The Best Colleges and Universities 2021

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Pursuing higher education pays off, literally. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) supports that higher education yields higher earnings. Bachelor’s degree-holders earn a median annual salary of $72,830 — twice the $37,690 median wage for all occupations.

The best colleges and universities offer scholarly information that helps individuals succeed in their future careers. These institutions provide various majors tailored to specific interests and professions. To choose a college, aspiring graduates should conduct research. In this guide, we provide a starting point for individuals to learn more about higher education. Keep reading to discover how to choose a major, find the right school, and fund a degree

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Top 10 Colleges and Universities 2021

Rank School Location
1 Harvard University Cambridge, MA
2 Princeton University Princeton, NJ
3 Stanford University Stanford, CA
4 Yale University New Haven, CT
5 Duke University Durham, NC
6 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA
7 Dartmouth College Hanover, NH
8 California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA
9 Amherst College Amherst, MA
10 University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA

FAQ


  • When should I apply for college?

    Enrollment deadlines vary, but first-time applicants should start completing applications 6-12 months before the semester’s start.


  • What is the difference between college and university?

    A college refers to a smaller institution that provides a broad range of academic options. A university features larger class sizes and facilitates research.


  • What is the difference between college and trade school?

    Colleges offer more areas of academic study and primarily award four-year degrees. Trade schools provide fewer degree topics and mainly award two-year degrees and certificates.


  • How can I maximize financial aid?

    Prospective students can maximize financial aid by filling out the FAFSA earlyFAFSA early. The government distributes grants and “]subsidized loans on a first-come and need-based basis.


  • How do I choose a major?

    To select a major, prospective learners should identify their strengths and interests. Then, individuals can use tools like the BLS to learn more about specific careers related to their areas of interest.


  • How can I get scholarships?

    Most scholarships require application forms, essays, official transcripts, and recommendation letters. A judging panel awards funds based on merit or financial need.


  • What is acceptance rate?

    When you choose a university or college, pay attention to the acceptance rate. This percentage refers to the number of applicants who apply and earn acceptance.


  • What is graduation rate?

    This data refers to the number of individuals who begin and complete their studies at the same institution. The best universities and colleges boast high graduation rates, meaning they retain students well.


  • What is the difference between a private and public university?

    A public university receives government funds to operate. These institutions typically offer more financial aid and lower tuition rates. A private university tends to cost more but features smaller class sizes.


The Best Colleges and Universities 2021

It takes time to choose a college, so we offer some initial research to help. Each year, we review graduate retention rates, tuition, and accreditation status for schools nationwide. Using these figures, we create a ranking of the best colleges and universities. Use this list as a starting point, but we encourage prospective students to research each school further.

  1. Harvard University
    Location

    Cambridge, MA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Harvard University is a private, not-for-profit, Ivy League research university that is the oldest school in the country. It was established in 1636 and is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is the most prestigious and selective school in the country. This school is regionally accredited by the NEASC.

    Harvard confers 46 undergraduate degrees and 166 graduate and professional degrees within its 11 academic units. It is also a highly selective school and rigorous in terms of academic standards; transferring in is almost impossible and students who do transfer in are almost always behind schedule for their graduation timetable.

    Life at Harvard can be difficult, particularly considering how much emphasis is put on educational outcomes. Students often build their own internship and research opportunities and take the time to network with both classmates and faculty. Ambitious students will find the 400 student organizations to be a welcome relief from the rigors of academia, all which make up one of the best institutions of higher learning in America.

  2. Princeton University
    Location

    Princeton, NJ

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Princeton University is a private, not-for-profit, Ivy League research university that was founded in 1746 and is one of the oldest schools in America. It is associated with producing a large number of US politicians, Nobel Laureates, Rhodes Scholars, and Marshall Scholars. This school is located in Princeton, New Jersey, and holds regional accreditation by the MSCHE.

    This school offers degrees in 31 areas at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Certificate programs, as well as some select online offerings, are also available for ambitious students. The most popular programs at this school include engineering, biology, business, and chemistry.

