Which Top American Colleges are Truly the Best to Earn a Degree in 2016?

American-Colleges-Strongest-in-Sports-and-RecruitingFor over 20 years, I’ve analyzed the many lists and surveys* about the Top Universities in the United States and the World.  A recent inquiry from one of our valued clients reminded me there is significant need to “educate” people in Hong Kong and the world about these rankings and share what I’ve learned.  As a result, I’ve decided to aggregate some of my best advice and share it with all of you.

It was incredibly important for me to spend this time finally because the landscape is confusing.

19 Global Rankings

As you can see from the listing in Wikipedia on College Rankings, there are 19 different rankings they list right away.  And these are ONLY the global rankings. 

If you examine the Regional and National rankings, there are many separate articles that elaborate on how individual nations evaluate higher institutions of education.  For example, 3 publications are known to rate colleges in the article on university rankings in the uk: Mayfield University Consultants have created The Complete University Guide, the top UK newspaper regularly publishes a College Guide and The Sunday Times publishes the Good University Guide (and note, this is only one of the 29 different countries they list).

Top UK Universities

The USA has become known for Top Universities

At the same time, the U.S. rankings have become almost the default list of schools for “the world.”  As written earlier, the United States supposedly hosts many of the Top Universities.  We explain how US universities outdo their european counterparts even using UK based publications.  In the same article cited above, the US’s set of rankings was the most exhaustive.  It listed 16 different sets of rankings plus a number of “others” which pushes the list to potentially over 20 that are “well known.”

There’s the grandaddy of them all: US News & World Report.  It’s been around since 1983.  This list has so much power that Michael Luca in 2011 claimed that:

“The ranking order of universities has been shown to have great effect; a one-rank improvement leads to a 0.9% increase in number of applicants.”


In the most recent National Rankings (within the US), they listed Princeton University in New Jersey as #1:

Top 3 Natl Universities in the US

And their Top Liberal Arts rankings places Williams College in Massachussetts as #1:

Top 3 Liberal Arts Colleges

While the publication lists their methodology very clearly on their website, do you ever wonder if their location in New York city has anything to do with the fact that all 6 of these Top Universities are in the East Coast?  Hmmm…

However, if you look at the Top 5 Employers in the world, the #1 company is based in the west coast and founded by two “west coast university” grads. Hmmm (again)…

Top employers

Google was founded by two Stanford graduates.  Why is this University which has the lowest admissions rates of all colleges failing to place in the top 3 in the most recent “grandaddy of all rankings?”  Shouldn’t the most sought after university in the world be #1?

Also, if you look at the following wired magazine article which analyzes all the universities where Google employs its staff, you can see that it is definitely not Princeton. The schools that “feed” google are the likely candidates like Stanford & UC Berkeley or two other tech behemoths: MIT & Carnegie Mellon.  However, UCLA grads also find a way to get into Google more than the average college graduate.  However, if you look at the graphic and read the story, you will hear that there are a good number of x-Microsoft employees now at Google.  Where do Microsoft employees normally graduate?  Well, below, you will see some analysis on the UW and that’s where a significant number of Microsoft staff finished college.

source of employees

In 2003 through approximately 2006, I was the #2 sales person in a Real Estate office in Bellevue, Washington.  I sold a $1.75 million dollar home to Adrian Beltre, an MLB all star.  In the contract though during the sales process, the seller was this gentleman who was being recruited by Google.  He was one of the top minds at Microsoft, but after I “googled” him, I found that the search engine company was being sued by the PC Operating system company for “stealing away” talent from the old wall street darling.  Let’s just say it wasn’t going to be the only Microsoft employee that Google stole away.  Hundreds, if not thousands of Microsoftees were becoming Googlers, but again, where did the Microsoft employees start?  The UW. 

How about “Visvesvaraya Technological University”?  Well, obviously IBM has or its HR recruiters.  The graph above clearly shows many somewhat lesser known universities are still good to its graduates.  

How about Goethe-Univ Frankfurt am Main?  The German University ranked #10 in a New York Times list which was compiled by asking recruiters from 20 different nations in terms of the “employability” of their graduates.  


