Ruth’s Rankings 44 Part 2: What’s the best university for an international undergraduate student? Using local metrics with emphasis on U.S. and Chinese rankings

By Ruth A. Pagell*

This may seem like the wrong time for continuing our evaluation of resources for international students, not only because of Covid-19 but also because of the geo-political tension between the U.S. and China (Sharma).  However, this is the time QS released its first USA rankings.

OECD tracks international student mobility (OECD 2018a). Periods of health or geopolitical disruptions have not led to downturns in international enrollment worldwide, as shown in OECD Figure B6.a (OECD 2018b).

Ruth’s Ranking 44 Part 1 identified global ranking metrics useful for international students. Local rankings, where available, should also be consulted.  This article evaluates rankings used by domestic students. It focuses on U.S. rankings, introducing the new QS ranking, and rankings for greater China.



The U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) lists over 2,700 4-year degree granting institutions of which 28% are publicly funded. The failure of private FOR-profit institutions resulted in a slight drop in the numbers over the past few years (IES-NCES, 2019).  QS USA followed by older, well-known U.S. rankings are listed below.  See Appendix A (in pdf) for U.S., Appendix B (in pdf) for greater China, and Appendix C (in pdf) for ANZ, India, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and the UK, with methodologies and further analysis.

QSWorld University Rankings: USA joined the crowded market at a time when the U.S. may not be students’ top choice.  It includes 302 of the institutions listed in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as either “Doctoral Universities” or “Master’s colleges and Universities” (Indiana, 2018). It excludes liberal arts colleges “because they do poorly in terms of our research indicators, which means that overall, they would rank poorly in our ranking…” (L. Highman, personal communication, 5 May 2020). Note all other U.S. rankers cover liberal arts institutions.

QS Methodology

The top 100 have individual ranks and scores. The rest have a composite rank and no scores. 50 are ranked on each of four indicators (Highman).  89% of universities ranked 151-300 only have a rank.  It uses the following groupings:

  • Research – (26%) – Harvard
  • Learning experience – (22%) – Five tied: Brown, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Yale
  • Diversity & Internationalisation – (25%) – Three tied: NYU, UC Davis, UCLA
    • 10% of these metrics are explicitly linked to the UN’s Standard Development Goals (SDGs). Gender pay gap (2.5%) and Faculty gender diversity (2.5%) support SDG 5, Gender Equality. Students’ ethnicity mix supports SDG 10, Reduced inequality
    • The internationalisation data are the same as data in the world rankings
  • Employability – (27%) – Harvard

QS USA links to profiles of the 157 universities that may be listed in QS World Rankings. Data used by QS for its rankings come from third party sources and QS.  There are no displayable data to distinguish between Montana State and University of Montana, each ranked 251-300. In Example 44.2.1, one university has no information while the other has a profile in QS World.

With the limited number of universities, exclusion of top liberal arts colleges, and most universities without scores, I do not recommend using this in its current form.

NOTE: QS released its 2021 World ranking in May 2020 and will be covered in the next update.



Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings

Ruth’s Rankings 26 (2017) introduced the WSJ/THE U.S. College rankings and U.S. News Best Colleges. One list of 800 national universities and liberal arts colleges make it easy to use.  Pillars include:

  • Resources – (30%) – Tie with Harvard, MIT, and California Institute of Technology
  • Engagement – (20%) – Dordt U (Iowa) ranked 401-500 overall
  • Outcomes – (40%) – Tie with Harvard and Princeton
  • Environment – (10%) – University of California Irvine (41)

The top 400 and 400 in each category have scores.  University level data are available in all profiles and three are sortable.  See Example 44.2.2.

U.S. News Best Colleges has been the standard for 35 years. It ranks over 1,900 institutions in different categories from national universities to regional colleges.  Institutions must be regionally accredited, offer undergraduate degrees, and have a student body =>200.  To find information about a known college, use the college search. Appendix A lists categories and number one institutions. Individual metrices are not ranked. Some indicators require a subscription to College Compass.

Forbes America’s Top Colleges provides data that are important given the current state of world economies. Students and their parents should consider the financial implications of a U.S. college experience and the financial health of the institution. Forbes ranks 650 public and private universities on standard metrics and also grades 933 private universities on their financial health from A+ to D.

Table 44.2.1 (in pdf) compares the four rankings with Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania in all top tens. Table 44.2.2 (in pdf)lists top liberal arts colleges with Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona, Middlebury and Claremont-McKenna consensus top 10. Table 44.2.3 (in pdf)  lists the top public institutions on seven lists. Three California public universities, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego are top ten. ARWU is included in this list since public universities may be good destinations for graduate students. Student needs differ and the rankings use different metrics. See Appendix A for details and additional rankings.


