Are American Universities Still the Best in the World?

U.S. universities dominate international rankings, but is the American system the world's best?

October 27, 2021 · Updated on November 15, 2021

Are American Universities Still the Best in the World?
Opinion & Analysis

  • Several publications and organizations rank the world's best universities.
  • Some also rank national systems of higher education.
  • U.S. universities dominate these international rankings.
  • The U.S. system of higher education ranks first in most cases, but not all.

Does the United States have the world's best system of higher education? How do you measure the quality of one country's system against another's? And what does "best" really mean?

Then there's the matter of "still." The title presumes the U.S. system, at least for some time, has been considered the world's best. While this may seem like conjecture, let's just say it's a prevailing sentiment, as evidenced by this Carnegie Corporation of New York statement:

"For most of the 20th century, the U.S. had the best higher education system in the world." That about sums it up.

But what about today? Are we still the best? Let's see what the experts say.

THE World University Rankings

A number of organizations and media outlets endeavor to rank the world's universities. Most prominent among these is THE World University Rankings, which boasts an enviable acronym making it appear as THE definitive voice in the matter. But THE isn't like the "the" in The Ohio State University; rather, it stands for Times Higher Education.

Published fortnightly, this United Kingdom magazine has been ranking universities since 2010. It doesn't rank higher education systems but it does rank individual institutions, much like U.S. News & World Report. However, THE World University Rankings throws all North American, South American, European, Asian, African, and Australian universities into the mix.

Criteria include evaluations of teaching, research, faculty citations, international outlook (i.e., the amount of international students and collaborations), and "industry income," which reflects knowledge transfer partnerships with businesses.

While the rankings don't extend to national education systems, we certainly can draw conclusions based on these findings. In the 2022 rankings, eight of the top 10 universities are American, as are 12 of the top 20. No other country comes close to such representation. U.S. dominance among the top 20 has remained fairly consistent since the advent of the THE rankings, with some subtle shifts along the way.

It should be noted, however, that this most recent iteration names Oxford the world's best university (home-pitch advantage, obviously). In 2019, THE listed Oxford first and Cambridge second, elevating academic jingoism to unprecedented heights. Take that, Harvard.

Can we conclude from these rankings that the U.S. system is the world's best? Perhaps not, though American universities do constitute the majority of the highest-ranking institutions in this evaluation.

Shanghai Rankings

Similar to the THE rankings, the Shanghai Rankings compare universities worldwide, though not national systems. These China-based rankings originated at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and have been published by Shanghai Rankings Consultancy since 2009.

Formally called the Academic Ranking of World Universities, Shanghai uses four narrowly defined categories in its evaluation: quality of education, as measured by the number of alumni who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals; quality of faculty, as measured by number of Nobel- and Fields-winners and number of research citations; research output, reflected by articles published and indexed in scientific journals; and the per capita performance of a university — essentially, the findings of the first three criteria divided by the number of academic staff.

In the 2021 edition, eight of the top 10 institutions are American, as are 15 of the top 20. This representation is exactly the same as it was in 2003, when the rankings debuted.

What does such dominance mean? It certainly means America's best are considered among the world's best, at least by STEM-related standards. But are we the world's best system?

Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola, writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, aren't convinced. They point out that although the U.S. accounts for 40 of the top 100 universities in the Shanghai rankings and Spain accounts for zero, 83% of public Spanish universities appear in the top 1,000, while only 23% of all American institutions do.

The top U.S. academics seem to cluster in relatively few universities, while in Europe, talent is more disparate, suggesting European students can receive a great education almost anywhere.

Universitas 21 Rankings

Finally we get to a ranking system that considers nations as a whole, not just individual institutions.

Universitas 21, or U21, published rankings for nine years, with the final iteration released in 2020. The project, led by professor Ross Williams at the University of Melbourne in Australia, "examines the education and training of a country's people, the development of relationships between higher education institutions and external stakeholders and the production of innovative research."

More specifically, criteria include resources (e.g., government spending, institutional allocations per student), environment (e.g., female representation and other diversity measures), connectivity (e.g., international collaborations and knowledge transfer), and output (e.g., research productivity and employability of graduates). In total, 50 countries are assessed based on 24 measurable attributes.

