For many students and professionals, college represents the ultimate starting point.
In college, we develop the training we need to enter the workforce, the ideologies we’ll carry with us to change our world for the better, and the social skills that’ll drive our future interactions.
Going to college is absolutely the biggest decision of a young person’s life. To say there are abundant options is an understatement. In fact, in the U.S. alone, there are more than 3,000 higher education institutions offering associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
So, where do you start?
Finding the right fit is a lengthy, complex process, and your choice will depend on many factors. However, a list of the top 25 schools is an excellent place to start.
In this list, we’ll cover the top 25 colleges in the U.S. We judged these schools based on their student body’s excellence, the selectivity of the admissions process, alumni salary and accomplishment, reputation of faculty members, quality of collegiate environment, and more.
You’ll find that these institutions run the gamut. You’ll find a wide variety of schools on this list. Some are small, intimate liberal arts schools based in quiet, rural areas of the country. Others are major universities located in some of the country’s largest cities. All in all, each one is academically competitive.
25. Pepperdine University
Located in Malibu, California, this consistently top-ranking university weaves Christianity into all aspects of its culture. The faith-based private institution currently has more than 3,000 students enrolled in its law school, business school or liberal arts programs.
Because spirituality is a big part of Pepperdine University, students are presented with opportunities to join faith communities, participate in student-led ministries and attend weekly chapel programs.
The picturesque campus lends well to outdoor activities. Students can participate in various intramural or club sports or embark on the biannual wilderness trip called God in the Wilderness, which leads students to ski the snow-covered Mammoth Mountain or stargaze in Ojai Valley.
The school spans farther than California, too. Pepperdine University sends more than two-thirds of its students on study abroad adventures at one of its six affiliated institutions. Destinations range from Buenos Aires to London to Shanghai.
24. Northwestern University
You won’t have an issue recognizing notable Northwestern University alumni. The list includes a hearty line up of cultural icons, including Meghan Markle, Stephen Colbert, David Schwimmer and Zach Braff. In addition to these celebrities, the school has also produced top talent who have gone on to become the CEOs of Allstate Insurance Company, Kraft Foods, Burger King, Target and Exxon, just to name a few.
Back on the main Evanston, Illinois, campus, Northwestern students study within the school’s top-voted programs, including its school of management, school of journalism, school of medicine, and school of law.
The campus rests on Lake Michigan’s shores, about 45 minutes north of Chicago, and offers a number of campus activities and events. Students can join the crowd at Big Ten football games on the weekends, participate in volunteer clubs and organizations, or attend art exhibits and performances.
Northwestern prides itself on student research opportunities with more than 50 research institutes and centers and more than $702 million invested in sponsored research each year.
23. Middlebury College
Recent data about this Vermont-based college revealed that 70 percent of 2018 graduates had secured full-time jobs within three months of graduation. Another 12 percent were pursuing further education. That’s thanks, in part, to the college’s drive to weave career-planning into its curriculum.
Middlebury’s approximately 2,500 undergraduate students can choose to study within many liberal arts programs — from global gender to music to food studies. Seniors have the freedom to participate in a thesis, independent project, or artistic production to cap off their four years.
Outside of academics, undergraduates engage in the arts and athletics. The campus also hosts many unique annual events, including its Winter Carnival, which the school boasts is the oldest in the nation. The carnival features the NCAA ski events, and students gather for bonfires, snow sculptures, ice shows, and a carnival ball.
22. California Institute of Technology
More commonly referred to as Caltech, this private university is located in Pasadena, California. The school is known for its technology and engineering programs. In fact, its mascot is a beaver, an ode to nature’s engineer.
Caltech prides itself on research. Student research programs span from summer fellowships to international experiences. Recent research includes a post-doctoral study of aggression in male fruit flies. Surprisingly, the aggression in flies resembles human behavior, which could lead to more studies.
