MIT still No. 1, but U.S. universities fall in world rankings

Harvard, Caltech, Cornell and Duke all experience significant drops while internationals move up
By: | June 8, 2021
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The new QS World University Rankings 2022 are out…and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology once again has landed in the No. 1 spot.

For the past decade, no university in the world has been able to knock MIT from that mantle. But institutions from the other side of the pond are moving up quickly as many of the traditional American powerhouses begin to slip. Harvard University, MIT’s neighbor geographically and typically close by in the annual rankings, fell to its lowest spot in the 18-year history of the Quacquarelli Symonds ratings at No. 5.

Meanwhile, the California Institute of Technology slid to No. 6 after six consecutive years in the Top 5, and Cornell University dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since 2004. Stanford University fell back one slot into a tie with the University of Cambridge at No. 3, one slot behind Oxford University, which rallied from No. 5 last year to No. 2.

Those American slides—and others from elite institutions across the United States—should be cause for alarm, noted Ben Sowter, Director of Research at QS, especially when it comes to attracting students from abroad.

“While MIT’s well-deserved success will naturally be toasted by all involved in what is, according to our metrics and dataset, the world’s leading academic ecosystem, wider observers may well be more concerned about the state of prolonged decline that American higher education has experienced over the past five years,” he said. “One-hundred-twenty of the U.S.’s 177 ranked universities have recorded a decline in their score for our International Student Ratio indicator, corroborating other sources that capture the increasing reticence among international students to invest in an American education.”

Sowter admitted there has been “intense competition from well-funded peers abroad” that explains the relative comparative dips in research and reputation among U.S. colleges and universities.

“However, this is not the full story,” Sowter said. “Previously, ranking falls had been confined to those American institutions outside the upper echelons of our rankings. It will therefore be intensely concerning to many stakeholders that the malaise now appears to have infected Harvard, Cornell, Duke and other world-renowned American universities.”

Duke, in fact, dropped to No. 52, only the second time it has fallen outside the Top 50. Among all U.S. colleges and universities that made the rankings, only 16% moved up the charts. A little more than 50%, or 91 institutions, fell back.

More rankings for U.S. universities

QS ranks institutions based on six variables: their academic and employer reputations based on thousands of surveys, citations per faculty over a five-year period, student-to-faculty ratio, international faculty ratio and international student representation.

Those factors determine an institution’s overall rank. Despite the downer in overall results from the West, for MIT, a win is a win, especially on the global stage among a prestigious group. “We deeply appreciate the recognition of our institution and the faculty, staff, alumni, and students that make MIT what it is—and we also tremendously admire the achievements of academic institutions around the globe,” L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, said. “The world benefits from a strong higher education network that delivers countless benefits for humanity, from fundamental discoveries to novel solutions to pressing challenges in climate and health, to the education of the next generation of talent. We are proud and grateful to belong to this great human community of scholars, researchers and educators, striving together to make a better world.”

The top 10 included one other U.S. institution that dropped a spot, the University of Chicago at No. 10. The rest were internationals: Imperial College of London at No. 7, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at No. 8 and University College London at No. 9.

The University of Pennsylvania and Yale University each moved up three spots to No. 13 and No. 14, respectively, while Ivy League schools Columbia (No. 19) and Princeton (No. 20) each remained in the top 20. Princeton, however, had one of the largest drops of an institution near the top, falling eight spots.

Other U.S. institutions that cracked the Top 50 include: the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (23), Johns Hopkins University (25), Northwestern University (30), University of California, Berkeley (32), University of California, Los Angeles (40), New York University (42) and the University of California, San Diego (48).

Those in the top 100 included: Carnegie Mellon University (53), Brown University (60), University of Texas-Austin (67), University of Wisconsin-Madison (75), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (82), University of Washington (85), Georgia Tech (88), Rice University (94), Penn State (96) and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (100).