Choosing the right college can be daunting and stressful, but it's important to do your due diligence and find the right school for your academic interests and professional goals. A number of factors will influence your scholastic success and personal happiness, and it's important to evaluate each school closely. All students should take a holistic approach to their college search, considering each school's academic reputation, location, tuition, and campus life.
Earning your degree from a top school sets you up for academic and professional success. Top-school students enjoy access to high-quality programs and the latest learning technologies, and benefit from the expertise of instructors who are authorities in their fields. They also develop a peer network of other students who share their passion for learning, which can lead to exciting professional opportunities after graduation. And you certainly can't discount the importance of name recognition -- a degree from an academic powerhouse can propel your job application to the top of the pile.
So what does it mean to be one of the "best" colleges? In creating our ranking, we began with minimum criteria like accreditation, annual reporting, and availability of online degrees. We then delved deeper into each school's overall value by considering aspects like academic quality, affordability, and the breadth and depth of programs available online. By quantifying these metrics through objective assessment, we've created our ranking of the top 25 Best Colleges in America. If you're searching for a school, make sure to take a look at our list.
|1||Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA||Cost: $$$$$||
This premier private research university is an established leader in science and technology education, and the school provides students with exciting and rigorous academic opportunities. Founded in 1861, MIT boasts an impressive list of distinguished alumni, including 80 Nobel Laureates, 56 National Medal of Science winners, 28 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners and 43 MacArthur Fellows. Since its inception, MIT has subscribed to the principle of developing and imparting practical and relevant knowledge for the betterment of humankind, as reflected in its motto, "Mens et manus," meaning "Mind and Hand."
Academics and researchers at MIT are global leaders in their field and many of them work closely with students in classes or on research. With an undergraduate acceptance rate of 7.9% in 2014, students are immersed in a competitive and rewarding academic atmosphere. The school offers 46 undergraduate majors and 49 minor programs, along with dozens of graduate and doctoral programs in science, engineering and the arts.
|2||Stanford University Stanford, CA||Cost: $$$$$||
Founded in 1885, Stanford is one of the top residential teaching and research universities in the world. The school prides itself on its sustainability efforts and uses energy saving technology throughout its tree-lined campus. Stanford continues to produce and market new technologies on campus and is a leader in stem cell research and computer technology. The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is a prized facility and it has helped produce several important discoveries in particle physics.
Stanford's social and entrepreneurial culture is reflective of the school’s Bay Area location and proximity to Silicon Valley. With a 4:1 student to teacher ratio, one of the lowest in the country, students receive an outstanding and personalized education. Over 95% of undergraduates live on Stanford's vast 8,180 acre-campus; due to the size of the school, biking and the campus bus service are popular modes of transportation.
|3||Yale University New Haven, CT||Cost: $$$$$||
Yale, founded in 1701, is the third oldest university in the nation. The school is comprised of an undergraduate college and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This historic Ivy League institution boasts hundreds of high-profile graduates and leaders in every field, from the arts to politics. Students hail from all 50 states and 108 countries.
Yale offers an impressive range of academic programs, clubs, student organizations and research opportunities. The school has over 2,000 undergraduate courses and maintains a diverse global character in academics through its outreach and global affiliate programs. Students are encouraged to "learn broadly and deeply" and have few prerequisite classes. To help negotiate the extensive course catalog, Yale allows students to "shop" for classes, which lets undergraduates attend lectures before they set their schedule.
|4||University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA||Cost: $$$$$||
Established in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania's 12 undergraduate and graduate schools sit on a historic 302-acre campus in the heart of Philadelphia. This Ivy League institution maintains an $851 million research budget and offers interdisciplinary and innovative research opportunities through the Penn Integrates Knowledge program.
Penn has four undergraduate colleges, including the distinguished Wharton Business School. Penn is committed to embracing diversity globally and locally. To President Amy Gutmann, "the diversity of our university must reflect the diversity of the world around it – and the diversity of the world that we want our students to lead." The school's 9,746 undergraduates can select from over 90 majors.
|5||Harvard University Cambridge, MA||Cost: $$$$$||
Harvard University is a symbol of academic excellence and one of the most recognizable schools in the world. Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the country and the school has produced 47 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state and 48 Pulitzer Prize winners. Harvard attracts top faculty members in every field, providing students with an unparalleled academic experience and a close-knit community.