Outside the lab and classroom, Caltech students participate in athletics, clubs, and performing and visual arts. Traditions and pranks are also a big part of the university. Each year, seniors honor Ditch Day, a combination of your classic senior skip day and “The Amazing Race.” There’s also a fall olive harvest, where students gather more than 2,000 pounds of olives from campus trees and produce olive oil.
21. Vanderbilt University
Although based in the bustling city of Nashville, this private institution sits on 333 acres of land, which includes historical brick residential halls mixed with cutting-edge academic buildings.
Vanderbilt offers its nearly 7,000 undergraduate students various programs and degrees, but at the heart of it all, the school is all about immersion. It wants students to gain real-world experiences outside the classroom.
In addition to its focus on academics, Vanderbilt offers plenty of extracurriculars. On weekends, its SEC football stadium fills with 40,000 fans. Or can students head out to basketball and baseball games during the winter and spring, respectively.
Not into sports? Vanderbilt offers students many other ways to get involved — from student government to study abroad programs to community service opportunities.
20. University of Pennsylvania
Big names have degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, including Donald Trump, Elon Musk, John Legend, Warren Buffett, and Elizabeth Banks. In addition to a star-studded alumni roster, Penn is known as America’s first university, founded in 1740. In fact, Benjamin Franklin served as the school’s president in the 1750s.
These days, students at the Philadelphia campus carry on long-time traditions. For example, Hey Day, which began more than a century ago, is celebrated each spring as juniors officially enter their senior year. When the official ceremony begins, a three-question oral test is given, and students must shout the correct answers about the university’s steeped history.
The university also prides itself on its academics, offering more than 90 majors across its 12 schools. Perhaps most well known is its Wharton School, which was the first business school at a university. Today it boasts more than 98,000 alumni.
19. Stanford University
Situated less than 25 minutes from Google’s headquarters, this private university is a hotbed for students looking to dive into its top-ranking engineering and computer science programs. If you want to tour the campus, you can do so via its 360 video experience.
Research experience on campus includes undergraduate creative projects, including studying food systems in Italy to designing electronics that don’t overheat. In fact, its annual research budget reaches $1.6 billion. The student to faculty ratio is a low 4:1.
Outside the classroom, Stanford students have access to more than 600 student groups and a state-of-the-art recreation center, which offers a little bit of everything — from squash lessons to Olympic weightlifting programs.
Upon graduating Stanford, students join the ranks of well-known alumni. Think: Tiger Woods, Elon Musk, and even John Steinbeck.
18. Williams College
Here’s a fun fact: There are no required courses at Williams College. Sure, the bachelors of arts students have to take a certain number courses within subject areas, but there’s no single required class, leaving students open to pick and choose as they wish. Students choose a major and, instead of a minor, select a concentration, which allows them to take classes across departments more flexibly.
Williams College also offers a Winter Student program, a month-long break between their traditional semester. Course offerings vary widely — from black religion in the South to independent art studios to the introduction of animal tracking.
When students step outside the classroom, they’ll find that Williams’ campus teems with opportunity. They can tour art exhibitions, participate in division III athletics, or join one of its 150 student organizations.
17. New York University
Did you know New York University is the largest private university in the United States? With more than 60,000 enrolled students, the school’s scope ranges far and wide. In addition to its famous New York City campus, NYU also has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Additionally, it has academic centers and research programs in more than 25 countries. So, yes, there are plenty of opportunities to study abroad as a student.
NYU is also one of the largest employers in New York City with more than 19,000 staffers. You’ll find faculty members who’ve been honored with Nobel and Crafoord Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, and MacArthur Fellowships. Its roster of famous alumni is impressive include Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, and Rudy Giuliani.
On any given afternoon, you’ll find students on campus who are milling about in Washington Square, standing on stage at an open mic night, or attending a student council meeting.
And that’s before you’ve even stepped into the streets of the country’s largest city.
16. Columbia University
Another New York City-based institution, Columbia University occupies more than six city blocks in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. It’s host to many impressive alumni, including Barack Obama, Katie Holmes, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Campus doings are currently led by President Lee C. Bollinger, who focuses both near with a campus expansion and far with increasing global engagement. However, academics always top the list of priorities at Columbia. It contains three undergraduate schools, with various areas of studies that include African studies, dance, and elementary inclusive education — just to name a few.
