Best U.S. Colleges and Universities of 2021

portrait of Marisa Upson
by Marisa Upson
Published on October 20, 2021 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), over 19 million students attended colleges and universities in fall 2019. These students chose from almost 4,000 degree-granting academic institutions. But how do you make the right choice with so many options?

While the task may seem overwhelming, certain key factors can help you narrow down your selection. Start with the best colleges in the U.S. and determine which schools offer the programs that align with your academic and career goals. Earning a degree from a top university can set students apart when it comes to employment opportunities.

We have started the process for you by ranking the 10 top schools in the U.S., analyzing factors like cost, majors, accreditation, and quality. Read on to learn which school might be right for you.

2021 Best U.S. Colleges and Universities

Rankings compiled by the the BestColleges Ranking Team

How We Rank Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.

Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our ranking methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology View School Profile Cambridge, MA

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.

Stanford University View School Profile Stanford, CA

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.

Yale University View School Profile New Haven, CT

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.

University of Pennsylvania View School Profile Philadelphia, PA

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.

Harvard University View School Profile Cambridge, MA

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.

Amherst College View School Profile Amherst, MA

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.

Duke University View School Profile Durham, NC

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.

Princeton University View School Profile Princeton, NJ

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.

Brown University View School Profile Providence, RI

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.

Bowdoin College View School Profile Brunswick, ME

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.

Vanderbilt University View School Profile Nashville, TN

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.

Rice University View School Profile Houston, TX

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.

Columbia University in the City of New York View School Profile New York, NY

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.

Williams College View School Profile Williamstown, MA

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.

University of Chicago View School Profile Chicago, IL

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.

Pomona College View School Profile Claremont, CA

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.

Vassar College View School Profile Poughkeepsie, NY

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.

Washington and Lee University View School Profile Lexington, VA

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.

Dartmouth College View School Profile Hanover, NH

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.

Haverford College View School Profile Haverford, PA

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.

Wesleyan University View School Profile Middletown, CT

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.

Middlebury College View School Profile Middlebury, VT

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.

Cornell University View School Profile Ithaca, NY

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.

Swarthmore College View School Profile Swarthmore, PA

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.

Hamilton College View School Profile Clinton, NY

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.

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How to Choose a College

Determining which top U.S. universities match your personal and professional goals starts with some detective work. First, check which schools offer the major you want to pursue. Then, take a look at the factors you consider most important when choosing a college.

Many students consider U.S. college rankings by cost. Others focus more on location or the size of a university. By looking at these factors — as well as accreditation and student life — students can identify the best universities that fit their personal criteria.

Cost of Attendance

Tuition varies by school and degree requirements. Private schools in the U.S. typically cost more than public colleges and universities. Out-of-state students at public colleges and universities generally pay higher tuition rates than their in-state counterparts. Some schools offer opportunities for work-study, scholarships, and on-campus employment to help offset the cost of tuition.

Major Options

Students who know their major before entering college can focus on the top U.S. universities that offer their desired program. For undecided students, many of the larger, top colleges in the U.S. offer a wide variety of popular majors. Students have a greater chance to explore different majors before deciding on one. Additionally, while most schools accept undeclared students, some do not allow admission into specific programs.

Student Resources

Colleges and universities in the U.S. offer many appealing amenities. These include clubs, student centers, athletic facilities, and intercollegiate sports. On the academic side, many top colleges in the U.S. provide face-to-face meetings with faculty advisors, 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.

College Size

The best universities in the U.S. come in all sizes. Some students thrive in small liberal arts colleges with just a few thousand students. These schools typically offer smaller class sizes and more interaction between students and professors. Other learners excel in larger universities that enroll tens of thousands. These universities usually provide more resources and a wider variety of social activities.

Campus Environment

In addition to academic achievement, make sure to consider campus environments. Some students value and are drawn to the camaraderie and networking found in Greek life. For other learners, the best universities in the U.S. might be those with a vibrant arts and music scene or various clubs and intramural sports.

Choosing a Degree Level

Colleges offer four major degree levels: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. When pursuing a degree, students should consider their career goals and academic interests, as well as the time and money required for degree completion. The best universities provide academic advising and career counseling that can help students decide.

Associate Degree

While some four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. offer associate degrees, many students earn these two-year degrees at community colleges or online. According to NCES, in-state students paid an average of about $3,300 for tuition and fees at public two-year institutions in 2018-19.

