Universities in the United States: Preferences of Students and Parents

Universities in the United States are ranked by different independent institutions using various established criteria. The most famous of these institutions, and the one that I consider the most when I am consulting my students who want to study in the USA, is US News & World Report. In fact, this institution publishes an array of lists of school rankings, each of which is compiled according to its own criteria (e.g., the list of the best Community Colleges or the best Liberal Arts Colleges). We can say that the most important of these lists is the national ranking list, in which approximately 400 schools are evaluated. According to this list, Harvard and Princeton universities consistently exchange first and second place with each other. Schools such as YaleStanford, University of ChicagoUniversity of Pennsylvania, and Columbia usually manage to maintain their positions among the top 10 universities in the US.

What are the school names that are dreamed of by American parents and students outside of these rankings? In other words, by which schools do families and students want most to be accepted? In this regard, Princeton Review conducted the very extensive College Hopes and Worries study in 2019. They asked quite a few questions, and the results largely parallel those found in the rankings of US News & World Report. However, there were also some interesting variations.

The schools where the students want to continue their education the most are:

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard University
  3. Princeton University
  4. New York University
  5. University of California — Los Angeles
  6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  7. Columbia University
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. Yale University
  10. University of Michigan — Ann Arbor

One interesting thing about this list is the appearance of New York University (NYU). When looking at the rankings of different institutions, NYU is on the list of the best schools in the USA, ranking in the 28-34 range. It is also interesting to note that University of Chicago is usually ranked among the top 10 colleges in the US, but has not been identified by students as a dream school.

On the other hand, parents take a slightly different approach regarding their dream schools.

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard University
  3. Princeton University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  5. New York University
  6. Cornell University
  7. University of California — Los Angeles
  8. University of Michigan — Ann Arbor
  9. Yale University
  10. University of Notre Dame

The perception of NYU has not changed much, but Cornell, an Ivy League school, is also on the parents’ list of dream schools, as is The University of Notre Dame. Of course, it is important to note that survey participants were asked to disregard probability of admission and financial considerations when responding. Accordingly, they were not afraid to “aim high” when identifying their dream schools in this survey. Interestingly, even Americans do not have detailed information about the pricing of universities. The general view is that schools are very expensive. Scholarship opportunities are not well known.

So why is Stanford number 1 on this list

There are dozens of reasons why Stanford tops the list, but I will focus on five of these. Students and parents naturally conduct serious research while making their school choices. In addition to this individual research, news in the media and word-of-mouth information also affect people’s decisions. In this respect, one of the most important advantages of Stanford University is its excellent campus. It is a huge 33-square-kilometer area that fascinates visitors; this environmental “wow factor” is amplified by the perfect climate of California. The fact that its dozens of buildings blend harmoniously with nature give the campus its unique architecture which is perhaps its most important feature. Second, Stanford University’s sports teams maintain leadership throughout the country in different divisions. In general, it is among the most successful schools in sports. This gives Stanford a strong media presence. Of course, this is the ideal form of advertisement. Third, Stanford graduates are very famous in every field. The number of billionaire businesspeople who are Stanford graduates is about 80. In this regard, Stanford is second only to Harvard University, which boasts 188 such graduatesSome of the companies established by Stanford alumni are listed below.

Companies Established by Stanford University Alumni

1) Alphabet

2) HP Inc.

3) Cisco Systems, Inc.

4) Nike

5) Capital One

6) Gap Inc.

7) Netflix

8) PayPal

9) Expedia

10) Yahoo

11) Electronic Arts

Of course, many other companies were founded by Stanford alumni. The annual turnover of these companies is estimated to be around $3.4 trillion. Meanwhile, a US president was a Stanford graduate. Seventeen astronauts also graduated from Stanford University.

Stanford is also a very generous school, and the majority of accepted students receive substantial scholarships. This makes the school very attractive. Finally, the academic success of the school makes this school extremely appealing. Eighty-three Stanford University faculty or alumni have received Nobel prizes. When you look at the profiles of faculty members, you see that they have received many different academic awards and are the best in their field.  I recommend you read the Business Insider article on Stanford’s academic excellence, which you can find here. Meanwhile, Stanford University is one of the schools with the lowest admission rates in the US. The 2019 acceptance rate was reported at 3.93%. By contrast, the 2019 acceptance rate for Harvard University was 4.5%, Columbia University, 5.1%, Princeton University 5.8%, and Yale University, 5.9%.

Let’s go back to the research done by Princeton Review. Of course, the survey asked respondents for more than just the names of their dream schools. The researchers sought to understand the concerns of parents and students. For example, participants were asked, “Is the college application process stressful in America?”. Up to 77% of respondents said they had high levels of stress before and during the application procedures. When asked about “the most difficult issue that you encountered in this process”, around 37% of respondents identified standardized tests (e.g., SAT, ACT). As many as 33% of respondents said financial issues are the biggest concerns. The biggest fear according to 40% of respondents was “college tuition debt”. Thirty-one percent of respondents worried about being accepted at their first-choice school and not being able to attend due to financial issues. Twenty percent said that their biggest concern is about not going to their first-choice college.

One of the most interesting questions of the report was “how far can the distance be between your home and the school?”. Forty-seven percent of parents think that a distance of less than 250 miles would be ideal; 31% of parents think that the distance should be less than 500 miles. On the other hand, 69% of students think that a distance of 250-1000 miles is an ideal distance, while 37% of students say the distance should be at least 500 miles.

Of course, there are no international students in this report. But my personal guess is that this school preference list wouldn’t change much for international students and parents. The content at this link will allow you to take a long look at the rankings of schools. Remember, you will dream first and will act accordingly.

Erkan Acar, PhD

Copyright ©

All rights reserved by USA International Education Consulting LLC. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form (except for critical reviews and other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law), including photocopying, recording or other electronic or mechanical means, without the prior written consent of the publisher. For permission requests, please write to info@usaintermationaleducation.com.