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Top Colleges - Methodology

In order to identify top colleges for each major, we considered the following six factors:

Overall Selectivity (20%)

Though selectivity is not a perfect proxy for college or major/program quality, it is highly correlated with student ability/achievement and institutional expenditures per student--both contribute significantly to the undergraduate learning experience. We looked to a college's freshman admission rate and average SAT/ACT score (as reported by the College Board) when measuring selectivity.

Major Emphasis/Share (20%)

If a (relatively) high percentage of students at a particular college are studying a specific major, it is likely that the major attracts a relatively high amount of resources. Moreover, if a college enrolls a relatively high percentage of all students (in the U.S.) studying a particular major (i.e. it has a large market share), it is likely that the college has been identified (by both prospective students, employers, and other stakeholders) as a leader in that subject area. Though the latter may appear to encourage bias against smaller institutions or programs, it is important to account for the fact that larger programs may attract more tuition revenue, have a better ability to meet fixed costs, and thus greater opportunity to invest in program/major offerings.

In order to measure major emphasis (i.e. the percentage college's students enrolling in a particular major) and market share (i.e. the percentage of all students studying a major that are enrolled in a particular college), we relied on data collected by National Center for Education Statistics and as reported by WebCaspar.

Peer Assessment (20%)

In order to derive a peer assessment score, we look to rankings and "strong programs" data published by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Fiske Guide. Each utilizes thousands of student, faculty, and/or administrative surveys/questionnaires to identify colleges that offer strong majors/programs within a particular field. Alone, peer assessment surveys are subject to a fair amount of bias. However, when evaluated in sum and when considered along with more objective data--such as that examining selectivity, earnings, emphasis, and productivity--they can provide more complete and corroborative insight into the strength of a particular program/major.

Student-to-Faculty Ratio and Class Size (15%)

Research consistently shows that student-faculty interaction and collaboration with professors/staffs leads to better learning and career-related outcomes. Data for these indicators was collected from the U.S. Department of Education, institution websites, and surveys of college administrators.

Graduate Earnings (15%)

To measure graduate earnings, we relied on data provided by PayScale.com, which indicates both early-career and mid-career wages of students by college and by category of major. For example, PayScale provides salary data for student attending Boston University and majoring in engineering, which is different from salary data for students attending Boston University and majoring in business.

Both early-career wages and mid-career wages were analyzed, given that the former is typically an indicator of how employers perceive the quality of a particular major/program, while the latter indicates how well a major/program may have prepared students for work.

Though PayScale provides important insight into earning differences across institutions, it has significant limitations--data ere self-reported and encompass major groupings rather than specific majors. For example, all social science majors are grouped together, as are majors within the humanities, physical and life sciences, and other broad academic categories.  Thus, distinctions between political science and economics or biology and physics are not possible. Nevertheless, given PayScale's massive sample size (nearly 1.5 million different individuals across approximately 1000 institutions) and ability to gather earnings information for both early-career and mid-career graduates, we believe the use of such data in our analysis was justified.

PhD Productivity (10%)

While most undergraduates have no intent to pursue a doctoral degree, the rate at which a college "produces" PhD recipients arguably reflects how well an academic department promotes academic rigor and prepares student to tackle advanced coursework in a particular field. Using data provided by the National Science Foundation and reported by WebCaspar, we were able to assess which colleges graduated the highest percentage of students eventually pursuing PhDs in a number of different fields.


To determine a major/program's rank, we calculated the weighted sum of its standardized scores. Given that ranking majors/programs (and colleges) is a statistically dubious endeavor and one that fails to emphasize the importance of fit, we chose to publish top colleges (for each major) alphabetically, rather than in rank order.

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