measure that includes vacancy rates, rental versus home ownership, and mobility/housing turnover, again based on aggregate population statistics.
Median Family Income — Median family income is based on weighted data from the Census/ American Community Survey.
Overall context is a weighted average of the individual metrics listed above. College admissions officers receive (1) bar graphs showing the applicant’s SAT score relative to others who share the applicant’s overall percentile of neighborhood
adversity and high school adversity and (2) the average freshman SAT score of entering students at the colleges that these respective groups of students attended.