    All students have guaranteed placement during their undergraduate years at Princeton. Students also have access to a variety of traditions, cultural events, and even the Model United Nations Conference, all on campus. Students are also encouraged to become members of any one of the 250 student organizations that are represented on campus.

  3. Stanford University
    Location

    Stanford, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Stanford University is a private research university that is headquartered in Stanford, California. It is one of the largest campuses in the country and covers over 12 square miles. The school is regionally accredited by the WASC SCUC.

    This university offers over 100 degrees at all levels of education, including professional degrees, across seven different schools. Stanford houses its own medical and law school, meaning that undergraduate students in these areas of study can move onto advanced study through their alumni. Currently, the schools majors with the highest enrollments numbers are STEM subjects.

    Stanford has over 650 student organizations that are represented on campus, including religious groups, political organizations, sports clubs, and more. Greek life is also a large part of life on campus, and traditions help create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.

  4. Yale University
    Location

    New Haven, CT

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Yale University is a private, Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. It is one of the most prestigious universities in the world; Yale has graduated U.S. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, diplomats, and Rhodes Scholars. It is regionally accredited by the NEASC.

    Yale confers over 65 undergraduate degrees and 100 graduate and postgraduate degrees, including professional and online programs. Dual degree and concurrent programs are also available. Students can also take part in certification and non-degree offerings as well.

    The school has over 375 registered student organizations, with 75 groups in the application process at any given time. The schools student life is best known for its secret societies, including Skull and Bones, the Scroll and Key, and the Sage and Chalice. Traditions and annual events are also celebrated throughout the school year.

  5. Duke University
    Location

    Durham, NC

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Duke University is a private, not-for-profit research university that is located in Durham, North Carolina, and is part of the states Research Triangle. It is known as one of the best universities in the world. This school holds regional accreditation by the SACS COC.

    This school offers over 100 degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional programs. The university is best known for its professional schools, including the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and the Fuqua School of Business. Online courses are also available; however, there are no online degrees.

    Duke students are required by the school to live on campus for the first three years of their undergraduate career; it has been mandated in order to make students feel more apart of the campus. The school also offers more than 400 clubs and organizations that are recognized by the student association, as well as civic engagement activities and traditions.

  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Location

    Cambridge, MA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university that is known as one of the worlds top institutions. It is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and focuses on STEM subjects. This school holds regional accreditation by the MSCHE.

    This university confers 11 degrees at all levels of education in over 100 major areas of study. Students often refer to their majors through numbers or acronyms alone, showcasing the individual nature that comes with learning at the school. Students may also decide to take on concurrent or dual degrees, thereby shortening their time at the school. Online courses are also available through the school and on Coursera.

    MIT differs from other schools in various ways; there is no grading system for undergraduates. Instead, they are graded on a pass/fail basis, alleviating some of the stress of trying to maintain perfect scores. Students are also required to complete the General Institute Requirements, regardless of their major, and may also be required to recite formulas and take oral examinations in lieu of traditional assignments.

  7. Dartmouth College
    Location

    Hanover, NH

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Dartmouth College is a private, not-for-profit, Ivy League research university that is located in Hanover, New Hampshire. It was established in 1769, making it one of the oldest colleges in the country. It is regionally accredited by the NEASC.

    This school offers undergraduate degrees in over 55 areas of study and 19 degrees at the graduate and postgraduate levels. Dual-degree programs in partnership with other schools is also available here, especially through the Thayer School of Engineering. Students can also elect to take courses online through the schools portal.

    Dartmouth is consistently named one of the best schools for its quality of life, including student life. The campus offers more than 350 student organizations, team sports, arts groups, and more for students; traditions and celebrations are also par for the course at this school.

  8. California Institute of Technology
    Location

    Pasadena, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    The California Institute of Technology is a private, not-for-profit university that is headquartered in Pasadena, California. It was founded in 1891 as a vocational school but quickly grew to become a doctorate-granting institute. It holds regional accreditation from the WASC SCUC.

    This school offers undergraduate degrees in more than two dozen major areas of interest as well as over 60 degrees at the graduate and postgraduate levels. This school has a vested interest in the STEM fields; students often choose to major in engineering, biochemistry, or applied science. Online programs are also available; however, they are currently limited to California residents.

