Best Colleges and Universities in the U.S. - 2019
The question of which colleges are the best in the U.S. can be a hard one to answer. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of different ways to look at the data, and certain schools may focus their educational efforts on specific populations or the specific needs of their surrounding region.
Many college rankings lists feature a chorus of familiar and prestigious names among their top colleges -- Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, etc. -- but it's starting to become clear to students and educators across the country that highly exclusive and expensive institutions may not truly be the "best" universities that traditional rankings make them out to be.
To help give a more complete picture of the U.S. higher education scene, we took a slightly different approach to our analysis than most other college rankings agencies. For one thing, we listened to the 97 percent of students who named the cost of attendance as an important factor in their college choice in a recent U.S. Department of Education survey, so you won't see the usual suspects near the top of our list. Instead, you'll learn about institutions that combine affordability with academic quality, successful student outcomes and a diverse variety of available degree programs.
We also took into account the report on recent National Center for Education Statistics data that shows a surprising change in college student demographics. Adult students -- also known as returning or nontraditional students -- now outnumber recent high school graduates on college enrollment rolls, so we gave extra weight to the availability of distance education, part-time degree plans and other flexibility measures.
Because it's our goal to be honest and transparent about how we calculated our college rankings, you can check out our full methodology by clicking or tapping the button below. Whether you're a returning student or coming fresh out of high school, check out our list of 2019's best colleges in America for students of all kinds.
The 25 Best Colleges and Universities in the U.S. for 2019
To rank the best colleges in the U.S., we pulled data from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources and applied our in-house methodology to important metrics like affordability, retention and graduation rates, academic catalog variety and student success after graduation.
If you want to learn more about other colleges in the country aside from those we surveyed in this ranking, create your own customized search on our school database.
The Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis is the flagship of the University of Minnesota system, which includes five locations around the North Star State. Efforts to increase student success at U of M have been paying off in a big way -- graduation rates here have more than doubled over the last 20 years.
What makes U of M one of the best? Although the Minneapolis school didn't take any nationwide No. 1 spots in factors we ranked, it performed well across just about all of our metrics. Campus-based students here have roughly 150 undergraduate majors and minors to choose from, including geoengineering, food science and African-American and African studies. U of M is also proud of its distinguished faculty, which includes members of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.
The University of Washington's main Seattle campus educates more than 54,000 students each year, which gives it the feel of a busy and bustling academic community. Sustainability is a big part of the mission here, with over 40 student groups dedicated to various aspects of ecology and environmental science.
What makes UW one of the best? No other school in the country offered more study plans than the nearly 650 total degrees, minors and certificates available here, which include more than 370 graduate programs like pharmaceutical bioengineering and aquatic and fishery sciences. Many of its degrees are affordable, as well, with students paying less than $11,000 per year on average. What's more, the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) placed the Seattle school among its top 20 schools worldwide.
The University of Arizona's first graduating class in 1895 consisted of just three people -- two female and one male -- but it's grown in leaps and bounds since then. The campus now encompasses 362 acres, and more than 15,000 employees can be found its payroll of nearly $1 billion.
What makes UA one of the best? The Tucson school has a rich history as a research institution, including some aerospace engineering credentials that few other institutions can match. Not only were UA scientists on the front lines of the race to the moon in the 1960s, but the OSIRIS-REx space mission led by the university has reportedly discovered water on a distant asteroid. UA also offers cutting-edge interdisciplinary degrees like the Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in applied humanities.
The University of Georgia considers itself the birthplace of American public education, and it has a fair basis for that claim. The Athens school was chartered by the state of Georgia in 1785, earlier than any other U.S. public university. Today, UGA has 17 academic colleges and schools and features a total enrollment of more than 37,000 students.
What makes UGA one of the best? UGA was one of the best universities on our list for retention and graduation rates, and alumni face one of the lowest student debt burdens among our top 25 colleges. Administration also works to ensure that all students have access to hands-on learning opportunities like internships, research and studying abroad. UGA offers several agricultural study plans, such as agribusiness law and dairy science, alongside its traditional academic majors.
Located just outside Washington, D.C., the flagship institution of the state of Maryland offers its students roughly 200 bachelor's and master's degree programs to choose from. In order to help new students find their passion, the College Park school's Living-Learning Programs group eligible first-year students with similar interests into shared residence halls and class schedules.
What makes Maryland one of the best? Few other schools on our list reported a lower average cost for in-state tuition than Maryland, where expenses of around $10,400 per year of instruction landed it in the 98th percentile nationwide for affordability. The faculty here is highly decorated, as well, with three Nobel laureates and two Pulitzer Prize winners counted among their ranks. Notable degrees here include atmospheric and oceanic science and multiplatform journalism.
