How Harvard can be the #1 university in the world but #2 in the US

U.S. News & World report released its first global university rankings today, and Harvard University tops the list. Which is kind of weird, considering that Harvard ranked second on the same publication’s US university rankings, behind Princeton.

Weirder, still: Princeton is 13th on the global list.

The ranking gap is because of the difference in methodology—the global report focuses on research, while the US report focuses on academics and retention. It’s not that international audiences (which accounts for about 14% of the readership for these rankings, according to a spokeswoman) are necessarily more interested in a school’s research reputation, or that Americans care more about their undergraduate college experience. It’s because U.S. News bases their rankings on what information is available, says Bob Morse, the magazine’s chief data strategist.


It’s relatively easy to compare graduation, retention and admission rates for US schools because that data is both standardized and available, Morse tells Quartz. Even if he could get all the data he wanted from different universities around the world—which he can’t—it would be difficult to compare. Research, on the other hand, is a much easier baseline.

“You need to have data and there isn’t that much of it that actually crosses international borders,” Morse says. “The data on research performance and productivity using citations, number of peer reviewed papers published, or the number of times they were cited … that’s an accepted global comparative standard in data.”

Here are the top 10 global schools, and where they fall on the US list:

1. Harvard University
National ranking: 2
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
National ranking: 7
3. University of California, Berkeley
National ranking: 20
4. Stanford University
National ranking: 4
5. University of Oxford
(no US ranking)
6. University of Cambridge
(no US ranking)
7. California Institute of Technology
National ranking: 10
8.University of California, Los Angeles
National ranking: 23
9. University of Chicago
National ranking: 4
10. Columbia University
National ranking: 4

Many of the gaps aren’t too huge—the eight American universities included in the top 10 of the global list are all also in the top 25 of the US list. But the differences caution against relying too heavily on one ranking system when choosing a university.

You can even forego these rankings altogether, and opt for the college that’s likely to make you the most money.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search