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by Vault Education Editors | June 23, 2009


As if we didn't already have enough rankings, U.S. News & World Report has released a new list: the World's Best Colleges and Universities. The new ranking was created with QS Quacquarelli Symonds, the producer of the QS World University Rankings. They added 200 non-U.S. schools, ranking 400 total universities and college from around the world. U.S. News has also added some smaller rankings to the mix, including the Top 30 Asian Universities, the Top 60 European Universities, the Top 20 Canadian Universities, and the Top 20 Australian and New Zealand Universities. According to the magazine, it expanded its ranking internationally because of an increased need to be able to compare institutions.

The world is rapidly changing and evolving. More students and faculty are eager to explore the higher education options that exist beyond their own borders. Universities worldwide are competing for the best and brightest students, the most highly recognized research faculty, and coveted research dollars. Countries at all levels of the economic development scale are actively trying to build world-class universities to serve as economic and academic catalysts. In other words, the world of higher education is becoming increasingly "flat."

That said, U.S. News is an American publication, so it's not surprising that their motivation has a U.S. bent. According to Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News, the international ranking is also a way for magazine's readers to "understand more fully how well American institutions perform when compared with other institutions of higher learning around the world." He continues, "The bottom line is that they perform very well: Ninety-three of the Top 400 Universities Worldwide, or nearly 25 percent, are in the United States."

But how much do Americans care about how our schools compare to international schools? Says Above the Law, "I'm not sure how useful these rankings are, to anybody, anywhere, ever. But I'm sure they will make some people feel good about themselves--and other people mercilessly attack the schools that are more highly ranked than their alma maters."

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. The best universities in the world. Here are the top 10:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Yale University
  3. University of Cambridge
  4. University of Oxford
  5. California Institute of Technology
  6. Imperial College London
  7. University College London
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  10. Columbia University

From this list, a few things jump out. All the top-10 schools are in the United States and United Kingdom--so not only are 25 percent of the Top 400 in the U.S., but 50 percent of the top 10 (and 37 percent of the top 100) are American.

Next, while you're probably not surprised to see Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford at the top of the list, you may be wondering about the No. 2 school from the 2009 top American college ranking--a school that, in fact, wasn't No. 1 too long ago. Where is Princeton? The Ivy Leaguer fell 10 spots from the U.S. to the international ranking, coming in below schools it outranked in the top 200--Yale (No. 3 U.S.), Cal Tech (No. 6), UChicago (No. 8), MIT (No. 4), Columbia (No. 8) and UPenn (No. 6). How exactly did that happen?

In a nutshell, the new ranking uses a different methodology than of the traditional U.S. ranking. The American university methodology uses mostly "student and school-specific" information--namely, test scores, retention and graduation rates and financial resources. However, QS, with whom U.S. News conducted the research, recognized that that data is not universal among all universities worldwide. Thus, they created a new methodology that focuses on both undergraduate and graduate academics (which is how Princeton--without a law school, business school or medical school--wound up dropping so far). I've included the breakdown below.

  • Academic Peer Review: Composite score drawn from peer review survey (which is divided into five subject areas).
    Weight: 40%
  • Employer Review: Score based on responses to employer survey.
    Weight: 10%
  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio: Score based on student-to-faculty ratio.
    Weight: 20%
  • Citations per Faculty Member: Score based on research performance factored against the size of the research body.
    Weight: 20%
  • International Faculty: Score based on the proportion of international faculty at the schools.
    Weight: 5%
  • International Students: Score based on the proportion of international students at the school.
    Weight: 5%

People have already started to "mercilessly attack the schools that are more highly ranked than their alma maters" on the U.S. News website. Most are expressing surprise (e.g., "Dartmouth College is much lower ranked than Boston University???"), while others are trashing the new methodology. True, it focuses more on the university as a whole (rather than just the undergraduate program) and research than the traditional ranking, thus relying less on the student experience. Is the new ranking system a fair assessment of the academic quality of the university? In addition, given the amount of controversy that surrounds the national university ranking each year (see our earlier post, "Playing the Rankings Game"), I'll be interested to see if that happened here.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School