However, what do “we” seriously mean by the “Top Universities?” 

Many people don’t realize that it’s not just what our parents or what our friends think are the top institutions of higher learning (unless they are heads of venture capital firms or managers of human resource teams).

In actuality, what REALLY matters is what do recruiters or hiring decision makers think?  In other realms like venture capital, what really matters is what do the people who are funding startups believe?  And if you’re pursuing additional university education, what do the graduate school admissions folks believe are the top universities in the world.  It doesn’t exactly matter what you learned, but it truly matters what others believe you may have acquired at your “high quality institution of learning.”

So, the above list that identifies the German University should be taken seriously despite the lack of awareness of the institution listed at #10.

Obviously, you have heard of the rest of the Top 10:

Imperial College though?  As an American, I didn’t hear about the University until entering the Test Preparation industry.  So, despite its top ranking in the UK, is it a school I would take seriously as a Hong Kong or Asian parent?

How about Penn State?

Penn State is an Employers Favorite

Well, the Wall Street Journal published an article in 2010 asking which schools were the best according to HR recruiters.  They ranked these as the Top Universities they would choose candidates:

  1. Penn State University
  2. Texas A&M
  3. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  4. Purdue University
  5. Arizona State University
  6. University of Michigan
  7. Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
  8. University of Maryland, College Park
  9. University of Florida
  10. Carnegie Mellon University
  11. Brigham Young University (BYU)
  12. Ohio State University
  13. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  14. Cornell University
  15. University of California, Berkeley
  16. University of Wisconsin, Madison
  17. UCLA
  18. Texas Tech
  19. North Carolina State University, Raleigh
  20. University of Virginia (Tie for 19th)
  21. Rutgers University
  22. University of Notre Dame
  23. Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  24. University of Southern California (USC)
  25. Washington State University (Wazzu)
  26. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Tie for 25th)

What REALLY matters as a parent?

Another reason why it’s important for me to share this knowledge is because I am also a parent of two future college graduates.  My twin boys are 14 years old and I want to give them the opportunities I didn’t have.  For 20+ years, I’ve been questioned about my University degree.  Despite graduating in the top 10% of my class, receiving multiple accolades and being a nationally ranked debater as a high school candidate (along with obtaining admissions into the #1 University in my area: University of Washington), I decided to attend the University of Puget Sound.  The university was in the Top 40 Colleges that Changes Lives. However, it didn’t “change my life” because of its reputation.  It changed my life because despite the hundreds of thousands I poured into the tuition and living fees, nobody recognized the institution after they asked me “What University did you attend?”  I constantly had to justify my background and prove to my peers who I was.  It made me work harder than most.  It may have also slowed down my career growth along with limiting my opportunities due to the brand value.

colleges that change lives

And while I want my children to work harder, I don’t want them to be questioned.  As a result, I constantly look for the “better institutions” that will help them “open more doors” as I have for many of my past students who have gone onto Stanford, Yale, Seoul National University, Yonsei and many other top universities.

So, what are the Universities that will open the doors? I would argue the number one factor is:

#1 – Brand Awareness in ANY Country

As stated earlier, it is critical for a company human resources recruiter or manager to recognize your university.  Additionally, you should have “instant respect” from all the other decision makers in the companies or the folks who might be supporting your kids with future companies.  Resumes are passed around inside companies when applicants are being screened.  The talk many times will be”XYZ graduated from Stanford.  We should look at her.”  When someone asks “Where did you graduate from?” your answer should instantly garner attention.

If your child was to work in North Carolina after college and then want to go and work in possibly Sweden for a few years, what University should she choose?  What if she thought coming back to Hong Kong was ideal or maybe even making a pitstop in Australia for a few years?  What would be the best education choice for her?

Times Education has their “World Reputation Rankings 2015” which defines:

The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2015 employ the world’s largest invitation-only academic opinion survey to provide the definitive list of the top 100 most powerful global university brands.

