The best private colleges in the country are known for their highly competitive admission standards. Many people consider the Ivy Leagues to be the very best colleges in the United States, but there are a number of non-Ivy League colleges that are also widely considered to be some of the best private colleges in the country.

What Is the Best Private College?

In the popular consciousness, the eight schools that make up the "Ivy League" are considered to be the best private colleges in America. These are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. However, outside the Ivy League are a number of colleges that are considered nearly equal in prestige and with regards to the competitiveness of admission. Schools like Berkeley, Williams College, Georgetown University, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech and Wesleyan are highly competitive and provide an excellent education.

Still, the Ivy Leagues are considered the gold standard of elite education in the United States. Even within the Ivy League, there are rankings. Each year, U.S. News and World Report does an annual list of college rankings. In 2019, they evaluated all the private colleges in the U.S. and determined that Princeton University was the very best private college in the country. There are a number of factors that go into building a ranking list but of most consideration are the faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, student excellence, financial resources and peer and expert opinions.

Private colleges differ from public colleges in that public colleges typically get most of their funding from the government and other federal grants, while private colleges rely on donations, tuition and other fees to maintain their facilities, resources and other expenditures. Private colleges are almost always more expensive than public universities. Because of their additional funding, they are typically considered more elite than public colleges.

What Are University Rankings?

Nearly every year, various organizations report on the rankings of the nation's colleges. They are often classified in different ways since there are so many colleges and universities in the United States. Regardless of the many categories of colleges that there are in the U.S., there is usually a ranking for the overall best colleges in America.

University rankings are not strictly official which is to say that they are ranked by independent bodies, and the rankings are not sanctioned or endorsed by any academic body itself. Rather, publications and organizations have made a reputation for themselves over years of research. These publications have a built-in authority that makes their rankings and their evaluations important both to prospective students and their families and to the schools themselves.

In almost every case, publications that rank universities and colleges do their best to demystify their ranking methodology and explain exactly how they came to the conclusions that they did. For example, U.S. News and World Report explain that they divide colleges into 10 categories based on the school's particular academic mission and from there provide 10 separate rankings.

What Is the Best Private College in the Country?

In 2019, U.S. News and World Report determined that Princeton University was the best private college in the country. It was followed by Harvard and Columbia. Columbia is followed by MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is known for its strength in the STEM subjects but also has impressive humanities courses for students who are interested in the sciences but want a well-rounded education.

Despite not being members of the Ivy League, schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, Stanford University and Duke University are regularly ranked among the top 10 private colleges in the country. This goes to show that the Ivy League is not the only measure of a great university despite its historical cachet.

In recent years, many liberal arts colleges, including Amherst College, Pomona College and Williams College, have found themselves increasingly popular. But they do not typically make the top-ranked national universities list because they are focused almost solely on undergraduate education. Schools that have both graduate and undergraduate programs and place emphasis on faculty who are widely published in their fields are the ones most like to make the top rankings.

What Is an Ivy League School?

Many students, particularly those who are high-achieving in the academic sense may be aware of the reputation of "the Ivy League," while still wondering what exactly an Ivy League college actually is. For instance, where did the name "Ivy League" come from, and why is it so important? The answer typically surprises people.

The Ivy League is not a name that the eight schools bestowed upon themselves. Many of the schools in the Ivy League, including Harvard, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, were founded before America was even an independent nation. However, the term "Ivy League" was not applied to these schools until the 1950s, when a sports reporter lamented the uninteresting and somewhat tedious athletic competitions between these eight schools and noted their ivy-draped campuses.

The name stuck, but rather than refer to the academic prowess of the institution, the name indicated that the schools in question were part of the Ivy League athletic conference. At the time that they earned this moniker, these schools were best known for their athletic talents. They were also well known for their tendency to be the favored educational institutions of the children of the wealthy east-coast elite. It was only later that the Ivy League became renowned for having exceptionally competitive or rigorous academic standards.

