There are so many colleges and universities in the U.S. that it can be difficult to know where to begin your application process. It's pretty well known which schools are the most prestigious — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, etc. — but prestige is by no means the only component of a good education.
In order to get a good picture of the best four-year colleges in the U.S., we gathered mountains of data from the U.S. Department of Education and analyzed it through a rigorous 13-point system. We ranked more than 1,600 schools across the country based on affordability, flexibility, and other quantitative factors. When the dust settled, we came away with a pretty good idea of the 25 best schools in our 50 states.
If you're into numbers like we are, you can check out the explanation of our methodology a little further down the page. Also, be sure to check out our latest rankings of the best colleges and universities in the U.S. for 2019.
Our No. 1 school performed well on multiple metrics. Utah State University ranked in the 90th percentile of all schools we studied in four categories, including affordability of tuition and fees and lowest average student debt of graduates.
If you're a fan of the outdoors, the school's location within driving distance of six national parks promises plenty of natural beauty to enjoy in your free time. What's more, the undergraduate research program at this Logan, Utah, school is the second-oldest in the nation, and engaging in research can help students develop skills in analysis, troubleshooting, communication, leadership and more.
Texas A&M posted a graduation rate in our national top five and offered more online programs than all but two of our best colleges in the U.S. On top of that, it was one of the best national universities for veterans in 2017, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Fans of college athletics have a lot to look forward to as TAMU students — rooting for the school's 20 division 1-A sports teams is a big part of school culture. The crowd at home football games is known as the "12th Man" on the team's roster, thanks to their storied ability to affect events on the field with the sheer passion of their support.
The second Utah institution among our three best schools offers a wide variety of academic programs. On-campus students have more than 360 different degree plans to choose from. Only three other schools on our list had a longer list of programs available than the University of Utah.
This Salt Lake City School also pours its energy into helping students innovate in their fields. Future engineers, medical doctors and entrepreneurs each have their own centers for innovation on the University of Utah campus, and the school's Technology and Venture Commercialization initiative works to transform innovative ideas into marketable realities.
This old-guard institution was chartered in 1789, giving it the unique distinction of being the only public university in the U.S. to have awarded degrees in the 18th century. More than 90 percent of students admitted to UNC Chapel Hill completed their degrees in six years or less, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). No other school on our list posted a higher graduation rate.
Several professors at UNC Chapel Hill have earned high honors in their fields, as well. The school's teaching faculty produced two Nobel laureates over the last decade or so: Dr. Oliver Smithies for physiology/medicine in 2007 and Dr. Aziz Sancar for chemistry in 2015.
The No. 5 school among our best four-year colleges in the U.S. placed in the top 15 percent of all 1,649 schools we surveyed in more than half of the categories in our analysis. Southern Living named Gainesville one of its top college towns in the South, and the American Institute for Economic Research ranked it among the 20 best college towns of its size in 2016.
UF admins have also taken bold steps to accommodate fuel-free transportation for students. The school's 13 miles of bike lanes and 22 self-service bike repair stations earned it recognition as a bicycle-friendly university by the League of American Bicyclists.
North Carolina State University began its life in 1887 as a land-grant agricultural and mechanical college. In the 130+ years since its founding, it's grown into a national research university with hundreds of degree plans available.
NC State placed among our top 10 best schools for its graduation rate in 2015. What's more, just three other schools on our list offered more online programs than the 35 degrees and certificates available at NC State. The school's home city of Raleigh has also got some good news for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. Forbes ranked Raleigh as the No. 2 city in the country for tech jobs in 2016.
Utah Valley University was in the 99th percentile of all the schools we studied for average net price in 2015-16. Average net price is a measure of the various costs of education — tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies — adjusted for the average amount of financial aid assistance per student. The open enrollment policy here means that no student is denied initial admission. Any student who desires an education at UVU is free to pursue one.
The Utah Valley offers next-level natural beauty, as well. From the majestic Mount Timpanogos to the scenic Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon, lovers of hiking and outdoor life can find a lot to smile about at Utah Valley University.
This Oklahoma school might be a great choice for students who want a college town feel without giving up access to the amenities of the city. Norman is a medium-sized suburban locale with a population just north of 120,000, while nearby Oklahoma City is a Midwestern metropolis with more than 630,000 residents.
Some of the top online degree programs in the country can be found at the University of Oklahoma. Just two other schools in the country offer better online bachelor's programs than OU, according to U.S. News & World Report. OU also ranked in the 95th percentile overall for its affordable average tuition and fees cost.
