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Some studies that have evaluated time spent working outside of class (in hours) have always placed it on the lowest end (with I guess much more selective schools being exceptional).
Those departments have used their reputation to raise admissions standards for high school applicants into those majors relative to the rest of the university. In a case like that the department's reputation matters more. On the other side of the fence, the University of Minnesota had a very strong economics department ... multiple Nobel Prizes and the like. But their undergraduate majors aren't nearly as stellar, so you'd treat their undergraduate applicants based more on the school's overall reputation than the department's unless a very strong recommendation letter was submitted.
al2simon provided an interesting insight into Phd admissions. However, it was a little depressing. It seemed like his Phd program was judging applicants at least as much based on whether they got admitted to an elite college for undergrad than on whether the elite college offered a more rigorous curriculum at the undergrad level.
@al2simon I've read that grad departments add up to 0.7 to the GPAs of applicants from Caltech. Probably if you were in an economics department, you had no experience looking at Caltech grads. But any thoughts on whether that might be somewhat accurate?
This makes it sound as if they're using undergrad admissions selectivity as a proxy for academic rigor. It doesn't sound like they're really delving down into does the University of Minnesota's econ department have a lot of grade inflation, or require more papers, or provides a more mathematical treatment of econ or whatever your definition of rigor is in a particular major at the undergrad level.
I think the majority of students and parents want an outcome-based ranking that says something about the typical student, not only the 1% of students who win some type of fancy award or go to congress, but says nothing about the other 99% of students. Without a salary outcomes, perhaps it would make sense to call it "Intellectual Rigor Outcomes for students who don't care about money", I think that would be accurate.
People who've worked their whole lives in a field know many of the top programs reasonably well. Some know them because they attended these programs as students or taught there as faculty.