An associate degree program can prepare graduates for entry-level positions in the workforce. An associate degree can lead to opportunities in numerous fields, including healthcare, education, and aviation. A few careers accessible to associate degree-holders include air traffic controller, drafter, and radiologic technologist. Additionally, some graduates decide to go on to pursue a bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's Degree

Students interested in increasing their earning potential and advancement opportunities may consider pursuing a bachelor's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), when comparing median wages, graduates with a bachelor's degree earn about $1,450 more per month than professionals with only an associate degree. The average annual tuition and required fees at four-year institutions was about $16,300 in 2018-19, according to NCES.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2019, 36% of adults over the age of 25 held a bachelor's degree. This four-year degree paves the way to careers in various fields. These include areas like business, healthcare, social sciences, and engineering. Depending on their major, graduates may qualify for entry-level or management positions.

Master's Degree

A master's degree can help propel graduates into management positions. It can also allow candidates to stand out in competitive fields. The BLS projects a 16.4% increase in jobs requiring a master's degree from 2020-30. The average cost of graduate tuition and fees was around $19,300 in 2018-19, according to NCES.

Many careers require a master's degree. These include mental health and rehabilitation counselors, librarians, nurse practitioners, occupational therapists, and urban planners. Additionally, MBA programs are among the most popular degrees at the best colleges in the U.S. They can lead to career opportunities in finance, international business, marketing, and consulting.

Median Annual Earnings by Level of Education

  • Median annual earnings of an individual with a high school diploma: $34,900
  • Median annual earnings of an individual with an associate degree: $40,000
  • Median annual earnings of an individual with a bachelor's degree: $54,700
  • Median annual earnings of an individual with a master's degree: $65,000

Source: NCES (full-time, year-round workers ages 25-34 as of 2018)

Choosing a Major

Make sure you enroll in a school that offers your intended major. And be honest with yourself about your interests and abilities. You may have always dreamed about a career in sports medicine. However, if you cannot get through an introductory biology lab, that career may not be the right fit for you.

There are also other things worth considering. What are your chances of landing a job in your chosen field after graduation? Do you define success in financial terms? Or do you also prioritize job satisfaction, serving others, and maintaining a good work-life balance? Compared to other students interested in your major, your list of the best colleges in the U.S. may look very different.

Most Popular Associate Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities 40%
Health Professions and Related Programs 18%
Business, Management, Marketing, and Support Services 11%
Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting 3%
Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services 3%

Source: NCES

Most Popular Bachelor's Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Business, Management, Marketing, and Support Services 19%
Health Professions and Related Programs 12%
Social Sciences and History 8%
Engineering and Engineering Technologies 6%
Biological and Biomedical Sciences 6%

Source: NCES

Most Popular Master's Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Business 24%
Education 18%
Health Professions and Related Programs 16%
Engineering and Engineering Technologies 6%
Public Administration and Social Services 6%

Source: NCES

How Much Does a Degree Cost?

The high cost of a college education often catches students off guard. According to NCES, full-time, in-state undergraduate students at public, four-year schools paid an average of about $20,600 during the 2018-19 academic year. These costs included tuition, fees, and room and board. Meanwhile, full-time undergraduate students at private, four-year schools paid an average of about $44,660.

Paying for college usually requires a lot of planning and some sacrifice. However, many graduates find that college is worth it. The return on their investment can pay off, leading to greater earning power and career advancement. The price of a college degree depends on a variety of factors, including type of school and location.

In State vs. Out of State

State colleges in the U.S. receive much of their funding from taxes paid by the state's residents. Therefore, in-state students often benefit by receiving subsidized tuition rates. Out-of-state students usually pay much higher rates than students who attend a college or university in their home state.

State residency requirements differ by school and state. Generally, prospective students must document at least 12 months of state residency before starting school to qualify for state-subsidized tuition. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Many colleges and universities in the U.S. offer "legacy discounts" to the children of alumni, including those who live out of state. Tuition for online programs may also be the same for all distance learners, regardless of residency status.

Several colleges across the U.S. also 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.

Private vs. Public

Most public colleges receive funding through state taxes and government subsidies. Private colleges and universities in the U.S. typically depend more on tuition and endowments from private donors. Some private institutions are among the country's most prestigious schools. However, there are also public universities ranked among the best colleges in the United States.

A student's decision to attend a particular school can depend largely on cost. Public colleges generally offer lower tuition and fees. Private schools come with much higher price tags, but they often offer discounted tuition through scholarships and grants.

Schools may also offset costs by offering work-study programs or opportunities for on-campus employment. Students enrolling at either a public or private school must consider transportation and lodging expenses, as well. Larger, public institutions provide various housing options for students living on or near campus, while private schools may offer fewer options.