With more than 40,000 students, the campus is vibrant. Recent events have included an evening with alumni Sadie Dupuis, the guitarist and lead vocalist for Speedy Ortiz; a session about obtaining (and affording) a mortgage; and an applied mathematics colloquium.
For fresh air, students can step outside and throw a blanket down on Butler Lawn, a sprawling green space perfect for studying within the bustling city.
15. Dartmouth College
In 2016, Dartmouth College’s alumni magazine published a feature story that outlines 101 reasons to love this Ivy League school. A few exciting snippets? The college’s president is also known to teach classes. The library houses a Dr. Seuss Room, in honor of its famous alum, Theodor Geisel. The university gives away $50 stipends for free lunches — as long as students dine with a professor. There are three ropes courses on campus. Students can enroll in a mountain bike course. The list goes on, but you get it: Dartmouth offers a wide variety of opportunities.
In addition to these fun quirks, Dartmouth takes academics seriously. It’s broken up its academic calendar into four 10-week terms, which gives students more flexibility to pursue internships, research, or study abroad opportunities. Undergraduates can choose from more than 60 majors — or even design a major of their own.
14. Duke University
You’ve likely seen Duke on TV. Its consistently top-scoring NCAA men’s basketball team has the fourth-most wins of any NCAA Division I men’s team. That’s impressive.
But so are the school’s academics. The Durham, North Carolina, the campus offers a wide variety of majors, some of the most popular being biology, nursing, economics, and computer science.
Research opportunities are endless, even for undergraduate students. For example, one student spent her summer researching wild ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. Another student spent the summer of 2017 studying the effects of technology in the classroom on students with Cerebral Palsy in Auckland, New Zealand. Then there’s the student who spends a year studying crop sustainability at Duke’s campus farm.
It’s no secret Duke’s a fan of study away experiences. The university offers programs through its Global Education Office, which organizes approximately 40 international programs in 20 countries each year. In fact, Duke recently funded its Gap Year Program, which allows students to take a year to work on a project outside their regular coursework.
13. Brown University
Founded in 1764, this Providence, Rhode Island, institution is the seventh-oldest college in the U.S. It prides itself on being diverse. Students hail from all 50 states and 115 countries. In fact, Brown was the first Ivy League School to accept all religious affiliations, its charter stating, “… all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience…”
Today, the school also offers a diverse selection of degrees. It supplies 81 concentrations, but that’s not students’ only selection. They can build their coursework from the ground up.
Research plays a significant role in academics. Students work alongside faculty members to seek funding, draft proposals, carry out studies and earn awards. Its research magazine, “Impact,” highlights a recent research experience from Tori Kinnamon, who studied MRSA infection amongst college athletes. She, a gymnast herself, had actually suffered from the disease.
12. Harvey Mudd College
This private undergraduate school is located in Claremont, California, outside Los Angeles. Focused on science, engineering, and mathematics, Harvey Mudd houses biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics departments.
Research plays a huge role in the Harvey Mudd experience. In the last few years, for example, university biologist Catherine McFadden and chief scientist Erik Cordes discovered a coral reef off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, after spending eight hours in a submersible.
That’s just the tip of the reef, too…
The Harvey Mudd community as a whole is described as close-knit. It focuses on diversity, community engagement, health and wellness, and career services.
Harvey Mudd graduates have gone on to become NASA astronauts (Stanley G. Love and George Nelson), co-founders of software companies (Jonathan Gay, who founded FutureWave Software), and producers and film writers (Michael G. Wilson and “License to Kill”).
11. Brandeis University
One of Boston’s 35 colleges, Brandeis University is a liberal arts-focused private institution. It’s one of the newer institutions on this list, just established in 1948 by the American Jewish community. It’s named after Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. When it first opened its doors, it had 107 enrolled students. Today, it has close to 6,000.
