Everyone wants to believe they graduated from one of the country's top schools. But since U.S. News & World Report started compiling and publishing its Best Colleges list in 1983, the bubble has burst for many of us. Your school was either on the list, or it wasn't one of the best.
Well, maybe and maybe not. "The ratings tend to trail reality," David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research and a current advisory board member of the University of Michigan's mechanical engineering program, said in a Design News interview. "The past is really the criteria for school ratings."
That seems to be the case in U.S. News & World Report's latest undergraduate engineering program ratings, which were released Tuesday. The 2012 edition names MIT, Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, and Cal Tech as the top four schools whose highest degree is a doctorate. Among schools whose highest degree is a bachelor's or master's, U.S. News placed Rose-Hulman, Harvey Mudd, the U.S. Military Academy, and Cooper Union in the top four.
All eight of those schools grabbed the same positions last year. "The rankings are pretty stable, whether you're talking about graduate or undergraduate levels," Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, said in a Design News interview.
But those results -- which are based exclusively on peer assessment -- may be more a matter of past reputations than current realities. "I would be amazed if I saw a report where MIT wasn't No. 1," Cole told us. "One of the reasons is that MIT graduates a significant fraction of the engineering faculty across the country."
Cole argues that tradition shouldn't be the only criteria. In the last five to 10 years, engineering curricula have shifted from theory-heavy coursework to a mixture of theory and hands-on experience, he says. In the University of Michigan's mechanical engineering program, for example, students take three team-based design classes and complete a capstone project that requires them to design and build a product while working with industry sponsors.
"It's great to deal with theory, but you've got to get your hands dirty at some point if you're going to be a good engineer," Cole said.
We've written about this trend previously, describing the hands-on design efforts at such schools as Rose-Hulman, Harvey Mudd, and Olin College of Engineering. Students at those schools reportedly feel more engaged and are less likely to wash out of engineering.
Cole says the shift toward hands-on experience will shake up the ratings eventually. As a result, polls such as those by U.S. News could see some unfamiliar faces near the top one day. "Some of the people who vote on this may not appreciate this trend, because it's different than the world they were calibrated by. But it's a very positive sign in general. We'll see this get reflected in the ratings in a few years."
U.S. News Top 10 (engineering schools where highest degree is a doctorate)
1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2. Stanford University
3. University of California-Berkeley
4. California Institute of Technology
5. Georgia Institute of Technology
6. University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign
6. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
8. Carnegie Mellon University
9. Cornell University
9. Purdue University-West Lafayette
U.S. News Top 10 (engineering schools where highest degree is bachelor's or master's)
1. Rose-Hulman Institute
1. Harvey Mudd College
3. U.S. Military Academy
4. Cooper Union
5. California Polytechnic State-San Luis Obispo
5. U.S. Air Force Academy
5. U.S. Naval Academy
8. Franklin Olin College of Engineering
9. Bucknell University
10. Villanova University