Caltech crushes Harvard, MIT, and all the rest

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source:  Information Processing

A few years ago I posted a list of number of Nobel prizes aggregated by undergraduate institution of the winner. A social science researcher who reads this blog got interested in the topic and has compiled much more complete information, which he is preparing to publish.

He reports that the school with the most Nobel + Fields + Turing prizes, normalized to size of (undergraduate) alumni population, is Caltech, which leads both Harvard and MIT (the next highest ranked schools) by a factor of 3 or 4. Caltech beats Michigan by a factor of ~50, and Ohio State (typical of good public flagships) by a factor of ~500!

To obtain a higher statistics measurement of exceptional achievement, he aggregated living members of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, and normalized to size of alumni population over the last 100 years or so. Caltech again comes out first, beating both Harvard and MIT by a factor of about 1.5. Caltech beats Yale and Princeton by a factor of ~4, and Stanford by a factor of ~5. Swarthmore and Amherst are the leading liberal arts colleges. (See list below.) Caltech beats very good public universities by factors ~100 and more typical public universities by factors ~1000.

Berkeley is the best public university in both the Nobel+ and National Academies rankings. Berkeley is roughly tied with Stanford in Nobels+ per alum, but behind in academicians per capita.

As you might expect, correlation of rank order in these lists with average SAT score is pretty high. Likelihood ratios of ~500 or 1000 for high end achievement suggest that 1. psychometric scores used in college admissions have significant validity and 2. high end achievement is correlated to unusually high ability: two schools with very different mean SAT have very different population fractions above some threshold, such as +3 SD. For example at Caltech perhaps half the students are above +3 SD in ability, whereas at an average university only 1 in ~500 are at that level, leading to ratios as large as 100 or 1000!

Colleges ranked by per capita production of National Academy (Science, Engineering, Medicine) members:

California Institute of Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Harvard University
Swarthmore College
Yale University
Princeton University
Amherst College
Stanford University
Oberlin College
Columbia University
Haverford College
Cooper Union
Dartmouth College

See also Annals of Psychometry: IQs of eminent scientists, and Vernon Smith at Caltech.


Correction! The original post quoted results using an estimate of alumni population derived from recent US News data. However, some schools have changed over time in enrollment, so more precise estimates are required. The lists below use graduation numbers reported to IPEDS from 1966-2013 and probably yield more accurate rankings than what was reported above. The main difference on the Nobel+ list is that the University of Chicago jumps to #3 and MIT falls several notches. On the NAS/NAE/IOM list MIT is #2 and Harvard #3.

Undergraduate Institution | Nobel+ | Bachelor’s degrees awarded (1966-2013) | Prize per capita ratio

California Institute of Technology 11 9348 0.001176722

Harvard University 34 81553 0.000416907

University of Chicago 15 37171 0.000403540

Swarthmore College 5 15825 0.000315956

Columbia University 20 68982 0.000289931

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 14 52891 0.000264695

Yale University 13 60107 0.000216281

Amherst College 4 18716 0.000213721

[ For comparison: Penn State and Ohio State ~ 0.0000028 and 0.0000026 ; many schools have zero Nobel+ winners. ]

Undergraduate Institution | NAS+NAE+IOM | Bachelor’s degrees awarded (1966-2013) | ratio

California Institute of Technology 78 9348 0.0083440308

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 255 52891 0.0048212361

Harvard University 326 81553 0.0039974005

Swarthmore College 49 15825 0.0030963665

Princeton University 109 50633 0.0021527462

Amherst College 35 18716 0.0018700577

Yale University 112 60107 0.0018633437

University of Chicago 56 37171 0.0015065508

Stanford University 117 79683 0.0014683182

[ For comparison, Arizona State and Florida State  ~ 0.000013 ; University of Georgia ~ 0.000008 ]

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.