University Rankings: Everything You Need to Know

University Rankings: Everything You Need to Know

University rankings dominate the academic landscape now. Media outlets compete to be the first to report on each annual update, and every university prominently displays their top-ranked programs on billboard ads and their own webpages. Different ranking systems also compete for eyes, claiming their own methodologies to be the most accurate and the most up-to-date look into the top universities. So it’s understandable that rankings have become an easy shorthand for students, parents, and even university administrators to compare different universities across a broad spectrum.

As admissions consultants, we would be remiss to not be aware of the latest trends in university rankings. From the latest changes to testing requirements for admissions to how COVID-19 has caused a massive shake-up in the admissions landscape, we keep track of the details that our clients need to make informed choices. Rankings do play a role in many family’s university choices, as part of our admissions counseling work we also help and encourage our students to make use of rankings in a productive manner. In our experience working with students across Hong Kong, we have often seen both students and parents have many common misunderstandings about rankings and the most prevalent ranking systems. Without a comprehensive understanding of what goes into each ranking system, it can be difficult for students to make meaningful use of these prominent resources.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about university rankings and give three major takeaways to always be aware of when using rankings.

History and Development of College Rankings

Global college rankings are a relatively recent phenomenon. The three biggest global rankings, namely Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE), and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) rankings all had their start in the early 2000s, with ARWU being the first published in China’s Jiao Tong University in 2003, and THE-QS releasing their first collaborative ranking in 2004.

However, one name that is often still held as the gold standard of college rankings had a much earlier start, albeit on a more geographically restricted scale – the U.S. News & World Report (U.S. News) Best Colleges Ranking began in 1983, focusing exclusively on American undergraduate colleges and universities. While the U.S. News is now making forays into global rankings as well, their U.S. undergraduate college rankings remain one of the most widely viewed college rankings in the world. 

One thing that all college rankings have in common is that they adapt to changing trends in the academic landscape regularly, optimizing their methodologies to best reflect the characteristics they each want to highlight in a top university. From universities de-emphasizing standardized tests to shifting weights on STEM research scores, each system makes finetune adjustments every year, making the rankings of individual universities fluctuate year by year.

This brings us to our first main point about what you need to know about college rankings:

#1 Small variations in a ranking are expected and inconsequential

Every year, media agencies on the new ranking updates like the latest NBA championships. But in truth, the vast majority of universities have remained in a tight range of ranks without any significant change – and that’s what the ranking systems seek to do as well! A ranking system where the universities are in completely different positions every year would not be accurate, and this is absolutely something that is controlled for in every ranking system. As educators, students, and industry professionals, it’s absolutely vital that we keep this point in mind when perusing rankings, and use them in the context that they were meant for, namely broad strokes comparisons.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the major ranking organizations, and how they have developed their methodologies.

Quacquarelli Symonds (QS)

Arguably the most commonly seen global university ranking in Asia, the QS rankings began in 2004 as a collaboration with the Times Higher Education magazine, but the partnership dissolved in 2009 over disagreements in methodology (which we’ll look into in more detail below). Based in the UK, the QS World University Rankings was also the first globally recognizable ranking system, despite the ARWU ranking in China coming out a year earlier.QS’s methodology emphasizes four main areas they identify as being key to a university’s mission: teaching, research, employability, and internationalization. Six simple metrics are used to represent these four values, summarized in the table below1QS World University Rankings – Methodology. 20 July 2020, www.topuniversities.com/qs-world-university-rankings/methodology. .

Academic Reputation40%
Employer Reputation10%
Faculty/Student Ratio20%
Citations per faculty20%
International Faculty Ratio5%
International Student Ratio5%

Analysis: With half of the total scores for the ranking being composed from reputation surveys, the QS rankings heavily emphasize the general reputation of a university. At the same time, while one of the stated goals of the QS ranking methodology is to measure the teaching quality of universities, a close look into the actual measurement criteria shows that the rankings use a simple Faculty/Student Ratio to represent overall teaching quality. Overall research quality is also handled relatively simply by looking into the number of citations per faculty. These simple metrics have made it easy to compare very diverse universities, but have also led to some of the main criticisms of the ranking as a whole, with overly broad estimates that may not represent reality being used. Particularly for undergraduate students who are looking to further their education, a simple faculty/student ratio may not adequately inform them about the quality of education they will receive.

Target audience: The QS rankings are one of the most recognizable rankings because they were one of the first out the gate. With that said, because of how reputation surveys play such a large role in the system, it can be a useful gauge of the overall recognition of a university. Students should use the ranking cautiously, however, as the methodology does not dive deeply into the actual education experience of students, especially at an undergraduate level.

