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U.S. Colleges Ranked: Top 100+ Elite Schools

Updated October 24, 2020 74.1k views109 items

List RulesUpdated for 2020

This is a transparent and simpler ranking than U.S. News, Forbes, etc.  You’ll notice the term “Ivy" throughout, though the actual Ivy League comprises eight universities. However the Ivy League started as an athletic conference that happened to be made up of some of the oldest and most prestigious schools. 

Since then, the term "Ivy" expanded to mean a larger (but still small) number of schools offering prestige, academic rigor, and tremendous educational opportunity.  You'll see references to other groups often labeled Ivies such as the NESCAC (largely synonymous with the Little Ivies), the UAA, the Patriot League, and the Centennial Conference that we around academic excellence.   Experts have also labeled schools Public Ivies, Hidden Ivies, Catholic Ivies, or the "Magnolia League."  Almost all of those plus other elite institutions scored high enough, using the formula below, to be included.

The factors considered in scoring: freshman retention, graduation rate, % of classes with fewer than 20 students, % of classes with more than 50 students, and % of alumni donations.

I’m not a professional statistician or education expert, so this system is not perfect.  However, experts say these metrics are strong indicators of student happiness, the happiness of graduates with their experience, the seriousness your student's classmates will take his or her education, and the school's dedication to providing personal attention to your student.

A sample score: Fauxville State University: Freshmen Retention: 75%, Graduation Rate: 50%, Classes 20 & under: 33%, Classes 50 & over: 24%, freshmen in the top 10% of their graduating class 20%, and alumni giving: 10%.

 Fauxville State’s score would be 75 + 50 + 33 – 24 + 20 + 10 = 164.

A perfect score would be 500. This list includes schools that scored 300 or above. Where schools earned a tie score, the school with the higher percentage of students who graduated in the top tenth of their high school class will be listed first.

Only about 8% of four-year colleges score 300 or above. Because there are still fantastic schools that didn't quite make the list, I'll expand the regional lists.

Schools scoring a freshman retention below 75%, a graduation rate below 50%, classes with 20 students or fewer below 33%, classes with 50 students or more above 24%, are not included even if the total score is above 300. There’s no minimum for students not in the top 10% of their high school class nor alumni giving.

For what is likely the best evaluation, my understanding is experts consider the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to be the most valuable analysis of undergraduate colleges. 

I believe this list is complete. If you feel a school has been omitted or a listing is incorrect, I will be happy to recheck. Thanks for reading!

  • 1

    Princeton University

    Princeton, New Jersey

    Score: 409  Located in Princeton, NJ, one of the eight members of the Ivy League and the highest scoring research university.  

  • 2

    Williams College

    Williamstown, Massachusetts


    Score: 408,  Williamstown, Mass.

    Williams is one of the three traditional Little Ivies. It's also a a NESCAC Little Ivy (the athletic league of elite liberal arts colleges generally referred to as Little Ivies).  Also listed in Greene's Guide as a Hidden Ivy

    The term "Little Ivy" is largely an unofficial term and applies to liberal arts colleges as opposed to larger research universities.  Little Ivies are comparable in rigor and prestige to the Ivy League but place more emphasis on undergraduate study and possess fewer graduate programs.


  • 3

    University of Chicago

    Chicago, Illinois


    Score 404.2 Chicago, Illinois.  The top research university in the Midwest.

    Chicago is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy and also a "UAA League Ivy".   Again, like the Ivy League and NESCAC, the UAA is an athletic league made up of some of the strongest schools academically in the country.  In fact, the league is often called the "Egghead Eight" or the "Brainy Eight."  Other schools in the UAA are Case Western, Carnegie Mellon, Washington University in Saint Louis, Emory, Brandeis, NYU, and the University of Rochester.  

    University of Chicago is considered to have one of the best economics departments in the world as well as one of the most comprehensive libraries.


  • 4

    Haverford College

    Haverford, Pennsylvania


    Score: 397.1.  Haverford, PA.  Haverford is often associated with Little Ivies though it is not an official member. It is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy. 

    Instead of NESCAC which is comprised of schools in New England and New York, Haverford is a "Centennial Conference Little Ivy".  The Centennial Conference is the equivalent of the Little Ivies for the Mid-Atlantic states.  In addition to Haverford, the Centennial Schools include Swarthmore, Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr, Franklin & Marshall, Dickinson, Gettysburg, and McDaniel.


  • 5

    Columbia University

    Upper Manhattan, New York City

    Score 394.3, New York, NY.  Columbia is a member of the Ivy League.  It is world-famous for its library and its journalism program.  

  • 6

    Amherst College

    Amherst, Massachusetts


    Score: 392.4, in Amherst, Mass, one of the three traditional Little Ivy colleges, a NESCAC Little Ivy, and a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy. Also a member of the Five College Consortium with Mount Holyoke and Smith. 



