Best Universities in the United States of America: What are the Ranking Criteria?

As I mentioned in my previous articles, there are hundreds of higher education institutions in the United States. For many international students, choosing the best match schools among those colleges is indeed a difficult process. Naturally, everyone wants to go to the best school with the best scholarships opportunities. Of course, when choosing schools, international students need to review other factors that are important to international applicants, such as financial considerations and city or climate preferences. In this article, I want to provide general information about the best universities in the US. I think that it will be very useful for you when making your college choices.

There are independent organizations that rank the best universities worldwide. Although these organizations make general international rankings, they often also publish certain rankings on a country-by-country basis. Moreover, you can see that universities in the same country are also ranked in different categories. Let me explain this with an example. In 2019, the best school in the US is considered Princeton University. But this is an overall approach; the best computer science department, for example, belongs to Carnegie Melon University. Other rankings include but are not limited to the most beautiful campus, the best party school, and the safest school.

So how are these rankings calculated? What are the criteria?

We can arrange the criteria under five main categories. The first of these is “education”, specifically the educational environment. In other words:

(1) the ratio between students, staff and faculty members,

(2) the ratio between PhD students and undergraduate students,

(3) awareness and dignity surveys about the school,

(4) the number of degrees of doctorate awarded and the ratio of the number of faculty members, and

(5) school financial income.

The second category is “research”. What is measured by this category is:

(1) again, awareness and dignity surveys about the school,

(2) income from research, and

(3) the quality of research and its contribution to production.

The third category is “number of publication citations”. This category actually contains the most important criteria for rankings. Briefly, the category measures references made to the research conducted by the faculty members working at the school. In this way, we can understand whether the school is productive or not.

The fourth category is “international outlook”, and includes:

(1) the ratio of domestic students and international students,

(2) the ratio between international personnel and domestic personnel, and

(3) international cooperation performance.

The final category is “industrial income“. In other words, “knowledge transfer”. This category deals with the school’s contribution to the industry and therefore to society and measures the extent to which research is translated into invention or is presented to the markets. For example, a battery developed in a university laboratory may be put on the market, either directly or through certain partnerships. It should be noted that many inventions come from universities.

In fact, apart from the five main categories I mentioned above, many other criteria are also taken into consideration by some organizations. One example is the financial contribution of graduates to the schools (donations). Another example is graduation rates. Yet another important criterion is the ratio of faculty members’ salaries and living expenses.

So how reliable are the rankings based on these criteria? In fact, when you remove other factors (financial issues, location, etc.) when choosing a school, I can say that the published ranking lists are really convincing. There are independent organizations founded just for those rankings. As a reminder, I recommend that you conduct your analysis with a professional consultant while choosing a school. Schools in America cannot be selected simply by looking at the ranking lists. I can also say that the most popular independent organization that ranks the universities in the US is US News & World Report (US News & World Report College and University rankings). They publish comprehensive lists and statistics every year. You can access most of these lists for free on the Internet. In addition to US News & World Report, quite a few other organizations also rank schools using a variety of categories. Among these organizations are:

(1) The Wall Street Journal / Times Higher Education College Rankings,

(2) Washington Monthly,


(4) TrendTopper/MediaBuzz College Guide, and

(5) The Princeton Review.

Schools that are high in the rankings are naturally extremely selective when choosing students. Harvard University was ranked 2nd by US News & World Report last year. The acceptance rate for undergraduate departments was around 5%. The acceptance rate for the undergraduate departments of Princeton University, which is ranked number 1 in the same list, was 6%. The annual budgets (endowment assets) of such schools are also reaching incredible figures. Harvard has $39 billion in “endowment assets“. Princeton University has endowment assets of $26 billion for around 8,300 students. Yale University has a budget of nearly $30 billion, while Stanford University reports endowment assets of $28 billion. The reason I give these numbers is actually very simple. The more money an institution has at its disposal, the more success it will enjoy. The more success, the better the ranking. The phrase “money talks” is sometimes used in this country.

While looking at the rankings, I recommend that you look at the “college majors” rankings. The top 10 schools in the US are indeed very difficult to enter. Of course, it is not impossible. I must stress that schools in this country have long histories and exceptional educational quality. A school shown in 120th place can nevertheless deliver a very high-quality education.

Finally, I would like to share the last rankings I received from the US News & World Report College and University rankings.

Princeton University 1
Harvard University 2
Columbia University 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3
University of Chicago 3
Yale University 3
Stanford University 7
Duke University 8
University of Pennsylvania 8
Johns Hopkins University 10
Northwestern University 10
California Institute of Technology 12
Dartmouth College 12
Brown University 14
Vanderbilt University 14
Cornell University 16
Rice University 16
University of Notre Dame 18
Washington University in St. Louis 19

Erkan Acar, PhD

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