Brandeis prides itself on noteworthy faculty members who are Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipients. With leading faculty members, the school has produced many notable alumni, including Josh Block, the CEO of The Israel Project; David Crane and Marta Kauffman, co-creators of “Friends;” and Mitch Albom, the author of “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “Five People You Meet in Heaven.”
On campus, you’ll find students devouring free pizza at midnight during finals week, playing bubble soccer, or growing organic vegetables on the university’s rooftop farm. If you can’t find your passion, Brandeis urges students to create their own group, so the options are endless.
10. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
What do Sallie Krawcheck, Michael Jordan, and Andy Griffith all have in common? They have a degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
This public research university has 17 campuses, but Chapel Hill is its most well known. UNC focuses on innovation, encouraging students to participate in research that’ll help solve some of society’s biggest problems.
In fact, its Innovate Carolina program gives students, faculty, and alumni what they need to succeed. The proof is in the pudding; since 1958, approximately 575 startups have launched as a result of the program. These startups employ more than 70,000 people, and reap $11.2 billion in revenue.
Here’s one example: Eliza Harrison, Lucy Best, and Emily Kian created Phyta, a startup using seaweed as a plastic alternative. With funding and mentorship from the university, they’ve fully established their farm.
9. University of California-Berkeley
Established in 1868, the University of California-Berkeley is rich with tradition. In the hills overlooking campus, for example, you’ll spot a giant “C.” This was built back in 1905. Today, sophomores are responsible for maintaining the gold lettering. Then, in 1961, there was the time students requested a week off before finals, deeming it “Dead Week.” This week off still exists today but is instead called Reading, Review, and Recitation week (RRR). The list of traditions continues and includes a Daffodil Festival, a stone ball, and an axe.
Really, the traditions are a fun perk. The academics are what keeps this school at the top of college rankings. Its 35,000 students can select from more than 350 degree programs. Perhaps most well known are the degrees within its social science, engineering, and biomedical science departments.
Notable Berkeley alumni include Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple; Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google; and Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel.
8. Tufts University
Tufts University makes a concerted effort to intertwine its liberal arts education with research. Its undergraduate programs range from anthropology to women’s studies.
The research being conducted by students is just as varied, too. Take, for example, Nathan Ward, a cognitive psychologist who’s studying multitasking. Then there’s the study on cocoa and aging, which found that consuming a flavonoid in cocoa delayed mice’s aging.
Outside its Medford, Massachusetts, campus, Tufts offers global programs, too. Students can opt to fly across the world for the Tufts in Hong Kong program, where they’ll take classes at the prestigious University of Hong Kong. Or they can head to Oxford for a year where they can join debating societies, take weekend trips and listen to prestigious speakers.
Back on Tufts’ campus, students can participate in sports or join the arts.
7. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Consistently one of the top-ranked public universities in the nation, the University of Michigan (or Michigan) offers all the excitement of a big state school (think: awesome sports teams) mixed with prestigious academic programs led by notable faculty members.
One of its most impressive statistics is that it has a 97% freshman retention rate, meaning students stick around. We can only assume that means they’re happily wandering the idyllic Ann Arbor campus, participating in art and music programs, athletics, and student organizations.
Some of the school’s most well-known programs include computer and informational sciences, business administration, economics, experimental psychology, and political science. The university boasts that 1,400 of its undergraduate students participated in its research program in 2017.
Of its more than 583,000 living alumni living across the globe, some of its most notable include Madonna, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Larry Page, and the school’s current football coach, Jim Harbaugh.
6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This private research center, which dates back to 1861, has one of the most eye-catching websites on this list. Ordinarily, that’s just a detail, but in this case, it’s indicative of MIT’s culture of innovation. MIT practices what it calls a “mind and hand” philosophy, emphasizing the merging of academics with practical application.
It fuels students’ innovation through a number of programs, including its MIT Innovation Initiative, which encourages undergraduates to take part in faculty-led research. In fact, more than 85% of MIT undergrads engage in research. Then there’s also the annual $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Last year Novo Space, a space electronics company, won the grand prize.
