America Slips in Rankings of World Universities, Fretting Abounds

Yale fell behind Cambridge while Asian universities made gains. Let the hand-wringing over educational decline begin.

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College rankings may be tendentious, annoying, and highly profitable, but they are also irresistible conversational fodder. The Times Higher Education's rankings--a British knock-off of the U.S. News and World Report purporting to rank colleges across the globe--once again proved the rule by announcing that U.S. colleges were losing their dominance, while Asian and U.K. schools were gaining. The top five: Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, University College London, and a tie betwen Oxford and Imperial College London.

Is there anything to it? Controversy nips at every university ranking, even ones intended to counteract the U.S. News list, such as the socially progressive one put by the Washington Monthly. But because it fits into the narrative of American decline, the Times Higher Education rankings have attracted particular criticism. Some Americans argue that the list's preference for international students rigs it for Asian schools, while others assert that the low ranking of academic titans such as UC Berkeley is self-evidently absurd. Whatever the metrics, it's clearly hitting a nerve with those who worry that vaunted U.S. universities, long the prize of the educational system, are losing their edge.

  • Rankings More Important Than They Seem, says Amelia Newcomb at the Christian Science Monitor. "No matter what they say, colleges are watching. Higher education is big business and a source of national bragging rights. Rankings boost endowments."
  • Too Weighted by Opinion, suggests Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed. Jaschik notes that 50 percent of the rankings come from reputational surveys--which "exceeds even the much-criticized percentage used by U.S. News (25 percent). And that's part of why rankings experts question the methodology...all the much discussed flaws of reputation surveys (voting based on old information, voting to favor your own institution, voting on criteria that aren't those being used, etc.) are only accentuated in international surveys."
  • Overemphasis on International Students, says India Lenon at the Telegraph."It seems foolish to lay too much importance on attracting those who will most likely use their degrees to the benefit of other countries. International students certainly deserve to be considered for places on an equal footing with British applicants, but it is important that our universities are not pressured by tables such as this one into making it even harder for British students to win places."
  • Indicator of American Decline, says Phil Baty at Times Higher Education. "The US domination of the top ranks of global higher education is not as strong as it has been in previous years...America's superpower status is slipping as other countries' efforts to join the global elite begin to pay dividends."
  • Favoritism for English Language Schools? ask readers in comments at the Times Higher Education page. One wrote, "When the top 20 are all English-speaking institutions, there has to be something wrong with your survey! You need to revise your criteria." But other readers say that it's not favoritism, but simple fact that English language schools predominate. "There is also the dominance of Engish as the global language, which gives both perceived and I am sorry to say in some cases real advantages to institutions in the UK and America."
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