Accreditation can distinguish between the best colleges in the U.S. and less competitive, less demanding schools. The college accreditation process establishes rigorous educational standards for degree-granting institutions of higher education. A degree earned at an accredited institution typically receives wide recognition for its academic excellence.

A school's accreditation status also determines its eligibility to disburse federal financial aid. Additionally, accredited institutions generally do not accept transfer credits from unaccredited schools. And a degree from an unaccredited school may not gain recognition from graduate schools, employers, or professional certification agencies.

How Does 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 agencies in the U.S.

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 United States.

Regional vs. National Accreditation

Schools voluntarily seek accreditation from either national or regional accrediting bodies. Regional accreditation is the most 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 and technical schools may hold national accreditation. Some may maintain lower academic standards and less restrictive admission requirements than their regionally accredited counterparts.

Generally, nationally accredited schools accept transfer credits from regionally accredited colleges and universities, but regional schools generally do not reciprocate. Students who are interested in a nationally accredited school should carefully research that school's reputation and compare curriculum and degree requirements with the standards set for regionally accredited institutions.

Programmatic Accreditation

In addition to institutional accreditation administered by regional and national agencies, some programs within a college or university seek program-specific accreditation. Programmatic accreditation establishes standards of academic excellence for specialized programs.

Several independent agencies administer programmatic accreditation in various subject areas, such as engineering, business, criminal justice, psychology, architecture, and counseling. Most of these agencies offer programmatic accreditation to programs within schools that already hold regional accreditation.

Why Does Accreditation Matter?

Programmatic accreditors look at the particular features of a program, including the curriculum, faculty, student resources, and administrative structure. While programmatic accreditation provides a good indicator of overall program quality, it is not necessary to receive a high-quality education. Programmatic accreditation involves a lengthy process. Some of the best colleges may offer high-quality programs that do not hold this designation.

How to Pay for College

If you intend to earn your degree from one of the best colleges in the U.S., you must figure out how to pay for it. Many students can't afford to pay for all their school expenses out-of-pocket, even with help from their families. Most college applicants seek some form of financial aid to help offset the cost of their education.


The search for college aid often 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.
  • Colleges use the FAFSA to determine your expected family contribution — 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.
  • Most college admissions officers recommend that you file this form even if you plan to pay for your education without federal assistance or if you believe you do not qualify for aid.
  • Nearly everyone who submits a FAFSA qualifies for some form of financial assistance.
  • If you do not qualify for need-based aid, you can 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.
Scholarship 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, such as 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 these funds without the expectation of repayment.
  • Colleges usually credit grants directly to your student account to help cover tuition and fees, books, and room and board.
  • While the federal government provides many need-based grants, state governments and many colleges and universities also offer need-based grants.
  • Students also may qualify for privately funded scholarships. Students may apply for scholarships based on financial need or academic performance.
  • Applicants for some scholarships must fulfill eligibility requirements linked to their race, ethnicity, religion, and/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.
Work-Study Programs

Many of the best colleges in the U.S. offer work-study programs, which provide part-time, on-campus jobs to students who demonstrate financial need. To receive federal work-study, 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 work-study program.
  • The amount a student can earn through work-study depends on their level of demonstrated need and their school's available funding and positions.
  • Some schools offer opportunities for non-federal work-study jobs 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 10-15 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best college in the United States? true

While many schools regularly appear on top lists, determining the best college varies for each student and depends on what they value in their academic experience. However, rankings typically include schools like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT among the top positions.

How do I get accepted into a top university? true

Admissions departments at the best colleges in the U.S. examine your grades, courses, standardized test scores, recommendations, essays, and extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that some schools accept a very small percentage of applicants. For example, according to Forbes, Harvard's acceptance rate for the class of 2022 was 4.59%, while Stanford's was 4.30%.

What are the advantages of going to college? true

Going to college may increase job opportunities and earning potential. It also can help prepare graduates for specific careers by developing specialized skills. A 2016 BLS report showed that about 37% of jobs in the U.S. typically require a postsecondary education. College also helps students develop networking opportunities, gain self-awareness, and experience unique opportunities not found elsewhere.

Are top universities harder?

Many factors influence academic rigor at universities. For example, a student's major and concentration influence the difficulty of their coursework. However, because of the low acceptance rates at some top universities, students can expect greater academic competition.

What degree should I pursue in college?

This depends upon your career interests. While a bachelor's degree is the most popular option at the top colleges in the U.S., some careers require a master's degree. As far as choosing a major, students should consider their interests and strengths, current employment trends, earning potential, and the typical return on investment.

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