When it comes to higher education, it’s inarguable that the United States stands out in terms of the quantity and quality of schools. The United States has some of the best universities in the world, and, according to a recent study by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, eight of the top ten universities in the world are American.
So then, what are the top ten universities in the USA? Below, we’ve listed what are widely considered the most prestigious and rigorous institutions of higher education in the country. Many of these are historic schools spread all around the country, each with significant prestige, academic rigor, and notable alumni. Because of the variety of factors that could be used to evaluate which university is “best”, and that the importance of those factors can vary from student to student, we have listed institutions in alphabetical order, without trying to create a definitive ranking of schools.
California Institute of Technology
We begin our summary of the best US universities on the West Coast, with the California Institute of Technology, known commonly as Caltech. One of the few universities in the country dedicated mainly to pure and applied sciences, Caltech is one of the most selective universities in the United States. The university admittance rate in 2021 was a mere 3.9%, and the average SAT and ACT scores were 740-780 and 35-36 respectively. Caltech currently offers 28 majors, with the most popular being Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Physics.
Originally known as Throop University after its founder Amos G. Throop, the school opened in 1891. Today, the school is known for having produced an impressive number of alumni who have changed the world with their scientific advancements. Notable alumni include the inventor of the pH meter, Arnold Beckman, and the co-inventor of the semiconductor transistor, William Chockley. In total, 41 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to the students, alumni, and faculty of the school. Visiting professors have included such household names as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Undoubtedly, Caltech’s mark on humanity through its theoretical and applied sciences is significant, putting it firmly in the company of the most prestigious and influential universities in the United States.
First established by royal charter under George II of Great Britain, Columbia University’s original name was simply ‘King’s College’, renamed only after the American Revolution. A member of the elite Ivy League schools, Columbia has the honor of producing figures pivotal to the founding of the United States of America, such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and other founding fathers. Many of Columbia University’s colleges are internationally ranked, most significantly Columbia Law School, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the School of Social Work. This is not to limit the scope of Columbia’s academic excellence, as their programs range a wide gamut of subjects. In addition to the programs listed above, in 2011, the Mine ParisTech Profession Ranking of World Universities called Columbia’s business programs were named some of the best in the USA for producing CEOs.
Columbia is a university participating in a very high amount of research, with many significant scientific developments occurring through their programs. Recently, the first interface between brains and computers was developed by neuro-engineers working under Columbia. In short, Columbia has constantly positioned itself as a place of significant import and influence in the United States, and its rigorous academic programs train its students to do the same. Columbia certainly is one of the top universities in the US.
An analysis of the top US universities would be amiss without a discussion of Harvard. Harvard University, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the country, has a long and storied history. Harvard is one of the most prestigious schools in the country and offers high-level premier education. Harvard was established in 1636 as Harvard College and is also a member of the Ivy League, the elite and historic college association of the east coast. Their undergraduate programs focus on the liberal arts and sciences, while their master’s degrees are famous throughout the country, with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard Law School offering some of the country’s outstanding education in their respective fields.
Harvard Kennedy School, which specializes in public policy, has produced officials and heads of state for the U.S. and many other nations around the world. The Harvard Library system consists of 80 individual libraries, which together contain about 20.4 million books, magazines, and other documents, making it the world’s largest academic library system. Without a doubt, Harvard University is not only one of the best universities in the USA but also in the world.
Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University, considered by many to be the oldest research university in the United States, was founded in 1876 by the philanthropist Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins gave $7 million to establish the university, a gift which at the time represented the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the United States. Johns Hopkins University is known for its research programs; among all universities in the United States, the college has had the highest annual expenditures in research and development each year since 1990. This significant investment is a major contributor to Johns Hopkins University’s place as one of the top universities in the US. The school spans multiple states and countries, with locations in Maryland, Washing DC, Italy, and China.
Johns Hopkins University has long been an active player in various civil rights movements, much of which can be attributed to the convictions of its founder. The university was trailblazing in its enrollment of African-Americans (the first in 1887, with mathematician Kelly Miller) and women (the first in 1882, with mathematician Christine Ladd-Franklin). Fans of college athletics should be sure to note that Johns Hopkins University competes in the Big Ten Conference and has a well-decorated men’s lacrosse team.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, often referred to as MIT, is one of the most famous names in the world of applied sciences. At its founding in 1861, MIT was based on the European polytechnic university model and specialized in practical laboratory instruction to meet the challenge of an increasingly industrialized United States. In their first year, undergraduate students at MIT undergo rigorous training in calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology that prepare them for more advanced coursework in their major. 63% of students at MIT are enrolled in the college’s engineering division, which spans 19 degrees. Today, MIT is known for its developments in the worlds of mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as computer science and artificial intelligence.
MIT possesses a famous rivalry with the California Institute of Technology, as the two of them are some of the most highly honored engineering schools in the nation. Unlike many college rivalries, which are usually played out at athletic events, the MIT/Caltech rivalry is usually expressed through academic achievements and pranks. For instance, in 2006, MIT students stole a famous piece of Caltech property, the Fleming cannon, and displayed it on their own campus. Though there is fierce competition between the two schools to be the top US university for engineering and applied sciences, it is unquestionable that the academic programs of both are highly respected.