It’s no surprise that noteworthy alumni emerge from MIT, including Buzz Aldrin (amongst the first to land on the moon), Andrea Wong (the president of Sony), and Salman Khan (the founder of Khan Academy).
5. Princeton University
Princeton University, an Ivy League school located in New Jersey, focuses on its motto: service of humanity. It pushes students to use their education to fuel both their careers and the rest of the world.
At Princeton, students can choose to study from dozens of programs, some of the top-ranked including engineering, biomedical sciences and public administration. Once settled into their area of study, undergraduates can take part in a number of research areas, including engineering and applied science, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.
Princeton also encourages students to venture abroad. In fact, it even offers a tuition-free Bridge Year Program, which allows incoming college students to spend nine months doing public service work abroad. In this program, students live with local families to learn the language and help the communities. It also offers more than 100 traditional semester abroad programs.
4. University of California-Los Angeles
The University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) prides itself on a century of optimism. It’s been around nearly 100 years, and the university has produced some impressive stats: 14 Nobel Laureates, 14 MacArthur fellows, 116 NCAA titles, 261 Olympic medals, and 140 companies that have been created based on technology out of UCLA. That, they say, is a result of rejecting the status quo and pursuing optimism.
And it’s more than just numbers, too. UCLA helped mold Jackie Robinson, baseball legend; James Franco, actor; Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles; and Vinton Cerf, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame.
Today on campus, students can choose from more than 3,800 courses within its more than 125 majors. And despite UCLA having more than 44,000 students, approximately 70% of all classes have 30 students or less, allowing for one-on-one time with top professors.
3. Cornell University
Nestled in Ithaca, New York, this Ivy League school differs from many other Ivy Leagues on this list. Sure, it offers that classic college experience topped with renowned academics, but rather than being dropped within a city, Cornell sits on a lake and is surrounded by green gardens and idyllic waterfalls.
Cornell offers a variety of undergraduate majors — from Africana studies to viticulture and enology. Students have the option to enroll in dual-degree programs, too. Like many of the other schools on this list, research plays a large role at Cornell. Recent research topics have included the influence of immigration rhetoric as well as gender and plant breeding.
Cornell says it has something for everything on campus. You can find rock climbing, festivals, Greek organizations, and honor societies. Of course there’s always Cornell’s tradition of Slope Day, a celebration of the last day of classes featuring live music.
2. Harvard University
Harvard is hands down the oldest higher education institution in the United States. It was established in 1636, only about 15 years after the first Thanksgiving. Today, you’ll find a statue of its founder, John Harvard, in Harvard Yard. It’s perhaps one of the most iconic landmarks on campus.
Other famous faces coming out of Harvard have included Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Natalie Portman, and Bill Gates. These are only a few of the 371,000 living Harvard alumni across the globe.
Harvard obviously takes academics seriously. Some of its most popular majors include biology, math, history, and physical science. Research plays a large role in the institution. Each year, Harvard receives more than $800 million in sponsored funds.
Harvard works hard to keep its students challenged — but happy. It impressively has a 98% graduation rate, meaning nearly the entire freshman class walks across the stage and receives a diploma.
1. Yale University
Squeaking out just above Harvard University, Yale is another staple Ivy League school, and it tops our list of the top 25 colleges in the U.S.
Yale and Harvard have many similarities. They have about the same number of undergraduate students — under 7,000 — and employ accomplished faculty members. They’re also both hundreds of years old. To be honest, you can’t go wrong with either.
What makes Yale stand out, though, is its emphasis on undergraduate research. Even first-year students can take part in original research through the school’s First-Year Summer Research Fellowship. Nearly all undergrads end up participating in faculty-led research. Yale students have discovered new species, patented new products, and co-authored studies.
Outside the classroom and lab, Yale students play varsity sports, attend (or star in) Yale Cabaret shows, and join clubs — everything from Code Haven to Expressive Arts Therapy.