US universities are losing their superpower status in the world

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are not actually the pinnacle of higher education in the world anymore—at least, not according to recent rankings.

The UK’s Times Higher Education just refreshed its respected World University Rankings this week, and the names at the top have seen some shuffling. Last year, Oxford nudged a US university out of the top spot for the first time since 2004. This year, Oxford and Cambridge both rank above US schools, scoring high on teaching, research, international outlook, citations, and income; meanwhile, several US schools saw falls in income, and the country only has 62 schools that made it into the top 200—compared to 77 in 2014. American universities have slipped in THE’s rankings for five straight years now.

US schools aren’t necessarily getting worse. There are just many more options in the mix now. Canada’s McMaster University, for instance, jumped 35 places in the rankings this year (at least partially thanks to the Donald Trump effect) and Chinese universities have recently worked hard to invest in research and lure foreign students over to study. Oxford and Cambridge’s twin rises to the top, too, come from bumps in research revenue.

“It’s not doom and gloom, the US still dominates the list, but there are clear warning signs and fairly significant flashing red lights that the US is under threat from increasing competition,” Phil Baty, rankings editor at Times Higher Education, told the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “Asia is rising. It’s a worrying time for stagnation for the US.” Remember, too, that universities in the US charge some of the steepest tuition fees in the world, and that it can take a decade or more to earn back the cost of that degree.

Below are the top 20 schools in THE’s 2018 ranking:

Rank School
1 University of Oxford
2 University of Cambridge
3 California Institute of Technology (tie)
3 Stanford University (tie)
5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
6 Harvard University
7 Princeton University
8 Imperial College London
9 University of Chicago
10 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (tie)
10 University of Pennsylvania (tie)
12 Yale University
13 Johns Hopkins University
14 Columbia University
15 University of California, Los Angeles
16 University College London
17 Duke University
18 University of California, Berkeley
19 Cornell University
20 Northwestern University

Of course, all college rankings—which rely on a myriad of malleable, sometimes too-easily-gamed factors—should be taken with a grain of salt. As far as quality of learning and post-graduation employment go, any school that makes it into the top 200 in the first place is a solid enough bet.

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