As far back as the 6th century, cathedral schools, particularly the ones developed under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, are said to be the place of origin of modern universities. In Italy, the University of Bologna, founded in the 11th century, is marked as the oldest existing higher education institution in the world, having first opened its doors more than 930 years ago.
Across the world, many universities share prosperous stories from alumni, actuating the establishment of historic contributions and achievements throughout modern society. The majority of the world’s top-ranking universities and colleges are based predominantly in the U.S., known for its prestigious business, medical, and law schools. These academic institutions function either by state-funding, gratuity from wealthy donors (eg., scholarships) or tuition fees paid from students amid the admissions process.
In this excerpt, we factored in national rank, world rank, location, quality of education, societal contributions, and ranked the 15 most prolific academic institutions. Here are the top-ranked universities in the world.
15. Nanyang Technological University
Location: Jurong West, Singapore (1.3483° N, 103.6831° E)
Established in: 1981
First established in 1981, Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) was formed as a tertiary institution of the National University of Singapore. By the early 1990s, the National Institute of Education merged with NTI to form what is known today as Nanyang Technological University.
In 2020, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) sits as one of the largest public universities in Singapore, with more than 33,000 students and 10,000 staff members. NTU is also one of the highest-ranking academic institutions in Asia. Many former top government officials and business-tech executives are among the institution’s notable alumni. Partnerships include BMW, Delta Electronics, Rolls-Royce, and Volvo.
14. Tsinghua University
Location: Beijing, China (40° 00′ 0.00″ N, 116° 19′ 21.60″ E)
Established in: 1911
Often deemed as China’s MIT, Tsinghua University is considered one of the most prominent research institutions in the Asian nation. The university’s foundation was the result of economic negotiations between Liang Cheng, the Qing dynasty’s ambassador, and Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The institution was established in 1911, as Tsinghua College, on the grounds of the former royal garden in the Haidian District of Beijing, China.
As of 2020, Tsinghua University ranks as one of the top institutions worldwide, known for its prestigious engineering and computer science disciplines, oftentimes surpassing MIT in rankings. Yang Chen Ning, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, former Presidents of China, are a few of the notable alumni.
13. University of Chicago
Location: Chicago, Illinois (41.7886° N, 87.5987° W)
Established in: 1890
Located in the South Side of Chicago, the University of Chicago (U of C), founded in 1890 by the American Baptist Education Society and business magnate John Rockefeller, is known for its prominent molecular engineering, law, and psychology schools. Its current President, Robert Zimmer, oversees an administrative staff of over 17,000 and nearly 16,000 enrollees.
Recognized for obtaining one of the highest numbers of Noble Prizes through its notable alumni, the university stands as one of the largest in the Midwestern region of the United States. 16 billionaires, 25 Pulitzer Prize winners, 20 National Humanities Medalists and countless high-ranking government officials, are former students at U of C.
12. Yale University
Location: New Haven, Connecticut (41.3163° N, 72.9223° W)
Established in: 1701
Based in Connecticut, this Ivy League university is one of the oldest, belonging to one of the nine colonial colleges established prior to the American Revolution. Yale University was founded in 1701 by James Pierpont. Its current President, Peter Salovey, is a social psychologist, considered to be one of the first researchers on the subject of emotional intelligence.
In terms of rankings, Yale is labeled as one of the top universities on a global scale. Several sitting U.S. Presidents, many U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and royals in the European and Arab world, are graduates of Yale. The university is also the subject of elusive secret societies, like Skull and Bones.
11. Princeton University
Location: Princeton, New Jersey (40.3431° N, 74.6551° W)
Established in: 1746
In 1746, originally opened to the public as the College of New Jersey, this institution became one of the nine colonial colleges predating the American Revolution. Founded by John Pierson, Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Dickinson, Ebenezer Pemberton Jr., William Peartree Smith, Peter Van Brugh Livingston and William Smith, the institution later evolved into what is now known as Princeton University, one of the top Ivy League higher education schools in the nation.
Many former students of Princeton have been recipients of the Nobel Prize, Abel Prize, and the National Medal of Science. Two sitting U.S. presidents, James Madison, and Woodrow Wilson, in addition to former First Lady Michelle Obama, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, three former Chairs of the Federal Reserve and eight Secretaries of State, are among the alumni. Eric Schmidt of Alphabet Inc., tech-business mogul Jeff Bezos, and several Middle-eastern royals are also graduates of the prestigious university.
10. Imperial College London
Location: London, United Kingdom (51.4988° N, 0.1749° W)
Established in: 1907
In the 19th century, the United Kingdom’s Prince Albert envisioned the establishment of an academic institution, which in time became the Imperial College London, built by royal charter in the capital of England.
With its focus on business, engineering and science, the university has become distinguished for its historic scientific contributions, consistently ranking as one of the top universities in Europe. Peter Higgs, H.G. Wells, Alexander Fleming, Nikolas Tombazis, David Warren, and Julius Vogel, are a few of the notable alumni.
9. Stanford University
Location: Stanford, California (37.4275° N, 122.1697° W)
Established in: 1891
First opened in 1855, then rebuilt after California’s deadliest natural disaster in 1906, Stanford University holds its value as one of the world’s top academic institutions. Founded by Amasa and Jane Stanford, the university resides near Silicon Valley, with a student count of close to 7,000.