Harvard offers expansive research opportunities and students have access to some of the best research facilities, libraries and professors in the world. The school encourages students to think broadly and to engage with the collaborative academic environment that characterizes the Boston area. A sense of tradition is a driving force at Harvard, and students benefit from an invaluable and vast alumni network.
|6||Amherst College Amherst, MA||Cost: $$$$$||
Amherst is a private liberal arts school located about 100 miles west of Boston. Graduates include four Nobel Laureates, several Pulitzer Prize winners, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and one U.S. President. The school is committed to ongoing sustainability efforts and participates in numerous "green" initiatives. Amherst is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country; its acceptance rate was 13.7% in 2015.
Amherst promotes a philosophy of academic freedom and allows students to create their own curriculum. Classes are primarily taught through a colloquium format that encourages close contact between students and teachers. Aside from a first-year seminar, there are no core requirements or rules regarding your academic path, and advanced classes are open to freshmen and seniors alike.
Amherst offers 38 majors, 850 courses and boasts an 8:1 student-teacher ratio. Students can participate in over 100 clubs and organizations on campus, including newspapers, journals, a radio station and academic organizations that extend beyond campus through the Five College consortium.
|7||Duke University Durham, NC||Cost: $$$$$||
Fifth in the nation in research funding, Duke counts eight Nobel Laureates and 43 Rhodes Scholars among its graduates. Residential students enjoy the school's 8,547 acre campus, which includes the Duke Forest and an iconic gothic cathedral. The school has also recently renovated several buildings as part of its sustainability initiatives.
Duke offers an array of degree programs, including engineering and several interdisciplinary majors guided by a philosophy of collaboration. A low student-teacher ratio ensures that students receive personal attention from faculty members, and a dedicated support staff of advisors help undergraduates navigate through the school's extensive course catalog. Duke also encourages students to engage in community service and experiential learning ventures in their time at school.
|8||Princeton University Princeton, NJ||Cost: $$$$$||
Founded in 1746, Princeton is the fourth oldest college in the nation. Its historic campus is home to over 5,200 undergraduates and 2,600 graduate students. An Ivy League institution, Princeton's alumni includes 37 Nobel Laureates and the school is a global academic leader across all disciplines.
Princeton distinguishes itself in the attention it gives to undergraduate education. Working with leaders in the field, all undergraduates complete independent research projects in their time on campus. Most independent work begins in your junior year and culminates in a senior thesis. The school's relatively small size fosters a close-knit relationship between faculty and students and a low student-teacher ratio ensures that vibrant discussion is a part of all courses. Students can choose from an expansive list of elective courses and pursue a degree in over 30 fields of study.
|9||Brown University Providence, RI||Cost: $$$$$||
A leading research institution, Brown offers 79 concentrations to undergraduates and nearly 90 programs to graduate students. Students at Brown are guided by the school's mission to provide a personalized education, and they have the freedom to pursue their own study path.
A dedicated advising network oversees students as they design their curriculum. Undergraduates are allowed to incorporate classes from different departments into their major, allowing them to pursue their intellectual interests across disciplines. Faculty members are renowned throughout their respective fields and small class sizes ensure that students are able to develop a relationship with their professors. The school is also well known for its outreach efforts, including study abroad programs and volunteering initiatives.
|10||Bowdoin College Brunswick, ME||Cost: $$$$$||
Bowdoin is a private liberal arts school offering over 40 majors and a 9:1 student-teacher ratio. The college subscribes to a global-cultural educational perspective and instills self-assurance and robust morals in its students.
