Choosing A College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 4: Specialized Schools


Lists and Rankings
Quantitative S.A.T.S. in the 700s
Quantitative S.A.T.S. in the 600s
Quantitative S.A.T.S. in the 500s
Military Academies

Many institutions of higher education do not fall neatly into the two categories of universities and liberal arts colleges. Engineering schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech are the most obvious and most numerous examples. The military service academies at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs (Air Force) are other clear exceptions. There are also highly specialized institutions like the Colorado School of Mines and the G.M.I. Engineering and Management Institute (formerly known as the General Motors Institute and still sponsored by that corporation). For music, there is the Julliard School, the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin. Although all these institutions are top flight in their own respective ways, they will be of interest only to those already committed-or prepared to become committed-to the specialized careers to which they lead. For some people, these careers can be very rewarding, personally and otherwise.

The demands are also very high and the competition tough at these places, though in different ways. At M.I.T., Cal Tech, and the three military service academies, the combined SAT scores of the students average 1200 or better, and at G.M.I. and the Colorado School of Mines the average is just barely below that level. None of these five institutions averages below 650 on the math SAT.


General Education

Many engineering schools, whether separate or belonging to universities, put such emphasis on math, science, and technology, that their students have little time, engergy or interest left for the other subjects that go to make up a well-rounded education. This can be a permanent loss. On the other hand, some students have no real intellectual interests outside the math and science areas, and forcing them to take many liberal arts courses may accomplish nothing besides generating frustration. For such individuals the institute of technology may be perfect. It is, however, possible to become both an engineer and an educated human being.

M.I.T. has made a real effort to ensure that its students acquire an education outside their traditional math, science, and technology areas. M.I.T.'s economics department, for example, has long been among the top handful in the nation, led by the winner of the first Nobel Prize in economics, Paul Samuelson. Some other engineering schools are trying to follow suit, with varying degrees of success. Others, like the Florida Institute of Technology, are unabashedly in business to train people for careers in some narrowly specialized areas such as photographic technology or oceanic engineering. A compromise which some may find attractive is to take three years at a liberal arts college that has a special arrangement with some engineering school, to which the student then transfers for two years of pure engineering before receiving a degree. These "3-2" programs are very widespread. About five hundred institutions are involved, including many outstanding liberal arts colleges and top engineering schools. You cannot, however, simply go to your favorite liberal arts college for 3 years and then automatically transfer to your favorite engineering school.

The 3-2 programs involve highly specific links between particular colleges and particular tech schools. Oberlin, for example, has 3-2 programs with the engineering schools at Case Western Reserve and at Washington University in St. Louis. Whitman College has 3-2 programs with Cal Tech and with engineering schools at Duke and Columbia. Franklin & Marshall is 3-2 with Columbia, Georgia Tech, Rennselaer and Washington University in St. Louis. Anyone planning a 3-2 program must not only make the usual match between student and institution but with two institutions-and then make sure that those two institutions are linked to each other. There are also some liberal arts colleges, such as Swarthmore and Lafayette, which have their own engineering programs and award their own engineering degrees.

Lists and Rankings

Because there are so many ways of acquiring an engineering degree-from colleges, universities, technical institutes, and military academies-the problems of comparing and choosing are complicated, and the problems of making objective rankings are practically impossible. Moreover, engineering schools give degrees in subjects other than engineering-not only in mathematics and the physical sciences but also in some cases business management, economics, or even in the humanities.

With engineering schools, as with liberal arts colleges, some outstanding institutions may be little known to the general public beyond their region, or even within their region. However, they are likely to be known to those who matter to your career as an engineer, whether these are employers of engineers or as officials of graduate schools of engineering. Everyone has heard of M.I.T. and Cal Tech, but most laymen would be surprised to learn that Harvey Mudd College has a higher percentage of its graduates go on to receive doctorates than either of these renowned institutions. Many would be surprised that Cooper Union comes next among engineering schools in this respect.