The University of Maryland was one of the best four-year colleges in the U.S. for academic program diversity, ranking in the 98th percentile overall for its number of on-campus programs offered. The flagship location of the UMD college system also tied for the No. 7 spot on our list for its selection of online degrees.
Students focused on humanitarian causes and social justice may have a reason to give this institution extra consideration. The Do Good Institute at the College Park campus aims to establish itself as a hub of innovation toward positive social change, in local communities as well as on a worldwide scale.
The main campus of Oklahoma State University is located in a small town — Stillwater, Oklahoma — where U.S. Census Bureau estimates count less than 50,000 residents as of 2015. OSU offered enough online degree programs in 2015-16 to tie for No. 7 on our distance education metric and landed among the top 15 percent of all schools we surveyed for affordability.
Renewable energy is an important part of the mission at OSU. So much so, in fact, that the institution serves as the South Central regional hub for the Sun Grant Initiative, a national push to create sustainable and bio-based solutions for U.S. agriculture and energy security.
Iowa State University has built an impressive array of degree programs since its founding in 1858. The more than 300 traditional programs available at the Ames campus earned it the No. 7 ranking in that category among our best four-year colleges in the U.S., and its online degree portfolio placed at No. 8 among schools on our list.
Students at ISU also have access to a cutting-edge opportunity in multimedia tech. The university's Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) focuses on the usefulness of VR technology in multiple walks of life. An on-campus VR machine called the C6 offers the highest-resolution enclosed virtual reality space on Earth.
Our No. 12 school ranked among the top 20 percent of all schools we studied in no fewer than seven of the metrics in our analysis. Graduation rate, average net price and three-year student loan repayment percentage were just a few of the categories where IU stood out.
Administrators at the Bloomington school work to keep their academic programs on the cutting edge. In 2016, the department of informatics and computing began offering degree plans in intelligent systems engineering. The Bachelor of Science (B.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs draw from fields such as environmental engineering, computer engineering, cyber-physical systems and bioengineering.
Affordability is a major part of the reason The University of Texas of the Permian Basin took the No. 13 spot among our best schools. The Odessa, Texas, school placed in the 95th percentile for overall average net price, and no other school on our list reported a more affordable average net price for low-income students.
UTPB also shows its commitment to well-rounded student success through its participation in Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) programs for higher education. AVID aims to help educators develop critical thinking, literacy and math skills in students throughout their college career.
This Laramie, Wyoming, school works to ensure that students can afford their education. Its average in-state tuition and fees amount of $4,178 ranked No. 2 among our best four-year colleges in the U.S. UW also had the third-highest admissions rate of any school on our list and boasted a favorable student-faculty ratio of 15:1 in 2017.
The cowboy lifestyle of Western U.S. culture is alive and well in UW's surrounding town of Laramie. The Laramie Jubliee Days festival that takes place for a week in the summer features performances put on by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and roping/riding events for adults and kids alike.
Another member of the top five most affordable schools on our list comes in at No. 13, charging students less per year on average than 97.5 percent of all 1,649 colleges we studied. Its median student debt for graduates also ranked in the 95th percentile. The Ogden, Utah, school has an open enrollment policy.
Weber State administrators make a point to emphasize sustainability and ecological thought on campus. The university made a pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and the campus has hosted the Intermountain Sustainability Summit each year since 2010.
Brigham Young University also placed near the top on our affordability metric. Just two other institutions among the best four-year colleges of 2017 reported a lower average tuition and fees cost than the flagship campus of this faith-centered Utah school. BYU also reported an average median student debt figure in the 99th percentile overall.
A few of the programs at BYU stand especially tall in their fields. Landscape management and design students, for example, took home top honors in the 2017 National Collegiate Landscaping Competition. On the athletic side, the BYU Cougars NCAA basketball team ranks No. 12 in the country for total wins by a Division I school.
Founded in 1899 as a rural education initiative known as Watauga Academy, North Carolina's Appalachian State University placed among the top 15 percent of all schools we studied in four separate metrics. It took the No. 11 spot among our 25 best schools for both its array of distance education degrees and its graduation rate.
The school's 4+1 study plan allows graduating seniors to begin taking master's classes during their final undergraduate year, helping students get a head start on a qualifying graduate degree of their choice. If you're not yet sure about the trajectory you're hoping to take with your education and career path, ASU features a Career Exploration Center where you can get some experienced help to sort it out.
