Best private universities in the United States 2021

Explore the best private universities in the US using Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education’s US College Rankings data 

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October 7 2020
Best private universities in the United States


Many of the US’ highest-ranked universities are classified as private universities, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Yale University.

These universities are funded primarily through student tuition fees, which are generally higher than those of public universities. Accordingly, private universities usually have better staff-to-student ratios and more income for resources, which may be one reason they rank higher than the country’s public universities.

All the institutions in the prestigious Ivy League group are private universities.

We’ve pulled together the top 100 private colleges in the US, based on data from the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher EducationUS College Rankings 2021. Private universities also dominated the top 100 of the overall ranking.

A number of liberal arts colleges including Williams College, Amherst College and Pomona College have also entered the top 100 private universities in the US.

The majority of private universities in the US are not for profit.

TheWSJ/THEUS College ranking is a more student-centred ranking because of its emphasis on student outcomes and engagement. While previously we have used results from the US Student Survey for the ranking, we were unable to conduct a survey in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we have used data from the 2019 survey to inform this year’s ranking. The full methodology can be found here.

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Top 5 private universities in the US

1. Harvard University

It’s no surprise that Harvard University tops this list, considering that it also took the top spot in the overall WSJ/THE US College Ranking 2020. Harvard has also been a mainstay at the top of the THE Reputation Ranking for the past six years.

The cost of attending Harvard is high, with tuition fees averaging about $43,000 a year. However the university offers generous financial aid packages for less advantaged students.

According to the university’s website, it has stepped up financial aid by 75 per cent since 2007, now offering about $170 million per year to students. In fact, 50 per cent of students receive financial aid.

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has more than 500 recognised student activity groups. One of these is the student newspaper, The Tech, which is published in print and online. 

MIT also sponsors 31 varsity sports and has one of the broadest NCAA Division III athletic programmes.  

MIT has never awarded an honorary degree, nor does it award athletic scholarships. It has only twice awarded honorary professorships, to former British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1949 and author Salman Rushdie in 1993. 


3. Yale University

Notable graduates of Yale University include former US secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and actress Meryl Streep. In fact, Yale has an impressive group of alumni including five US presidents, 20 Nobel prizewinners and 32 Pulitzer winners. 

Yale is famous for its secret societies, including Scroll and Key and Skull and Bones, which only started admitting women in 1991. There are also plenty of student societies that aren’t so secret, such as the mathematics society, Chinese students’ society, foosball club and the chamber orchestra. 

4. Stanford University

Stanford University was founded in 1885 by Jane and Leland Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley. 

In total, companies founded by Stanford affiliates and alumni generate more than $2.7 trillion annual revenue, which would be the 10th largest economy in the world. These companies include Google, Nike, Netflix, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Instagram and Charles Schwab. 

Stanford counts 19 Nobel laureates within its community today and numerous famous alumni from the worlds of art, social sciences, business, politics, humanities, media, sports and technology. 

=5. Brown University

Founded in 1764, Brown University is the seventh oldest university in the United States. It is part of the Ivy League and, as an institution that prides itself on openness, was the first of the members to accept students from all religious affiliations.

A defining characteristic of the university was its introduction of the “Brown Curriculum”, which altered undergraduate education immeasurably at the institution. It was inspired by Francis Wyland, Brown’s fourth president, who argued that a student should have the freedom to “study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose”. The new “Open Curriculum”, which was launched in 1970, allowed students to develop their own core curriculum rather than be bound to a prescribed “liberal arts education”. It has defined Brown’s undergraduate experience to this day.

=5. Duke University

Duke University is a private research university in Durham, North Carolina. The university was founded by Methodists and Quakers in 1838. It was originally located in the town of Trinity and then moved to Durham in 1892.

The original campus was rebuilt in a Georgian architectural style and is now known as East Campus, after the 1930 addition of West Campus, Gothic in style and home to the impressive Duke Chapel tower.

There are 10 schools and colleges; the oldest is Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, founded in 1859, and the youngest is the Nicholas School of the Environment, established just 25 years ago.

