World's top 200 colleges: an educated guess?

The Times Higher Education-QS World Rankings show that US top colleges face fierce competition from Asia.

By , Deputy International Editor

Harvard is still No. 1. But the United States? It better look over its shoulder – both East and West.

OK. The US still leads the global pack in top-notch universities – according to the London-based Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. From sea (CalTech) to shining sea (Harvard, Yale, M.I.T, Princeton – you choose), Americans still have the high-quality teaching, top-flight research labs, and, most likely, the iconic ivy-draped quads that beckon like glittering gold to young scholars around the globe.

That explains why the US holds 54 of the top 200 universities in the Times/QS survey (32 in the top 100). But Britain, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, among others, are stealing precious turf.

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True, Britain is home to the venerable institutions of Cambridge (No. 2) and Oxford (No. 5, down a notch from last year). It's worth noting, though, as does the president of Universities UK, that the island nation "punches well above its weight" overall, with 29 schools in the top 200. (Not bad for a country with a population of 61 million, versus the US head count of 304 million.)

But it's not just what's happening across the Atlantic that should have American universities hanging onto their caps and gowns. Consider the view as you gaze out across the Pacific.

Mainland China, which is investing heavily in higher education, maintained its position from last year, with six institutions in the top 200. Hong Kong added a new entry to gain five spots there, three in the top 50. South Korea's Seoul National University moved up three slots to 47th place, while Japan added to its holdings with 11 schools, six of them in the top 100.

Rankings' officials say their assessment is based on four pillars: high-quality research, high-quality teaching, high graduate employability, and an international outlook. They gauge these according to such factors as citations of academic publications (in relation to full-time staff), staff-to-student ratio, and the proportion of international staff and students.

The lion's share of the final grade – 50 percent – "is made up from qualitative data from surveys of informed people – university academics and graduate employers."

No matter what they say, colleges are watching. Higher education is big business and a source of national bragging rights. Rankings boost endowments. But not everyone buys them, whether the source is US News and World Report or Washington Monthly or Mother Jones, for that matter.

Sniping is already well under way with the Times report: Too Western-biased? Tipped toward English-language schools? Wrong criteria?

As one commenter on the Times/QS website noted:

"Let's see: U.C. Berkeley is: 2nd in engineering and IT; 5th in life sciences; 3rd in natural sciences; 2nd in social sciences; 4th in arts and humanities; and 39th overall. Hmmm. They must have a really lousy football team."

Want to cast your own judgment or look for your alma mater? Check out the results in detail.

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