The Top 50 Best Colleges in the U.S. list is our most-selective and most prestigious. The schools in this category are the best of the best.

We analyzed data on each school from thousands across the country and selected the best of the four-year colleges throughout the nation. This list includes schools of all sizes, from various locations, both public and private.

In our rankings, we looked at factors such as graduation rates, student loan default rates, selectivity, and campus diversity to evaluate the quality of each college and award those schools that were the 50 best based on a combination of all criteria.

50. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

  • Flickr user Dan DeLuca

    Location: New York, NY

  • Student Enrollment: 50,027
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Informally referred to as “The Cooper Institute,” the highly selective college offered a full-tuition scholarship to every admitted student until 2014. This small and specialized school offers only seven majors, most of which are in the engineering field. However, the most popular major at Cooper is Fine/Studio Art.

49. New York University

  • Flickr user jpellgen

    Location: New York, NY

  • Student Enrollment: 50,027
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This international university has campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai as well as centers in Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, and Washington D.C. NYU also has an impressive list of notable alumni that includes heads of state, royalty, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Olympic medalists and astronauts.

48. Boston College

This Jesuit Catholic research university receives more than 29,000 applications per year. Of these applications, only 8,400 students are admitted on average. Accepted students score an average of 1,300–1,470 on the SAT and 29–33 on the ACT. The official Boston College colors are maroon and gold, and its mascot is Baldwin the Eagle.

47. Davidson College

  • Flickr user melystu

    Location: Davidson, NC

  • Student Enrollment: 1,784
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This liberal arts college has an average incoming freshman ACT score of 28-32 and an average SAT score of 1,280–1,430. Their latin motto is “Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas” which translates to: “Let learning be cherished where liberty has arisen.” Their mascot is known as Will E. Wildcat.

46. Emory University

  • Flickr user Georgia Popplewell

    Location: Atlanta, GA

  • Student Enrollment: 13,788
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Emory is one of oldest private colleges in the country and was established in 1836. The university, which receives approximately 20,500 applications per year, is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The school’s top three majors are Business Administration and Management, Biology, and Economics.

45. Washington and Lee University

  • Flickr user Robert of Fairfax

    Location: Lexington, VA

  • Student Enrollment: 2,172
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

W&L’s school motto is Non Incautus Futuri—Not unmindful of the future—which makes sense as the school was partially named after a very forward thinking historical figure: George Washington. The second part of this school’s name comes from Robert E. Lee, who served as the university’s president until his death. The school’s Mock Conventions held during every presidential election year has shown a remarkable record of accuracy over the years.

44. Middlebury College

  • Flickr user daiji

    Location: Middlebury, VT

  • Student Enrollment: 2,558
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This liberal arts school sees nearly 9,000 applications sent its way every year, and has a 17.4% acceptance rate. Middlebury College has a 8:1 student to faculty ratio, and a first year retention rate of 97%. Some popular sports on campus include the following: ice hockey, lacrosse, swimming and diving, soccer, track, and football

43. Claremont McKenna College

  • Flickr user Daniel Crowley

    Location: Claremont, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,349
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Claremont McKenna College was originally a men’s only institution, but opened their doors to women in 1976. Interestingly, their men’s athletic programs play as the Stags, while the women play as the Athenas, but both sport the colors maroon and black. They receive upwards of 7,000 applications each year with only around 600 being accepted.

42. Bucknell University

  • Flickr user Michael Caruso

    Location: Lewisburg, PA

  • Student Enrollment: 3,625
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This diverse institution offers nearly 50 majors and over 60 minors, all while experiencing an impressive first year retention rate of 93%. Of its many majors, the Bucknell’s most popular are Economics, Political Science, Accounting, Finance and Biology. Bucknell’s colors are orange and blue, and its mascot is the bison.

41. Vassar College

  • Flickr user Yibo Yu

    Location: Poughkeepsie, NY

  • Student Enrollment: 2,436
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Fencing, lacrosse, soccer, squash, and track are popular sports on this campus. Fans wear burgundy and grey to cheer on the Brewers. They have 12 resident halls on campus, and students are required to live in them. Vassar has  a solid 90% four year graduation rate, and an equally impressive 94% first year retention rate.