What College Offers the Best Return on Investment?

College serves different students in different ways. While many students feel compelled to attend the Ivy Leagues in hopes of securing high-earning positions in competitive industries following graduation, many students are attracted to these schools because of the promise of academic rigor, and the experience of learning from the most celebrated professors with access to incredible resources and facilities that are unavailable anywhere else.

As competition has made admittance into the Ivy Leagues very challenging, it is sometimes thought that getting an education from one of those schools is the absolute best investment of time and capital that a student can make. However, private college tuition is notoriously expensive, and it is very easy for students to accrue crushing amounts of debt all in the name of having a particularly impressive college on their resume.

Experts say that the best investment in higher education is an education that takes you to the next level of whatever it is that you want to do or be doing. It is an education that provides the means for you to achieve the goals that you have in mind. If there is a particular school or academic program that will get you to the next tier or echelon in the field that you want to pursue, that is likely a worthwhile investment, even if it is expensive. However, if you do not know what you want to be doing with your future or where you would like to focus, there is no college in the world that is worth the expenditure.

Do University Rankings Matter?

Depending on the field of study you are pursuing, you may find university rankings to be especially important or not important at all. Some people attend college because an undergraduate degree is a requirement for the career they want to pursue. In cases of students who want to become doctors, lawyers, architects or professors, college and university rankings do sometimes matter. This is especially true at the graduate level.

If you are a student who has done well in your undergraduate curriculum, even at a middle-tier college, and you are serious about pursuing a competitive post-graduate degree, you will want to consider the rank of the university. An undergraduate who excels enough to gain admittance to a prestigious graduate, law, architectural or medical school is considered a more impressive candidate than someone who went to a high-ranked undergraduate school but did not perform well enough there to gain admittance to a comparably reputed graduate program.

If you are not intending to pursue any further academic degrees after graduation from your four-year undergraduate program, then perhaps your university ranking is less significant. This is especially true in a creative field or in an innovation field. This is because in the innovation economy, the work that you produce is significantly more valuable than any name on your diploma. If you are an artist or an entrepreneur, your value will be evident in your work and your creations and not because of a pricey private college.

What Are Liberal Arts Colleges?

While most people have heard the term, many people do not understand what a liberal arts college actually is. Unlike a university that likely has vast departments related to disciplines from English to science to music to hospitality as well as graduate programs and possibly even Ph.D. programs, a liberal arts college is devoted primarily to undergraduate education.

Moreover, liberal arts colleges are predominantly dedicated to the study of the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. While some STEM subjects are taught at liberal arts colleges, the lion's share of courses and programs at colleges like these are focused on writing, reading, history, social sciences and the fine arts. Historically these colleges were considered to be less competitive and less worthy of attention than large universities, but that mindset has changed over the last 30 to 40 years.

Liberal arts colleges have become increasingly renowned for their academic curriculums and as such have become increasingly competitive. As schools like Pomona College, Smith College and Barnard College have risen in the liberal arts rankings, they have been awarded nearly the same prestige as universities like Duke, Yale, Stanford and Columbia. This is especially true of the Seven Sisters colleges, a consortium of colleges that educate primarily women, which was created as women's colleges to compete with the Ivy League.

Are Private Universities Better than Public Universities?

Because they are called "public" it is assumed by many that public universities are not as good or as challenging as private universities. This is patently untrue. There are many state schools and city schools with reputations equaling and in some cases surpassing private universities. One example is fine arts bastion the Cooper Union. Tuition-free, the school admits only the best of the best but is in every sense a public school.

Many of California's UC schools are among the best in the nation. The same could be said for many of the CUNY schools and the University of Iowa. A school's status as a private university does not de facto mean that it is a superior institution. In many cases, private universities admit students with poor academic records because they can afford to pay the tuition which gives the school the option to offer financial aid to an exceptional student who may otherwise not have been able to attend. In this way, it is a balancing act.

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About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.