At Bowdoin, the liberal arts format promotes core values of collaboration, critical thinking, service and community. Students are encouraged to be inquisitive and to develop critical thinking and analytical skills to lead a "just and sustainable world." In their spare time, students have easy access to Portland, Boston and a wealth of natural sceneries and outdoor activities.
|11||Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN||Cost: $$$$$||
Located on a historic arboretum, Vanderbilt is home to 6,800 undergraduates and over 5,000 graduate students. The school offers students a range of scholastic opportunities, from traditional liberal arts disciplines to a top engineering program. Vanderbilt has produced two U.S. Vice Presidents and seven Nobel Prize laureates.
Students can participate in over 500 campus clubs and organizations and enjoy access to the school's library system. Here, students can find over three million physical volumes and impressive collections of historical documents, art and antiquities. Known as a premier research institution, particularly in comparative literature, education and pharmacology, Vanderbilt is also highly regarded in the fields of law, medicine, and creative writing.
|12||Rice University Houston, TX||Cost: $$$$$||
Rice's tree-lined campus rests in Houston's museum district. A premier research institution, Rice also boasts one of the country's lowest student-faculty ratios. Rice values experiential learning, and students are encouraged to pursue independent research opportunities as undergraduates. A dedicated staff advises students, and Rice is rated highly for overall student happiness and quality of life on campus.
New students are admitted through a centralized admissions process and are invited to explore their passions before selecting a major in their second year. Tests are administered without proctors on an honor system, which students must cite on their exams. Rice offers a wealth of courses through its six divisions of study, which include architecture, engineering, humanities, music, natural sciences and social sciences. Most natural science students engage in research during their time as undergraduates.
|13||Columbia University in the City of New York New York, NY||Cost: $$$$$||
Columbia lists 29 heads of state, three U.S. Presidents, nine Supreme Court Justices and 101 Nobel Prize laureates among its alumni. The school famously housed the Manhattan Project in the basement of the physics building during WWII and was at the epicenter of the 1968 student movement. Columbia maintains affiliations with Teachers College, the Juilliard School and the nearby Manhattan School of Music and Union Theological Seminary. Located in Manhattan, Columbia's students live in one of the country's most vibrant cultural centers.
Columbia offers dozens of major and minor programs. Students in all disciplines must complete a core curriculum that includes required classes in literature, art and philosophy, in addition to other basic graduate requirements. A highly selective school, only 6.9% of applicants were admitted to Columbia in the last admissions cycle.
|14||Williams College Williamstown, MA||Cost: $$$$$||
A small liberal arts college, Williams is home to just over 2,000 students. The school has undergone significant renovation in the past decade: a new science center, theater and student union building dot the traditional campus. The college offers 36 majors and ensures that all undergraduates have the best academic resources possible as they pursue their passions. Williams also encourages its students to volunteer in the community.
The school is comprised of divisions in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Inspired by traditional small colloquiums at Oxford and Cambridge, Williams offers a "tutorial system," where students meet weekly in small groups to critique each other’s work under the tutelage of a professor. The on-campus Chaplin Library has over 50,000 volumes and includes a collection of notable scientific papers and early U.S. documents. The school's museum of art also serves as an invaluable resource for students of art history.
|15||University of Chicago Chicago, IL||Cost: $$$$$||
Located in Chicago's beautiful Hyde Park neighborhood, this private research university serves over 5,000 undergraduate and 9,800 graduate students. The university has an impressive list of distinguished alumni, including 49 Rhodes Scholars, 13 National Humanities Medalists and nine Fields Medalists. UC has earned a global reputation in several fields, most notably medicine and economics.
The undergraduate college offers students 50 majors and 28 minors. Undergraduates must complete a core curriculum requirement in addition to courses in their major; classes are considered challenging but rewarding. UC is home to approximately 400 groups and organizations, which contribute to a diverse and enriching campus life.
|16||Pomona College Claremont, CA||Cost: $$$$$||
Pomona College's strikingly elegant campus lies adjacent to Claremont Graduate University on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It has a small undergraduate population of just over 1,600 students and boasts an incredible endowment for a school its size (over $2 billion).