Times Higher Education (THE)

As we mentioned above, the Times Higher Education were original collaborators with QS. In an effort to provide a more transparent ranking system, THE reassessed their methodology to emphasize the teaching and learning experience, and the research outcomes of the universities. Instead of the reputation surveys of the QS rankings, THE made great efforts to select ranking criteria that would be unambiguous and repeatable. As we can see from the ranking methodology below2 Bothwell, Ellie, and Li Qingquan. “THE World University Rankings 2020: Methodology.” Times Higher Education (THE), 17 Sept. 2019, www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/world-university-rankings-2020-methodology. , part of that change involves assessing several more indicators.

TeachingReputation survey15.00%
Staff to student ratio4.50%
Doctorate to bachelor’s ratio2.25%
Doctorates awarded to staff ratio6.00%
Institutional income2.25%
ResearchReputation survey18.00%
Research income6.00%
Research productivity6.00%
International outlookProportion of int’l students2.50%
Proportion of int’l staff2.50%
Int’l collaboration2.50%
Industry income2.50%

Analysis: Many of the ranking indicators still show the original partnership with QS – reputation surveys still make up a large bulk of the weighting, though not as much as with the QS rankings. The major criteria still look similar, grouping indicators into teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income. However, the THE rankings dive deeper into published statistics from universities. On the teaching side, THE places 8.25% of their ranking into areas related to the nurturing of doctoral candidates. The research criterion is also greatly expanded, and together with data on citations, makes up over 50% of the total ranking.

Target audience: The last two points especially make the THE rankings appealing to prospective Ph.D. candidates or any students especially interested in diving into academic research. By assessing the ratio between doctorate and bachelor’s degrees, their methodology hopes to assess how well Ph.D. candidates are nurtured and guided to take up a terminal degree. The large percentage of the rankings dedicated to research also helps postgraduate students identify universities with strong research output, especially relevant for STEM fields.

However, the higher emphasis on research can also be detrimental to social science and humanities students, especially in countries that may not teach in English, the de facto international language of academia. This may make the rankings useful for specialist universities or students interested in these fields.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

The first organization to attempt to systematically rank every university in the world was Jiao Tong University in China in 2003. The ARWU, also known as the “Shanghai Ranking,” was originally designed to assess the relative position of top Chinese universities on a global scale. After gaining widespread attention after publication, the ARWU was expanded to provide its ranking to the general public. Since the ranking system was originally developed to prioritize stable and sound data, the ARWU uses a methodology3“Academic Ranking of World Universities.” Ranking Methodology of Academic Ranking of World Universities – 2019, www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU-Methodology-2019.html. markedly different from QS–THE (see below).

Quality of EducationAlumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals10%
Quality of FacultyStaff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals20%
Highly Cited Researchers20%
Research OutputPapers published in Nature and Science20%
Papers indexes in Science and Social Science citation indices20%
Per Capita Perfomance10%

Analysis: One thing that is immediately apparent is the lack of any reputation surveys. Instead, the ARWU highly emphasizes the number of academic awards won by an institution, and research output as catalogued by major research indices. This makes the ranking system remarkably stable, with data sources that are transparent and verifiable. However, as an assessment of teaching and learning, the ARWU does not address the actual student experience of the universities it ranks.

Target audience: Given the original purpose of the ARWU ranking methodology, it makes sense that the rankings are more targeted towards institutional development on a university or even national level. With so little assessment of actual teaching and learning, the ARWU may not adequately inform students about their options and experience. With such a high proportion of the ranking involving academic prize winners, the ranking system especially does not reflect an undergraduate experience, since typical students may not interact with those prize winners at all during their educational career.

U.S. News & World Report (US News)

The US News Best Global Universities ranking is a relative newcomer to the global rankings field, having only started in 2014. But there is a reason why it is still one of the most trusted sources for university rankings since the US News was actually the first organization worldwide to publish an annual rankings list – albeit geographically limited to those in the United States. The US News Best U.S. Colleges ranking was first published in 1983, two decades before the first global rankings. Both rankings from the US News, US Colleges, and Global Universities, have different goals in mind and thus use completely different methodologies.

For the Best U.S. Colleges ranking, the US News emphasized the undergraduate experience specifically4Mason, Matt, et al. “How U.S. News Calculated the 2020 Best Colleges Rankings.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 8 Sept. 2019, www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings. .

