Stanford University with the Hoover Tower. Photo by Pere Joan via Wikimedia Commons

California gets smug criticism over everything from the bullet train to the drought, but in one area it is unquestionably the world leader — higher education.

In a widely followed ranking of world universities that emphasizes the sciences, six California institutions were ranked among the top 20. StanfordCaltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego and UCSF all made the list.

The 2015 Academic Ranking of World Universities was released Monday by the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a public research university located in China. There are many other rankings, but this one is considered one of the most authoritative, especially for the sciences.

The U.S. leads the list overall, accounting for 16 of the 20. The United Kingdom boasts three, and New York and Massachusetts each count two. But California stands head and shoulders above the rest of the United States and the world with nearly a third of the top institutions.

How can this be? Three reasons come to mind: a history of public and private investment in higher education, an openness to immigrants and an innovation economy.

The 200-inch Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. Photo by Scott Kardel, Palomar Observatory

The University of California was established in 1869 and grew as the state’s population and economy did, ultimately reaching 10 campuses in size. Stanford and Caltech, both established in 1891, leveraged private fortunes to create centers of academic excellence. All of these institutions embraced the concept of research universities, drawing distinguished faculty to investigate and build everything from nuclear weapons (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) to space probes (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to ocean research vessels (Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Attracting the best and brightest meant admitting immigrants, from refugee Jewish scientists in the 1930s to the brightest young minds from China, India and elsewhere in the world today. At a time when politicians like Donald Trump are taking about deporting millions, California remains immigrant friendly. The state’s Dream Act lets undocumented immigrants study at in-state rates. The smartest minds can come from anywhere, and California is not afraid to welcome them.

Because of California’s innovation economy, those bright minds have real opportunities for future employment and entrepreneurship. From Silicon Valley to Hollywood to San Diego’s biotech mesa, companies are learning from the state’s world-class universities and eagerly employing each year’s graduates. An electrical engineering student admitted to Stanford knows she will be close to exceptional opportunities at companies all around her.

What’s important about this incredible concentration of academic strength is that new generations of scientists and business leaders will get their start in California. This will ensure that the next generation of world-beating companies like Intel, Apple, Google, SpaceX, Qualcomm, Facebook, GoPro and Tesla will come from California.

Texas frequently boasts of its business climate, and Gov. Rick Perry has tried to lure away California firms, but the educational rankings do not bode well for the future progress of the Lone Star State. The top rated university there, the University of Texas at Austin, comes in 37th, just one position ahead of UC Santa Barbara, where a professor won the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics.

Some maturing companies seeking to save a few dollars on labor costs and taxes may move to Texas, but the innovators are still heading for the Golden State, first for college and then to stay.

Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.