In any ranking system, at least 50% of top universities (top 100, for example) are American. What is special about American higher education?

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    No, they are not old, not even close. topuniversities.com/blog/10-oldest-universities-world But yes, they do welcome the best of the best. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:33
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    Surprised nobody has yet mentioned that most rankings originated from the US, which inspired several other closely related rankings (e.g. the Shanghai ranking defines Harvard U to be rank 1). University rankings are mainly a PR game, so obviously the (mostly American) universities that produce them end up on top, or the rankings wouldn't be made in the first place. This is not to say that these rankings are total BS, but please don't overestimate their relevance. Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 1:23
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    @Mico No, if true, Marc's comment is 100% relevant. The question is "Why do American universities do so well in the rankings?" and, if true, Marc's comment answers that. Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 8:17
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    One contributing factor that I have not yet seen in an answer: In the US there is a clear concept of a "top university" and an inter-university ranking. At least in some other countries this might not be the case. I'm thinking especially of Germany where this is much less pronounced and people can be hard-pressed to even name a university that is distinctly above others. Thus reputation, funding and concentration of top academics tend to be more spread out. There is a government initiative in Germany that tries to establish "elite universities", but it will take time to show an effect.
    – Emil
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 8:58
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    @Mico: I think Marc's comments directly address both questions. "Why are most of the top universities American?" -> "Because the rankings that bring them to top were designed to bring them to top."; "What is special about American higher education?" -> "As opposed to other higher education systems, the American higher education system is the one that was defined to be the ideal form when designing the rankings." (Not saying that this is entirely true, and I'd like to see some references for the claims, but nonetheless I see the claims as direct answers to both forms of the question.) Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:08

14 Answers 14


It started in the 1930s, when Nazi Germany started to fire Jewish professors and other people who opposed the regime. Many others left voluntarily as well. Germany had the best universities before this period. The United States ended out getting more of the refugees than any other country (e.g. Einstein) and this started the ascendancy of American universities.

Then World War II happened. Germany ended out with their universities basically obliterated, through the actions of the Nazis and also from the war itself. Japan's universities were also very damaged. The US on the other hand, not only benefited from the refugees but also from the war effort. A lot of money and effort was put into the Manhattan Project and so on, and this infrastructure was used after the war. Other European countries did not really gain as much... some suffered extensive war damage and others like France were at least occupied. Britain's academic institutions were (basically) intact but they were losing ground to the Americans.

After WWII the Cold War happened, and universities were highly supported by the US government during this period, building on the earlier growth. The US had a lot of financial resources and were willing to use them to help universities. Also, American universities in recent decades have been quite welcoming to foreigners, and the increasing prominence of US universities in turn attracts immigrants. So this has become a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

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    The top American universities didn't really compare to the best in Germany, France, or the UK before then.
    – Zarrax
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:07
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    @Ooker Yes... MIT was especially unspectacular in the old days. Harvard was a premier US institution but the major breakthroughs (in science at least) rarely came out of there.
    – Zarrax
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 1:51
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    @Zarrax Do you have a source for your claim that U.S. top universities didn't compare to those of Germany, France, or the U.K. prior to the 30s? I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, but a source would be helpful.
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 3:08
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    In my field (math), the major developments before the 30s almost all came out of Europe, and if you look at the history of science in other fields you will see the same thing. I suggest looking at histories of science as sources for this. I actually don't know the reasons why the US lagged so much. Maybe someone else can give the answer to this.
    – Zarrax
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 18:20
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    @CapeCode: It was not the "staying away from various types of collectivism", it was the staying away from persecuting sizeable portions of their population, and most especially from war within their borders. When the USA went a bit overboard with the "staying away" to the point of persecution during the McCarthy era, it didn't make them friends among the academics...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 12:12

Ranking is based on several features. To understand why many top universities are located in the USA, according to many rankings, you might want to look at each feature. Examples of features:

  • faculty salary: this gives to USA-based universities an advantage over some of the countries where academics are less paid. (e.g. France)
  • student satisfaction: the American culture tends to be more positive than in some countries.
  • research grants: in some countries, academics don't focus on obtaining grants as much as in the USA.
  • reputation: the large average size of US universities make them more visible than in many other countries. Also, (taken from O.R. Mapper in the comments), some American universities seem to run professional news outlets on their websites that report about everything noteworthy that happens in the university. In contrast, in some other countries, e.g. Germany, universities' newsfeeds tend to be on a comparably low priority.
  • Americans speak English decently well, it helps to get published, give talk in international conferences, create MOOCs, etc.
  • endowment: see Why do American universities receive lots of endowments?
  • etc.

