THE World University Rankings 2020: public performances suffer

Public universities in the US are suffering after the decline in state funding

September 11, 2019
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Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2020


One of the most striking higher education trends in the US in recent years has been the steady decline of state funding for public universities. But to what extent is this affecting institutions’ rankings performance?

These box plots show the distribution of research income per staff and citation impact metric scores for public and private universities in the US between 2016 and 2020.

US performance box plots

While private universities have always been better resourced, on average, than their public counterparts, the research income chart reveals that the funding gap between the two groups of institutions has widened over the past five years. The median score for public universities on this measure is also at its lowest level in this year’s edition of the ranking, as shown by the middle line on the box. Data on research income include funding from city grants, state grants and federal grants.

The trend on citation impact, a measure of research quality, is less clear, possibly reflecting the fact that this is a lagging indicator. However, the boxes, which represent the middle half of universities in each distribution, demonstrate that public universities’ scores on this metric have slowly declined since 2018, while private universities’ performances have been relatively stable. If this trend continues, it may have a knock-on effect on state universities’ reputations in future years.

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