    Caltech has a variety of pranks and traditions that liven things up on campus, particularly during the holidays and throughout the school year. These include the Millikan Pumpkin-Drop Experiment, Ditch Day, Ride of the Valkyries, and more. Past pranks include covering up the Hollywood sign to read Caltech and other various widely-reported antics.

  9. Amherst College
    Location

    Amherst, MA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    Amherst College is a private, not-for-profit, liberal arts college that is located in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is the third-oldest institution in the state. It was established in 1821 and holds regional accreditation by the NEASC.

    This school confers 38 undergraduate degrees in an open curriculum tradition. Students may also feel free to create their own major with the help of an advisor or faculty member. The school is currently ranked in the top tier by both U.S. News and World Report and Forbes.

    Students have a variety of student organizations and traditions to look forward to when attending Amherst, including the Sabrina State Battle and other musical events and lecture series. Freedom of speech is also huge at the school; while several members have spoken out against the liberal views held by the college, it nevertheless allows its faculty and members to speak freely about their own beliefs.

  10. University of Pennsylvania
    Location

    Philadelphia, PA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Overview

    The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League, research university that is located in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is one of the founding members of the Association of American Universities and an original member of the Colonial Colleges. It is regionally accredited by the MSCHE.

    This school was founded by Benjamin Franklin and focuses on education for public service and commerce. It confers undergraduate degrees in more than 90 areas of study and more than 170 graduate degrees across 16 colleges and schools. The school is also known for its dual-degree programs that are in partnership with other colleges, including professional degrees that are both dual-degree and accelerated.

    Penn is known for its number of major scientific discoveries that students have shared in. It is the home of the first general-purpose electronic computer, the first spelling and grammar check applications, as well as the Rubella and Hepatitis B vaccines. The school integrates research with education, meaning that students all have the option to share in these discoveries if they choose to go that route.

Career and Salary Outlook

Higher education helps students reach career and salary goals. Before individuals choose a university, though, they need to determine the right major for their desired professional field. Many schools hire academic advisors to help undecided majors select the right career path. Choosing a major before enrolling helps learners avoid paying for unnecessary classes. Even so, many students end up switching majors at some point during their studies.

Since majors correlate with specific jobs, prospective learners should read career descriptions before enrollment. The BLS provides information on thousands of careers, even those relatively unknown. When researching careers on this site, pay attention to the job outlook. This percentage projects how much the need for particular professions should grow within the coming years. The BLS also offers data on unemployment rates and median weekly earnings by education level.

Data from the Social Security Administration show how education level influences earnings. Men with a bachelor’s degree earn $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with this same education level earn $630,000 more. You can learn more about higher education financial benefits by reading the CollegeBoard’s report.

Accreditation

Accreditation status marks another top factor to consider when students choose a college or university. Institutions with accreditation receive frequent quality assessments from third-party agencies that the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation oversee. This means the best universities maintain accreditation status.

The best colleges and universities feature programs with programmatic accreditation as well. Employers view degrees from accredited schools and programs as legitimate, and most scholarships only award funds to learners attending accredited institutions.

To quickly verify a school or program’s accreditation status, use the U.S. Department of Education’s lookup tool.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

To attend one of the best colleges, some students may need financial assistance in the form of scholarships, loans, or grants. The FAFSA allows academics to apply for multiple federal loans and grants through a single form. This application takes about 45 minutes to complete and requires income information found on federal tax documents. Individuals who file their taxes as dependents must submit their guardian’s tax information.

Based on the applicant’s FAFSA information, the government distributes Federal Pell Grants and subsidized loans to individuals with financial need. Subsidized loans do not collect interest while the recipient maintains enrollment. Individuals who do not financially qualify can borrow unsubsidized loans, which begin collecting interest immediately.

Scholarships provide financial assistance that does not require repayment. Universities, colleges, nonprofits, foundations, and businesses all award these funds. Some scholarships aid students majoring in a specific area. Others assist underrepresented students. Scholarships usually require essays, recommendation letters, and official transcripts.

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