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In Composite 2010 NRC Rankings, Cornell Ranks 9th

As we know, the 2010 NRC Rankings were released yesterday with much fanfare, both here and elsewhere. One meme that the National Research Council keeps stressing is that the departmental rankings represent 'ranges' and that the results need to be interpreted differently per the needs of each respective institution.

It's a noble spirit and all, but people and their egos are necessarily going to want to figure out which school is the 'best' and place their own institution in a grand pecking order. And because I don't want to smother your curiosity, I've developed my own composite ranking of America's universities per the NRC departmental ratings.

Given that there were 60+ departments rated, including many small, niche departments that not many schools have, I think the best comparison across the schools is to boil down the departments into those key fields that every school should strive to excel at. With no disrespect to such smaller fields, it is understandable for a school to shirk linguistics, anthropology, materials science or the like, but much less so for such fields such as English, economics, physics, or computer science.

So I've whittled the NRC rankings down to 12 core fields: Cell and Developmental Biology, Chemistry, Computer Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Economics, English Language and Literature, History, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, Philosophy, Physics, Political Science. These encompass three humanities, two social sciences, two biological sciences, two engineering fields, and three natural sciences. I feel these reflect a fairly balanced portrait of all of the different academic aims of a modern university, although all you operations research, food science, and communication majors (all of which are top three programs, per the NRC) are free to quibble.

After selecting these fields, I then averaged the departmental rank at the 5th percentile under the reputational rankings of the NRC report. Why these particular metrics? I feel the reputational survey is probably more realistic of how each department is seen by academics across the country. And the 5th percentile is just as useful for ordering as the 95th percentile, but it has the added benefit of allowing us to see which departments we really think are at the 'top'.

So Cornell comes up 9th in the country under this methodology, which feels about right. Certainly not as good as Berkeley or Princeton for graduate study, but a notch above such schools as NYU, Northwestern, or Penn State. Put another way, Cornell has the 9th highest average of 12 key departments in the country

There are certainly other ways to turn the NRC rankings into a composite number, including counting the top 3 or top 10 programs of each school, including all possible academic departments, or averaging the different percentiles of the 'survey' rankings. But at the very least, we know that Cornell is in good company and that Day Hall can say, with a fairly straight face, "we're a top ten research institution".

It's also worth pointing out that, under the same methodology, Cornell ranks 3rd in the country for its agricultural science programs, behind UC-Davis and Illinois, with Wisconsin trailing just behind. But we all know who makes the best ice cream. And plays the best hockey.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on September 29, 2010 (#)

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