Then of course there is brain drain. Students with good academic credentials wishing to study abroad are likely to choose the USA, if they have the option.

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    The "American spirit" comment seems both vague and a bit biased, especially with no supporting links.
    – barbecue
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 22:11
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    @barbecue When something is "good" in France, it's "great" in the US. When something is "great" in France, it's "outstanding" in the US. I'll post supporting links if I come across any, but I thought it was commonly accepted :) (I am also interested in quantifying it though) In the meantime one hint could be the number of student strikes in France vs in the USA. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 22:13
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    @barbecue Some ideas: Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project: The American-Western European Values Gap. Please share your references if you find something better. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 22:25
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    One more point springing to mind: A lot of research in Europe is not carried out at Universities but independent institutes - the universities primarily teach. E.g. research at INRIA (France), the Max Planck Institutes (Germany) etc. is very good but will never feature in a university ranking.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 12:17
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    @FranckDernoncourt And something "outstanding" in the USA would be "really not too bad at all" here in the UK. :)
    – A E
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 18:11

Here are some factors that contribute and that aren't really mentioned in the other answers:

  • The USA is big. The USA has 300 million inhabitants. So of course the number of US universities is higher, and the number of US universities in rankings will be higher. It doesn't really make sense to compare the huge US to a smaller country.

  • Rankings favor English-speaking universities. For example, one of the criteria in the Shanghai is the number of articles published in Nature and Science; these two journals only publish articles in English. Another criteria is the Science Citation Index, which is also biased towards English. Similar criticism can be made for other rankings.

  • Rankings favor the Anglo-saxon model. In France for example, most scientists work in a UMR, meaning they are affiliated at the same time at a university and the CNRS (or some other public research institute). This means that for the purposes of counting Nobel prizes for example, only "half" goes to the university, and the other half goes to the CNRS. Some scientists even work directly for a public research institute and not in a university. The CNRS is not a university and doesn't appear in rankings. In the US, a researcher works for the university and that's it; almost all research is done at universities.

  • Rankings favor very big universities. This one is obvious: if you're just counting Nobel prizes, publications... A bigger university will naturally have a higher ranking. US universities are typically very big: 16 of the 61 (26%) biggest universities by enrollment are in the US.

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    You mention "USA has 300 million" and "Rankings favor very big universities". It seems that academics should push to have some indexes normalized between countries, based on the number of University students (which would mitigate the issues you properly raise).
    – Todd Booth
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 19:54
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    @ToddBooth As far as I'm aware, academics are not involved in creating these rankings and largely do not care about them (unless some funding body decides to use them to decide where to allocate funds).
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 7:21
  • Please keep the comments civil, and take extended discussion to Academia Chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 15:17

This is due to many factors, and some can actually be tied to historical reasons. For example, the Cold War - this lead to high R&D spending by the U.S Gov and the creation of many new labs and research areas. Additionally, the U.S. is a country founded by immigrants, and so until this day, you have immigration from all parts of the world (less so from Europe now as it used to be), and as thus, the brain drain in other countries is affecting the U.S. positively. Many top notch researchers in the U.S.A are not/were not even American, but left their countries to pursue opportunities in the USA. Now in cases like Harvard, Yale, other Ivies, these were amongst the first institutions in the USA, and until this day keep this reputation as the best.

  • "Many top notch researchers in the U.S.A are not/were not even American" -- iirc, the majority of PhD students are foreigners. Brain-drain may be one of the factors that keeps the US in the game.
    – Raphael
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:59
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    The question is then why would those top researchers primordially choose USA instead of any other place.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 12:04
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    @Davidmh Because few people look beyond "went to Harvard" on a resumé? The name itself counts for something. Plus, for many a top US university is certainly a big step upwards (if not necessarily a step to the top, always).
    – Raphael
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 18:36
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    @Raphael Another reason that foreign students choose U.S. universities is the ability to get into the U.S. in the first place. Salaries (especially for highly-skilled tech workers and academics) tend to be higher in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. It's much easier to get those jobs if you have at least part of your collegiate education from the U.S. (both in terms of getting permission for immigration and in terms of being accepted for the positions.)
    – reirab
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 3:21
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    @Raphael but that is a circular argument. No one would go to Harvard for the prestige before it was famous.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 6:15

Here's an aspect that's mostly missing in the answers that have been posted so far: American universities -- at least the ones which value research output, which are also the ones that tend to show up in published rankings... -- care either very little or not at all about the national origins and citizenship status of the faculty they wish hire and of the graduate students they would like to attract. They try very hard to hire the very best research faculty and the most research-oriented graduate students, irrespective of national origin.