OutcomesGraduation and retention rates22.00%

Graduation rate performance8.00%

Social mobility5.00%
Faculty ResourcesClass size8.00%

Faculty salary7.00%

Proportion of full-time faculty with terminal degrees3.00%

Student-faculty ratio1.00%

Proportion of faculty who are full time1.00%
Expert Opinion20.00%
Financial Resources10.00%
Student ExcellenceStandardized tests7.75%

High school class standing2.25%
Alumni Giving5.00%

Analysis: We can see from the methodology that the college experience from the perspective of the student is the main point here. The US News assesses several indicators that directly influence how a student goes through college, including a heavy emphasis on Outcomes making up nearly a third of the ranking. Reputation in the form of “Expert Opinion” is also the lowest among the rankings that assess reputations. Meanwhile, the Student Excellence criterion informs students about the types of peers they’ll encounter at a college. Faculty Resources, Financial Resources, and Alumni Giving also assess qualities that impact a student’s learning experience and the types of resources that they can access while studying at a university.

Target audience: As evidenced by the goal being this ranking, the US News ranking for US colleges is squarely aimed at the undergraduate experience. For students applying to US colleges for an undergraduate degree, the ranking methodology provides a fair and stable representation of what they can expect from a university. Because of the methodological focus, the US News ranking does come with certain omissions, however. Without any assessment of research prowess and no ranking criteria relating to post-graduate degrees, the ranking as a whole becomes far less accurate for degrees beyond a bachelor’s.

On the other hand, the US News’ Best Global Universities ranking5 Morse, Robert, and Juan Vega Rodriguez. “How U.S. News Calculated the Best Global Universities Rankings.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 21 Oct. 2019, www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/articles/methodology. falls more in line with other global rankings, with a heavy emphasis on the research output and a university’s contribution to academia.

ReputationGlobal research reputation12.5%

Regional research reputation12.5%
Bibliometric IndicatorsPublications10.0%



Normalized citation impact10.0%

Total citations7.5%

# of publications among 10% most cited12.5%

% of total publications among 10% most cited10.0%

Int’l collaboration – relative to country5.0%

Int’l collaboration5.0%
Scientific Excellence# of highly cited papers among top 1% in respective field5.0%

% of total publications among top 1% most highly cited 5.0%

Analysis: We can still see the influence of the US News’ original methodology for US colleges with a relatively low emphasis on reputation surveys. Instead, there is a very heavy emphasis on Bibliometric Indicators, in order to assess research output. Interestingly, the US News looks beyond just citations and also assesses other forms of scholarly contributions, ensuring a more balanced approach to STEM, humanities, and social science fields.

Target audience: As a relative newcomer to the global rankings field, the US News ranking has not yet picked up much worldwide recognition. However, it can still be useful especially for non-STEM graduates, as it uses a broader look into academic contributions.

Having looked at five of the major ranking systems used worldwide, what can you do as your next step in choosing your dream university?

#2 Identify what factors you care about

When you begin your college search process, make sure you sit down and lay out what specific criteria you are looking for in a college first. What might be important to you as an undergraduate applicant might be irrelevant to a post-doc looking for a research position. How an employer looks at a university, especially when you’re looking at specific industries, may also be different from how an academic considers that same university. 

As admissions consultants, we work with our students to create college lists that best fit their personality. A major part of our effort goes into nurturing and refining our students’ life goals and dreams in a productive way. By identifying critical factors that matter to you, you can ensure that the ranking system you use is appropriate and assessing the factors that you need to reach your goals. 

If you’re an undergraduate applicant only interested in the U.S., you can’t go wrong with the U.S. News & World Report. But things get more complicated when looking at the global rankings – that’s when you will need to sit down and have a critical examination of what you need. 

That brings us to our third takeaway:

#3 Use rankings only as a start to your research, not the focus

Rankings aren’t meant to be the be-all and end-all of college research – make sure you look into what really makes your dream college your dream, as a ranking is just a number. Take a deep dive into the specifics of what you like about a college, and be able to articulate what you want. 

One of the biggest differences we see in our students who are able to gain entry into their dream colleges against the odds is the depth of research they’ve done for their applications. Their essays showcase their engagement with a college in a convincing manner; don’t fall into the trap of making generic and cliché essays or spout insincere platitudes because all you know is the ranking! All of this research will also serve you well when you write your application essays and do your interviews!

Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Contact us for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward. Read our reviews to see what our clients think of us.

By Conrad Yu, Director of Development

Published 30-09-2020

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