Unpacking US University Rankings



Considering the variety within the higher education landscape, it is understandable that students turn to rankings as a way to prioritize their university research process and to make decisions about where to apply.  However, demystify these rankings can actually help students find the right school for them. Understanding the metrics used as well as the methodology can help students and families better understand what rankings mean and don’t mean.


Times Higher Education: World University Rankings


Every year, THE publishes its World University Rankings. The 2020 rankings cover 1,400 schools in 92 different countries and are based on thirteen different data points. However, the most significant data points are teaching, research, citations, industry income, and international outlook.


THE rankings are popular amongst international families as it can put schools from different national systems in context with each other. However, it is important to point out that “research, citations, and industry income” — three of the most significant data points for their ranking–do not take into account the quality of undergraduate education. Rather, the Times Higher Education ranking emphasises the work of graduate students and faculty as it focuses on research and the money it brings into the university. For example, NYU and the University of Illinois are both ranked higher than Brown University on this list. However, Brown University’s smaller size and focus on undergraduate education means it doesn’t fare as well with these metrics. Yet, Brown might be a better fit for some students who want more faculty attention. Families who want to ensure that their student has enough resources and attention as an undergraduate, may want to look elsewhere for their information.


The QS World University Rankings


The QS World University rankings also compares national systems to each other. However, the criteria for the QS rankings is quite different. According to the information they publicly release they use the following six data points:


  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio


This ranking system is far more invested in employment data, the size of a school’s international student body, and the number of international faculty. For some families, that might be key to how their students would thrive in a university community. However, there isn’t a strict correlation between number of international students at a given school and the quality of the education. Also, employer reputation is difficult to accurately quantify. This data was collected via surveys of opinions rather than looking at which schools do well on the international employment market.


At A-List, we recommend that you consider multiple factors, including where you will personally thrive (a quality no ranking or data can account for). Here are just a few ways to determine if a school will give you the return on investment you need.


  1. Student Satisfaction: the Princeton Review also publishes a guidebook to US universities which provides excellent survey data about individual schools. We know that students thrive academically when they are satisfied and happy with their overall experience.


  1. Graduate School Attendance/ Acceptance Rate: thinking about which undergraduate institution positions you best for your future graduate program or professional school is a great way to determine if a school is right for you. US schools have this data readily available on their websites.


  1. Post-Graduation Employment: most schools track how quickly students are gainfully employed after graduation and which fields they choose. As with the graduate school data, employment information is available on the school’s website.


At A-List, we aim to provide thoughtful and transparent information to students and families so they can make informed decisions. We would be happy to discuss the best way to create your US university application list. Please feel free to reach out to us at advisors@alisteducation.co.uk.


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Unpacking US University Rankings
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