In many of the top departments in the U.S., especially in the sciences and in economics, more than half the faculty and more than two thirds of the graduate students are not native U.S. citizens. (Quite a few, of course, choose to become U.S. citizens if they stay in the U.S.) Thus, rather than thinking in terms of "American universities", it may be more useful to think about "universities in America" in order to understand their prevalence in the rankings. If universities in the U.S. are free to compete for the best talent from around the world, whereas other universities have to give preference to applicants from their own countries (or regions) or are barred outright from hiring non-nationals, it shouldn't be a surprise that the freer system ends up with more talent.

Addendum to address @Emil's comment, about me allegedly claiming that non-US universities suppress cultural diversity. Please note that I have made no such claim. My answer was focused on issues of citizenship and nationality, and not on cultural diversity -- which, I believe, is a much broader concept. Since you asked, though, let me give a specific example of the effects that being able to hire faculty and attract graduate students irrespective of their national origin can have. In Switzerland, the country I live in right now (Switzerland), the immigration law that's still in effect has tended to give great leeway to universities in their hiring decisions. The ETH in Zurich and the EPF in Lausanne, in particular, have made great use of this freedom in recent years to attract stellar faculty and students, in the process either solidifying or strongly improving their international ranking positions. Unsurprisingly, then, a good chunk of the faculty and students, especially the younger faculty and students, of both universities are not Swiss citizens. (Switzerland is, after all, a fairly small country!) In early 2014, however, Swiss voters approved an amendment to the Swiss federal constitution which -- if implemented as some fear/expect it will -- will greatly curtail the freedom of the ETHZ, the EPFL, and all other Swiss universities to go after talent irrespective of their national origin or current citizenship status. Leaders of the ETHZ and EPFL have already warned that if and when the law that implements the constitutional amendment goes into effect, and if the law will be as restrictive as some fear it will be, the rankings of these two universities (and of the other Swiss universities) will suffer seriously and rapidly as many of their top faculty will choose to go elsewhere and as international students look elsewhere when they think about pursuing graduate studies.

@Emil also wrote:

I thought the causation could as well be the other way around: "Because US universities have a high reputation they attract more international students and faculty."

Isn't such an argument nearly circular? For sure, it doesn't explain how or why the rankings of European and Asian universities have finally managed to rise in recent years -- in many cases quite significantly so. What matters greatly, obviously, is having a good reputation. However, being based in the US does not, by itself, establish a good reputation. After all, it's rather well known that there are lots and lots of mediocre and poor universities in the U.S. as well.

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    Could you give references or examples for the statement that universities outside the US are actively or passively suppressing cultural diversity? I'm not saying it's not true, I'm just interested. I thought the causation could as well be the other way around: "Because US universities have a high reputation they attract more international students and faculty."
    – Emil
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:43
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    @Emil - I posted an addendum to address the questions you raised in your comment.
    – Mico
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 14:00
  • Regarding your last paragraph, I don't think it's incredible that a combination of factors is responsible for the way the rankings are... Of course if you take a single factor (here: "a prestigious university will attract brilliant researchers and thus rank higher, getting more prestigious") and assume it's responsible for the whole ranking you can easily deduce that it's wrong. But the only thing you have proven is that the single factor is not responsible for the whole ranking, which is not a really interesting conclusion.
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 7:16
  • @NajibIdrissi - Are you critiquing Emil's comment (about a potential reverse causality between rankings and the ability to attract high-quality staff and graduate students) or my response to the comment?
    – Mico
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 7:30
  • Your response to the comment... You say "it doesn't explain how or why European and Asian universities have (finally) managed to rise along the rankings ladder in recent years": so what? It doesn't mean that it wasn't a contributing factor.
    – user9646
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 7:35

I'm looking at http://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2015#sorting=rank+region=+country=+faculty=+stars=false+search= and I see that 10 of the top 50 are British, vs 18 USA.