40. United States Military Academy

  • Flickr user mikek7890

    Location: West Point, VA

  • Student Enrollment: 4,348
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

The United States Military Academy (or USMA) attracts students from all around the country, though most come from California, Texas, Florida, New York, and of course, Virginia. Here the students follow a code: “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” There is a 7:1 student to faculty ratio and a 93% first-year retention rate.

39. Wellesley College

One of the original Seven Sisters Colleges, Wellesley is perhaps one of the most famous women’s colleges in the world. Notable alumni include: screenwriter Nora Ephron, professor/songwriter Katharine Lee Bates, journalist Diane Sawyer, and politician Hillary Clinton. The most popular major on campus is Economics.

38. Santa Clara University

  • Flickr user Ed Bierman

    Location: Santa Clara, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 8,680
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Santa Clara University is the oldest still-operating institution of higher education in California, and has remained in its original location for 166 years. The university’s 17 varsity sports teams play in NCAA Division I, and its mascot is Bucky Bronco. Students at the highly selective school tend to have ACT scores between 27–32 and SAT scores between 1,220–1,410.

37. Carleton College

  • Flickr user Willy Lee

    Location: Northfield, MN

  • Student Enrollment: 2,014
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Average ACT and SAT scores for this college are between 29–34 and 1,310–1,490 respectively. Nearly 7,000 applications come in each year, and of that almost 1,400 are accepted. They wear an eye-catching blue and gold (or maize) colors to cheer on the Knights at their sporting events.

36. Haverford College

  • Flickr user Roger W

    Location: Haverford, PA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,233
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded by Quakers in 1833, Haverford College offers 31 majors, the most popular of which are Psychology, Biology, Chemistry, Economics, and English. The average ACT and SAT scores for this school are 30–34 and 1,350–1,530 respectively. The campus is a national arboretum, the oldest in the country.

35. United States Air Force Academy

  • Flickr user Wally Gobetz

    Location: USAFA, CO

  • Student Enrollment: 4,111
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

In addition to rigorous military training, all cadets at the Academy participate in intercollegiate or intramural athletics as well as a specialized leadership curriculum. The Academy’s mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.”

34. Tufts University

  • Flickr user Steve McFarland

    Location: Medford, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 11,137
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of the 19,000 plus applications that get sent into Tufts every year, only about 3,000 are accepted—giving this school a 16.1% acceptance rate. There is a 9:1 student to faculty ratio at this university, giving it a close-knit feel. Their mascot, Jumbo the Elephant, has quite a unique history and sports the school colors of blue and brown.

33. Johns Hopkins University

  • Flickr user Let Ideas Compete

    Location: Baltimore, MD

  • Student Enrollment: 22,686
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This founding member of the American Association of Universities was established in 1876 and named after the entrepreneur, philanthropist, and abolitionist Johns Hopkins. The fame Hopkins has garnered for its medical school is reflected in its three most popular undergraduate majors: Nursing, Public Health, and Biomedical Engineering.

32. College of William and Mary

  • Flickr user benuski

    Location: Williamsburg, VA

  • Student Enrollment: 8,484
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This historic school was royally founded. King William III and Queen Mary II sent letters in 1693 to establish the school, making W&M the second oldest institute of higher learning in the United States after Harvard. Their mascot is the griffin, and they play in the NCAA I-FCS division. Track, football, soccer, and swimming are popular sports on campus.

31. Harvey Mudd College

  • Flickr user CampusGrotto

    Location: Claremont, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 800
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 year or above

Founded in 1955, Harvey Mudd’s mission is to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians within a liberal arts construct.  HSU boasts one of the highest levels of science and engineering PhD production in the U.S.  The integration of research opportunities are central to their educational mission as can been seen through their world-renowned Clinic Program.  As a member of the contiguous Claremont Colleges, it shares campus facilities with five other undergraduate institutions and two graduate schools.

