Rankings, Academic Departments: Private Elites vs Publics

Editor’s Note: This page was updated on March 21, 2020, to reflect revised rankings. The U.S. News national university rankings and academic reputation rankings are shown as a point of comparison with the academic department rankings.

The purpose of this page is to illustrate the seeming inconsistencies that emerge when overall rankings, reputation rankings, and departmental rankings–all based on the data that U.S. News publishes–are viewed side by side. Our hope is that the comparisons will help readers make decisions based on their own priorities. It is also useful to evaluate the range of academic strengths a university offers, since so many students change majors at least once.

On this page, we compare the aggregate ranking of 15 disciplines in both private elite universities and public universities. (Example: Harvard has 14 disciplines that are ranked, and the average national ranking across all 14 disciplines is 5.6, with Harvard having only one department ranked lower than 20th in the nation.)

Criteria for Inclusion in This List: Each of the universities on the list has an aggregate departmental ranking better than 100th, with at least 7 ranked departments.The departments ranked are business and engineering (undergrad); biology, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, economics, education, English, history, math, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology (graduate level).

(See list below.)

There are many elements that make a university strong, and U.S. News assigns a significant weight to academic reputation; but its rankings of academic departments, mostly on the graduate level, are not a part of the widely-read “Best Colleges” report each  year. The departmental rankings, while still subjective, are probably a better measure.

On the other hand, the departmental rankings are based largely on the research reputation of the departments. Most parents and prospective students tend to assume that in the private elite schools with high departmental rankings, undergraduate students still have significant contact with leading professors.  In practice, the amount of such contact varies.

In the case of public research universities, which of course have many more students, the access that non-honors students have to top professors and undergrad research opportunities may be quite limited.  But for honors students, this kind of access is often a deliberate feature of the honors college or program.  Therefore, honors students could benefit from paying close attention to comparing the rankings of academic departments, especially when the costs of attending a private elite are a major issue even after need-based aid is available.

It may come as a surprise that the updated information below shows that public universities compete very strongly against leading private institutions when it comes to the rankings of academic departments. Some of the private schools have lower overall rankings because they offer courses in engineering and education disciplines–traditionally more established in public universities. For example, the aggregate ranking for Harvard would be 3.9 if engineering (ranked 25th) were excluded, and Yale would have an aggregate ranking of 8.31 if engineering (34th) were excluded.

On the other hand, universities such as Chicago are not penalized because they lack programs in engineering or education.

Eleven of the 67 schools on the list below have all academic departments ranked 30th or better in the nation. The private elites in this group are Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell; the public universities in the group are UC Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCLA, and UT Austin.

Universities are listed according to their average departmental ranking, followed by the reputation ranking, and then the U.S. News overall ranking.

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