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

List Rules
Updated 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!

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Ranked by
  • Princeton University
    1
    Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America

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

  • Williams College
    2
    Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States of America

     

    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.

     

  • University of Chicago
    3
    Chicago, Illinois, United States of America

     

    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.

     

  • Haverford College
    4
    Haverford, Pennsylvania, United States of America

     

    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.

     

  • Columbia University
    5
    Upper Manhattan, New York City, New York

    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.  

  • Amherst College
    6
    Amherst, Massachusetts, United States of America

     

    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.