This chart of science Nobel Prize winners shows liberal-arts degrees aren’t worthless

Published October 11, 2016 by lagmen
Facade of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris

What makes a great undergraduate institution? Jonathan Wai of Duke University and Stephen Hsu of Michigan State University have a new way to answer that question: just look at how many Nobel Prize winners an institution produces.

To arrive at this ranking, they considered 81 institutions which have produced at least three Nobelists since 1901 in chemistry, physics, or medicine and then divided that number by an estimated number of students admitted to those institutions. The answer produces a new way of ranking undergraduate institutions.

A few things stand out. These are mostly US institutions. That’s not a surprise given that Americans have one in four Nobel Prizes. Half of the top 10 are small, rich institutions. Both the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and the California Institute of Technology admit fewer than 250 undergraduate students each year. Finally, and most surprisingly, liberal-art colleges like Amherst and Swarthmore figure in the top 10 for producing Nobel winners in the sciences.

Wai and Hsu have performed such analyses for winners of the Fields Medal and Turing Award, considered the peers to the Nobel Prize for maths and computer science, respectively, and for members of the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Those analyses gave similar results.

Of course, there are many other ways students can go on to have impact on society. But counting prizes is an easy measure.


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