Prospective undergraduates generally choose universities based on their overall reputation along dimensions such as academics, grading standards, social life, cost, peer group, etc. In the United States, there's a small list of top universities that appear across different rankings. Typical, for instance, is the US News ranking, one for national universities and one for national liberal arts colleges.

A strong overall program is most relevant to undergraduates who care more about their overall educational experience, and/or are undecided about their major. For people who are keen on a specific major, however, the overall ranking may not be that helpful. Rather, the quality of the department that they are majoring with may matter more. For people who want to use their undergraduate years to accumulate domain-specific research experience, , and the opportunities for undergraduate research, whether it's supervised reading or lab work, may also matter.

My questions:

  1. In general, are liberal arts colleges less likely to be good than research institutions for students who want research experience while they are undergraduates?
  2. Do certain kinds of universities tend to be better at encouraging independent study, lab research, or other forms of relevant academic and work experience, after controlling for overall ranking?
    • Alex K. Chen writes in his review of the University of Washington that the University offers excellent resources for research in the sciences, on account of the sheer size of its research programs, particularly its interdisciplinary programs.
    • I've been told by some people that the Massachussetts Institute of Technology does a good job of encouraging faculty-guided reading and research, but this may be specific to the mathematics department.
  3. What are some examples of, or links to lists of, colleges and universities that have extremely strong faculty, and correspondingly strong opportunities for learning inside and outside the classroom, in a particular department, relative to their formal ranking? Some possible examples:
    • A number of people I know directly and indirectly have been involved with the George Mason University Department of Economics, and I'm very favorably impressed by the quality of GMU bloggers, including Bryan Caplan at EconLog, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, Donald Boudreaux and Russ Roberts (formerly at GMU) at Cafe Hayek, and some at the law school such as Ilya Somin. The department also includes Vernon Smith, Walter Williams, and other notable individuals, and was ranked the top university in the southern US for economics by Mixon and Upadhyaya (2001).
    • A friend of mine, Jonah Sinick, claimed to me in private conversation that Cornell University is unusually good for undergraduate math majors interested in geometry/topology, relative to its overall ranking. Cornell is home to Allen Hatcher, Karen Vogtmann, and Ken Brown.


New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

1) Yes, it's not even close. 2) Yes 3) You are very unlikely to find a reliable list concerning this. In terms of your opportunities for learning, student quality is more important than faculty quality. You really don't have the capacity as a high school student to judge the quality of a school's professors based on the professors' popular writings.

I'm a liberal arts professor.


first two questions are obvious yesses. For 3) I agree with James_Miller, and add that as a current undergrad at a research university, I have found partnering with interesting, high-quality grad students and postdocs to be way more helpful in terms of getting support to do the research I want to do. Often (in my experience) they are far freer with their time and advice, more innovative and willing to take risks, more interested in working with undergrads, and often more on top of new directions a given field may be going in.

If I could do it over, I'd focus on reading some grad student bios and seeing how well they fit my interests.

I'd also note that a huge percentage of high schoolers I know were sure they wanted to become e.g. engineers, they'd wanted that for the last ten years, etc., and by the end of freshman year they're in physics or environmental studies. So choosing a university based on excellence in a prospective major alone is one of those huge risks everyone thinks won't affect them. Obviously some of them are wrong.