However the population of the USA is about 5 times that of the UK.

So the answer to your question is there's nothing special about the US education system other than the country has a larger population than some other countries with a better education system.

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    Your posting does not actually establish that "there's nothing special about the US [higher] education system". It does establish that the U.S. and British higher education systems, taken together, are jointly special. It might be useful if you addressed what's jointly special about these two systems.
    – Mico
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:05
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    This ranking also goes to show that the OP's statement "In any ranking system, at least 50% of top universities … are American." is not quite accurate.
    – Emil
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:06
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    18/50 = 36% < 50% (Note that the OP said "any" and "at least", not "many" and "almost".)
    – Emil
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 14:12
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    These rankings are by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British educational firm. It's not too surprising they have a higher opinion of British universities than others. Even more amusing is how they rank their universities so much higher than the French ones :) The say for example that the University of Edinburgh is better than every university in France. Guess what.. it isn't.
    – Zarrax
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 16:47
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    @DavidPostill Being a top university is well-defined despite all the flaws in ranking systems. And it is true the US has more of the top universities than other countries
    – Zarrax
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 23:44

Here's a piece that is touched on in a few other answers but which seems to be unstated: the United States' university system has many of the worlds top schools because it is massively unequal.

The US has more than 4,000 colleges and universities — the "best" universities may be in the US but so are some of the worst. These two facts are not unrelated. The US higher education system is more effective at concentrating resources (top students, money, grants, and the best faculty) in a small number of universities at the top than any other national system.

In much of the developing world and in many small countries, there are simply few resources. In many developed countries, universities are funded by governments that attempt to distribute resources widely and fairly (if not equally) across universities in their systems. If, for example, most students go to universities near their hometown, it seems unfair to send the best faculty and most of the grant funding to the university that trains the folks who happen to live in the capital.

In the US, there are few pretensions. Most of the top US schools are private schools that compete with funds and that have a massively disproportionate share of the money, grants, top students, and top faculty. Because there are few checks on inequality in the US system, this leads to a feedback loop where universities at the top use their resources to capture more — aggravating inequality over time.


American child-rearing and American education are more tolerant of failure. Top American students have learned how to lose gracefully as well as how to win gracefully. They have been taught that risk-taking is worthwhile.

If you look at the distribution of academic scores in American primary, secondary, and undergraduate education, you will find that the American education system has institutions that are consistently very poor, institutions that are consistently mediocre, and institutions that are consistently strong. Depending on their resources and priorities, Americans gravitate toward the institutions that seem to suit them.

A top secondary student who wishes to attend a premier undergraduate school needs to focus on certain things. In Asian countries, the student should cram to pass tests. In America, the student should split their effort into essay-writing, math, science, and athletics. Most premier American undergraduate schools can easily fill their student bodies with students who have high academic marks. Athletic striving helps distinguish applicants as being "well-rounded".

American secondary schools have well developed inter-scholastic leagues in many sports. In each contest between schools, one school wins, and one school loses. Occasional failure is expected; effort and improvement are demanded; coaching is provided; and success is honored. Success is simultaneously measured on a personal improvement level, in contests between individuals, and on a team level.

Courses like MIT's "2.70 contest" have been replicated at several top engineering schools around the world. Instructors of these courses have noted the wide variety of approaches and successfulness of MIT's students, as compared to other countries' students. At MIT, it is normal for one-third of the students' machines to fail to score any points. On the other hand, some MIT students' machines are wildly aggressive and/or wildly successful. In prestigious European and Japanese engineering schools, nearly all students' machines score some points -- in identical contests -- but few students take the unconventional approaches needed to be wildly successful.

  • Very interesting points
    – J Sargent
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 1:38

In my somewhat extensive experience of Japanese universities vs American universities, the expectations of students and faculty are far higher in American universities. For example, in Japan it is enough for faculty to publish "research" in their university's own journals, few of which are peer reviewed. Plagiarism is a minor problem. In Japan, the student is simply asked to rewrite the paper. In the U.S. it is grounds for immediate expulsion.

In Japan, students spend much of their time doing extra-curricular activities, and preparing for the school festival. Academics generally take a backseat to the social development that is foregone in earlier schooling, when exam preparation is foremost in most students' minds. Furthermore, administrators generally make it difficult for faculty to fail recalcitrant students. Giving a social pass is generally preferred to justifying a failing grade.