30. Georgetown University

  • Flickr user Josh

    Location: Washington, DC

  • Student Enrollment: 18,459
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This historic university is comprised of nine undergraduate and graduate schools. It offers over 48 college majors, the most popular of which are: International Relations and Affairs, Political Science, Finance, Economics, and Psychology. Their school’s motto—Ultraque Unum—means Both into One.

29. Rice University

  • Flickr user Jill Ellwanger

    Location: Houston, TX

  • Student Enrollment: 6,719
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of the 18,000 applications Rice receives each year, the selective university only accepts 2,900 on average. With this competitive acceptance rate and its 6:1 student-faculty ratio, Rice takes academics very seriously. Outside of the classroom, Rice participates in 14 NCAA Division I sports and offers a wide variety of club and intramural sports.

28. University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

  • Flickr user Ken Lund

    Location: Ann Arbor, MI

  • Student Enrollment: 43,651
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Originally founded in Detroit in 1817, the public university has expanded over the years to a combined area of over 34 million square feet, which includes its central campus in Ann Arbor, regional campuses in Flint and Dearborn, and an extension center in its original home. Its most popular majors are Business, Economics, Psychology, and Computer and Information Sciences.

27. University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

  • Flickr user Rhonda

    Location: Chapel Hill, NC

  • Student Enrollment: 29,084
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

UNC Chapel Hill shares the title of oldest public university in the United States with two other schools, since it began enrolling students in 1795. North Carolina competes athletically as the Tar Heels, and the popular school colors are Carolina blue and white. Students can also participate in over 550 officially recognized student organizations.

26. University of California–Los Angeles

  • Flickr user Andy Dietler

    Location: Los Angeles, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 41,908
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Political Science is the most popular major at this powerhouse school, followed by Psychology, Economics, and Sociology. Their freshman retention rate is an impressive 96%. UCLA’s alumni have gone on to win numerable awards including: 105 Academy awards, 278 Emmy awards, 3 Pulitzers, and 3 Grammy awards.

25. Cornell University

  • Flickr user J. Maughn

    Location: Ithaca, NY

  • Student Enrollment: 21,904
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Cornell University, founded in 1865, is unique among its Ivy League counterparts in that it is a land grant institution.  With programs spread across New York City, and even in Qatar, this research university is consistently ranked among the top in the world.  Research is a central element to the University and it spent $671 million in 2009 on science and engineering research and development.

24. Dartmouth College

  • Flickr user Dennis Yang

    Location: Hanover, NH

  • Student Enrollment: 6,350
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or more

Founded as a Congregationalist school to educate Native Americans in Christian theology and the English way of life, Dartmouth now provides 57 majors in 40 academic departments. The most popular of these are Economics, Political Science, and History. Students also follow the D Plan, a unique quarter plan that provides greater opportunities for internships and research.

23. Vanderbilt University

  • Flickr user Tom Hart

    Location: Nashville, TN

  • Student Enrollment: 12,567
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit

Named in honor of rail and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the academically rigorous school accepts students with average ACT scores between 32–36 and average SAT scores between 1,430–1,580. Although the university is in the middle of urban Nashville, the campus is a designated national arboretum and has over 300 species of plants.

22. Amherst College

  • Flickr user Henry

    Location: Amherst, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,849
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 years

Located in a town of 35,000, Amherst College offers a scenic campus where students interact with a 500 acre wildlife sanctuary.  This highly selective liberal arts college has a long history dating back to 1821 and is a member of the Five Colleges Consortium.  Regularly regarded as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, students receive a dynamic education on its residential campus.

21. University of California–Berkeley

  • Flickr user K. Oliver

    Location: Berkeley, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 38,189
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Berkeley, the result of an 1868 merger of the private College of California and the public Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts college, is the oldest research university in the UC system. The school’s faculty, alumni and researchers make up an impressive group which includes Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, and Olympic gold medalists.

20. Washington University in St. Louis

  • Flickr user grabadonut

    Location: St. Louis, MO

  • Student Enrollment: 14,688
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of the nearly 15,000 students on campus, the ratio between graduates and undergraduates is relatively even. Top majors at the institution include Psychology, Biology, Finance and Mechanical Engineering. The private research university has also been affiliated with 25 Nobel laureates, nine of which completed the majority of their research at Wash U.