The main Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan system features 19 academic colleges and schools and tends to attract high-achieving students in both academics and athletics. The average high school GPA of the class of 2022 is a robust 3.88, and athletic teams and competitors from U-M have captured nearly 400 championships in the Big 10 conference.
What makes U-M one of the best? Financial aid is an important part of increasing college access, and admins at U-M work hard to put students in touch with the aid they need. Aid recipients here averaged the second-highest overall amount federal grant aid among our top colleges and universities, which can help take some of the stress out of pursuing degrees in biophysics, evolutionary anthropology and other fascinating subjects.
Fans of ambitious architecture should find plenty to like on the University of Cincinnati campus, where buildings by Frank Gehry and David Childs sit proudly on a landscape plan designed by Sydney Olympic Plaza masterminds George Hargreaves and Mary Margaret Jones. Nearly 46,000 students attend classes here, of which 27 percent are the first in their families to attend college.
What makes UC one of the best? Distance education goes a long way toward providing a student-centered college experience, and the Cincinnati institution is one of the best colleges and universities on our list for online undergraduates. Nearly 50 degrees and certificates can be earned online through UC, including an associate degree in business information technology, a certificate in violence prevention and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in early childhood education.
Texas A&M was the first public university in Texas, welcoming its original class in 1876. The main campus serves more than 64,000 students, and its satellite campuses -- including one in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula -- bring that total to almost 70,000. The Aggies, as its students are known, also field passionate Division I sports teams each year.
What makes Texas A&M one of the best? Texas A&M is one of the top universities on our list for online graduate degrees, with a catalog of nearly 50 advanced programs that features subjects like forensic nursing and natural resource development. Aggies also had one of the highest loan repayment rates among our top 25 colleges, with nearly 82 percent of graduates making headway into the principal balance of their loans within three years of graduation.
The Columbus location of Ohio State University anchors a statewide system that includes campuses and research centers in a total of seven cities around the Buckeye State. Columbus is also a great place to go to school, particularly for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students -- CIO magazine listed it as one of the ten best cities for STEM jobs in 2016.
What makes OSU one of the best? In-state tuition is fairly low here, with just four other schools on our list reporting a lower figure than the roughly $10,600 each year that OSU students pay. More than 200 undergraduate majors are available, including one of the nation's few professional golf management programs and pre-professional degrees in dentistry, physical therapy and more.
The student body at the University of Oklahoma totals just over 20,000, which means it should be suitable for students who prefer somewhat less hustle and bustle than normally occurs at larger institutions like many our other top colleges and universities. At just under 111,000 residents, Norman is also a great size for a college town.
What makes OU one of the best? The eclectic catalog of degrees at OU combines conventional academic degrees in subjects such as astrophysics and history with less-common study plans like a B.S. in aviation with three distinct concentrations. What's more, it may be one of the best colleges in America for students seeking financial aid. More than 95 percent of students here receive some form of financial assistance.
Established in 1804 as the first university in its state, Ohio University has had more than 200 years to sharpen its approach to educating future generations. The natural beauty of its surrounding area, classic styling of its campus and a vibrant local music and arts scene all helped Athens, Ohio, top USA Today's list of best small college towns in 2016.
What makes OHIO one of the best? Tuition here is fairly affordable for in-state students, coming in at under $11,900 per year, and the institution works hard to keep costs from rising. Over the last four years, tuition and fees at the Athens school haven't gone up even one dollar. It also offers a robust selection of online degree and certificate programs that includes subjects like civil engineering and music education.
Many of our top colleges and universities have long histories, but none goes back as far as Rutgers University. New Jersey's state university was founded in 1766, a full decade before the Declaration of Independence. More than 70,000 students attend school throughout the Rutgers system, with around 50,000 calling the New Brunswick campus their home.
What makes Rutgers one of the best? Graduation and retention rates are high at this old-guard institution, where students can pursue degrees in pharmacy, public policy, landscape architecture and more. Rutgers also takes part in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, a consortium of 14 high-activity research universities, which facilitates the sharing of academic resources and provides enhanced learning and research opportunities for both students and faculty.
Serving central Texas since 1883, The University of Texas at Austin is the flagship school of a statewide system that educates more than 236,000 students each year. It's also one of the best research universities in the country, according to Nature Research -- UT took a top-15 spot on the publisher's 2018 list of institutions with the most author credits in peer-reviewed journals.