Students can register for up to 50% of their classes at neighboring Claremont Colleges and can choose from any of 47 majors. Popular areas of study include economics, mathematics, neuroscience and English. Students have the option to conduct individual research or take part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program; many choose to study abroad. Most students live on campus, and a strong sense of tradition and close collaboration characterizes Pomona's academic experience.
|17||Vassar College Poughkeepsie, NY||Cost: $$$$$||
Vassar is known for its well-rounded and forward looking curriculum. Originally an all women's college, Vassar was the first school with an on-campus museum. The acceptance rate for the class of 2019 was 25.6%, and 98% of students live on campus.
A reliance on source materials is key to Vassar’s academic experience, and students will find an array of primary sources in the main library, rare books collection and Virginia B. Smith Manuscript Collection. Topics in women's history are particularly well represented. Courses are broad and diverse, and Vassar gives students plenty of opportunities to pursue cross-disciplinary study.
|18||Washington and Lee University Lexington, VA||Cost: $$$$$||
Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749 and is home to just over 2,200 students. The campus is a 325-acre National Historic Landmark, and the school upholds a traditional "honor system" to govern student conduct. W&L provides students with a strong liberal arts foundation grounded in modern technology and an interdisciplinary academic environment. Three U.S. Supreme Court Justices, several U.S. Congressman, a Nobel Laureate and many other distinguished alumni hail from Washington and Lee.
Students have access to an extensive library and can choose from 37 majors and 29 minors. Classes are small and students can expect to receive personal attention and develop a close working relationship with their professors. Students often choose to study abroad, and the trimester academic calendar is designed to facilitate foreign learning opportunities. Students find campus life varied and enriching, and can participate in a number of clubs and student organizations. Prospective students should also consider pursuing an experiential learning opportunity.
|19||Dartmouth College Hanover, NH||Cost: $$$$$||
The smallest Ivy League school, Dartmouth College provides its students with a personalized and well-rounded education. Campus life centers on The Dartmouth Green, and features a variety of activities and community event offerings. The school provides students with a solid liberal arts foundation and outstanding research opportunities.
Dartmouth is home to 4,200 undergraduates, and students can choose from over 50 majors. Students are encouraged to follow their passions and they have the flexibility to design a cross-disciplinary course of study that suits their academic interests. Furthermore, students can enrich their academic experience with study abroad opportunities, research projects and internships. A comprehensive library system forms the backbone of the school's teaching facilities.
|20||Haverford College Haverford, PA||Cost: $$$$$||
Haverford College sits on a gorgeous, tree-filled, arboretum campus. The school is part of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore College, and has graduated three Nobel Prize winners, 67 Fulbright Scholars, 20 Rhodes Scholars and four MacArthur Fellows. Since 1897, students have followed an honor code, an integral part of student life and academics at Haverford.
More than 95% of the 1,187 undergraduate students live on campus. Exams are not proctored (the Honor Code system deters academic dishonesty) and broad general education requirements ensure that students receive a well-rounded education in their first two years on campus. Students then move on to concentrated study, which culminates with a senior thesis.
Academic partnerships with neighboring institutions offer students more educational opportunities than most liberal arts schools can provide, and the college's vast library system contains over 2.5 million volumes. Students work closely with professors in small classes and are rewarded with an academic experience that develops strong analytical skills and "expansive" thinking.
|21||Wesleyan University Middletown, CT||Cost: $$$$$||
Home to over 2,800 undergraduates, Wesleyan is a liberal arts college with small classes and an intimate campus feel. The school is committed to pursuing sustainability initiatives on campus and has several energy saving and recycling plans in place. Among other measures, Wesleyan no longer provides bottled water on campus and a robust recycling and composting system ensures that waste materials are handled appropriately.
Students have a number of options to pursue when considering a major. Wesleyan offers more than 40 undergraduate programs and nearly 1,000 total courses. There are no course requirements, freeing students to pursue their academic interests. Students will also appreciate the flexibility of the Twelve College Exchange Program, which allows students to study for a semester or two at nearby college of similar size and academic reputation.
|22||Middlebury College Middlebury, VT||Cost: $$$$$||
Middlebury College's campus is marked by public art projects, a recently completed 220,000 square foot science facility, several open quads and the historic "Old Stone Row." The school is committed to diversity and encourages its students to become active participants in the community. Environmental sustainability initiatives are forefront at Middlebury, and the college is known for its environmental studies program.