  • 7

    Washington and Lee University

    Virginia, United States of America

    Score 389.6, Lexington, VA.  Washington and Lee is a liberal arts college and a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy

  • 8

    University of Pennsylvania

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Score 389.5, Philadelphia, PA.  Penn is a member of the Ivy League.  It's considered the strongest Ivy League school for pre-professional studies like business or education.  Its graduate business school, Wharton, is world famous.  

  • 9

    Swarthmore College

    Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

    Score 388.8, Swarthmore, PA. Though frequently associated with the Little Ivies (see "Little Ivies" in Wikipedia), Swarthmore is actually a Centennial Conference "Ivy". 

  • 10

    Northwestern University

    Evanston, Illinois

    Score 388.2, Evanston, IL.  Northwestern is a A Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy.  Though compatible in most ways with UAA schools like Carnegie-Mellon and University of Chicago, Northwestern goes in for Division I sports and is the lone private school in the Big Ten Conference.  

  • 11

    Johns Hopkins University

    Baltimore, Maryland


    Score: 387.3, Baltimore, MD, a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy and a Centennial Conference Ivy.Unlike the rest of the league, Johns Hopkins is a research university. So the academic experience would likely be closer to the UAA "brainy eight" schools instead of the "little ivy" liberal arts colleges that make up Centennial. 

    Johns Hopkins is one of the leading schools in the nation for pre-med students.


  • 12

    Bowdoin College

    Brunswick, Maine

    Score 386.5, Brunswick, Maine.  Bowdoin is a NESCAC Little Ivy and Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy.

  • 13

    Dartmouth College

    Hanover, New Hampshire

    Score 386.5, Hanover, New Hampshire.  Dartmouth is a member of the Ivy League. 

  • 14

    Carleton College

    Northfield, Minnesota

    Score: 384.8, Northfield, MN.  Carleton is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy and the top liberal arts college in the Midwest

  • 15

    Hamilton College

    Clinton, New York

    Score 384.7, Clinton, NY. Hamilton is a NESCAC Little Ivy and a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy.

  • 16

    Wellesley College

    Wellesley, Massachusetts


    Score 384.6, in Wellesley, Mass. Wellesley is a member of the Seven Sisters, the women's colleges founded as companion institutions to Ivy League and Little Ivy schools and comparable in educational reputation.  One of the Seven Sisters, Radcliffe, merged with Harvard, and another, Vassar, is now coed.  The remaining four are Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Mount Holyoke, and Smith.  

    All of the Seven Sisters colleges are also Greene's Guide Hidden Ivies.  Along with Scripps College, they are considered the premiere women's colleges in the nation.  


  • 17

    Duke University

    Durham, North Carolina


    Score: 384.3, Durham, North Carolina.  Duke is the highest scoring research university in the South and is also a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy.  

    Duke was planned to be a member of the "Southern Ivy League" or "Magnolia Conference". (See Wikipedia for an explanation of this "brainy school" athletic league that was never actually established under "Southern Ivy".)  

     The story goes that after Vanderbilt's football team obliterated Yale in one game, Vanderbilt was no longer welcome to play Ivy League teams.  Vanderbilt then had the idea to build a similar league of academic powerhouses, which would have included Rice, Tulane, Wake Forest, and Southern Methodist in addition to Duke.  I suspect Emory would have belonged in that company if they'd competed in Division I instead of Division III.  


  • 18

    Yale University

    New Haven, Connecticut

    Score 382.3, New Haven, CT.  Yale is one of the eight Ivy League universities.

  • 19

    Brown University

    Providence, Rhode Island

    Score: 381.3. Brown is a member of the Ivy League.  It's usually considered the most progressive of the eight institutions and often attracts students interested in liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Bowdoin, and Vassar instead of Princeton and Dartmouth.  

  • 20

    Harvard University

    Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Score 381.1, Cambridge, MA  The most famous member of the Ivy League.  Harvard is the oldest college in the nation and is usually the most selective school each admissions cycle.

  • 21

    Score: 380.6, Cambridge, Mass.  Probably the most famous school in the nation for engineering.  Along with CalTech, M.I.T. is often called the "Tech Ivy". 

  • 22

    Claremont McKenna College

    Claremont, California


    Score 379.6, Claremont, CA, a liberal arts college and a member of the Claremont Consortium.  

     The Claremont schools are often considered the equivalent of Little Ivies for the West, but a better comparison is probably Oxford's colleges (or Cambridge's) in England as the Claremont schools are designed to complement each others' offerings instead of duplicating them.  For example, students interested in engineering would head to Harvey Mudd.  McKenna's strengths are usually considered to be the social sciences.  



  • 23

    Colby College

    Waterville, Maine

    Score 378.2, in Waterville, Maine.  Colby is a NESCAC Little Ivy and Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy.

  • 24

    Pomona College

    Claremont, California

    Score: 379.9, Claremont, California, Pomona is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy and a member of the Claremont Consortium.  

  • 25

    University of Notre Dame

    Notre Dame, Indiana

    Score 376.7, South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy and is often called one of the Catholic Ivies along with Georgetown, Boston College, and College of the Holy Cross.