Thursday, October 06, 2011

Hurray for the little guy

I actually spent more time at Harvard than at Caltech, and the former paid me generously to be there while the latter charged me tuition. But I still root for the geeky underdog :-)

My Caltech graduating class was 186 kids. How many schools that size can compete with Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley or Cambridge in anything?

A reasonable university ranking metric should have components that are normalized to size. For example, the number of citations or publications or research dollars per professor (or per student) is more informative than the absolute number. Otherwise schools with 50 or 100 thousand students would have a misleading advantage over smaller schools. But once you try to adjust your metrics to take this into account it is very hard to keep Caltech from coming out as number one. You basically have to cook the books ;-)

TimesHigherEducation: ... In the eight years that Times Higher Education has published a global university ranking, one thing had always seemed unassailable: Harvard University's position as the world's number one. Not any more.

Harvard - the world's best-known university, boasting a brand some sources rate as more valuable than Pepsi, Nike or Sony - has this year been pushed off the top spot.

Most remarkably, the 375-year-old colossus of global higher education has been toppled by a much younger, much smaller upstart from the West Coast of the US. The world's number one for 2011-12 is the California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech. Why? It is clear that the differences at the pinnacle of the World University Rankings are minuscule. In terms of the overall score for each institution, the gap last year between first-placed Harvard and second-placed Caltech was 0.1 point.

This year, Caltech pips Harvard with marginally better scores for "research - volume, income and reputation", research influence (measured by paper citations) and (most substantially) the income it attracts from industry. Harvard just beats Caltech for the quality of its teaching environment.

Don't take it from me, or some crazy ranking metric, just ask (Economics) Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith, who attended both institutions:

At Harvard they believe they are the best in the world; at Caltech they know they are the best in the world

... The first thing to which one has to adapt is the fact that no matter how high people might sample in the right tail of the distribution for "intelligence," ... that sample is still normally distributed in performing on the materials in the Caltech curriculum.


Guy_Brodude said...

Sam H's point is well-taken though; Harvard has such a massive endowment that they can afford to essentially buy world-class departments. Of course, they do so on the backs of their more successful alumni. And of the three most successful living Harvard alumni (with a combined net worth, I would imagine, in excess of the combined wealth of every other Harvard alumnus/a, living or dead), two are drop-outs. What does that say for the future?

Justin Loe said...

Harvard is only #11 in the number of its undergraduates per capita who go on to get math or science PhDs.  Caltech is #1.

The argument could be made that Caltech's student is primarily composed of science and engineering types, but Harvard is also beaten by the University of Chicago at #7 and Rice at #9, as well as by a number of smaller schools: Reed, Swarthmore, Carleton, Grinnell.

Guy_Brodude said...

That statistic could be taken as evidence of the superiority of Harvard students; they're smart enough to know that a PhD is usually a lousy career choice! ;)

steve hsu said...

Harvard is out for Harvard. Caltech is working for the betterment of Mankind ;-)

Jeff Kolb said...

Steve uses one extreme:
   "...otherwise schools with 50 or 100 thousand students would have a misleading advantage over smaller schools"
to advance his case for more 'per professor' normalization. But the other extreme is also illuminating:
   Is a university of one superstar really better than a faculty of 500 sub-superstars?
Any ranking must strike a balance between absolutely-normalized components and 'per professor'-normalized ones. To suggest that rankings should obviously much heavy weight on the 'per professor'-normalization is to oversimplify the problem. The difference is a matter of degree.

steve hsu said...

I'm not against using a balance between different metrics. I just think it's funny that people (like US News) who do rankings have to do deliberate tweaking to keep HYP on top.

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