"What I don't get is how pretty much no Continental universities really have that super brand name status. It's basically only Oxford, Cambridge, and American universities."
American colleges weren't always the top dogs. The modern university was largely invented in Germany. At the beginning of the last century, the world's leading universities were mostly German, such as the University of Göttingen, which had hosted such professors and students as Gauss, Schopenhauer, Metternich, Riemann, Bismarck, Heine, and both Humboldts. Today, though, the highest-ranking German college on The Times [of London] Higher Education Top 100 list is Heidelberg way down at 60th.
... Why are German colleges now so weak? They have yet to recover from expelling their Jews in 1933, and from the post-WWII emasculation of their traditional elitism in the name of egalitarianism. Entrance standards and tuition are kept low, and students frequently hang around aimlessly for a decade.
The once-great universities of France, such as the ancient University of Paris (Sorbonne), were similarly wrecked by adopting leftist admissions policies in response to the May 1968 student protests. The AP reported on Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of Americanizing French higher education:
"The Sorbonne, France's most renowned university, has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports and no desk-side plugs for laptop users. It also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to everyone who has finished high school."
Today, no French college makes the world top 25 and only the tiny École Normale Supérieure and the small École Polytechnique, from which the French ruling class are recruited, are in the top 100.
In contrast to the dismal damage done to European higher education by post-WWII leftism, perhaps the only great American college ruined in the name of egalitarianism was City College of New York, where the neoconservatives of the 1970s had been the Trotskyites of the 1930s. Nine future Nobel Laureates graduated from CCNY between 1933 and 1950. Sadly, as Wikipedia reports:
"During a 1969 takeover of South campus, under threat of a race riot, African American and Puerto Rican activists and their white allies demanded, among other policy changes, that City College implement an aggressive affirmative action program … The administration of CCNY at first balked at the demands, but instead, came up with an open admissions or open-access program … Beginning in 1970, the program opened doors to college to many who would not otherwise have been able to attend college, but came at the cost of City College's academic standing and New York City's fiscal health."
But, despite the leftism endemic in American higher education, practically every other famous college, such as Berkeley, home to the most notorious protests of the 1960s, had the good sense not to practice what they preached.
Rather than follow CCNY's disastrous route, they made the cheaper choice of paying off minorities with affirmative action. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they became even more IQ elitist in choosing mainstream applicants. Today, Berkeley gets ten applications for every spot in its freshman class. The typical Berkeley freshman has a high school GPA of 4.25 on a 0 to 4 scale (an A in an Advanced Placement course counts as a 5), with an SAT score at the 94th percentile among test takers.