Best U.S. Colleges and Universities
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.
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Ready to start your journey?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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%|
|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%|
|Major||Percentage of Degrees Conferred|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||16%|
|Engineering and Engineering Technologies||6%|
|Public Administration and Social Services||6%|
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
Explore the BestColleges Blog
Check out the BestColleges Blog for more resources and tips for earning your degree online.
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BestColleges.com 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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