What makes UT one of the best? The numbers show that UT Austin is one of the best large colleges and universities in America in terms of affordability. The Austin school reports an average annual tuition of less than $10,400 for Texas residents. It also fielded graduate programs in Latin American history and petroleum engineering that U.S. News and World Report ranked No. 1 in the country in 2018.
Each year's graduating class at Arizona State University contains over 20,000 students, and its worldwide alumni number over half a billion. This large school in the Phoenix metro area has consistently ranked among the best colleges and universities in America for innovation, topping national rankings lists each year between 2016 and 2019.
What makes ASU one of the best? A solid selection of online as well as campus-based degree programs are available at ASU. It's one of the few schools in the country to offer a degree in biomimicry, helping students take lessons from the natural world and apply them to human life, and its online bachelor's catalog includes degrees in urban planning and software engineering. It's also one of the top colleges for affordability, charging students less than $10,800 per year.
Indiana University's Bloomington Campus has served students in the area south of Indianapolis since its founding as a state seminary in 1820. IU has one of the more socially progressive campuses in its greater region -- it was named the best community for women in MBA programs in 2014 and took a top 10 slot on Newsweek's list of top LGBT-friendly colleges.
What makes IU one of the best? In-state tuition expenses at IU-Bloomington averaged just over $10,500 in 2017-18, making it one of the most affordable schools among our top colleges and universities, and its retention and graduation rates are strong as well. It was recognized by the National Research Council for its doctoral program in folklore and ethnomusicology, and ecologically minded students can pursue a master's degree in environmental policy and natural resources management.
As the biggest public university in Pennsylvania, Penn State educates close to 100,000 students across its system's 24 campuses. The flagship location in University Park offers one of the most diverse degree catalogs among our top 25 universities, featuring around 275 study plans for undergraduate students alone.
What makes Penn State one of the best? Students here also have access to the expansive online catalog at the Penn State World Campus, which contains more than 150 degrees and certificates for distance education students. Online bachelor's degrees in economics and digital multimedia design are available here, as well as 50+ graduate programs and associate degrees in fields like criminal justice and human development and family studies.
Founded in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, Michigan State University helped launch the land-grant university initiative in the U.S. and pioneered the teaching of scientific agriculture. If you're a college sports fan, you'll likely be welcome here -- MSU's Spartans field around two dozen Division I athletic teams and have taken home numerous national championships.
What makes MSU one of the best? Michigan State is one of the best colleges and universities in America for successful student outcomes, with more than 95 percent of its graduates remaining steadily employed for at least six years after graduation. Notable programs here include a B.A. in supply chain management and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program in African history that has a long reputation as one of the best in the country.
Faculty and students at the University of Wisconsin are fortunate to study at a university with deep pockets for innovation. The Madison school ranked sixth in the country for research expenditure in 2017. It's also been home to scores of world-class writers over the years, boasting more than 40 Pulitzer Prizes among its faculty and alumni.
What makes UW one of the best? Degree programs are affordable here -- tuition averaged less than $10,600 for in-state students in 2018 -- and graduation and retention rates are some of the best among colleges that made our list. The catalog of more than 230 undergraduate majors includes such exciting subjects of study as genetics, neurobiology, and community and nonprofit leadership.
Known formally as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia Tech serves a total of more than 34,000 students each semester and features nine academic colleges and a graduate school. Students who prefer to have one-on-one or small group time with professors are likely to feel comfortable here, thanks to a student-faculty ratio of just 14:1.
What makes Virginia Tech one of the best? No other school among our 25 best colleges and universities reported a higher average federal grant disbursement than the Blacksburg institution, where aid-eligible students were awarded more than $5,700 apiece in 2018. The catalog here contains 110 bachelor's degrees and 170 advanced programs, including an undergraduate major in international relations and numerous pre-professional programs in health care disciplines.
More than 100,000 freshman applications were received at UCLA in for the fall semester of 2017, giving UCLA the distinction of being the most sought-after university in the country. It makes an effort to provide the "college experience" for its students -- 97 percent of freshman students live in on-campus housing, for example -- and its researchers were awarded more than 250 patents in 2016-17 alone.
What makes UCLA one of the best? UCLA had the best retention rate and the second-best graduation rate among all our top colleges, landing in the 90th percentile nationwide in both categories. Forty of the graduate degrees available here are considered among the best in the country, and advanced students can earn doctorates in subjects like community health sciences, geography and political science.
The flagship Detroit campus of Wayne State University features more than 200 acres of green space in the heart of a dense urban environment, giving it a sense of being a natural sanctuary in the heart of the city. The Wayne State campus also sits adjacent to TechTown, an established local business incubator founded by the university in 2000.
