2021 best colleges in America: Harvard leads the University Rankings11 min read . Updated: 18 Sep 2020, 01:32 PM IST
The Ivy League dominates this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings. But the future of US universities has never been murkier
The more things change, the more they stay the same—at least at some of the oldest, most prestigious universities in the U.S.
That’s one of the takeaways from this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings, which award Harvard University the top spot for the fourth straight year, followed by its next-door neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in second place, and Yale University in third.
In fact, the eight private universities traditionally known as the Ivy League are all among the top 15 schools. In addition to Harvard and Yale, the Ivies dominated with Brown University tied for fifth place, Princeton University tied for seventh, Cornell University ninth, Dartmouth College at No. 12, the University of Pennsylvania at No. 13 and Columbia University tied for No. 15.
(You can see our full rankings as well as sort the complete rankings by a variety of measures and reweight the main contributing factors to reflect what’s most important to you. Or you can compare two colleges.)
More than half of the schools in the top 10 are in the Northeast, the exceptions being Stanford University (No. 4), Duke University (tied for No. 5), the California Institute of Technology (tied for No. 7) and Northwestern University (No. 10). The top-ranked public school, the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, placed at No. 23.
Experts on higher education say the continued success of the Ivies has a lot to do with their deep pockets. “Metrics used around academic resources, graduate student debt, the diversity of the faculty and the salary of graduates certainly favor institutions with large endowments," says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Those are all key indicators in the WSJ/THE rankings, which are based on 15 factors across four main categories: Forty percent of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including graduates’ salaries and debt; 30% comes from academic resources, including how much the college spends on teaching; 20% from student engagement, including whether students feel prepared to use their education in the real world, and 10% from the learning environment, including the diversity of the student body and academic staff.
Of course, this year’s rankings arrive during a global pandemic that sent students home early in the spring and is completely upending campus life and instruction this fall. “I think this is an incredibly difficult year to put any yardstick up against higher education," says Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. “So much is in motion, what happened two seconds ago and what’s going to happen two seconds from now is really hard to determine."
The WSJ/THE rankings rely on data collected before the near-total shutdown of in-person higher education occurred, and don’t weigh increasingly important considerations like quality of distance learning or in-person health and safety practices. Still, fundamentals like the cost of tuition or student-body diversity remain basically the same during the pandemic. (For more details on how this year’s ranking was affected by the global pandemic, including changes to the data-collection process, read the full methodology.)
Outcomes and value
Some other college rankings focus on the quality of incoming students at a university, examining standardized-test scores and how students ranked in their high-school class. Some also give significant weight to outside opinion, conducting surveys of university administrators to find out if they think competing colleges are doing a good job. But the WSJ/THE College Rankings take a different approach, emphasizing the return on investment students see after they graduate. Schools that fare the best on this list have graduates who generally are satisfied with their educational experience and land relatively high-paying jobs that can help them pay down student loans.
The subset of the ranking that focuses on student outcomes is topped by Princeton, with Duke, Harvard and Stanford all tied for second place. All four schools tend to produce high salaries for graduates, and Princeton leaves students who participate in federal financial-aid programs with the third-lowest amount of graduate debt on the list. (Since the WSJ/THE ranking is based in part on salaries 10 years after graduation, it doesn’t reflect the experience of recent grads, many of whom are wrestling with record levels of unemployment because of the pandemic.)
The rankings also measure the best value among the top 250 schools by dividing each institution’s overall score by its net price. By this measure, the No. 1 school is Berea College, a private liberal-arts college in Kentucky that charges students no tuition. (The United States Naval Academy, the only service academy on the list, also doesn’t charge tuition, but because students are obligated to enter active-duty military service upon graduation, it isn’t considered for inclusion in the best-value ranking.) Only two of the schools ranked in the top 10 for best value are private, and the second- and third-ranked institutions (Bernard M. Baruch College and City College of New York) are both part of the public university system of New York City.
Around the country, many public schools are reporting record enrollments for the Fall 2020 semester. Indiana’s Purdue University (No. 48 for outcomes) welcomed a record freshman class of 8,977 students, up 11% from a year earlier. Georgia State University, which didn’t crack the top 400 in the outcomes ranking, also reported record numbers at its Atlanta campus, including more than 5,200 freshmen, an increase of 13% from last year.
“In the past, [students] wanted to go to the most elite private institution because that would create their social network, but the fact is that those who could afford to go to those places already had the vast social network. They didn’t need the reputation of the Ivy. So now we’re seeing an increase in the number of public institutions that are not only meeting their targets for enrollment but exceeding them," says Ms. Pasquerella of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Coming off a summer that saw protests and debate around racial equality, many prospective students are also looking for colleges that draw in students from different backgrounds, lifestyles and geographies. Katie Gozaloff, a 17-year-old senior at Sayville High School in New York, says a diverse student body is a “crucial" factor in her decision about where to apply for her coming freshman year.
“A diverse student body gives students the opportunity to communicate with their fellow classmates of various backgrounds, and educate themselves," says Ms. Gozaloff. “It’s an opportunity some students may not have had in their hometowns, including myself."
