Why US Universities Saw Their Worst Performance Yet in the 2020 QS World University Rankings

Despite taking the top three spots, US universities fared poorly in the 2020 QS World University Rankings compared to previous years.

Whilst the Massachusetts Institute of Technology secured top spot for a record eighth consecutive year, followed closely by Stanford University and Harvard University, US universities saw a significant decline.

The 16th edition of the QS World University Rankings revealed that 53.5% of ranked US universities fell in the rankings.

This is the nation’s worst performance in the QS rankings to date, with only 15.9% of universities improving their position.

So, what lies behind this accelerating decline and what indicators were the most influential?

The QS World University Rankings rank the world’s top 1,000 universities based on a range of indicators, including academic reputation, employer reputation, faculty / student ratio (class sizes), citations per faculty (research performance), international faculty ratio, and international student ratio.

When it comes to the US, the last indicator is the most telling, with 126 of the 157 ranked US universities recording declines in performance for the international student ratio indicator.

This complements other findings which have shown that international student enrollment saw a 6.6% dip in the 2017-2018 academic year (the biggest decline since 9/11).

The number of F-1 visas (issued to foreign students studying full-time) saw a swift drop from around 644,000 in 2015 to about 394,000 in 2017.

Another indicator that took a substantial hit was the international faculty ratio, which saw 120 universities decline and only 34 improve.

Academic reputation was the third worst hit with 116 universities seeing declining rankings, and only 26 universities improving.

However, it’s not all bad news. The QS Employer Survey, which informs part of the World University Rankings, found that 13 of the world’s top 50 universities for graduate employability are in the US.

Ben Sowter, Director of Research at QS, states that, “Our dataset, which contains the insights of more than 44,000 hiring managers regarding the quality of graduates they receive from specific institutions, indicates that employers worldwide still find US graduates more attractive than those from China.”

It’s clear that whilst US universities still demand a healthy respect from employers, they’ve been hit hard when it comes to internationalization.

While this could be primarily due to political factors outside of their control, US universities can do their part to encourage and welcome prospective international students.

To nurture this continuous improvement and leverage the insights revealed by the rankings, we developed the QS Rankings Tracker, which helps universities identify an actionable framework for progress.

If you’d like to access more rankings analysis and insights, please contact us about our QS Rankings Tracker now.


About the Author:

As the B2B Content Marketing Manager, Sarah Linney is responsible for communicating the insights, research, and market analysis that have positioned QS as a thought leader in the higher education sector. After completing a Communications-Journalism degree at Charles Sturt University in Australia, Sarah worked in radio news and B2B print publishing before joining the content marketing sector. While working at a content marketing agency, Sarah was transferred to their New York office. She then led content marketing efforts at two tech startups in New York as a Content Manager before deciding to make the move to the UK and QS. 

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