I recently did an Academic writing class for third year students in a high level public university. I found that many students were recycling papers they had written in previous years, and once I took measures to obviate that, the quality improved markedly, but it was also clear the papers were written for, and edited by, professors of higher level classes.

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    "I recently did an Academic writing class [...]" Is this in a Japanese university or in an American university?
    – JRN
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 5:21
  • While I agree that this difference very much exist, it is hardly influence any university ranking lists which often focuses on number of Nobel prize winners , number of papers and diversity of faculty/ students.
    – Greg
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 15:35

The other answers are excellent, but I'd like to add some I haven't seen, in particular aspects where the American system differs:

  • American universities have to compete for funds. Even "public" universities have to compete for state tuition and certainly for research funding from places like NSF, NIH, DOEnergy, DOEducation... The best American universities are in fact the ones who have some of the longest history of competing for those funds and winning them. Faculty successful at securing external funding often receive higher salaries than those who do not succeed. (Some Europeans tell me their countries are changing over to this model now.)

  • American laws do not mandate a preference for American employees in higher education. There are some hoops to jump through for foreign labor, but they are largely a pure formality, also unlike some countries. (Again, some Europeans tell me that their laws on this are not mere formalities, which is why so many of their universities have a preponderance of natives in the sciences.)

  • Perhaps the most important reason: Americans send a much larger proportion of their population to university. Many countries send only a filtered group (e.g., to enroll in the sciences you had to take a certain curriculum at a science-oriented high school). That means a lot of Americans are attending college, which means a lot more money is going through the American higher education system, which gives both more resources to American universities to spend on things, and more incentive to spend it wisely.

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    Your comparison of US versus European labo(u)r law is off the mark. In both cases, you can't employ somebody from outside the bloc (US or EU) unless you can argue that they're better than everyone inside it, which isn't hard in academia since everyone has unique skills. And EU citizens have the automatic right to work in any EU country. A far more significant effect is that English is widely taught as a second language throughout the world and is the lingua franca of academia. Wanna work in the US? Your English is probably OK. Wanna work in Italy? Bulgaria? Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 8:44
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    Also, research funding in the UK and Canada is competitive. The European Union has extensive competitive research funding programmes. Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:28
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    And if you look at the graph at the end of this BBC article, you see that, in 2010, the USA was actually slightly below the OECD average of proportion of people who get a university degree. In summary, all three of your points are suspect. Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 9:32
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    In Germany, many if not most undergrad programs are taught in German. Since usually every university professor has to teach undergrad courses (with few exceptions), you have to speak German in order to be employed. I can't imagine that that is different in the US; would a non-English-speaking person get any job?
    – Raphael
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 10:02
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    @JohnPerry Freedom of EU citizens to work anywhere in the EU dates back to the Treaty of Rome (1957). It was already present in a restricted form in the EU's predecessor form, the European Steel and Coal Community, which gave freedom of movement to workers in those two sectors from 1951 (though, at that time, the signatories were just Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany). Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 10:20

Let's define a top university as a university that attracts top talent from all around the world because of its reputation.

Building a reputation as a top university takes generations. It requires a stable operating environment, a decent level of funding, proper management, and more than a bit of luck. If a university has a reputation as a good university, it tends to attract good researchers and good students, which further increases its reputation over time. Top Asian universities are rare, because most Asian countries haven't been that stable long enough.

Destroying the reputation (or the university) takes much less time. Continental European universities are still recovering from WW2.

We're having this discussion in English. The universities in English-speaking countries have an obvious advantage in recruiting top talent, because most researchers and students already speak English. It's much easier to move abroad, if you already speak the language.

Because of these reasons, it's easy to understand why US/UK universities are overrepresented in most university rankings.