Founded in 1901, this Oklahoma school has the second-smallest student body among all the best four-year colleges in the U.S. for 2017. It ranked in the 95th percentile overall for its affordability of tuition and fees, and its median student debt for graduates was lower than 93 percent of all schools in our analysis.
Business students at SWOSU may be able to take advantage of a special opportunity provided by the school's partnerships with commercial enterprises in the region. The Weatherford campus offers paid internship programs with local small businesses through its Business Enterprise Center (BEC).
Students looking for a low-cost bachelor's degree may find just what they're looking for at the eastern Idaho campus of Brigham Young University. Its average tuition and fees cost of $3,830 was the most affordable annual figure of any of our best four-year colleges.
What's more, qualified students who apply to study at the Rexburg school are rarely turned away. BYU-I students posted the highest admissions rate of any school on our list. The university's location in the Snake River Valley also gives students access to national parks and other renowned natural areas just a short drive away.
Purdue University placed third among the best four-year colleges in the U.S. for its number of degree programs in 2015-16. There were so many degrees available at Purdue, in fact, that just 3.5 percent of all the 1,649 schools in our rankings offered a wider variety of study plans. The Indiana institution also placed in the top 10 among our best schools for its graduation rate.
U.S. News & World Report recently asked college officials about the schools they felt were making the most innovative improvements in curriculum, technology, campus life and more. Cutting-edge changes being made on the Purdue campus helped rank it in a tie for No. 9 on the agency's list of most innovative schools, ahead of such top-tier institutions as Harvard, Cornell, Cal Tech and NYU.
The Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska System placed at No. 2 for the size of its portfolio of online programs. Only six other schools on our list reported a higher percentage enrollment rate in distance education than this central Alaska institution.
University admins report a student-faculty ratio of just 12:1 in 2016, suggesting that faculty and staff have more time available to spend on each individual student. UAF also took home a unique honor in 2016 — Backpacker named it the No. 1 U.S. college for hikers, thanks to the thousand-acre forest of North Campus and dorm-window views of the stunning Alaska Range.
The fourth North Carolina school on our list placed in the 95th percentile for average net price in 2015-16. Initially founded as an evening school to serve returning World War II veterans, UNC Charlotte has grown to offer more than 150 bachelor's degree plans and support cutting-edge research by its students and faculty.
The urban environment of Charlotte provides a great compromise for students who equally enjoy nature and cosmopolitan life. Dining, arts, nightlife and other uptown activities are matched with 37 miles of greenspace and close proximity to top destinations for outdoor recreation.
If you're looking for an intimate learning environment, Minot State University might be the college for you. The North Dakota institution has the smallest student body among the best schools for 2017. It's also a top international college for continental Canadian students, thanks to its location about an hour south of the northern U.S. border.
Distance education is an important part of the mission at MSU. U.S. News & World Report recognized the school in 2017 for the quality of its online bachelor's programs. The variety of online degrees available at MSU was more robust than those at nine of the other best four-year colleges in the U.S.
Despite its name, Texas Woman's University isn't only for women. The Denton, Texas, school has been officially co-ed since 1972. TWU applicants enjoyed a higher admissions rate than all but five of our best four-year colleges in the U.S.
TWU ranked No. 6 among the best schools on our list for its variety of programs available online. It's also one of the top universities in the nation for advanced study in the health professions. U.S. News placed it among the top 100 destinations in the U.S. for physical therapy, occupational therapy, health care management and advanced nursing.
The flagship campus of the University of Minnesota has an enrolled population of over 50,000 students, and its assortment of degree programs is large enough to accommodate their diverse tastes. The Minneapolis school offered more than 500 degree programs in 2015-16, good for the No. 1 spot among our best schools and the No. 3 spot out of all 1,649 schools we studied.
Students at the University of Minnesota are set to join a group of alumni that contains some notable names. Previous graduates from the school's programs include former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, 2006 NFL Championship coach Tony Dungy and media personality Garrison Keillor.