Engineering schools that belong to universities may take on the prestige (or lack of prestige) of these universities, in the eyes of the general public. However, that can be very misleading as a basis for making your own choices. For example, in chemical engineering the University of Delaware has been ranked by the profession among the top 10 institutions in the nation, ahead of M.I.T. and Princeton, though it is not as highly rated in civil engineering, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering, and of course is not nearly as well known in general. These rankings, like most rankings of universities, reflect the research of the graduate faculty.

The point here is that it makes no more sense to look simply for the "top 10" in engineering than in any other field, when choosing what school to apply to. It is instead a question of matching your own interests and qualifications. If your over-riding interest is in chemical engineering, the University of Delaware may be for you. At the very least, it should not be dismissed simply because you were accepted somewhere else with a more widely known name. People who know the field of chemical engineering will know about the University of Delaware.

While rankings of institutions do not tell you what is crucial-how well a given place suits your own interests and qualifications-some rankings can be useful simply as a source of information about colleges, universities, or technical institutes you may never have thought of otherwise. As long as these rankings are not taken as the last word, but only as a first step toward looking into various possibilities, they can be useful.

Many students who are considering engineering as a career have not absolutely fixed on engineering but are interested in the general area of mathematics, the physical sciences, and technology. For such students, a ranking of those colleges, universities, and technical institutes with the highest percentage of their graduates going on to receive doctorates in math, the physical sciences, and engineering can be one of these useful lists:

1. Harvey Mudd College34.4
2. California Institute of Technology33.7
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology17.3
4. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art12.5
5. Webb Institute of Naval Architecture11.0
6. Reed College8.7
7. Rice University8.0
8. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute7.3
9. Polytechnic Institute of New York7.2
10. Carnegie-Mellon University6.8
11. University of Chicago6.5
12. University of California at San Diego5.5
13. New Mexico Institute of Mining5.5
14. Swarthmore College5.2
15. Worcester Polytechinic Institute5.2
16. Stevens Institute of Technology5.0
17. Colorado School of Mines4.9
18. Haverford College4.9
19. Harvard College4.6
20. Illinois Institute of Technology4.5
21. Princeton University4.5
22. South Dakota School of Mines4.4
23. Johns Hopkins University4.2
24. Case Western Reserve University4.1
25. Carleton College4.0
26. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology4.0
27. Lehigh University3.9
28. New College of the University of South Florida3.9
29. Pomona College3.7
30. Illinois Benedictine3.6
Source: Change, Nov./Dec., 1986

Obviously, these numbers and percentages do not represent quality rankings. The University of Chicago teaches many things besides math and science, while the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture is even more narrowly focussed than most engineering schools. The fact that a higher percentage of the Webb Institute's students go on for doctorates in math, science, or engineering does not make it superior to the University of Chicago, even within these areas. Given the hetergeneous make-up of these institutions, what is important-and in some cases, surprising-is who is on the list, not their exact ranking. If you would not have thought of Rensselaer or the Rose- Hulman Institute without this list, nor thought of Harvey Mudd as in any way comparable to M.I.T. or Cal Tech, then the list has been useful to that extent.

Universities with strong math, science and engineering programs may fail to make a list like this, simply because they have students in so many other fields. Ideally, we would like quality rankings of math, science, and engineering departments at undergraduate institutions. Nothing like that exists and it is doubtful if anyone has the knowledge to create such rankings. The closest we can come are quality rankings of graduate departments. This is easier to do, because the professors in the leading graduate departments are known to colleagues around the country through their publications. The profession knows where the top scholars in the field are, even if they don't know how well they teach undergraduates. Once you understand this limitation, you may be able to make use of the following lists of leading departments in various fields of science and technology:

1. Stanford
2. M.I.T.
3. Carnegie-Mellon
4. Berkeley
5. U.C.L.A.
6. University of Illinois
7. University of Washington
8. Univ. of Southern
9. University of Texas
10. University of Wisconsin

1. University of Minnesota
2. University of Wisconsin
3. Cal Tech
4. Berkeley
5. Stanford
6. University of Delaware
7. M.I.T.
8. University of Houston
9. University of Illinois
10. Princeton