  • Top Asian universities are not rare; perhaps it depends on which ranking you are using. The 2015 QS Rankings list NUS at 12th, NTU at 13th, Tsinghua at 25th, HKUST at 28th, University of Hong Kong at 30th...
    – user38309
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 16:13
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    Well, if one measures the performance of countries by top-100 universities per capita, then Switzerland and Australia outperform both the UK and the US (with 4 universities and 8 million people and 7 universities versus 23 million people, respectively). I'm not sure how reliable per-capita normalization is for universities, given the international nature of academia.
    – user38309
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 17:06
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    Without normalization, the question would be meaningless. It would just be the equivalent of asking why almost all top universities are outside Australia. With normalization, we can at least try to see the big picture by looking at regions that are large enough and somehow comparable. We can see, for example, that the rich English-speaking countries are overrepresented, when compared to the rich non-English Europe or the rich parts of East Asia. Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 17:23
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    But with normalization, Switzerland, Netherlands, Singapore, and Hong Kong (and perhaps others) all have more top-100 universities per capita than the English-speaking countries do.
    – user38309
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 17:46
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    @O.R.Mapper To an extent, sure; although I think a large factor in these countries' success is the number of faculty who are fluent in both Chinese and English (for maximizing the talent pool from which to draw). Interestingly, Russia has just opened an English-language technical university (Innopolis), suggesting that there is a common perception that one can attract more international talent if the working language is primarily English.
    – user38309
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 10:06

Another explanation is the governance. American universities are governed by their alumni. It is alumni who care the most about quality since any reduction in their institution's reputation immediately reflects on them. It also helps immensely with fund raising and money helps a lot with making a good university.

In other countries, it tends to either be the faculty or the government who govern and they have different motivations.

  • This is true for many private universities, but generally not US public universities. For example, the Regents of the University of California, who are the highest governing body of the University, are appointed by the governor of California, who in turn is elected by the voters of the state. Alumni don't have any particularly special role, except insofar as they can influence university administrators or regents. Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 23:51
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    "In other countries, it tends to either be the faculty or the government who govern" - even where that is not the case, I suspect "any reduction in their institution's reputation immediately reflects on them" highlights another difference: In countries where the idea of a ranking is not so prevalent, reduction in the institution's reputation will not immediately reflect on alumni. Unless there is a really scandalous discovery revealing a whole university as a fraudulent entity, it is not necessarily important where you studied as long as you got a specific degree in a specific discipline. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 11:57

There are two related factors that weigh heavily on most worldwide university ranking systems:

  1. Global ranking systems tend to be heavily biased towards prowess in academic research.

  2. The US conducts a huge, disproportionate amount of the world's academic research.

With regard to the first point, let's look at a few specific ranking systems. The US News & World Report has one such ranking system that is a significant metric for my university. Of the top 50 schools in their World Universities category, 36 are American (72%). Their methodology is exclusively research-based (some categories sound like they're not exclusively research-oriented, but if you read the specific criteria below you'll see that they essentially are). Not only are the rankings exclusively research based, they're almost entirely based on research-related publications. This ranking system totally ignores teaching, teacher to student ratio, grad student to undergrad ratio, faculty salary, percentage of courses taught by PhDs, etc.

The Times Higher Education ranking is another that comes up highly in Google results. Of the top 50 schools in that ranking, 28 are American (56%). This methodology scores based on teaching, research, and "broader impacts" criterion. However, at least 65% of a school's score is attributed to research by my judgement (research category, citations category, international collaboration, and industry income). This system does include metrics such as faculty salary and staff-to-student ratio, but other educational metrics such as number of PhDs awarded is arguably just another proxy for research productivity.

The third Google result is QS Top Universities. Of their top 50 schools, 19 are American (38%). This methodology is starkly different from the previous two. Only 20% of a university's total score is specifically research-related, however the first category (academic reputation) is probably going to be heavily slanted towards research productivity, so 60% of a school's score is directly or indirectly research related. Moreover, this system is different because a full 50% of a school's ranking is dependent on reputation- subjective opinions of the school formed by faculty and experts around the world.

The last organization on the first page of Google results (and where I'll stop) is the Center For World University Rankings. Here, out of the top 50 institutions are 33 American schools (66%). If you look at their methodology, essentially 50% is directly research related (points 3-8), and a further 25% is indirectly research related (quality of education, since this essentially measures the number of students who go on and win research-related prizes). This system also does not explicitly rank any of the educational quality metrics mentioned here, with the remaining 25% being determined by the number of students who go on to be successful in business.

With all that said, you should be convinced of point number one above. Research plays a huge role in global university rankings. Even in the systems that attempt to factor both research and educational outcomes, such as the second and fourth system, the ranking is heavily weighted towards research. Both of those systems place two to three times more importance on research than on education. If you play the numbers game, a school that scores zero on educational stats but about 50% on research stats will be ranked similarly to a school with perfect educational stats but zero research stats. Also note that the one ranking system that places the least emphasis on research productivity, the third, also contains the greatest number of non-American universities.