China is the main feeder of students studying abroad. 33% of international students studying in the U.S. are from China and the number has risen from around 22% in 2000-2001. China is also becoming a host country. (Martel). Given current conditions, the international destinations for Chinese students are questionable (Sharma, Lau) making rankings of Chinese universities more important.

In addition to its Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU), Shanghai Rankings produces two Chinese-centric rankings

  • The Ranking of Top Universities in Greater China, introduced in 2011, includes Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. In 2010, Taiwan opened its border to mainland students. In April 2020 China blocked students from applying to Taiwan. All four have initiatives for improving the international competitiveness of local universities. The Greater China rankings includes 13 sortable metrics.
  • Best Chinese Universities Rankings (BCUR), first published in 2015, uses non-governmental data ”to take the perspective of the consumer” for the mainland Chinese market.  See the Design of BCUR for background on the Chinese higher education landscape.  It has four dimensions and ten metrics with Teaching & Learning accounting for 65% of the overall rank. Using the drop-down menu to select each individual metric displays the score for each institution and it does not re-rank.

Tsinghua University consistently comes out on top.  See Tables 44.2.4 (in pdf) for Greater China performance between 2011 and Table 44.2.5 (in pdf) for mainland Chinese Rankings.

See Appendix B (in pdf) for metrics unique to the Chinese rankings.  Appendix C (in pdf) lists ranking other locations.



The viability of international student mobility, an important part of the current education landscape and a contributing factor in rankings, is unclear in the near future.

  • World rankings may fluctuate since they include metrics on international students, staff, and collaboration.
  • QS, with its limits discussed above, adds nothing to evaluation of U.S. institutions. Specifically targeting SDGs is unique but most other rankings include an SDG related metric.
  • WSJ/THE has the combined knowledge of the U.S. market from WSJ and university rankings from THE. It covers 800 universities in one list.
  • QS, WSJ/THE and Forbes use similar free data sources in addition to proprietary data.
  • U.S. News has the most universities, the longest history, but there is no one overall rankings and some data require a subscription.
  • Forbes adds the financial dimension, important today.
  • Other U.S. rankings provide qualitative rankings.
  • The Shanghai Chinese-focused rankings are important as more students look to China as a destination.
  • It is not clear when universities will be open for resident students, but some Asian universities are opening (Saif et all).

Use Appendices A, B, and C for more information.  The second quarter 2020 Update will include the new 2021 QS data and more on Coronavirus.



Highman, L. (18/6/2020).  An Introduction to the QS World University Rankings: USA webinar. Highman stated that only 50 received scores because they did not want to show low scores.

Lau, J. (23 June 2020).  Post-pandemic, will dominant China use students as bargaining chips?  Times Higher Education accessed at

Martel, M.  (March 2020).  Covid-19 effects on U.S. higher education campuses: Academic mobility to and from China.  IIE (Institute of International Education) Snapshot survey series, accessed at

Sharma, Y. (3 June 2020).  Chinese students, researchers with “military links” barred.  University World News, with links to other articles on U.S- Chinese student and research issues,  accessed at

Saif, S.K. et. al. (10 June 2020). Universities across Asia start to reopen bit by bit. University World News, accessed at



Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (n.d.). The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 2018 edition, Bloomington, IN). accessed at

Institute of International Education (Nov 2019).  Open Doors, Fact Sheets and Infographics, see Fact Sheet ASIA for numbers of Asian students the US and US students in Asia, by county

IES-NCES (2019). Table 317.10: Degree granting post-secondary institutions 1949 – 50 to 2017-18.  Digest of Education statistics.  Accessed at   See Post-secondary Fast Facts for detailed data.

OECD (2019a). “Indicator B6 What is the profile of internationally mobile students?”, in Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2018 b), “Graph B6.a – Growth in international or foreign enrolment in tertiary education worldwide (1998 to 2016): Number of foreign students enrolled in OECD and non-OECD countries”, in Education at a Glance, OECD Publishing, Paris, 224.


Ruth’s Rankings

A list of Ruth’s Rankings is here.


*Ruth A. Pagell is Emeritus Faculty Librarian at Emory University, Atlanta, GA Author and speaker.  After working at Emory, she was the founding librarian of the Li Ka Shing Library at Singapore Management University and then adjunct faculty [teaching] in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii.  She has written and spoken extensively on various aspects of librarianship, higher education and bibliometrics as well as contributing articles to ACCESS –