Once the numbers are crunched, nations are ranked in two ways: based on raw data and based on data adjusted for gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

In the raw data category, the U.S. ranks first in the most recent study, followed by Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Finland, Australia, and the Netherlands. Over the project's nine years, the top three have finished in that order every time.

Controlling for GDP, the U.S. ranks 18th. Finland is first. Countries are ranked based on how they perform compared to expectations. Essentially, it's a way of comparing under-resourced nations with heavily resourced ones.

So do these rankings suggest the U.S. system is the world's best? Yes and no. Think of it as you would Olympic weightlifting. The person lifting the most weight is the most powerful. That's the U.S. But adjusted for body weight, it's Finland.

QS World University Rankings

The QS World University Rankings are produced by Quacquarelli Symonds, which calls itself the "the world's leading provider of services, analytics, and insight to the global higher education sector." These rankings have existed since 2004.

Countries are evaluated based on four criteria: system strength (how strong the higher education system is compared to the rest of the world), access (number of spots available for students at the ranked universities), flagship institution (taking into account the standing of each country's leading institution), and economic context (relative strength in relation to GDP per capita).

In the most recent version, published in 2018, the U.S. ranks first, followed by the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Canada, France, the Netherlands, China, South Korea, and Japan.

QS also ranks universities individually. In its 2022 edition, five of the top 10 universities are American, as are 12 of the top 25.

So on the matter of the world's best higher education system, it's one vote for the U.S. from QS.

CEOWORLD Best Countries for Education Rankings

Like QS, CEOWORLD magazine ranks both national systems of higher education and individual universities.

To rank systems, the magazine uses a "perception-based global survey" of students, faculty, business leaders, and policy experts. For the most recent ranking, done in 2020, the publication received 196,300 replies.

It's not entirely clear what is meant by "education system." Most of the introductory rhetoric focuses on higher education, but evaluation criteria include graduation rates for primary and secondary schools as well. Yet the descriptions for each country discuss only higher education and representative universities.

In any case, in this latest ranking the United Kingdom came out on top, followed by the U.S., Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Denmark.

On the individual institution side, six of the top 10 universities are American, as are 15 of the top 20.

Despite this preponderance of American universities clustered at the top, CEOWORLD says the U.K. has the best overall education system, however defined. The U.S. took the silver.

So Does the U.S. Have the Best Higher Education System?

For the most part, these publications and organizations agree the U.S. does, in fact, have the best system of higher education in the world. Almost all rank the U.S. system highest based on numerous factors, and American universities dominate the top 20 on every list.

There are, of course, notable exceptions, as we've seen with CEOWORLD and Universitas 21's rankings based on GDP. Anecdotally, some experts claim the U.K. is best, and others say it's Australia.

But most would agree, at least as a matter of perception, that the U.S. system is the envy of the world. We have more top universities than any other nation. It's no wonder the U.S. remains the most popular destination by far for international students.

American higher education isn't defined just by its leading institutions. It's a vast enterprise with a diversity unmatched anywhere in the world. Only Canada, for example, has a system of community colleges that approximates what you find in the U.S. We boast some of the most elite and selective universities along with open-admissions institutions catering to everyone.

Yet it's not all wine and roses, some say. In terms of educational attainment, defined as the percentage of adults aged 25 to 64 who have completed some form of post-secondary schooling, the U.S. ranks behind Canada, Japan, Israel, Korea, and the U.K. Narrow those parameters to 25-34, and the U.S. ranks 11th.

Additionally, most U.S. universities don't appear on global rankings lists of top schools. Only 3% of U.S. universities make the top 200, and only 8% are in the top 1,000, leading the World Economic Forum to conclude that "the average tertiary student in the USA is not attending a globally competitive school. American higher education is delivering for the elite but not for the masses."

In its study of international higher education rankings, the American Enterprise Institute concludes that no country's system can be the best. Negative correlations between government subsidies, institutional resources, and education attainment result in countries excelling on some measures but not all.

That may well be, though in a culture where everything can be and is ranked, we do want to know who's number one. And on that count, it's safe to say the U.S. system of higher education is still the best in the world.


Feature Image: Travelpix Ltd / Stone / Getty Images