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Monday, September 23, 2013

Nobel prizes by undergraduate institution

[ See this 2015 post for updated statistics, normalized to size of school population. ]

Commenter LY linked to this CollegeConfidential analysis in an earlier thread. I can't vouch for its accuracy but I find it quite interesting. Keep in mind this is a lagging indicator with relatively low statistics. Nevertheless a simple analysis of population-normalized (i.e., per individual) probability of great alumni accomplishment (e.g., as calculated below) would show very strong correlation with cognitive ability of student body over time. Must be a coincidence -- we all know those tests don't measure anything real  ;-)
Many throw around Nobel Prize affiliations as proof of quality of education. So I decided to compile a list of colleges and universities according to where Nobel Prize winners completed their undergraduate education.

First, the ground rules:

1. I only included winners of the prize for Chemistry, Economics, Literature, Medicine and Physics. I did not include winners of the Peace prize.

2. I decided to add Fields Medalists since their is no Prize for Mathematics and the Fields medal is extremely prestigious.

Most of the results were expected, although I was surprised at how few prize winners had graduated from several elite universities (especially Brown, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Northwestern, Princeton and Stanford).

The conclusion, I think most will agree after seeing the numbers, is that one cannot rely on the production of Nobel Prize winners as an indicator of quality of undergraduate education because only 7 universities have produced more than 5!

The summarized list of universities according to the number of Nobel Prize winners (undergraduate degree only):

Harvard University: 21
Columbia University: 16
University of Chicago: 13
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 11
University of California-Berkeley: 11
Yale University: 11
California Institute of Technology: 8
Cornell University: 5
Swarthmore College: 5
University of California-Los Angeles: 5
University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign: 5
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: 5
Amherst College: 4
Carnegie Mellon University: 3
Case Western Reserve University: 3
Dartmouth College: 3
Princeton University: 3
University of Pennsylvania: 3
University of Rochester: 3
University of Washington: 3
University of Wisconsin-Madison 3
Brandeis University: 2
Haverford College: 2
Johns Hopkins University: 2
Oberlin College: 2
Purdue University-West Lafayette: 2
Rice University: 2
Rutgers University: 2
Stanford University: 2
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: 2
Williams College: 2
Brown University: 1
College of the Holy Cross: 1
Georgia Institute of Technology: 1
Grinnell College: 1
Hamilton College: 1
Michigan state University: 1
New York University: 1
Northwestern University: 1
Ohio State University: 1
Further down the thread on CC, someone notes
... The most impressive is Cal Tech. 120 years old, fewer than 1000 undergraduates, and 8 prizes. My guess is that they have by far the highest Nobel / alumnus ratio.  
My graduating class was 186 kids! See also The Normaliens.

The secret that both Caltech and Ecole Normale understand is simple: sample as hard as possible from the right tail of the g and conscientiousness distribution (that's about all you can reliably measure; maybe throw in some maverick wacky personality or "I looove science!" for good measure), hire the best professors you can, and cross your fingers... Note this methodology optimizes the school's contributions to humanity, but sadly not its endowment. See Defining Merit.

If I had time I'd make a slight adjustment by removing Literature and Economics from the prize list (sorry!), and perhaps add the Turing Prize or something similar.

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