International higher education rankings: Why no country’s higher education system can be the best

"This report compares the United States to 34 other developed countries, all members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and illustrates how these nations navigate the trade-offs between the various qualities policymakers and the public would like to see in their higher education system. While the public purse bears a relatively low share of the costs in the American university system, the United States ranks ahead of most of the developed world on other goals, such as college degree attainment and resources available for higher education. Conversely, “free college” nations such as Finland more often than not rank behind other countries on these other metrics.

While the analysis in this report cannot establish a causal relationship between these different qualities of higher education systems, the findings are consistent with a world in which government higher education regimes face budget constraints. A government that pays for a greater share of each student’s college education can afford to send fewer of those students to college, resulting in lower overall degree attainment. Similarly, without the ability to raise revenue through tuition, colleges may have fewer resources to spend on each student’s education. While this report does not take a position on how countries should design their university systems, thinking about higher education policy in the context of the trade-offs illustrated in this report will help policymakers craft higher education systems that best reflect their priorities and their citizens’ values."