1. M.I.T
2. Berkeley
3. Stanford
4. Purdue
5. U.C.L.A.
5. Univ. of Southern California
7. Cornell
8. Purdue
9. Cal Tech
10. Princeton

1. Berkeley
2. M.I.T
3. University of Illinois
4. Cal Tech
5. University of Texas
6. Stanford
7. Cornell
8. Northwestern
9. Purdue
10. University of Michigan
SOURCE: Conference Board of Associated Research Councils

If these lists of the top graduate departments seem to have relatively little overlap with the undergraduate institutions listed before, that is very similar to what happens in other areas of education. The big universities dominate at the graduate level, in many fields, while their own undergraduates are often not as likely to complete graduate training for the Ph.D. as the undergraduates from smaller institutions. Harvey Mudd, Cooper Union,and Rose- Hulman are all missing from these four lists of leading graduate engineering departments simply because these three are all undergraduate institutions.

All these lists have blind spots. They may be able to help you in your thinking but they can never be a substitute for that thinking. In engineering, as in other fields, ranking institutions is far less important than matching individuals with institutions. Here again, your test scores provide one rough way to begin the sorting process. Because mathematics is so central to engineering, it makes sense to group institutes of technology by quantitative SAT scores rather than by composite SAT's.

Within each grouping below, the schools are in alphabetical order, as before. Universities are listed only where they have separate undergraduate engineering schools, and the quantitative S.A.T. scores used for grouping them are the scores solely for these engineering schools, regardless of what S.A.T. scores may be elsewhere in the university. This list therefore omits some highly-regarded engineering programs, such as those at Rice, Bucknell, Stanford and Swarthmore, which are not separate from the regular undergraduate programs at these institutions, and so could not be grouped separately as the others are.

QUANTITATIVE S.A.T.S in the 700s

NORTHEAST: Carnegie-Mellon, Columbia, Cooper Union, Cornell,, M.I.T., Princeton, University of Pennsylvania SOUTH: Duke University WEST: Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, University of California (Berkeley) MIDWEST: It is hardly surprising that there are so few institutions with average math S.A.T.s in the 700s. It is remarkable that there are as many as there are, and anyone considering applying to any of these places should be certain that he or she is prepared for a school whose other students have such extraordinary mathematical ability. There needs to be a similar caution concerning some of the institutions listed below, specifically those whose average S.A.T.s are in the upper 600s, only marginally less than those shown above.

QUANTITATIVE S.A.T.s in the 600s

NORTHEAST: Alfred University, Boston University, Clarkson, Drexel, George Washington University (D.C.), Lehigh, Penn State, Polytechnic Institute of N.Y., Rensselaer Polytechnic, Rutgers (New Brunswick), Stevens Institute, Syracuse, Tufts, University of Delaware, University of Maryland (College Park), University of Massachusetts (Amherst), University of Pittsburgh, Valparaiso, Villanova, Webb Institute, Worcester Polytechnic.

SOUTH: Georgia Tech, University of Houston, North Carolina State University (Raleigh), University of Florida, University of Miami, Tulane, University of Texas (Austin), University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Virginia Polytechnic, West Virginia University.

WEST: Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, Oregon State University, Santa Clara University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, University of California (Santa Barbara), University of Washington (Seattle).

MIDWEST: Case Western Reserve, G.M.I. Institute, Michigan Technological University, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Purdue, Rose-Hulman Institute, University of Cincinnati, University of Illinois (Urbana), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of Missouri (Rolla), University of Wisconsin (Madison), Washington University (St. Louis).

Although colleges and universities tend to become more numerous as you go down the test score range, engineering schools seem to become more scarce at quantitative S.A.T. levels below 600. There are some engineering schools with math S.A.T.s in the 500s, however, and some of these are well-thought of. As with institutions from any list, they need to be investigated individually.

QUANTITATIVE S.A.T.s in the 500s

NORTHEAST: New Jersey Institute of Technology, Pratt Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology.

SOUTH: Clemson, Florida Institute of Technology, Texas A&M, University of Central Florida, University of Kentucky, University of Mississippi, University of South Carolina.