Now, with respect to the second point above, the US is the world's academic research powerhouse. This is not to say that other countries do not contribute or that they do not produce good work. What is meant is that the US produces the largest volume of academic research as an individual country, and by virtue of that alone receives a tremendous boost in research-oriented ranking systems.

The simplest and best explanation for this in my mind is the amount of funding available for academic research. The top ten countries by expenditure on research in higher education (all funding sources), according to OECD data:

Country       Academic R&D Funding in 2013
USA           64.7 Billion USD
China         24.1 Billion USD
Japan         21.9 Billion USD
Germany       18.4 Billion USD
France        12.1 Billion USD
UK            11.0 Billion USD        
Canada        10.5 Billion USD
Italy         8.0  Billion USD
Australia     6.8  Billion USD
South Korea   6.3  Billion USD

As you can see, the US expends a significant amount on academic R&D. More than the next three countries combined, and a large fraction of the top ten countries (35%). To generate a graph such as the above you need to view the data set itself and customize:

Measure: PPP
Sector of Performance: Higher Education
Source of Funds: Total
Years: 2013
Table Rows: Country (in the layout customization)

The difference in funding doesn't explain the difference in rankings fully, but it goes a long way. In my opinion it is the primary source of the problems that other countries face when trying to engage in academic research- 50.6% of the top-ten funding occurs in English speaking countries, while only 28.5% of the top-ten funding occurs in Asian countries. Compared to individual countries, which is perhaps what matters most for your question, the US spends about two and a half times as much as China, three times as much as Japan or Germany, six times as much as France, the UK, and Canada, etc.

That funding disparity, combined with the institutional inertia possessed by the US universities (how that happened is a different question altogether), ensures that the US will be the most fertile single nation for academic research for some time to come.

If you consider research to be a input/output situation, then funding dollars is the primary input. However, all of the ranking systems above are more concerned with research output, as expressed through academic publications. A slightly dated Reddit thread aggregates this data from a few different sources. If you take that data at face value, the US publishes about 35% of the world's papers. The next competitor (China) publishes about 16%. The third place country (UK) publishes about 10%.

Bear in mind that most of those ranking systems also emphasize quality of papers over quantity, so this is a crude estimate to answer your question. But, different ranking systems will define quality in different ways (citations vs awards and honors, and so on).

As many others have pointed out, there are a host of other interrelated factors that influence this as well. But, I think the overall situation is best explained by the two points I have presented above.


There is no simple answer. I would think that it is a system dynamic thing. Top universities have a tendency to be sinks for the resources. Best people want to work at the best places and they produce the best results. The resource pool in US is big and there is not much friction; it is also that the system is made easy for talented foreigners so the friction from borders is low.

It is also game-theoretic. Governments have their own objectives like producing educated work force, having equally good universities around the nation, and having relatively cheap specialists to do some research for them. If the universities are left free, they can optimise for the rankings. Trivially you get what you make. For a privately funded university the rankings are one of the best commercial. I remember reading about sensitivity analysis paper where Rockefeller University ranked high in some of those lists, but "low" on another. It is important to look into many rankings while trying to figure out "the true ranking".

US universities is not a singular educational system as in many nation they are; thus they can not be analysed as one. In general, US science has a really bad reputation in my country. It is a synonym for "lobbed click-bait propaganda". It can even be used as a counter-argument in a debate to nullify opponent's information. As such it is often attached the name of the US university as a source, if the university is a respectable one. It is a custom to reference the source somehow, often nations or capitals are appropriate in a public debate because the source needs to say something for the audience. US is shunned more than an unknown researcher.

  • Many of the top US universities are public schools with public mandates.
    – David
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 8:56
  • I am probably biased, but if I have understood it right they have no similar automatic funding system with the ministry of education. At least to a degree where the education is free for the students. If I made a correction I should probably write privately funded? Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 9:02
  • It varies widely by institution and state. Public universities are funded at the state level, and we have 50 states in the US. When I went to undergrad (2004) roughly 2/3rds of the cost of my education was provided by the state, and I made up the difference in tuition. At other places and times those numbers might be very different, with the students paying most of the cost of their education. I think the best edit you could make would be to not imply that all US universities are either public or private.
    – David
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 9:49

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