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America Dominates Those 'Best Universities in the World' Lists, But So What?

Does this reputation ranking mean that these are actually the best schools?

There's no denying it's been a rough few years for higher education in America. States have slashed budgets to the bone and passed costs on to students, resulting in soaring tuition and crushing student loan debt. Combine that with lackluster job prospects, it's no wonder 57 percent of Americans are disillusioned about the value of a college degree.

But despite all the angst over whether a degree is still worth it, according to the U.K. based Times of Higher Education's rankings of the top 100 research universities in the world, when it comes to reputation, schools in the United States are still the best.

Indeed, American universities comprise over 40 schools on the list, and they're absolutely crushing the top 10. A full 7 of the top 10 schools in the world are in the U.S.:

Sure, the usual suspects, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are—as they were in 2011 and 2012—in the number one and two spots, and they're in some pretty elite (and pricey) company with Cambridge and Oxford coming in third and fourth.

So does this reputation ranking mean that these are actually the best schools? The Times says it gets its rankings from an invitation-only survey—16,639 individuals responded—it sends to the world's top academics from 144 countries. They readily admit the "the reputation league table is based on nothing more than subjective judgement" but because these are senior academics with an average of 17 years "working in the academy" from an even sampling of disciplines, they're "the people best placed to know the most about excellence in our universities."

On the other hand, over at The Awl, NYU associate professor Clay Shirkey compares "the people running colleges today to music industry executives in the age of Napster,"—so it's not a bad idea to take these opinion-based rankings with a hefty grain of salt.

And the real issue is that Harvard and the rest of this elite cadre of universities can dominate these kind lists till the cows come home, but they don't represent the learning experience of the average student. California has the only two public universities in the top 10. The University of California at Berkeley ranks fifth, the same as in 2012 and UCLA jumped up one spot to number eight. No wonder UCLA saw just shy of 100,000 undergraduate applications—the most in the school's history—during this year's admissions season.

But even those two UC schools are a far cry from what college is really like for most folks. As Shirkey so aptly puts it,

"Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class. Think 50% dropout rates. Think two-year degree. (Except don't call it that, because most graduates take longer than two years to complete it. If they complete it.)


So knocking it out of the park on a reputation list is all well and good, but if we're not extending a quality educational experience to everyone, reputation will only take America so far.

Harvard University photo via Shutterstock

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