Notable alumni of Stanford have been the recipient of the NACDA Director’s Cup for 24 years, earned 270 Olympic medals, and over 80 Nobel Prizes. Graduates also include 30 billionaires, 17 astronauts, one former sitting U.S. President and a slew of congressional officials in all capacities.
8. California Institute of Technology
Location: Pasadena, California (34.1377° N, 118.1253° W)
Established in: 1891
Founded in 1891 by Amos Throop, a former Mayor, and businessman, the California-based university is world-renowned for its science and engineering disciplines. California Institute of Technology, oftentimes referred to as Caltech, continues to honor its devotion in those areas of academia, with its operation and managing of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Collectively, alumni, staff, and researchers are responsible for 74 Nobel Prizes, four attained positions as Chief Scientist at the U.S. Air Force, and more than 70 U.S. National Medal of Science & Technology.
7. University of Pennsylvania
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (39.9522° N, 75.1932° W)
Established in: 1740
With Amy Gutmann serving as president and David Cohen as chairman, the University of Pennsylvania or UPenn, continues to hold its tradition as one of the largest and oldest institutions for higher education in the United States. Founded by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, the university is collectively part of nine colonial colleges established prior to the Declaration of Independence.
At UPenn resides Perelman School of Medicine, the nation’s first medicinal institution, and Wharton School, an Ivy League institution with the top MBA program in the country. The roster of notable alumni includes Governors, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, members of the Lower House of Congress, 8 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 12 signers of the U.S. Constitution, dozens of billionaires, 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, and the 45th President of the United States.
6. ETH Zurich
Location: Zürich, Switzerland (47.3763° N, 8.5477° E)
Established in: 1854
Located in Zürich, Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, commonly referred to as ETH Zurich, has become instrumental in academia with its revolutionary contributions in the scientific community and abroad. Widely recognized for its disciplines in science, engineering, tech, and mathematics, the institution was established in the 19th century by the Swiss Federal Government.
Noble Prizes for historic contributions in physics and chemistry were awarded to alumni such as Alfred Werner, Albert Einstein, and Leopold Ružička. In 2020, ETH Zurich is regarded as one of the top-ranking universities in the world. Its current President is Joël Mesot.
5. United States Military Academy
Location: West Point, New York (41.3918° N, 73.9625° W)
Established in: 1802
Hosting one of the five service academies for the U.S. armed forces, the United States Military Academy was founded in the 19th century by former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. The main campus, built in the form of Norman architecture, houses some of the historic sites and monuments from that time period, making it a popular tourist destination.
Students admitted into the academy are to have been nominated generally by a high-ranking government official, like a member of congress, the Vice President or President of the United States. Its notable alumni include two former sitting U.S. Presidents, like Dwight Eisenhower, generals, like Douglas MacArthur, top diplomats, like Mike Pompeo, and pioneers in astronautics, like Buzz Aldrin.
4. University of Cambridge
Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom (52.2043° N, 0.1149° E)
Established in: 1209
Established in the 13th century by royal charter, the University of Cambridge is reputably regarded for its influence and wealth, becoming the oldest university in the English-speaking world, right behind the University of Oxford. The university’s current chancellor is David Sainsbury.
Over the centuries, contributions from notable alumni and faculty have historically shaped our view of society and the scientific community. Graduates and scholars of Cambridge include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Charles Babbage, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, William Talbot, Georges Lemaître, and Henry Cavendish. At least 10 monarchs and three signers of the United States Declaration of Independence, are also graduates of the university.
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts (42.3601° N, 71.0942° W)
Established in: 1861
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a university was established right before the start of the American Civil War in the 19th century. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also known as MIT, is labeled as one of the biggest academic institutions in the nation, with its science and engineering disciplines considered a hallmark of academic innovation.
At MIT, notable alumni and faculty revolutionized modern society in the digital age, with some regarding it as the world’s top institution for technology and engineering. Famous innovative societal contributions include the discovery or creation of the world wide web consortium, electric ink, digital circuits, radars, and flight recorders. Companies founded by alumni include Bose, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Koch Industries, Dropbox, Buzzfeed, HuffPost, and Qualcomm.
2. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts (42.3770° N, 71.1167° W)
Established in: 1636
Boston’s Harvard University, similar to MIT, is regarded as one of the top academic institutions in the world, known for its influence and wealth. Harvard University, founded in the 17th century, is the oldest institution in the United States. In 1900, Harvard became a founding member, along with 64 other institutions, of the Association of American Universities.
Similar to other Ivy League universities, like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford, Harvard is a symbol of American academia, with its many notable alumni and contributions to society. Graduates include several past sitting U.S. Presidents such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, in addition to tech pioneers like Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. Moreover, Harvard has been the subject of legal controversies, particularly in recent times, altering its merciless image.
1. University of Oxford
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom (51.7548° N, 1.2544° W)
Established in: 1096 (est.)
In Oxfordshire, England, the oldest university in the English-speaking world was potentially founded in the 11th century. Considered an ancient university, with tremendous history and influence, the University of Oxford is the top-ranked university in the world, often competing with UK’s Cambridge University in world rankings.
Notable alumni have made significant contributions to all sectors of society including philosophy, literature, science, politics, law, and entertainment. Tim Berners-Lee, William Gladstone, Stephen Hawking, Dorothy Hodgkin, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Lawrence, and Bill Clinton, are graduates or scholars of the prestigious Oxford University.