A small student to teacher ratio of 9:1 ensures that students work closely with faculty members. There are no teaching assistants leading lectures at Middlebury; all classes are taught by professors. The average class size is 16 students, and the school offers more than 850 courses and 44 majors. Standout programs include language instruction, international studies, environmental studies and the sciences. First year seminars provide students with a strong writing and discussion foundation. Undergraduates will also have the opportunity to conduct research and to study abroad.
|23||Cornell University Ithaca, NY||Cost: $$$$$||
Cornell has the largest enrollment of any Ivy League college, at over 13,000 undergraduates. Still, Cornell's vast and knowledgeable faculty ensure that students receive the same personal attention they would find at a liberal arts college, and small classes are a staple of the campus experience. Lakes and gardens frame the 2,300-acre campus, natural features that add a flourish to Cornell's vibrant campus community. The school also maintains a presence in New York City and abroad.
Cornell offers over 80 majors and minors to undergraduates, including nationally renowned veterinary, history, hotel management and physics programs. The school also attracts graduate students from around the world, particularly to their medical and law programs. Students here find a challenging, yet rewarding academic experience, and have access to some of the best research facilities in the world. Cornell offers over 4,000 courses across more than 90 disciplines.
|24||Swarthmore College Swarthmore, PA||Cost: $$$$$||
Swarthmore is a small liberal arts college tucked just west of Philadelphia. Founded in 1864, Swarthmore is part of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford: students are permitted to register for courses at each college and the schools share a number of resources, including library materials. Swarthmore counts 30 Rhodes Scholars and 151 Fulbright Scholarship recipients among its alumni.
Swarthmore follows the "Oxbridge tutorial" method, in which students engage in weekly small group seminars and critique each other’s work under professorial guidance. Seniors must complete a thesis in the honors program. In addition to the usual range of humanities and science majors found at liberal arts schools, Swarthmore also offers an engineering program. The 399 acre campus maintains an intimate feel, and students can participate in over 100 clubs and organizations.
|25||Hamilton College Clinton, NY||Cost: $$$$$||
Founded in 1793, Hamilton College is located on a gorgeous 1,350-acre campus in Clinton, New York. The school has produced 100 Fulbright scholars and 18 Goldwater Scholarship winners since 2000. At Hamilton, creativity, and critical thinking are paired with a community centered and culturally diverse academic environment.
Students can pick from 51 areas of study and over 95% of professors hold terminal degrees in their field. Classes are small at Hamilton: 30% of classes have nine students or fewer and the student-teacher ratio is 9:1. There are no formal distribution requirements for courses, save for three writing-intensive courses, and students can design their own program of study in line with the school's "open curriculum" policy.
Choosing a Program
Online vs. On-Campus Study
Many of the best colleges offer students the choice between campus-based and distance learning study. The decision rests on several factors, but ultimately depends on a student's personal needs. The traditional campus environment, often preferred by students enrolling directly after high school, provides a variety of experiences outside of the classroom. Some students relish the chance to live independently in a residence hall or their own apartment. They network with their professors, receiving mentoring and advice. They meet people their age, making friendships that can last a lifetime. Many students become involved in the campus social scene and participate in co-curricular activities like student government, clubs, and sports.
