Methodology

Find out more about the methodology behind the QS World University Rankings: USA 2020.

The first-ever QS USA Rankings uses unique datasets (including the world’s largest surveys of both academic and employer opinion) to provide both domestic and international students with the most relevant possible ranking of American universities.

As well as assessing the employability outcomes for students and the levels of diversity & internationalization they can expect on campus, the ranking also hopefully gives an indication of what sort of teaching environment and learning opportunities students can expect, while also highlighting institutional efficiency at all levels. This includes retention rate between first and second year, research collaborations with top companies, graduation rates of Pell grant recipients versus other students, for example.

Updated May 20, 2020 Updated May 20

Universities and liberal arts colleges were evaluated according to the following 17 metrics falling into 4 broad groupings (Employability, Diversity & Internationalisation, Learning experience, and Research).

Employability (27%)

This category is designed to look at the employment prospects of students graduating from US higher education institutions, through metrics that include the results of our Employer Reputation Survey, Alumni outcomes and salary post-graduation.

Employer reputation (10%)

Students will continue to perceive a university education as a means by which they can receive valuable preparation for the employment market. It follows that assessing how successful institutions are at providing that preparation is essential for a ranking whose primary audience is the global student community. 

Our Employer Reputation metric is based on almost 45,000 responses to our QS Employer Survey and asks employers to identify those institutions from which they source the most competent, innovative, effective graduates. The QS Employer Survey is also the world’s largest of its kind.

Alumni outcomes (10%)

QS has been recording the educational background of over 30,000 highly influential employers, sector leaders, and award-winning professionals, as well as individual professionals both senior and junior. The aim is to rank which universities are proving themselves as sources of successful employees and employers and can claim to have positively influenced their alumni’s development. The criterion is based on the fact that universities with strong track records in this field will have the kind of high-quality alumni networks that provide students with connections, career advice, and internship/ work placement opportunities – all of which boost employability. 

Salary after 10 years (7%)

This indicator looks at the average salary of graduates that received federal financial aid, 10 years after first entering university. 

Diversity & Internationalisation (25%)

This broad category attempts to understand to what extend a higher education institution is striving towards being as inclusive as possible, while promoting an environment that seeks to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality and Goal 10: Reduced Inequality. 

Gender pay gap (2.5%)

One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to achieve Gender Equality through female equality in the workplace and the eradication of unfair practices targeting women. Unequal pay only further fuels gender-based discrimination in the workplace and must be tackled, first and foremost in the beacons of openness and tolerance that universities and colleges purport to be. The average weighted monthly salaries of both genders at professorial level only were compared within an institution, as it was assumed that there should be little discrepancy at this level.

Faculty gender diversity (2.5%)

This indicator is also used against the backdrop of the UN’s SDG to achieve Gender Equality. It aims to capture whether there is equal representation of both male and female employees within the faculty of a higher education institution. Institutions that are moving towards equal representation are demonstrating their commitment to progress towards achieving Gender Equality. 

Ratio of undergraduate students receiving Pell grants (5%)

This indicator focuses on the percentage of enrolled undergraduate students that were awarded a Pell grant. The Pell grant programme provides grant assistance to eligible undergraduate postsecondary students with demonstrated financial need to help meet higher education expenses.

Students’ ethnicity mix (5%)

The student fabric of a higher education institution is an important indicator that reflects its openness and attention to nurture a diverse, culturally sensitive and tolerant student cohort. An institution with a diverse student ethnic mix demonstrates it cultivates inclusiveness and promotes social mobility, while offering its students a diverse student learning experience crucial in today’s global world.  It should also be understood against the backdrop of SDG 10: Reduced Inequality. 

Number of Fulbright recipients per institution (5%)

This indicator looks at which US institutions are top producers of US Fulbright students over a combined period of 3 years. The Fulbright Programme is the US government’s flagship international educational exchange programme and is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State. Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Programme has provided more than 390,000 participants—chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential — with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. In the United States, the Institute of International Education administers and coordinates activities relevant to the Fulbright Student Programme on behalf of the US Department of State. 

Proportion of international students (5%)

A highly international university acquires and confers several advantages. It demonstrates an ability to attract students from across the world, which in turn suggests that it possesses a strong international brand.

Learning experience (22%)

This category aims to reflect the overall learning environment provided by a higher education institution to its students, through the level of support it offers all its students regardless of background, as demonstrated through metrics with regard to retention rate, teaching spending and graduation rates of students with and without federal financial support.  

Average instructional expenditure per FTE student (10%)

Average teaching spending per FTE student demonstrates how much financial resources a higher education institution spends on average on teaching per student. This indicator is used as a proxy to determine how strongly an institution is committed to offer the most effective learning environment possible.

Retention rate (5%)

A measure of the rate at which students persist in their educational programme at an institution, expressed as a percentage. For four-year institutions, this is the percentage of first-time bachelors (or equivalent) degree-seeking undergraduates from the previous fall who are again enrolled in the current fall. For all other institutions this is the percentage of first-time degree/certificate-seeking students from the previous fall who either re-enrolled or successfully completed their program by the current fall.

Pell grant student graduation rates compared with other students (3.5%)

This indicator focuses on how well an institution supports students in financial need that were awarded a Pell grant recipient in graduating within 150% of normal time to programme completion, compared to the average graduation rate for students that did not receive a Pell grant or Stafford loan. 

Student-faculty ratio (3.5%)

Teaching quality is typically cited by students as the metric of the highest importance to them when comparing institutions. It is notoriously difficult to measure, but we have determined for this exercise that measuring student/faculty ratios is the most effective proxy metric currently available. This indicator assesses the extent to which institutions are able to provide undergraduate students with meaningful access to faculty members and recognizes that a high number of faculty members per undergraduate student will reduce the teaching burden on each individual academic.

Research (26%)

This category is designed to demonstrate how the research of a higher education institution is having an impact. It focuses on the quality of the research, regardless of the size of an institution, and how open and internationally collaborative its research outputs are, whether within academia or with industry. 

Academic reputation (12.5%)

Academic reputation is measured using a global survey, in which academics are asked to identify the institutions where they believe the best work is currently taking place within their own field of expertise. The survey collates the expert opinions of over 94,000 individuals in the higher education space. It has grown to become the world’s largest survey of academic opinion, in terms of size and scope, and is an unparalleled means of measuring sentiment in the academic community. 

Citations per paper (7%)

Citations per paper focuses on the performance of the papers an institution produces that are actually indexed in Scopus. It assesses the number of citations per research paper published, aiming to give an idea of the impact each institution’s research is having within the research community 

International Research Network (IRN) (3.5%)

This indicator assesses the degree of international diversity in terms of research collaboration for each evaluated institution. The Margalef Index, widely used in environmental sciences, has been adapted to estimate the richness of the selected international research partners for a given institution. 

Partnerships with Employers per Faculty (3%)

This indicator uses Elsevier’s Scopus database to establish which universities are collaborating successfully with global companies to produce citable, transformative research. Only distinct companies producing two or more collaborative papers in a five-year period (2013-17) are included in the count. This year’s ranking accounts for university collaborations with 2,000 top global companies, as listed by Fortune and Forbes. The figure is adjusted to account for the number of faculty at each university. 

This article was originally published in May 2020 .

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