To get our list of the best colleges, we ranked 1,649 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Each school was scored on a 100-point scale, using the most recent data available from government sources. Our data points include:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- The estimated cost of books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- The average net price for students receiving Title IV grant and scholarship aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014-15
- The average net price for low-income students receiving Title IV grant and scholarship aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014-15
- 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, 2014-15
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Average retention rate for full-time and part-time students, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2015-16
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- a. Dual credit
- b. Credit for life experience
- c. Advanced Placement credit
- d. Programs of study that can be completed entirely on weekends or in the evening
- e. Remedial services
- f. Academic and career counseling
- g. Job placement services for graduates
- h. Guaranteed tuition plan
- i. Tuition payment plan
- j. Any other alternative tuition plan
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2015-16, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed March 2, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, accessed March 2, 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- School pages, accessed March 14-16 2017: About Utah State University, Utah State University, http://www.usu.edu/about/; About Undergraduate Research, Utah State University, http://rgs.usu.edu/undergradresearch/about/; Athletics, Texas A&M University, http://www.tamu.edu/athletics/index.html; Innovation Ecosystem, University of Utah, https://www.utah.edu/innovate/; About UNC, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://www.unc.edu/about/; Facts & Figures, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://uncnews.unc.edu/facts-about-carolina/facts-figures/; UF Named bike- and tree-friendly campus, University of Florida, Matt Walker, March 9, 2017, http://news.ufl.edu/articles/2017/03/uf-named-bike -- and-tree-friendly-campus.php; About NC State, North Carolina State University, https://www.ncsu.edu/about/; Do Good, University of Maryland, https://dogood.umd.edu/; Sun Grant Program South Central Region, Oklahoma State University, http://sungrant.okstate.edu/; Iowa State University Sesquicentennial - History, Iowa State University, http://www.add.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/exhibits/150/index.html; C6, Iowa State University, http://www.vrac.iastate.edu/facilities/c6/; Virtual Reality Applications Center, Iowa State University, http://www.vrac.iastate.edu/; Intelligent Systems Engineering, Indiana University, https://www.engineering.indiana.edu/; About UTPB, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, http://www.utpb.edu/about; AVID, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, http://www.utpb.edu/academics/undergraduate-success/avid; Points of Pride, University of Wyoming, http://www.uwyo.edu/uw/aboutuw/points-of-pride.html; About WSU, Weber State University, http://www.weber.edu/AboutWSU/; WSU Hosts Sixth Annual Intermountain Sustainability Summit, Weber State University, http://www.weber.edu/WSUToday/022615_SustainabilitySummit.html; The Mission of Brigham Young University, Brigham Young University, http://aims.byu.edu/; BYU hosting a different kind of March Madness: National Collegiate Landscaping Competition, Brigham Young University, Scott Taylor, March 18, 2017, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865675902/BYU-hosting-a-different-kind-of-March-Madness-National-Collegiate-Landscaping-Competition.html; Facts, Appalachian State University, http://www.appstate.edu/about/facts/; About Us, Career Exploration Office, Appalachian State University, http://careerexploration.appstate.edu/pagesmith/138; President SWOSU History, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, http://www.swosu.edu/administration/president/history.aspx; Programs, Business Enterprise Center, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, http://www.swosubec.com/programs.html; Facts, Brigham Young University Idaho, http://www.byui.edu/about/facts; UAF home, University of Alaska Fairbanks, http://www.uaf.edu/; University History, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, http://news.uncc.edu/information-media-kit/university-history; Campus Life, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, http://www.uncc.edu/landing/campus-life; About Us, Minot State University, http://www.minotstateu.edu/about.shtml; Brief History of TWU, Texas Woman's University, http://www.twu.edu/about-twu/brief-history-of-twu/; About Us, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, https://twin-cities.umn.edu/about-us;
- Best Colleges, Overall Rankings, U.S. News and World Report, accessed March 14-16, 2017: Texas A&M University, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/texas-am-college-station-10366/overall-rankings; University of Utah, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/university-of-utah-3675/overall-rankings; University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/unc-2974/overall-rankings; University of Florida, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/university-of-florida-1535/overall-rankings; University of Oklahoma, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/university-of-oklahoma-3184/overall-rankings; Brigham Young University, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/byu-3670/overall-rankings; Purdue University, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/purdue-1825/overall-rankings; Minot State University, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/purdue-1825/overall-rankings; Texas Woman's University, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/purdue-1825/overall-rankings;
- QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/3712000,4070300,4055000,4052500
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- Sun Grant Program, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, accessed March 15, 2017, https://nifa.usda.gov/funding-opportunity/sun-grant-program
- What is AVID?, AVID Center, accessed March 16, 2017, http://www.avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx
- 21 Liberal Arts Colleges With the Lowest Student-Faculty Ratios, U.S. News and World Report, Jordan Friedman, April 19, 2016, accessed March 16, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2016-04-19/21-liberal-arts-colleges-with-the-lowest-student-faculty-ratios
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All of the National Center for Education Statistics data came from IPEDS:
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2015-16, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed March 2, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- The College Scorecard data comes from most recent cohorts file, which is 2014-15 in this case.
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed March 2, 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/