Students who select online programs generally focus on academic factors, especially factors that impact career opportunities. They also prefer to set their own learning pace. These students may take one or two classes each term, or opt for a full course load. Students who must work while getting an online degree value online programs' flexibility, which allows them to complete assignments whenever and wherever they want. Online students can attend their classes and complete their coursework without neglecting their personal responsibilities. They also save on housing and transportation expenses. If colleges close to home do not offer a particular major, students can find online programs based elsewhere that do without having to commute to school.
|Online students may pay less in tuition and fees. If living at home, they avoid paying for room and board or transportation expenses. Some online degrees offer in-state tuition rates to students who live out of state. However, online programs sometimes charge students technology, lab, and exam proctoring fees. Online students may save on housing and commuting expenses, but they must have reliable equipment and access to a high-speed internet connection.||Tuition for traditional campus-based programs varies by school and degree requirements. Private schools typically cost more than public institutions. Out-of-state students at public colleges and universities generally pay higher tuition rates. Some traditional brick-and-mortar schools offer opportunities for work-study, scholarships, or on-campus employment to help offset the cost of tuition.|
|The flexibility and convenience of online programs appeals to many students. While some programs feature a cohort structure, where the same group of students progresses through courses at the same time, many online programs offer students the freedom to take as few or as many classes as they need, progressing toward a degree at their own pace.||On-campus programs usually schedule courses at fixed times but may offer multiple sections of the same course throughout the day or evening. Many schools schedule summer semesters, during which students can take several of their core requirements or popular electives. Some schools offer intersession terms between the fall and spring semesters, allowing students to earn credits toward graduation.|
|Many online programs allow students to work at their own pace. This feature enables some students to complete a degree much faster than in a traditional setting. However, students who work full time, have extracurricular commitments, or find the material challenging may take longer to complete their degree, finishing only one or two classes per term.||The amount of time needed to complete an on-campus degree depends on the type of program, the number of credits required, and the student's needs. A bachelor's degree usually requires four years of full-time enrollment. A master's usually takes two years. Some schools offer accelerated degrees with continuous enrollment, including summer sessions.|
|The number of majors and programs offered online continues to grow in every discipline, from business and technology to social services and healthcare fields. If students cannot locate a college close to their home that offers their intended major, they may find an online program that offers what they need.||On-campus programs, especially at large universities, offer a broad range of majors in the liberal arts, natural and social sciences, and professional fields. Some schools allow students to develop their own interdisciplinary majors. Students may find traditional in-person campus programs best for majors requiring lab work, experiential learning, and supervised clinical or field placements.|
|Many online programs provide the same services available to campus-based students, including new student orientation, advising, and tutoring. They offer training to navigate the school's learning management systems and methods of course delivery. Students may download lectures, videos, and other instructional materials. Online learners have access to virtual libraries, learning help desks, and technical assistance, often around-the-clock||A traditional campus experience offers many appealing amenities, including clubs, student centers, athletic facilities, and intercollegiate sports. On the academic side, these schools provide face-to-face faculty advisers, computer labs with trained assistants, library reference and research desks, and tutoring centers. Most schools operate student health centers, counseling services, and career placement offices.|
Choosing a Major
Before anything else, make sure you enroll in a school that offers your intended major. The best colleges for your major may not necessarily work best for you. Be honest with yourself about your interests and abilities. You may have always dreamed about a career in medicine, but cannot get through an introductory biology lab. In that case, what are your chances of landing a job in this field after graduation? Do you define success in financial terms, or do you also prioritize job satisfaction, serving others, and maintaining a work-life balance? Compared to other students interested in this major, your list of the best colleges may look very different.
Popular Online Associate Degrees
Popular Online Bachelor's Degrees
Popular Online Master's Degrees
A list of the best colleges in the U.S. includes school located all across the country. A school's location impacts both on-campus and online students. Earning a degree from a campus-based program that requires students to commute or live on-campus adds the overall college costs. Renting an apartment near campus can also get expensive. Students have to budget for meals and public transportation, or maintaining a vehicle and parking costs. Schools in big cities offer opportunities to explore the urban environment, but may not provide a strong sense of student community. Colleges in rural settings may help you focus on academics, but their students might feel stifled by the isolation and limited entertainment options. Students seeking a traditional brick-and-mortar college experience far from their long-standing support networks should possess independence and self-sufficiency. Consider the implications for your adjustment to college life, if you find yourself taking off long weekends to travel back home to see friends or family.
Distance learning students may save housing and transportation expenses, but many still have to travel to campus a few times a year to complete clinical experiences or other in-person requirements. Campus-based programs may also impose residency requirements that limit students to local placements for internships, clinical supervision, or fieldwork.
