Best private universities in the United States 2020

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

September 25 2019
Best private universities in the United States

Many of the US’ highest-ranked universities are classified as private universities, including Harvard UniversityMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyStanford 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 generally have better staff-to-student ratios and more income for resources, which may be one reason why 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 Education US College Rankings 2020. Private universities also dominated the top 100 of the overall ranking.

A number of liberal arts colleges including Williams CollegeAmherst 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. 

The WSJ/THE US College ranking is a more student-centred ranking because of its emphasis on student outcomes and engagement. The results of the THE US Student Survey of more than 170,000 students are incorporated into the analysis. The full methodology can be found here


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Top five 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 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. University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania can boast many “firsts” including the country’s first student union and double-decker football stadium, and the world’s first collegiate business school – The Wharton School. 

It is also considered the first institution in the United States to refer to itself as a university. 

The university also has an impressive alumni network that includes 14 heads of state, 64 billionaires, 16 Pulitzer Prize winners, 48 Fulbright Scholars and 35 Nobel Laureates. 

=5. California Institute of Technology

The California Institute of Technology or Caltech is the smallest university in the top five, with fewer than 3,000 students. Admissions to the university are rigorous, with only the highest-scoring students being accepted to the institution. 

Caltech students are renowned for playing pranks and one of the most well-known was the time they altered the Hollywood sign to read Caltech by covering up parts of the letters. 

The majority of students live on campus in university-owned accommodation. Fewer than 20 per cent of students live off campus. 

=5. Princeton University 

Princeton University is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States.

It is also one of the world’s foremost research universities with connections to more than 40 Nobel laureates, 17 winners of the National Medal of Science and five recipients of the National Humanities Medal.

The beautiful campus attracts thousands of visitors every year to see its landmark buildings, designed by some of America’s most famous architects. 


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Top 100 private universities in the US

Private University rank 2020 US College Rank  2020 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 University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia Pennsylvania
=5 =5 California Institute of Technology Pasadena California
=5 =5 Princeton University Princeton New Jersey
=7 =7 Brown University Providence Rhode Island
=7 =7 Stanford University Stanford California
9 9 Cornell University Ithaca New York
10 10 Duke University Durham North Carolina
11 11 Northwestern University Evanston Illinois
=12 =12 Dartmouth College Hanover New Hampshire
=12 =12 Johns Hopkins University Baltimore Maryland
14 14 University of Chicago Chicago Illinois
15 15 Columbia University New York New York
16 16 Rice University Houston Texas
17 17 Vanderbilt University Nashville Tennessee
18 18 University of Southern California Los Angeles California
19 19 Washington University in St Louis Saint Louis Missouri
20 20 Amherst College Amherst Massachusetts
21 21 Williams College Williamstown Massachusetts
22 22 Emory University Atlanta Georgia
23 23 Pomona College Claremont California
24 24 Wellesley College Wellesley Massachusetts
25 =25 Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
26 28 Swarthmore College Swarthmore Pennsylvania
27 29 Georgetown University Washington DC
28 30 Tufts University Medford Massachusetts
29 31 New York University New York New York
30 32 University of Notre Dame Notre Dame Indiana
31 35 Middlebury College Middlebury Vermont
32 38 Claremont McKenna College Claremont California
33 39 Haverford College Haverford Pennsylvania
34 40 Carleton College Northfield Minnesota
35 41 Smith College Northampton Massachusetts
36 43 Wesleyan University Middletown Connecticut
=37 =44 Boston University Boston Massachusetts
=37 =44 Bowdoin College Brunswick Maine
39 48 Colgate University Hamilton New York
40 49 University of Miami Coral Gables Florida
41 51 Barnard College New York New York
42 52 Case Western Reserve University Cleveland Ohio
43 53 Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania
44 54 Davidson College Davidson North Carolina
45 55 Lehigh University Bethlehem Pennsylvania
46 56 Vassar College Poughkeepsie New York
47 57 Grinnell College Grinnell Iowa
48 58 University of Rochester Rochester New York
=49 =59 Boston College Chestnut Hill Massachusetts
=49 =59 Hamilton College Clinton New York
51 =61 Mount Holyoke College South Hadley Massachusetts
52 =63 Bates College Lewiston Maine
53 65 Scripps College Claremont California
54 66 University of Richmond University of Richmond Virginia
55 =68 Wake Forest University Winston-Salem North Carolina
56 70 Washington and Lee University Lexington Virginia
57 72 George Washington University Washington DC
58 74 Bucknell University Lewisburg Pennsylvania
59 =75 Reed College Portland Oregon
60 77 Pitzer College Claremont California
61 83 Macalester College Saint Paul Minnesota
=62 =84 Southern Methodist University Dallas Texas
=62 =84 Tulane University  New Orleans Louisiana
=62 =87 Lafayette College Easton Pennsylvania
=62 =87 Santa Clara University Santa Clara California
=62 =87 Trinity College Hartford Connecticut
67 90 Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles California
68 =91 Franklin & Marshall College Lancaster Pennsylvania
69 =91 Kenyon College Gambier Ohio
=70 =93 Northeastern University Boston Massachusetts
=70 =93 Skidmore College Saratoga Springs New York
=72 =96 Drexel University Philadelphia Pennsylvania
=72 =96 Oberlin College Oberlin Ohio
74 99 Occidental College Los Angeles California
75 100 Dickinson College Carlisle Pennsylvania
=76 =101 Gettysburg College Gettysburg Pennsylvania
=76 =101 Whitman College Walla Walla Washington
78 103 Connecticut College New London Connecticut
79 109 Brandeis University Waltham Massachusetts
=80 =111 Colorado College Colorado Springs Colorado
=80 =111 Trinity University San Antonio Texas
=82 =113 University of the Pacific Stockton California
=82 =113 Seattle University Seattle Washington
84 115 Union College Schenectady New York
85 116 DePauw University Greencastle Indiana
=86 =117 Denison University Granville Ohio
=86 =117 Howard University Washington DC
88 119 Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester Massachusetts
89 120 Babson College Wellesley Massachusetts
90 121 Saint Louis University Saint Louis Missouri
91 122 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Troy New York
92 =123 Syracuse University Syracuse New York
93 125 College of the Holy Cross Worcester Massachusetts
=94 =127 Creighton University Omaha Nebraska
=94 =127 Simmons College Boston Massachusetts
96 129 Villanova University Villanova Pennsylvania
=97 =131 American University Washington DC
=97 =131 University of Denver Denver Colorado
99 133 Wheaton College (Massachusetts) Norton Massachusetts
=100 =134 Bentley University Waltham Massachusetts
=100 =134 Rhodes College Memphis Tennessee

Read more: Best public universities in the US

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