What makes Wayne State one of the best? More than 330 graduate and undergraduate degrees are available on campus at Wayne State, placing it among the best five universities on our list for academic variety. Online students have a wide range of study plans to choose from, too, including bachelor's degrees in social work and mortuary science and an online graduate certificate in systems engineering.
This 150-year-old institution of more than 47,000 students has been the source of numerous innovations that would become integral parts of 21st century life. An Illinois student named Marc Andreessen co-created the first Web browser in 1993, for one, and faculty member Paul Lauterbur won a Nobel Prize in Physiology for work that led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
What makes Illinois one of the best? The numbers suggest that students at Illinois tend to finish what they start. The 2017-18 graduation rate here was better than all but four of our top 25 universities. Uncommon degree plans are available here, as well; students can earn a bachelor's degree in agricultural communications, a master's or doctoral degree in ecology, evolution and conservation biology and an online certificate in global labor studies.
The flagship Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts was founded as a land-grant agricultural college in 1863, and it's grown into a comprehensive university that conducts more than $200 million in research activity each year. The western Massachusetts school tends to attract high-achieving students from around the region, boasting an average applicant GPA of 3.89 as of 2018.
What makes UMass one of the best? The loan repayment rate was strong at UMass Amherst, showing that more than three-quarters of graduates had begun paying down the principal amount of their loans within three years, and nearly 90 percent of enrolled students were awarded some form of financial aid. Its psychology, biology and finance programs are highly popular among undergraduates.
The University of Alabama is nearly as old as the state of Alabama itself. In the two centuries since it was established, UA has gradually become a doctoral research institution that serves more than 38,000 students from over 80 countries. UA can claim more than 600 National Merit Scholars among its student body and is also referred to as "The Capstone" by administrators and alumni.
What makes UA one of the best? The manageable in-state tuition here helped it make the cut on our college rankings. Alabama students paid less than $10,800 on average in the 2017-18 academic year. A few rare and specialized study plans are available here, as well, such as the B.S. in apparel and textiles and a graduate certificate in consumer conflict management.
This relatively young institution was founded in 1969 and made part of the University of Illinois system just over 20 years ago. UIS offers a small campus feel, with fewer than 4,000 students attending brick-and-mortar classes, and an average undergraduate age of 26 suggests that nontraditional students here are likely to be among peers.
What makes UIS one of the best? The 97 percent of students who received financial aid at UIS were awarded more than $5,100 in federal grants in 2017-18, more than all but six other schools among our top universities. The degree catalog here features roughly 30 bachelor's degrees and 20 graduate plans for campus-based students, as well as an array of 50 programs for online students that includes graduate degrees in legal studies and data analytics.
How to Choose a College
Choosing the right college for you can seem like a daunting task, but taking a measured approach and asking the right questions can help separate the best from the rest. Here's a list of questions you can use as a guideline:
- Where do you want to live while you go to school? The greater environment in which you'll learn and work while you earn your degree can have a big impact on your college experience. Whether you're hoping for an urban or rural school in a college town or big metro area, our index of top universities by state can help.
- What type of degree do you want? A four-year bachelor's degree isn't the only option, especially if you're looking into career-focused education. We've also got a state-by-state list of the best community colleges in the U.S., if you think that an associate degree or certificate program might be a better fit for you.
- How much financial aid do you need? Paying for college can be a tough proposition, but the right scholarships, grants and other student aid programs can help take some of the burden off your shoulders. Check out our financial aid page and scholarship database to find out more about your aid options.
- Is your chosen school accredited? Only accredited schools can provide an education that meets the independent national standard expected by employers and graduate institutions. Check the U.S. Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs to ensure that your chosen college has earned regional or national accreditation.
Also, if it's possible to visit your chosen school before enrolling, you should do your best to make the trip. Walking around your future campus and getting a sense of the atmosphere can tell you more about the institution than any college rankings list. For additional insight in your search for the right school, take a look at the top universities and colleges by type of program.
To get our list of the best colleges, we ranked 2,211 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Each school was scored on a 100-point scale, using the following data points and the weights specified. In order to be included in the ranking, schools had to report data for each of the following data points:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- The average amount of institutional grant aid awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduate students as a percentage of in-state tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of full-time first-time undergraduates awarded any financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2016-17
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2016-17
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered on campus, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18:
- Dual credit
- Credit for life experience
- Advanced Placement credit
- Programs of study that can be completed entirely on weekends or in the evening
- Remedial services
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Guaranteed tuition plan
- Tuition payment plan
- Any other alternative tuition plan
Note: Tuition prices are based on data for the 2017-18 academic year reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. The actual cost of tuition may vary.
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