Choosing universities based on their major-specific strengths for undergraduate education

by VipulNaik 1 min read5th Oct 20132 comments


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.