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Top 100 private universities in the US

Private University Rank 2021 US College Rank 2021 University City State
1 1 Harvard University Cambridge Massachusetts
2 2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge Massachusetts
3 3 Yale University New Haven Connecticut
4 4 Stanford University Stanford California
=5 =5 Brown University Providence Rhode Island
=5 =5 Duke University Durham North Carolina
=7 =7 California Institute of Technology Pasadena California
=7 =7 Princeton University Princeton New Jersey
9 9 Cornell University Ithaca New York
10 10 Northwestern University Evanston Illinois
11 11 Johns Hopkins University Baltimore Maryland
12 12 Dartmouth College Hanover New Hampshire
13 13 University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia Pennsylvania
14 14 The University of Chicago Chicago Illinois
=15 =15 Columbia University New York New York
=15 =15 Rice University Houston Texas
17 17 Vanderbilt University Nashville Tennessee
18 18 Washington University in St Louis Saint Louis Missouri
19 19 University of Southern California Los Angeles California
20 20 Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
=21 =21 Amherst College Amherst Massachusetts
=21 =21 Williams College Williamstown Massachusetts
=23 =24 Emory University Atlanta Georgia
=23 =24 Pomona College Claremont California
25 27 New York University New York New York
26 28 University of Notre Dame Notre Dame Indiana
27 29 Wellesley College Wellesley Massachusetts
28 30 Swarthmore College Swarthmore Pennsylvania
29 31 Tufts University Medford Massachusetts
30 32 Georgetown University Washington DC
31 35 Claremont McKenna College Claremont California
32 36 Carleton College Northfield Minnesotta
33 37 Middlebury College Middlebury Vermont
=34 =40 Boston University Boston Massachusetts
=34 =40 Haverford College Haverford Pennsylvania
36 42 Bowdoin College Brunswick Maine
37 =43 Smith College Northampton Massachusetts
38 46 Wesleyan University Middletown Connecticut
39 48 Case Western Reserve University Cleveland Ohio
40 49 University of Rochester Rochester New York
41 50 Colgate University Hamilton New York
42 52 Barnard College New York New York
43 53 University of Miami Coral Gables Florida
44 54 Mount Holyoke College South Hadley Massachusetts
45 55 Boston College Chestnut Hill Massachusetts
46 =56 Hamilton College Clinton New York
47 58 Lehigh University Bethlehem Pennsylvania
=48 =59 Davidson College Davidson North Carolina
=48 =59 University of Richmond Richmond Virginia
50 62 Vassar College Poughkeepsie New York
51 63 Bates College Lewiston Maine
52 64 Wake Forest University Winston-Salem North Carolina
=53 =66 Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania
=53 =66 Scripps College Claremont California
=55 =68 Grinnell College Grinnell Iowa
=55 =68 Tulane University New Orleans Louisiana
57 70 George Washington University Washington DC
58 =71 Washington and Lee University Lexington Virginia
59 =74 Lafayette College Easton Pennsylvania
60 76 Franklin & Marshall College Lancaster Pennsylvania
=61 =77 Bucknell University Lewisburg Pennsylvania
=61 =77 Macalester College Saint Paul Minnesotta
63 =80 Pitzer College Claremont California
64 =83 Santa Clara University Santa Clara California
=65 =86 Northeastern University Boston Massachusetts
=65 =86 Reed College Portland Oregon
67 88 Southern Methodist University Dallas Texas
68 =89 Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles California
69 92 Trinity College Hartford Connecticut
70 93 Dickinson College Carlisle Pennsylvania
=71 =94 Kenyon College Gambier Ohio
=71 =94 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Troy New York
73 96 University of the Pacific Stockton California
=74 =98 Skidmore College Saratoga Springs New York
=74 =98 Whitman College Walla Walla Washington
76 =100 Occidental College Los Angeles California
=77 =102 Colorado College Colorado Springs Colorado
=77 =102 Gettysburg College Gettysburg Pennsylvania
=79 =106 Connecticut College New London Connecticut
=79 =106 Drexel University Philadelphia Pennsylvania
=79 =106 Oberlin College Oberlin Ohio
82 111 DePauw University Greencastle Indiana
83 113 Trinity University San Antonio Texas
=84 =114 Brandeis University Waltham Massachusetts
=84 =114 Denison University Granville Ohio
=84 =114 Saint Louis University Saint Louis Missouri
87 117 College of the Holy Cross Worcester Massachusetts
88 118 Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago Illinois
89 119 University of Denver Denver Colorado
90 120 Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester Massachusetts
=91 =121 Rhodes College Memphis Tennessee
=91 =121 Seattle University Seattle Washington
=93 =124 Babson College Babson Park Massachusetts
=93 =124 Syracuse University Syracuse New York
=95 =127 Howard University Washington DC
=95 =127 Villanova University Villanova Pennsylvania
=97 =129 Brigham Young University-Provo Provo Utah
=97 =129 Creighton University Omaha Nebraska
=97 =129 Simmons University Boston Massachusetts
100 132 Union College Schenectady New York

Read more: Best public universities in the US

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