How Much Does a Degree Cost?
The high cost of a college education often catches students off-guard. Funding college requires planning and sacrifice, but the return on this investment pays off in greater earning power and career advancement. The price of a college degree depends on a variety of factors, including type of school, location, and delivery format.
In-state vs. Out-of-state
Because state schools receive much of their funding from taxes paid by their residents, in-state students benefit by receiving subsidized tuition rates. Out-of-state students usually pay much higher rates than in-state residents. State residency requirements differ by school and state, but generally, prospective students must document at least 12 months of state residency before starting school to qualify for state-subsidized tuition. However, exceptions to this rule exist. Several private schools have begun to offer a single flat rate for their online programs, to both in-state and out-of state students. Some public institutions now offer in-state tuition rates to out-of-state applicants for their online programs.
Several schools in different regions of the country have joined cooperative agreements to reduce tuition. These arrangements, sometimes referred to as "tuition exchange programs" or "academic common markets," offer discounted tuition rates to students who live in surrounding states. Many colleges and universities also offer "legacy discounts" to the children of alumni, including those who live out-of-state.
Private vs. Public
Most public institutions receive funding through state taxes and government subsidies. Private schools depend on tuition and endowments from private donors. A few private institutions function as the country's most prestigious schools, but many public universities rank among the best colleges in the U.S., as well.
A student's decision to attend a particular school, whether recognized as one of the best colleges or not, depends largely on cost. Public schools generally offer lower tuition and fees. Private schools come with much higher price tags, but they often discount tuition through scholarships and grants. Public schools may offset costs by offering more work-study programs, or opportunities for on-campus employment. Students enrolling at either a public or private school must consider transportation and lodging expenses. Larger private institutions provide a wide range of housing options for students living on- or near campus, while private schools offer fewer options.
Accreditation distinguishes the best colleges from less-competitive, less-demanding schools. The accreditation process establishes rigorous educational standards for degree-granting institutions of higher education. A degree earned at an accredited institution receives wide recognition for its academic excellence. A school's accreditation status determines its eligibility to disburse federal financial aid. Accredited institutions generally do not accept transfer credits from unaccredited schools. A degree from an unaccredited school may not gain recognition from graduate schools, employers, or professional certification agencies.
How does the process of accreditation work? Independent accreditation agencies regularly evaluate schools based on the quality of their academic programs, faculty, and financial practices. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) both oversee accreditation of U.S. schools. As a cabinet-level federal agency, the ED administers national educational policies and financial assistance programs. The nonprofit organization CHEA advocates for self-regulation of higher education through independent accreditation. Both organizations perform quality-control functions to ensure educational quality.
Students should avoid "diploma mills" that grant degrees that employers, graduate programs, and licensing and certification agencies do not recognize. Always check the ED and CHEA websites for listings of accredited schools in the U.S.
Regional vs. National Accreditation
Schools voluntarily seek accreditation from either national or regional accrediting bodies. Regional accreditation is the most sought-after and respected designation, awarded to approximately 85% of all accredited schools. A regionally accredited school has been evaluated by the regional accreditation agency with jurisdiction over its particular geographical area. Regionally accredited institutions, which include most of those ranked among the best colleges in the U.S., generally include nonprofit, private, and state-operated schools.
In contrast, for-profit colleges and vocational, technical, and online schools typically receive national accreditation. They may have lower academic standards and less restrictive admission requirements than their regional counterparts. Generally, nationally accredited schools accept transfer credits from regionally accredited colleges and universities, but regional schools do not reciprocate. Students who are interested in a nationally accredited school should carefully research that school's reputation and compare its curriculum and degree requirements with the standards set for regional institutions.
In addition to institutional accreditation administered by regional and national agencies, some programs within a college or university seek program-specific accreditation. Programmatic accreditation, also known as specialized accreditation, establishes standards of academic excellence for specialized programs. Several independent agencies administer programmatic accreditation for a variety of programs in subject areas including engineering, business, criminal justice, psychology, architecture, and counseling. Most of these agencies offer programmatic accreditation to programs within schools that have already received regional accreditation.
