A data dive through more than 3.6 million syllabi discovered what books are the most assigned at public and Ivy universities
It’s the make-or-break point of every college course: getting the syllabus. Is this the class you thought you signed up for, or was the description a wild exaggeration? What’s the assigned reading? How much of it is there? Wait, how is that book relevant to this course?
Depending on how that moment goes, you’re in for the semester—or back to scanning the coursebook for a replacement class Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. In either case, you’re likely left wondering what other students are reading across the country. Now, thanks to scraping and sifting lots of data, there’s an answer. Or, rather, lots of answers.
The website DegreeQuery recently analyzed more than 3.6 million syllabi from more than 2,500 colleges and universities made available by nonprofit research organization Open Syllabus to see what’s being read on campus. The results, released in January, include breakdowns of reading lists by state, across five study areas, and, interestingly, by whether a school is public or in the Ivy League.
The most assigned book across all of American higher education is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the top public schools, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is at the top of the reading list, but the most assigned work of literature is Kate Chopin’s "Story of an Hour." Ivy students, meanwhile, are often found reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
The results get more interesting as you break them down by state. Look at DegreeQuery’s infographic map and you’ll see the nation dotted by The Elements of Style. But there’s a lot of geographic diversity—as well as a lot of straight-up textbooks, like The American Promise: A History of the United States. “It appears on 3,273 syllabi in Texas, making it the book with the most assignations in any one state,” DegreeQuery said. “The book is particularly beloved of political and social history students, for whom the generous helping of illustrations and first-person testimony brings the story of America to life.”
Similarly, the breakdown of what students are reading at Ivy League schools versus the top eight public colleges illustrates the differences—and similarities—in those classrooms. Three books appear on both most-read lists, but from there things diverge.
DegreeQuery further segments the Open Syllabus data to see what’s being read in political science, business, computer science, economics, and English literature courses at both Ivy and public institutions. (You can dive into that data on their website.) But perhaps the most interesting—and least surprising—finding is how male-dominated college reading lists are. Of the 100 most popular books on syllabi, 78 are written by men and only 20 by women. (Two are co-authored by a man and woman.)
There’s more information on the DegreeQuery site about the research, findings, and methodology. But this data is a fascinating macro view of what college students are reading—and a starting point for anyone who wants to craft their own college-level reading list at home.