19. Brown University

  • Flickr user thurdl01

    Location: Providence, RI

  • Student Enrollment: 9,458
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 year or above

This well-known university was the first school in the Ivy League. It is the 7th oldest college in the country, and the first to admit students regardless of their religious affiliation. Economics, Biology, Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Applied Mathematics are the most common majors on this campus.

18. Swarthmore College

  • Flickr user Simon

    Location: Swarthmore, PA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,581
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore was one of the first coeducational schools in the US. It has an 89% four year graduation rate and a student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1. Their school colors are garnet and grey, and their mascot is named Phineas the Phoenix. Most of Swarthmore’s students come from California, Pennsylvania, and New York.

17. Duke University

  • Flickr user Chris Lawrence

    Location: Durham, NC

  • Student Enrollment: 15,984
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of Duke’s nearly 16,000 students, the majority of them are in the graduate school. Well over 31,000 applications are sent in to this university every year, though only about 11% or so are accepted. Duke has a 7:1 student to faculty ratio, and a 97% first year retention rate. Lacrosse, football, and soccer are popular sports on campus.

16. Williams College

  • Flickr user Peter Rintels

    Location: Williamstown, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 2,171
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

As one of the oldest colleges in the U.S., founded in 1793, Williams College offers forty-four undergraduate and two graduate majors.  It is consistently ranked as one of the top colleges in the country and meets 100% of admitted students’ financial need.  Their Purple Cow mascot supports their athletic teams which are called the Ephs.

15. Northwestern University

  • Flickr user jojolae.

    Location: Evanston, IL

  • Student Enrollment: 21,655
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Although NU is based in Evanston along the shores of Lake Michigan, the school has two other campuses in Chicago and Doha, Qatar as well as additional facilities in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. The Northwestern Wildcats also compete in 19 varsity sports at the NCAA Division I level as part of the Big Ten Conference.

14. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

  • Flickr user Sean Munson

    Location: Needham, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 370
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This college offers three majors: Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical / Electronics Engineering. Their phoenix mascot is unofficially named Frank, and represents the school’s willingness to change itself and adapt. Olin only has two competitive sports on campus: soccer and ultimate frisbee.

13. University of Notre Dame

  • Flickr user Dan Dzurisin

    Location: Notre Dame, IN

  • Student Enrollment: 12,292
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1842 by a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the University of Notre Dame is a widely recognized catholic research university.  The most popular majors on campus are finance, accounting, and marketing.  With 80% of their students living on campus, most students flock to the athletic stadiums to cheer on their Fighting Irish sporting the famous gold and dark blue uniforms.

12. University of Virginia–Main Campus

  • Flickr user Rex Hammock

    Location: Charlottesville, VA

  • Student Enrollment: 23,883
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison (among others), helped select the city of Charlottesville to be home to the university. Here you’ll find liberal arts studies and business to be the most popular majors. Notable UVA alumni are Olympians, astronauts, and US leaders, including former president Woodrow Wilson.

11. Pomona College

  • Flickr user Dave & Margie Hill

    Location: Claremont, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,663
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

With a small class size and a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio, Pomona College puts an emphasis on community. The top 5 most popular majors on this campus are: Economics, Mathematics, Biology/Biological Sciences, Neuroscience, and Computer Science. Academics are priority, with the average ACT scores ranging between 30–34, and SAT 1,350–1,520.

10. Columbia University in the City of New York

  • Flickr user Andreas Komodromos

    Location: New York City, NY

  • Student Enrollment: 28,086
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

There are a host of famous and influential alumni that have graduated from this university, including: 3 U.S. Presidents, 9 Supreme Court Justices, and 123 Pulitzer Prize winners. Incoming freshman score an average of 31–35 on the ACT and 1,380–1,570 on the SAT. Nearly 37,000 applications are sent to this school annually.