Programmatic accreditors look at particular features of a program, including its curriculum, faculty, student resources, and administrative structure. While programmatic accreditation provides a good indicator of overall program quality for potential employers, graduate programs, and licensing and certification organizations, it is not necessary to receive a high-quality education. Programmatic accreditation involves a lengthy and costly process; some of the best colleges offer high-quality programs, but have not attained this designation.
If you intend to earn your degree from one of the best colleges in America, you have to figure out how to pay for it. Very few students can afford to pay for all their school expenses, even with help from their families. Most college applicants must seek some form of financial aid to help offset the cost of their education.
The search for college aid begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Prospective and current college students seeking any form of federal need-based aid must submit the FAFSA each year. Not only does the FAFSA determine your eligibility for all federal scholarships, grants, and loans, but many privately funded grants and scholarships, college-specific awards, and state-administered programs require it as well.
In fact, most college admissions officers recommend that you file this form even if you plan to pay for your education out-of-pocket without federal assistance, or if you believe you do not qualify for aid. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount they expect you or your family to contribute toward your overall college costs. This number informs universities of your qualification for school-specific financial aid.
Nearly everyone who submits a FAFSA may qualify for some form of financial assistance. If you do not qualify for need-based aid, consider applying for an unsubsidized loan. These loans do not discriminate based on financial need. Find out more about the FAFSA, including eligibility requirements, deadlines, and submission instructions, at the Federal Financial Aid website.
Scholarships and Grants
As you begin your search for the best colleges to fit your needs, familiarize yourself with the types of financial assistance available and the differences between them. Some forms of student aid, like the various federal loan programs, require repayment when you graduate. Others offer on-campus employment to help pay for tuition and fees. Students who qualify for scholarships and grants receive those monies directly, as outright gifts without the expectation of repayment.
Monetary awards known as grants do not require you to pay them back. Colleges usually credit these funds directly to your student account to help cover tuition and fees, books, and room and board. The federal government provides most of the available need-based grants. State governments and many colleges and universities also offer need-based grants.
Students may also qualify for privately funded scholarships, another type of award that does not require repayment. Students may apply for scholarships based on financial need or academic performance. Applicants for some scholarships must fulfill eligibility requirements linked to race, ethnicity, religion, or some other group affiliation. Some students receive these awards for their academic achievements in specific fields of study or for their athletic ability. Scholarships often require strict rules for renewal, such as maintaining a certain grade point average or adhering to certain sports-related regulations.
Many of the best colleges in the U.S. offer work-study opportunities, which provide part-time, on-campus jobs to students who demonstrate financial need. To receive federal work-study (FWS), students must submit the FAFSA and check the square on the form indicating their interest in employment. Students must resubmit their FAFSA annually to maintain eligibility for continued employment through the FWS program. The amount a student can earn through FWS depends on their level of demonstrated need and their school's available funding and positions.
Some schools offer opportunities for non-federal work study that do not depend on financial need. Students sometimes find work-study jobs in areas related to their majors, as computer lab assistants or writing tutors. Most of these positions require 10 to 15 hours of work per week. Students typically earn the current federal minimum wage, but some may receive higher rates depending on the type of employment.
Approximately two-thirds of today's college students rely on loans to fund their education, but there are plenty of overlooked financing options you can use to reduce your overall student debt.
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial first step for any student with financial needs. Our FAFSA guide features a step-by-step rundown on the process and answers to several frequently asked questions.
Financial aid for online learning is equivalent to what you'll find for campus-based learning, but that hasn't always been the case. Learn about the changes that have taken place, as well as the different funding opportunities available to online students.
Online college programs can be a flexible, affordable option for single parents who are interested in earning a degree and securing their family's financial future. We've compiled a list of scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options geared toward single moms and dads.
Millions of dollars in free money is available to U.S. military personnel, but much of it goes unused. Learn more about grants, scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities available to veterans, active-duty service members, and reservists.