Many administrators also argue that student diversity improves the quality of education. “Think about the quality of the conversations in a classroom when you bring so many life experiences to the table," says Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, where the student body is 28% Hispanic, 21% white, 18% Black and 17% Asian. “Students are going to be living and working in a global world that is increasingly diverse, and this provides an opportunity, a test run if you will. There’s no better preparation than learning to benefit from and be excited by the intellectual variability that you get from diversity."
The subset of the WSJ/THE ranking that focuses on the collegiate environment—specifically the racial and ethnic diversity of students and faculty, the percentage of undergraduates awarded need-based student aid and the percentage of international students—is led by La Sierra University, a small Seventh-day Adventist school located in Riverside, Calif. About half of La Sierra’s undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, which are limited to low-income students; 48% of undergraduates are Hispanic, 17% are Asian, 12% are white and 7% are Black.
The University of California, Irvine and California State University, Northridge are tied at No. 2 in the environment ranking. In all, 14 schools in California are ranked among the top 20 schools in this category.
Planning in a pandemic
Choosing the right college has always been a tough decision, but the pandemic is making it more difficult than ever. High-school students applying to colleges this fall say the coronavirus has become a major factor in their decision-making process.
“I’m hoping it’ll be gone, but I don’t know if that’s very realistic," says Stellana Erickson, a 17-year-old senior at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “So I’ve been looking to see what colleges are doing, how they’re handling the virus, if they’re switching online, and if the students are still in the dorms and all of that. Because I don’t want to go to school next year and have to worry about getting coronavirus, or other people around me getting it."
Ms. Erickson says she’s committed to starting her college career next fall, whether or not the virus is still an issue. But other students are considering deferring their education until a vaccine is available, or starting at an online or community college with the intention of transferring later.
“I’m hearing a lot of people saying, ‘Hey, I do want to go, I am ready to have that college experience, but until everything is normal again, I’m worried that it’s not worth the money,’" says Mr. Mitchell of the American Council on Education. “I think understanding that you can think about different pathways with different cost structures is really important, and perhaps a new way to think about it. College isn’t a one-size-fits-all enterprise."
Another difficulty for high-school seniors: Applying to colleges they can’t visit because of coronavirus restrictions. “It’s stressful, because wherever I apply and get in, how do I know if I actually want to go there if I’ve never been on the campus?" says Ms. Erickson. “I’ve done virtual tours, but that’s just not as helpful. So I’m kind of listening to popular opinion and people who have gone there, seeing their experiences. But it’s just a lot of guessing because you don’t really know what it’s going to be like at all."
Also, those who do end up attending on campus might find themselves limited to online-only classes and kept out of traditional learning activities. That’s a big problem for students like Ms. Gozaloff, who wants to major in drama and pursue a career as an actor.
“The required courses like math and all the regular subjects, I think I would be OK with doing those online," she says. “But since I want to go into a performing-arts major, I feel like that would be so tough. I like to be present, asking questions, and be right there with the teacher. And in a performing-arts class, that’s mandatory because that’s how you get notes" on your performance.
Opportunity for change
Despite all the uncertainty the pandemic is causing students, education experts say the crisis is an opportunity to make positive changes in the way U.S. colleges serve their students.
“What higher education has been coming to terms with over the last decade has been a real change in the demographics of what a student is, that the students are older, they are more mobile, they have multiple responsibilities, jobs, families," says Mr. Mitchell. “I think that higher-education institutions will become more comfortable with online delivery of instruction and student support, and that will be a good thing, because it will enable them to reach more students."
At the same time, he’s concerned that higher education might lose the community-building elements that help strengthen a diverse and inclusive democracy. “One of the things that we know about online is that it tends to reinforce social silos, and campuses have always been a place to break those down," says Mr. Mitchell. “I worry that without a robust campus environment, we’ll lose a really important lever in the creation of a civic place in America."
Rep. Susan Davis (D., Calif.), chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, says universities need more support from the federal government to deal with the coronavirus crisis. An expansion of financial-aid programs, including Pell grants, might help students get through the pandemic, and open up higher education to more people once the crisis is over, she says. “In education and health care, many, many issues have been laid bare by Covid, especially what students have to grapple with in order to be successful in school," she says. “So I think we do have some opportunities here."
Educators are hopeful that American students are ready to tackle the challenges. “This is an extraordinary moment in American society, and we’re all working through how we not only continue but persevere and grow," says Michael Fitts, president of Tulane University. “This generation going to college is really in a fascinating position, because they are going to go to school and then emerge into a new world. And this generation isn’t bound by the past—they’re used to change and they’re used to being challenged. I would view going to college at this point as an adventure, and position yourself to take advantage of what’s going to be a very different world."
The coronavirus crisis will pass someday, and the experience of being a college student is unlikely to change forever. In the meantime, college rankings remain useful tools that students and families can use to help navigate their educational decisions.
But it’s important to note that the relative ranking of any university shouldn’t be the final word on whether it’s right for every applicant. Some students might benefit from a strong athletic program, while others might seek out a thriving arts scene or active sororities and fraternities. The WSJ/THE rankings are intended to serve as a starting point for families considering their options: No school is best for everyone.
And it’s important to note that whether they’re near the top or the bottom of these rankings, all these universities are capable of producing exceptional students. Success in college, just like in life and business, is a matter of what you make of the opportunities.
Mr. Ewalt is a Wall Street Journal reporter in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.