9. United States Naval Academy

  • Flickr user Butch Dalisay

    Location: Annapolis, MD

  • Student Enrollment: 4,525
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Built atop the former Fort Severn, the United States Naval Academy is 33 miles away from Washington D.C. They have an impressive 98% first-year retention rate, and an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. “Anchors Aweigh” is their well-known fight song played at sporting events, where they show off the colors navy blue and gold.

8. University of Pennsylvania

  • Flickr user Rob Pettengill

    Location: Philadelphia, PA

  • Student Enrollment: 24,876
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

UPenn’s coat of arms was specifically designed to mirror Benjamin Franklin’s. It features a dolphin and two books. The motto “Leges sine moribus vanae” means “Laws without morals are useless.” Located in the City of Brotherly Love, this university receives well over 37,000 applications each year, and accepts about 3,800 of them.

7. University of Chicago

  • Flickr user Don Burkett

    Location: Chicago, IL

  • Student Enrollment: 15,391
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

UChicago has graduated quite a number of recognizable names, including: Roger Ebert, Carl Sagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Indiana Jones (albeit fictionally). Their maroon coat of arms features a phoenix rising towards the words “Crescat Scientia; vita excolatur”—Let knowledge grow from more and more; and so be human life enriched.

6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Flickr user Stacey Kizer

    Location: Cambridge, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 11,311
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

This institute was technically founded in 1861, but did not open to students until 1865 due to the start of the Civil War. Nowadays, however, MIT is a worldwide leader in physical sciences, engineering, economics, biology, and much more. They have cardinal red and silver grey as their official school colors.

5. Stanford University

  • Flickr user Michael Estigoy

    Location: Stanford, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 16,980
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Stanford’s german motto—Die Luft der Freiheit weht—stands for “The wind of freedom blows.” For this prestigious school, the average ACT score is between 31 and a perfect 36, for the SAT between 1,390 and 1,580. Given its proximity to Silicon Valley, it comes as no surprise that the most popular major on campus is Computer Science.

4. California Institute of Technology

  • Flickr user Eric Chan

    Location: Pasadena, CA

  • Student Enrollment: 2,255
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

In addition to their reputation as academic brainiacs, the students at this institute are notorious pranksters. They once even changed the Hollywood sign to read “CalTech.” Orange and white are the school colors, and their mascot is a beaver—an homage to nature’s best engineer. 34 Nobel prize winners have graduated from CalTech.

3. Yale University

  • Flickr user Francisco Anzola

    Location: New Haven, CT

  • Student Enrollment: 12,385
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Yale University receives over 30,000 each year, and is well-known for being highly selective. In 1861, Yale awarded the country’s first ever Ph.D. Students sport the unique color “Yale Blue” at Bulldogs games. Among its notable alumni are 5 U.S. Presidents, 19 Supreme Court Justices, 20 living billionaires, and 57 Nobel laureates.

2. Harvard University

  • Flickr user Paul Geffen

    Location: Cambridge, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 29,652
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Easily one of the most recognizable universities, Harvard is actually the oldest institute of higher learning in the country. It’s Latin motto of “Veritas” means truth—a fitting motto for a university well-known for its law, political science, and social science programs. Harvard also boasts an impressive graduation rate, at 87% for four years, and 97% for six.

1. Princeton University

  • Flickr user Kah-Wai Lin

    Location: Princeton, NJ

  • Student Enrollment: 8,143
  • College Type: Private, not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1746, this prestigious university didn’t earn the name Princeton until 1896—originally called the College of New Jersey. Of the nearly 30,000 applications that were sent in last year, only 1,948 were selected, giving Princeton an acceptance rate of 7.1%. Due to its excellent financial aid program, 83% of recent students graduated without any debt.

About our methodology

Colleges are ranked based on a combination of factors, including graduation rates, campus diversity, endowment per student, and other data as reported via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the most recently-available enrollment year. Some colleges may have been excluded from rankings based on certain criteria, including specialization and classification. Learn about our full methodology.

Interested in any of these schools? Check out College Raptor’s free match tool to see if they’re a good fit for you!

9/22/17 Note: Due to an error in the US Government’s IPEDS database, some data for Williams College was reported incorrectly. Our rankings have been updated accordingly.