Earlier this month, Lynn O’Shaugnessy published a claim that liberal arts colleges have an edge in producing bachelor’s students who go on to earn science and engineering PhDs: 50 Schools That Produce the Most Science and Engineering PhD’s | The College Solution.
Her title is a bit misleading, as the NSF figures from 2008 she was basing her claim on looked at ratios: number of PhDs of alumni divided by number of alumni from 9 years earlier. The raw numbers of PhDs who got their bachelor’s degrees from liberal arts colleges remains quite small—it is the concentration of students who go on to grad school and finish PhDs that is high. In terms of raw numbers, public schools dominate, with only 6 of the top 25 schools being private (and that’s counting Cornell, which is both a private and a public university, depending which department you are talking about). Her statement “The liberal arts dominance on this PhD list is even more impressive when you consider that just 2% to 3% of students attending four-year higher-ed institutions are enrolled at liberal arts colleges,” is particularly misleading—reducing the denominator makes it easier, not harder, to get a high ratio.
Still, if you are looking to send a kid on to grad school, it is probably best for them to do their undergrad work at a college where lots of people are preparing for grad school, rather than one where people are preparing to leave school as soon as possible. From that standpoint, the “Oberlin 50” liberal arts schools look pretty good, unless you look specifically at engineering PhDs—then the research universities, particularly the private universities with high research activity, really dominate. The top liberal arts school prepare students well for natural sciences and social/behavioral sciences, but not (apparently) for engineering.
It might be interesting to normalize for number of STEM bachelor’s degrees, rather than total bachelor’s degrees. Changing the normalization would probably reduce the ratios for the three top-yielding schools: Caltech, Harvey Mudd, and MIT, but might pull up the ratios for some of the larger universities, which have relatively smaller portions of their students studying science and engineering.
Three schools come up in the top 20 on both the raw numbers and the ratio of alumni getting PhD to total alumni: MIT, Harvard, and Stanford.
Lynn’s message is also somewhat misleading, as she was reassuring a mother whose child went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland (which does not appear in the top 50 list and is not one of the Oberlin 50 elite liberal arts colleges). Overall, private baccalaureate colleges do about as well as public research universities with very high research activities at sending their students on for science PhDs, but they have astonishingly low rates of sending their students on for engineering PhDs.
If you want your kid to go to grad school in engineering, then a top engineering school with high research activity (private perhaps better than public, if you can afford it) seems like the best bet. For science, one of the Oberlin 50 looks good, if you can afford them. Of course, all these are contingent on getting in, which tends to be easier at the large public universities.