Business Insider has released its annual ranking of the Best Colleges in America.
One trend is clear: Colleges with a strong engineering and technology pedigree ranked the highest, with Stanford University (No. 1), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 2), and the California Institute of Technology (No. 3) rounding out the top three on the list.
The dominance of tech schools in this year’s ranking could be a reflection of a larger trend in American education in general, where learning tech skills in school is seen as a surefire way to secure a job later.
Jobs in technology are plentiful. The tech sector is growing faster than the U.S. economy, and according to some economists, for each high-tech job that’s created, an additional five spin-off jobs follow.
These jobs are famously lucrative, too. Engineers at major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have some of the highest salaries around, not to mention the free food, fun work atmosphere, and the other numerous perks tech workers are known to enjoy. A recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara even found that those who have both strong maths and social skills were likely to make more money down the road than those who do not.
As a result, it seems like more and more students are leaning towards a path to the tech world.
“Computational thinking is affecting everything. That is really new, just within the past decade or two, so businesses are eager to hire people who think computationally,” Harry Lewis, Harvard’s director of undergraduate studies in computer science, said to Business Insider. “That means more than having tech skills — it’s the disposition to look at a problem and think that data analysis and manipulation might be the right way to solve it.”
Engineers with a solid business plan can end up finding extreme success at a relatively young age. Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom, for example, was only 28 years old when his company sold to Facebook for $US1 billion. Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, cofounders of $US10-billion company Snapchat, are only 24 and 26 years old, respectively.
The strong appeal of jobs in the tech world means that schools that have a strong engineering and business curriculum, like Stanford, are becoming more popular than more traditional liberal arts colleges.
And with such high demand for a tech-focused education, these schools remain incredibly difficult to get in to.
In 2014, MIT only let in 8.2% of applicants, while CalTech accepted 10.6%. With an admissions rate of just 5.1%, Stanford was the most selective university in the U.S. for the second year in a row. That title had previously belonged to Harvard, whose 6% admissions rate was still shockingly low.
Once they’re in, though, students can take advantage of a valuable alumni network and helpful incubator programs that facilitate tech entrepreneurship. (PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer all went to Stanford, while Dropbox CEO Drew Houston and Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs went to MIT.)
These tech schools actively encourage students to venture into tech careers by offering tech courses and programs that are designed to encourage entrepreneurship in the tech industry.
About 90% of Stanford undergrads take at least one programming class during their time in college, and the university offers StartX, a nonprofit accelerator funded by Stanford University, that caters exclusively to its alums. Since last September, StartX has backed 50 ventures with a total of $US16.4 million, according to Fortune. Since 2009, 16 of the accelerator’s companies have been acquired by such giants as Google, Dropbox, and Yahoo.
Similarly, MIT has the Entrepreneurship Project, an intensive one-semester class where teams of students work on developing ideas for their own tech companies, with the guidance of venture capitalists, MIT faculty, and other mentors from the business world. At the Media Lab, research groups work on developing disruptive technologies.
Even at schools that aren’t specifically tech-focused, students are enrolling in tech and computer science classes in droves.
At Harvard, a record-breaking 818 students signed up for “Introduction to Computer Science I” (CS50) this fall. It’s the most students the class has had in 30 years of being taught — fewer than 100 students enrolled in 2002, and only 15 attended an in-class guest lecture by a young Mark Zuckerberg in 2005. Now CS50 has the largest enrollment of any class at Harvard.
According to Lewis, Harry Lewis, Harvard’s director of undergraduate studies in computer science, a relatively small amount of those enrolled in the class will eventually become computer science majors, but it signals an interesting trend.
“That number is growing, but mostly that course enrolls students from other disciplines who realise that computational thinking and skills are valuable in their own discipline, whether that’s economics or biochemistry or music or even the Classics,” Lewis said to Business Insider.
“The digital revolution has created ways for students who know even a little computer science to do things nobody was able to do before, and students find themselves empowered, long before they go looking for jobs.”
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