And vary they do. Unlike the vast majority of the other 100-plus universities that appear on the list, those located in the U.S. are almost all private institutions. Of the 105 institutions globally on the list, just 21 are private. And all but two of those 21 private colleges are in America. “As far as global perceptions of excellence are concerned, there is a really a stark divide between the U.S. public universities and the private ones,” says Phil Baty, a former journalist who’s edited the THE rankings for nearly a decade. And this divide could help explain why the U.S. is home to the highest tuition fees in the world.
Fewer international students are enrolling in U.S. colleges.
Among the universities listed in the top 10, for example, eight are in the U.S. They include Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, where the undergraduate sticker prices during the 2018–19 school year are $76,650, $70,240, and $71,587, respectively. (All colleges and universities are legally required to publish the total “cost of attendance,” which includes room and board and other fees on top of tuition.) Princeton (No. 7) and Yale (No. 8) also make the list, as does the University of Chicago (No. 9). Just two of the top 10 colleges are public—UC Berkeley (No. 6) and UCLA (tied for No. 9), both of which are highly selective and come with sticker prices that are more on par with those of private colleges than they are state-funded ones, verging on $35,300 for California residents. Meanwhile, tuition at the University of Oxford (No. 5) is roughly $12,000 a year, a fourth of Harvard’s.
Scrutinizing the THE data underscores how just about all of the most prestigious American colleges are private. In the top 25, another three Ivy League institutions enter the mix, as do the California Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University. But only one more public university made the cut: the University of Michigan, which comes with a total in-state price tag of $30,298, though a majority of undergraduates are from out of state and pay an even higher cost.
According to Baty, at least throughout Europe, private colleges and universities are mediocre at best, typically housed in dilapidated buildings and offering low-cost vocational training. And gaining admission to top public colleges like, say, the University of Oxford is no easy feat. Roughly 17 percent of those who apply for one of its undergraduate seats gain admission to the nearly millennium-old institution.
This anomaly may be a big reason why the price tags of the most prestigious U.S. colleges have soared to near-absurd levels. As private schools, the bulk of THE’s top U.S. colleges generally don’t receive funding from state legislatures; instead, they rely predominantly on student tuition and research grants. They also benefit from hefty charitable donations that have built massive endowments. (Harvard’s $37 billion endowment outstrips the annual budget of Colorado.) That leads to higher price tags.