If we used the criteria of age, it would be University of Bologna in Italy. It was founded in 1088.
And in the past, age did dictate the prominence of a higher education institution. University of Oxford or University of Cambridge, aka “Oxbridge” were commonly known as the “Top Universities” in the world being considered the 2nd and 3rd oldest Universities of all time (in continuous operation). However, the age of a school didn’t necessarily equate to the “top institution of higher education” or the name value of the Universities didn’t necessarily extend to all parts of the world due to its’ age as we can see with the University of Salamanca (out of Spain and 4th oldest University) or the University of Padua (another Italian University & 5th oldest).
In recent years, instead published “rankings” of the Universities and Colleges have helped shaped the public perception of which schools were considered the “best” in the world. Magazines, newspapers, government, academic departments and even individuals or small groups have placed the institutions in lists from top to bottom. Most recently, websites have made it even easier to list the Top Institutions by almost anyone.
Frankly, from an intuitive standpoint, the media which has the most ubiquitous impact could be considered the best source which determined the “Top University.” Growing up and before I even graduated from high school, I only saw one source that helped me as a high school understand what might be “top schools” I should consider for college education: US News and World Report.
Referred to as the "granddaddy of the college rankings", America's best–known American college and university rankings have been compiled since 1983 by U.S. News & World Report and are widely regarded as the most influential of all college rankings.
The US News rankings are based upon data which U.S. News collects from each educational institution either from an annual survey or from the school's website. It also considers opinion surveys of university faculty and administrators outside the school. The college rankings were published in all years thereafter, except 1984.
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