U.S. universities remain No. 1 in world rankings on academic subjects

QS report shows American institutions sliding a bit but still dominant in research and devotion to current global issues.

U.S. institutions of higher education are delivering on their promise to provide the best education in the world, ranking at the top of more than half of academic disciplines against global competitors, according to a new report released by rankings company Quacquarelli Symonds (QS).

The massive analysis by QS of more than 15,000 subjects at 1,543 leading universities in its World University Rankings by Subject shows that the United States has 239 programs in the top 10, far outpacing the UK (131) and nine other countries combined. Still, the share of U.S. institutions ranking at the top has dwindled over the past five years from 71% to 53%.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University dominated the No. 1 positions on this year’s list, each garnering first-place honors in 12 separate academic categories. MIT earned top honors in several engineering disciplines: mechanical, electrical, civil and structural, as well as math, physics, chemistry, astronomy and materials science. Harvard landed at No. 1 in law, history, medicine, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, accounting and business.

Four other American institutions—Stanford (environmental sciences), NYU (philosophy), the Colorado School of Mines (engineering-mining) and the University of Pennsylvania—led specific subjects, highlighting the breadth of excellence in a still daunting time for the sector. QS said where the U.S. excelled in the past year was in research around COVID-19, climate change and medicine.

“The last few years have provided increasing evidence of the difficulties faced by American higher education: the competitiveness and economic strength of peer institutions, an often-adversarial political environment, and the challenges often created by dwindling public funding,” said Ben Sowter, Research Director at QS. “This year’s results reflect these challenges but should provide some reassurance that, while those obstacles persist, American institutions are continuing to drive research and the practical innovation necessary for the world to combat climate change, COVID, and other major health challenges—and they are often doing so more than any other higher education sector in the world.”

The biggest competitor was the UK, with 15 overall first-place rankings, including six from Oxford University. Switzerland had four (led by ETH Zurich’s three first-place spots), the Netherlands had two, and Singapore, Australia, Italy and Sweden had one apiece.

In the overall categories (a compilation of the various disciplines), the U.S. fared very well:

Arts and Humanities: Although Oxford and the University of Cambridge garnered the top two spots, American universities placed in seven of the next eight positions, with Harvard coming in at No. 3, followed by the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, NYU and UCLA. MIT, the University of Chicago and Princeton also cracked the Top 20.

Engineering and technology: While MIT came in at No. 1, only two other U.S. institutions made it into the Top 10—Stanford at No. 5 and UC-Berkeley at No. 9. However, several more managed to make it into the Top 20, including Harvard (12), the California Institute of Technology (15), Georgia Tech (16) and Carnegie Mellon (18).

Life sciences and medicine: Led by Harvard, the list of American institutions also includes Johns Hopkins (3), Stanford (5), MIT (6), UC-San Francisco (9), UCLA (11), Yale (13), UC-San Diego (15), University of Washington (16), University of Pennsylvania (18) and UC-Berkeley (tie 19).

Natural sciences: MIT and Harvard placed 1 and 2 overall, and American institutions paced by three in California—Stanford (5), Caltech (7) and UC-Berkeley (8)—showed the depth in areas that included geology, geophysics, earth and marine sciences, math and chemistry. Princeton (11), UCLA (18) and the University of Chicago (19) also made the top 20.

Social sciences and management: Harvard led the category overall, which included a broad spectrum of subjects from law and business to sports, statistics, library management, education and hospitality. American institutions that placed in the Top 20 included Stanford (5), MIT (6), UC-Berkeley (8), Yale (9), Columbia (12), University of Chicago (13), UCLA (14), Penn (16), NYU (17) and Princeton (tie 19).

The QS rankings are the result of an exhaustive process that includes academic and employer surveys and data analysis and feature five main categories: academic reputation, employer reputation, research citations, H-index (highly publicized works), and the International Research Network index.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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