The third Ivy League school to be featured on this list, Princeton University is located in Princeton, New Jersey, having been founded in 1746. Princeton possesses the largest endowment per student in the United States, with a staggering endowment of $37.7 billion. Athletics and academics come together powerfully on this campus. Though we’ve written elsewhere more thoroughly about the strength of Princeton’s athletic program, we would be remiss to not mention the caliber of Princeton’s excellent sports teams. Like other schools on this list, Princeton is heavily invested in its research programs and has produced a distinguished body of alumni.
Princeton is one of the best universities in the US for those interested in public policy or political science, having produced more than 200 Rhodes Scholars, 75 Nobel laureates, two US Presidents, and twelve US Supreme Court Justices. The school offers two bachelor’s degrees: a Bachelor of Arts, and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. Students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts select a concentration as their area of study and will undergo thorough coursework in the liberal arts tradition, including the study of literature, language, and philosophy. Those pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering likewise have extensive coursework that instead focuses on mathematics, physics, and computer programming. Any student to undergo this rigorous coursework is obligated to admit that Princeton is certainly one of the top universities in the USA.
Stanford University is located in Stanford, California, and has one of the largest campuses in the United States. With more than 8,000 acres on the San Francisco Peninsula, the campus boasts multiple reservoirs, a seasonal lake, 49 miles of roads, and more than 1,000 species of plants. Stanford is not known primarily for their campus, however beautiful; Stanford University is known throughout the world for its superior academic programs. In 2021, Stanford sponsored more than 7,900 separate research projects, which spanned multiple labs, centers, and institutes. In 2014, Slate magazine dubbed Stanford “the Harvard of the 21st century” as the defining school of the American education system and as the best university in the US.
Among other achievements, Stanford is noteworthy as being the location that gave birth to the internet, under the direction of Vint Cerf and Robert E. Khan. Whether in technology, business, or the humanities, Stanford possesses a strong culture of professional and academic risk-taking, where those willing to undertake ventures can find great reward for their efforts.
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California Berkeley is not only one of the USA’s top universities but the world’s. The university is known for its undergraduate programs in science, engineering, and mathematics, as well as significantly research-oriented graduate and doctoral programs. In 2010, the United States National Research Council Rankings identified UC Berkeley as having the greatest number of highly ranked doctoral programs in the USA, including concentrations in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Molecular Biology, Computer Science, and more. In fact, Berkeley has consistently ranked as the best public university in the USA. Berkeley’s faculty includes 1,629 full-time and 896 part-time research faculty members, spread across over 130 different academic departments. The scientific contributions of their alumni include such discoveries as the atomic bomb, 16 new elements, and the flu vaccine. Undoubtedly, for any student pursuing STEM careers, Berkeley has world-class offerings of programs.
University of Chicago
The only midwestern school to make this list, the University of Chicago is located in the Hyde Park neighborhood of the nation’s third largest city: Chicago, Illinois. The University of Chicago offers an undergraduate college and five graduate research schools in Law, Business, Medicine, Social Work, Public Policy, and Divinity. In addition, the University of Chicago has additional campuses in as far-flung places as London, Paris, Beijing, Delhi, and Hong Kong. The University of Chicago has a track record of excellence across a diverse array of academic fields- from mathematics to literary criticism, and from theology to economics. One of the university’s claims to fame includes producing the first stable, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, as well as the development and refinement of the carbon dating process. The undergraduate programs of the University of Chicago are known to have particularly challenging standards, with heavy workloads of research, reading, and writing, making it one of the most intense educational experiences in the country. The University of Chicago deservedly belongs as one of the tier-one universities in the USA.
Rounding out our list of top universities in the United States is a final Ivy League school of name recognition on par with Harvard. Yale University is located in New Haven, Connecticut, and is the third-oldest institute of higher education in the United States. Like many schools founded during the Colonial era, Yale was originally established for the sake of educating clergy and members of local Congregationalist churches, so the curriculum focused on theology and ancient languages, such as Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. By the time the American Revolution was in full swing, Yale had transitioned to a broader base of coursework including the humanities and the sciences. Since then, Yale’s academic prestige has only grown and is known as one of the best universities in the USA. Today, among Yale’s most popular undergraduate programs are Economics, Public Relations, and History, and many of their graduates have gone on to find great success in public service. Five US presidents attended Yale, as well as many international leaders of state.
10 Best Universities in the USA
The United States of America is rich with excellent universities, many of which could not be included in our list of the top 10 universities in the USA. If you’re a prospective student, it’s essential to have a good understanding of your goals and priorities as you research schools. If you’re an alumni of any of these outstanding schools and are proud of your alma mater, consider showcasing your diploma in one of our handcrafted frames! All of our frames are made in the USA and can be customized to your unique preferences. Browse our online selection and find the perfect frame today!