The U.S. is No Longer in 1st Place in World University Rankings. Should We Care?

Posted By Terri Williams on October 5, 2016 at 4:48 pm
The U.S. is No Longer in 1st Place in World University Rankings. Should We Care?
Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford University, Oxford, England

Americans like to be in first place. From the race to the moon to the 2016 Olympics, from the most valuable brands to the most billionaires and millionaires, we take pride in being number one.

But recently, we’ve been knocked out of first place in one category. According to the World University Rankings 2016-2017, an annual report by The Times Higher Education, for the first time in the report’s 13-year history, a U.S. school is no longer in the top spot. For the past 5 years, the California Institute of Technology was ranked the best school in the world, but this year, the University of Oxford took the top spot.

Top 10 universities

Despite not getting the number one spot, the U.S. continues to dominate the list. Below are the top 10 schools:

Rank School
#1 University of Oxford
#2 California Institute of Technology
#3 Stanford University
#4 University of Cambridge
#5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
#6 Harvard University
#7 Princeton University
#8 Imperial College London
#9 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
#10 (tie) University of California, Berkeley
#10 (tie) University of Chicago


Top schools by subject

The list also ranks schools according to specific areas of learning, in which the U.S. also features predominately. Below are the top 2 schools in each discipline, ranked by subject:

Arts and Humanities Harvard University (tie) Stanford University (tie)
Business/Economics Massachusetts Institute of Technology Stanford
Clinical, Pre-Clinical, Health University of Oxford Harvard University
Computer Science ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich California Institute of Technology
Engineering/Technology California Institute of Technology Stanford University
Life Sciences Harvard University University of Cambridge
Physical Sciences Harvard University Stanford University
Social Sciences Stanford University University of Oxford


The schools are ranked on several criteria, including research, teaching, citations, and international outlook. The Times Higher Education also noted that Oxford received a record $679 million in research income and has recently been successful in “drawing in international talent.” Other notable changes: 19 Asian schools are in the top 200, and India’s top school is close to the 200 mark.

Cause for concern?

A recent report reveals that U.S. companies are struggling to find workers in 5 areas, including information technology and engineering. And according to a new STEM jobs index, in the not-so-distant future, America will need foreign labor to fill STEM jobs. Is being booted out of first place in the world university rankings further evidence that the U.S. may be in decline?

David M. Steele-Figueredo, Ph.D., president of Woodbury University is a graduate of the British university system (B.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Birmingham in England). He tells GoodCall that he’s not surprised Britain has the top school, and another university (Cambridge) in 4th place. “Research and development in the British universities are heavily funded by two entities: the central government and public-private partnerships.” And while he thinks the U.S. government has done pretty well, there’s plenty of room for improvement in public-private partnerships. “Namely, U.S. corporations need to step up to the plate and invest heavily in university research,” says Steele-Figueredo.

Erin Albert, MBA, PharmD, JD, director of the Pharmaceutical Pricing Fellowship and Health Outcomes pharmacist with Myers and Stauffer, believes there are two ways to look at the rankings. On one hand, since funding in research was a significant factor in Oxford taking the top spot, Albert says, “If you can extrapolate research funding into innovation, which in turn will be beneficial to student education, then perhaps other schools might have cause for concern if researching funding is lower, which could mean less innovation occurring on campus.”

But on the other hand, Albert warns against putting a lot of stock into rankings.” Lists always need to be taken with a grain of salt, and can be biased based on who is compiling the list and weight of criteria used to determine rankings.”

Albert says comparing universities can be similar to subjectively comparing fruits. “Every one has a different flavor, and one flavor isn’t necessarily better than the other.”

In fact, Bill Destler, president of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), wrote a 2013 article questioning the various college ranking systems. Although RIT typically ranks highly on several lists, Destler thinks it’s a mistake to judge dissimilar schools by the same criteria. Instead, he proposes evaluating schools by their success in achieving the institution’s mission statement, and wrote that a community college could rank as highly as an Ivy League school.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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