WEST: California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo), Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Northrup University, University of Arizona, University of Idaho.

MIDWEST: Illinois Institute of Technology, Indiana Institute of Technology, Marquette, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Ohio State, University of Evansville, University of Missouri (Columbia), University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee).


In addition to the same problem of trying to match the individual with the institution which applies when choosing a liberal arts college or a university, engineering students face additional decisions. Because engineering is so specialized, often a choice must be made fairly early in your college career as to whether to take the sequence of courses required for chemical engineering rather than mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or other specialties. Early and perhaps premature commitments are among the dangers facing those who go into engineering. That means that it is worth considering while still in high school that a decision to go to an engineering school narrows your future choices in a way that those choices are not narrowed by going to a college or university where you can leave your options open to major in math or physics, for example, if you should discover that your real interest is there rather than in applied fields of engineering.

The value of being able to leave your options open varies with how decided or undecided you are right now. But even if you feel pretty sure that you want to become an engineer, and perhaps what kind of engineer, it is still advisable to find out beforehand how easy or how difficult it would be to change after a year in one program. If the college catalogue does not make that clear, a letter or telephone call to the admissions office should clear it up-and is well worth the trouble.

Military Academies

Even more than engineering schools, military academies require a heavy commitment of time, emotion and energy focussed on a narrow area while in school, and a commitment to a specific career afterwards. West Point is more than a place to go to school. It is a way of life, intended to leave its mark indelibly, even under the later stress of life-and-death situations. The same is true of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, and the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. Nowhere is it more important to be sure that you match the institution when choosing a college.

The military service academies are, of course, meant to be more than academic institutions. However, the quality of their academic foundation may be indicated by the fact that West Point alumni received 79 doctorates in engineering alone during the decade from 1977 to 1986. This was more than the number of engineering doctorates received during the same period by the alumni of Johns Hopkins, Duke, Harvard, or Yale. Altogether, West Pointers received more than 300 doctorates in all fields during this decade-a remarkable

achievement for an institution designed primarily to produce military officers capable of leading troops in combat. It is also remarkable for an institution whose faculty are mostly military officers without Ph.D.s themselves.

Like most institutions that turn out outstanding people, West Point takes in outstanding people. Only about 10 percent of those who apply are accepted, and 10 percent of these are high school valedictorians. Three-quarters scored above 600 on the mathematics S.A.T. Small class sizes and gruelling hours of work do the rest. Despite a physically, emotionally, and intellectually taxing pace that the Military Academy itself characterizes as "total involvement," 70 percent of the entering cadets survive to graduate. After their required 5 years in the Army, about three-quarters of West Pointers volunteer to continue a military career.

Much the same story could be told of the other military service academies. More than 30 percent of the class of 1991 at Annapolis score in the 700s on the math S.A.T. Four-fifths ranked in the top 20 percent of their high school classes. The Naval Academy boasts among its alumni more than two dozen Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel Prize winner, astronauts, and a President of the United States. (West Point alumni include Presidents Grant and Eisenhower.) Graduates of the Naval Academy may become officers either in the Navy or the Marine Corps. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has academic and other standards very similar to those of West Point and Annapolis. About three-quarters of its graduates become either pilots or navigators.

The Coast Guard, though a part of the Navy during wartime, has its own separate service academy in New London, Connecticut. Less than 10 percent of its applicants are admitted.

The attractions of the military service academies-a high-quality education free, with living expenses paid by the government, and a career waiting at graduation-bring vast numbers of applications. This enables the academies to screen not only for academic qualifications but also for stringent physical requirements. As the application process requires nomination by a member of Congress, more time is required than for applying to most colleges. In addition to the academies run by the military services themselves, there are also unaffiliated military academies such as the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel, both state-supported. The federal government's Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island, New York is quasi-military and its graduates may become naval officers as well as officers in the civilian merchant marine. The Maine Maritime Academy is a state-supported institution which also trains students to become officers in the merchant marine. The academic standards of the non-affiliated academies in general do not match those of the four major service academies, though they may offer a good education. But it is not clear whether they offer any advantages over entering a military career from a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at a conventional college.

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