US universities aren’t necessarily the best. But that doesn’t seem to matter

Best in show.
Best in show.
Image: Reuters/Julia Robinson
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Appearances matter. When it comes to college rankings, they’re almost everything that matters.

The Times Higher Education World Rankings, an annual compilation of the globe’s best universities that’s closely watched by students as well as schools and national governments, is out with refreshed numbers for 2016, with lists for reputation and quality of teaching.

The discrepancies in how different schools fare on the two separate lists are telling. In general, certain established US schools with recognizable names, like MIT and Yale, are ranked higher on the reputation list than they are on the quality list.

By reputation—i.e., prestige, perception, and global brand power—Harvard takes this year’s top spot, as it has for several straight years. Yet by quality of teaching and research, Harvard is only sixth. Judging by its actual educational caliber, the #1 school is the California Institute of Technology.

Reputation rankings over the years. (Courtesy of Times Higher Education)
Reputation rankings over the years. (Courtesy of Times Higher Education)

Columbia, while only #15 in the world in terms of quality, has seen its brand power soar from #23 in 2011 to #9 in 2016—possibly due to being featured more regularly in world news and media. (Talk of president Barack Obama joining the faculty after his term ends probably helped.)

But on the other side of things, many non-US schools, such as University College London and ETH Zurich, are scoring highly on the quality list and doing much worse on the reputation list.

European universities especially seem to be slipping in prestige. Four of Germany’s six institutions have dropped down that list this year, and seven of the 10 UK universities represented also fell to lower spots, even though they haven’t markedly declined in quality.

Times Higher Education at least makes a point of separating a school’s quality from its (sometimes misleading) reputation; many other lists, like the popular US News and World Report rankings, lump the two metrics into a single evaluation. It all goes to show how finicky and unreliable college rankings lists can be.