U.S. Public Universities Are Falling Behind

Private ones are still doing great -- but they aren't educating the vast majority of students.

No worries here.

Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

For the first time, neither of the top two institutions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which came out this week, is in the U.S.

Instead, they -- the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge -- are both in England. Given that Times Higher Education magazine is also based in England and a significant part of its ranking is based on a reputation survey conducted among academics, 1 you may wish to take this result with a grain of salt.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities from the ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, which is based solely on output measures such as prizes won by faculty members and articles published in top journals, put Harvard and Stanford universities in the top two spots in its latest edition last month, with Cambridge in third place, Oxford in seventh and U.S. universities filling out the rest of the top 10. The QS World University Rankings from the career and education networking company formerly known as Quacquarelli Symonds, 2  which came out in June and are tilted heavily toward reputation, gave the top four spots to U.S. institutions -- although the next four did go to English ones.

Ranking the World's Universities

The new top 10 lists

All these rankings are of course flawed and incomplete and backward-looking and all the other bad things you can say about academic rankings. But they are really interesting -- especially if you look back a few years. What they show is not entirely flattering to the U.S. system of higher education.

The first ARWU top 10, in 2003, was remarkably similar to today's: The top two are the same as in the latest ranking, and seven of the other top-10 members from that list are still in the top 10. The only exception is Yale University, which fell from eighth place then to 11th now, and was replaced by the University of Chicago, 11th place in 2003. THE and QS used to do their rankings jointly; the first one, in 2004, put Harvard in first place and the University of California at Berkeley, which now ranks 18th on the THE list and 27th on the QE list, in second. Yale, No. 8 on that list, has also fallen out of the top 10 on both lists, although only to 12th and 16th places, respectively. Berkeley's fall seems more significant, and I'll get back to it in a few paragraphs.

But first, let's look way beyond the top 10. The ARWU makes this the easiest, with an unbroken history of top-500 rankings since 2003 and handy statistical summaries since 2004. So here are the numbers since 2004 for the five countries with the most top-500 universities in 2017.

U.S. Universities Give Up Ground

Universities ranking in top 500 worldwide

Source: Academic Ranking of World Universities

* Includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan

As noted, China's totals include universities in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. This year Taiwan had seven universities in the top 500, Hong Kong five and Macau zero (it did have two in the next 500). So mainland China, with 45, would also have come in second place without them. Its rise has been impressive, with the caveat that the ARWU was originally designed to track the global standing of Chinese universities, and is focused on the hard-science metrics emphasized by the Chinese educational system. Still, Chinese institutions have been rising in the other rankings, too. Beijing's Tsinghua University is now No. 25 on the QS ranking, and its neighbor Peking University is tied for 27th (with the University of Edinburgh and New York University) on the THE list. Also, a kindred spirit, Singapore's Nanyang Technological Institute, is on the verge of breaking into one of the rankings' top-10 lists for the first time after placing 11th on the latest QS ranking. And of course Australia, the other upward-sloping line on the above chart, is full of students from China.

Japanese universities, on the other hand, have lost status in a big way. In 2004, the country ranked fourth among nations, with 36 universities in the ARWU top 500. Now it's in eighth place, with 17. Other losers include Italy (23 to 16), Canada (23 to 19), France (22 to 20) and Hungary (three to zero). Big gainers besides China and Australia include South Korea (eight to 12) and Portugal (one to five).

Then there's the U.S., which has dropped from having 170 universities in the top 500 to 135. Part of this is just the rest of the world catching up with the leading higher-education provider, which isn't necessarily an unhealthy development. But there are a couple of worrying signs. One is that Europe hasn't lost nearly as much ground as the U.S. (Latin America went from seven in the top 500 to nine, so all the losses for the Americas in the below chart are from the U.S. and Canada):

Europe Is Holding Up Better

Universities ranked in the top 500 worldwide*

Source: Academic Ranking of World Universities

* Numbers add up to more than 500 for some years because of ties.

The other issue is which universities are dropping down the ranks. Elite U.S. private universities are doing better than fine: There are 12 of them in the latest ARWU top 20, up from 10 in 2004. State universities are not. There are four in the top 20 this year, down from seven in 2004. They do even worse in the THE and QS rankings, with only two (the University of California at Los Angeles and UC Berkeley) in the THE top 20 and none in the QS top 20 (the University of Michigan comes in 21st). And in the lower rungs of the top 500, where most of the U.S. attrition has been occurring, it is generally public institutions that are doing the falling.

Among the U.S. public universities that have dropped out of the ARWU top 500 since 2004 are the University of Akron, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Auburn University, Clemson University, the University of Idaho, the University of Louisville, the University of Maine, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Michigan Technological University, the University of Mississippi, Montana State University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Northern Arizona University, Old Dominion University, the University of Nevada at Reno, the University of Rhode Island, San Diego State University, Texas Tech University, Utah State University and the College of William and Mary. 3

There's a pretty simple explanation for this: Public funding for higher education stopped going up in the U.S. a while ago. From 1991 to 2016, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the inflation-adjusted dollars appropriated per full-time equivalent student at public universities in the U.S. fell 17 percent, while per-student tuition charged by state institutions went up 104 percent. There's been a modest funding recovery lately, with per-student appropriations up 3 percent from 2011 through 2016. But on the whole the U.S. has been getting stingier with public higher education just as much of the rest of the world has been investing more in it.

University administrators and professors outside the U.S. are well aware of this, and I think that's why top U.S. public universities have fallen further in the partly reputation-based THE and QS rankings than the purely outcome-based ARWU one. It's possible that this reputational decline is predictive of a decline in outcomes. In any case, the trend is not U.S. public universities' friend. And while, as noted, their most prestigious private counterparts are still doing great, public institutions educate far more students in the U.S. (3.3 times as many undergraduates in 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics) and do far more research and development. If they keep losing ground, the country is going to feel the effects.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. The survey, conducted annually, generates 33 percent of the score. Citations of faculty members' work, student-faculty ratios, research funding, and international student and faculty percentages are among the other factors.

  2. After its founders, Nunzio Quacquarelli and Matt Symonds.

  3. I also counted six public medical schools falling out of the top 500, although several appear to have simply been consolidated into other state universities. The private schools I could find that had dropped out of the top 500 were the Catholic University of America, Howard University, Lehigh University, Loyola University of Chicago, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Southern Methodist University, Wake Forest University and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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