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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others, hit the books at MIT. The University of Tokyo has produced more than a dozen Japanese prime ministers and seven Nobel Prize recipients.

“You look at what those alumni are doing. Their alumni always go on to do great things,” Mr. Sevier said of the world’s most reputable institutions.

But increasing global competition means that name recognition alone won’t guarantee schools a spot at the front of the pack. Harvard, Yale and Stanford no longer are competing only with one another for students and professors, but with universities half a world away.

“While reputations can take many years, even centuries to build … universities cannot sit back and rely on their history,” Mr. Baty said. “New forces are emerging and signs of declining performance among the establishment are quickly identified, shared and spread. Established reputations can be highly vulnerable.”

Cultural factors are also important. In the past 100 years, the spread of English also has affected the world’s academe. For example, it was once the custom for scientific papers to be published in German; they now are almost always in English, regardless of the researchers’ nationalities.

Mr. Sevier noted that only one of the top 10 universities (Tokyo) is in a country where English is not spoken.

“They tend to be in former British colonies,” Mr. Sevier said of top universities. “The British educational system was transported during their colonization of the world.”