The list shows Harvard as #1 (and definitely not surprising):

Top 5 University Brands by Times Education

The other 4 on the list are obviously not pushovers for Universities, but again, the Top 4 outrank the University that is the hardest to get in (as far as the USA is concerned) and the one that significantly helped in producing what we all use to even find information about University rankings.

For further support in terms of brands HR Managers or CEO’s recognize, using “big data,” The Global Language Monitor tries to:

“…understan[d] that new technologies and techniques [are] necessary for truly understanding the world of Big Data, as it is now known.”

The company has evaluated the top brands in education and have come up with “brand power” lists of the top institutions of higher learning.  In a recent report, they quoted the book: “2016 TrendTopper MediaBuzz of the Top 419 College Brands, 10th Edition.”  It claimed that public college brands are now dominating the upper echelon.  While MIT still claimed the #1 spot, the following public universities landed in the Top 10:

  • University of California, Los Angeles – UCLA (#2)
  • UC Berkeley (#3)
  • UC Davis (#4)
  • UC San Diego (#5)
  • University of Texas, Austin (#7)
  • University of Washington (#9)

In its own report, it evaluated “Big Data textual analysis based on billions of webpages, millions of blogs, the top 375,000 global print and electronic media, and new social media formats as they appear.”  With this comprehensive gauge, it determined that the top 100 brands were:

2014 Rank, University, Rank in 2013

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1

  2. Harvard University 2

  3. University of California, Berkeley 5

  4. University of Chicago 7

  5. University of Texas, Austin 8

  6. University of California at Los Angeles 14

  7. University of California, Davis 18

  8. Stanford University 4

  9. New York University 15

  10. Northwestern University 34

  11. University of Pennsylvania 11

  12. University of California, San Diego 19

  13. University of Washington 13

  14. Columbia University 3

  15. University of Wisconsin, Madison 16

  16. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 25

  17. Princeton University 10

  18. Dartmouth College 73

  19. University of Virginia 32

  20. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 23

  21. Yale University 6

  22. University of Minnesota 20

  23. Cornell University 9

  24. Michigan State University 31

  25. Washington University in St. Louis 47

  26. Georgia Institute of Technology 21

  27. University of Southern California 30

  28. Ohio State University, Columbus 12

  29. University of Illinois — Urbana, Champaign 26

  30. Johns Hopkins University 22

  31. Purdue University 28

  32. Indiana University, Bloomington 44

  33. University of Colorado, Boulder 43

  34. George Washington University 38

  35. Texas A&M University 40

  36. University of California, Santa Barbara 56

  37. University of California, Irvine 49

  38. Arizona State University 101

  39. Boston College 25

  40. Boston University 33

  41. Georgetown University 35

  42. Pennsylvania State University 39

  43. University of Georgia 29

  44. University of Iowa 36

  45. University of Pittsburgh 37

  46. University of Miami 45

  47. Iowa State University 64

  48. Florida State University 46

  49. University of Oregon 50

  50. Wake Forest University 94

  51. University of Missouri, Columbia 58

  52. University of Massachusetts, Amherst 66

  53. University of Notre Dame 42

  54. Rutgers, the State University of NJ 41

  55. Carnegie Mellon University 51

  56. University of South Carolina, Columbia 55

  57. Loyola University Maryland 79

  58. American University 70

  59. Oregon State University 60

  60. California Institute of Technology 53

  61. Duke University 24

  62. George Mason University 59

  63. Rochester Inst. of Technology 98

  64. Californis State U, Long Beach 141

  65. Virginia Tech 17

  66. Brown University 48

  67. University of Florida 72

  68. Loyola University, Chicago 80

  69. Vanderbilt University 57

  70. University of Connecticut 179

  71. Syracuse University 52

  72. Missouri U. of Science and Technology 72

  73. University of California, Riverside 69

  74. University of Maryland, College Park 63

  75. University of Oklahoma 93

  76. Brigham Young University, Provo 106

  77. University of Arizona 67

  78. Central Michigan University 54

  79. Washington State University 143

  80. Northeastern University 81

  81. CUNY-Brooklyn 121

  82. Villanova University 89

  83. Colorado State University 132

  84. University of California, Santa Cruz 68

  85. University of Delaware 74

  86. University of Rochester 62

  87. Howard University 84

  88. St. Joseph’s University 133

  89. Case Western Reserve University 76

  90. University of Tennessee 77

  91. Miami University, OH 89

  92. Southern Methodist University 87

  93. Emory University 71

  94. Stony Brook University 88

  95. Cal Poly—San Luis Obispo 139

  96. University of Alabama 116

  97. University of New Hampshire 95

  98. University of Phoenix 27

  99. University of Kentucky 75

  100. Binghamton– SUNY 130

Unfortunately, lower branded universities are just not recognized.  I saw an advertisement while writing article about the University of Sydney.  They displayed a banner with the following:

University of Sydney

However, why would you want to brag you are 56th?  It’s like saying I finished behind 55 others.


What if my child was not destined to be one of the chosen 5% of Stanford or the other small percentage selected at the other top 4 institutions?  Well, as an American and someone who’s focused on these rankings throughout all my career, the following will be a list of Universities that are “recognized” significantly throughout the world.

Here are a golden 40 on top of the Prestigious 5 presented earlier (Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, MIT & Stanford).

Golden 40 Top Ranked University Brands

These should be strong enough universities to carry your child throughout life.  Their brand power is above many of the ones listed already.  The list is not in any specific order per se.  However, there are some that might be considered a bit better in terms of brands:

University Brand’s Impact – Case in Point, the University of Washington

UW campus

For example, in many rankings lists, the University of Washington is not as visible as top ones like Harvard or even Northwestern.  However, everywhere I’ve worked from Seoul to Shanghai to here in Hong Kong, the northwest school is recognized as a reputable alma mater.  While the admissions rates there are higher than most of the Top 10 or even 20, it deserves its #13 ranking in the Global Language Monitor surveys.


Think about it.  The first ever president of the United States was George WASHINGTON.  The capital of the United States is WASHINGTON, D.C.  Also, the University that is commonly confused with the University of Washington (Washington University in St. Louis) is actually quite strong.  And since it’s confused with it, the UW gets credit for the latter’s success academically.  Also, the Seattle based institution of higher education has received tons of money from its symbolic prodigal “son” Bill Gates.  As of January of 2007 (8 years ago) the University received 242 million (USD) in donations and was collecting close to $1 million a day in donations.  Also, as a very entreprenuerial city (home of Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon.com, Nordstroms, Brooks Sports, Costco, MSNBC, Nintendo, PACCAR, R.E.I., Raleigh, Expedia, Brown-Haley [makers of Almond Roca], Callison, Holland America, Alaska Airlines, Safeco, PEMCO, Getty Images, Jones Soda, Cray Supercomputers, T-Mobile, Weyerhaeuser, Zillow.com, ZymoGenetics), the city also produces many other future business leaders at a rapid pace.  While quiet at times, it produces some of the most savvy brilliant minds including Gates (as mentioned) or Rich Barton.  To top it all off, it also has one of the best Medical schools in the entire country.

The other universities in the above list provide very similar value in their regions and throughout the world.  In future posts, we’ll explain.

#2 – Alumni Network

Why did Bill Gates become the richest person in the entire world (and stay there for many of the past 20+ years)?  Well, it wasn’t because he was antagonistic like Steve Jobs.  Many people attribute jobs as being one of the most brilliant people in recent memory in terms of the technology space, but I would argue it’s Gates regardless of his wealth.

From the Wikipedia article about Gates:

He is the son of William H. Gates, Sr. and Mary Maxwell Gates. Gates’ ancestral origin includes English, German, and Irish, Scots-Irish. His father was a prominent lawyer, and his mother served on the board of directors for First Interstate BancSystem and the United Way. Gates’s maternal grandfather was JW Maxwell, a national bank president.

I’ve told this story to many students in my illustrious 10 year teaching career.  The main reason is because I point out that Gates was born with a “silver spoon in his mouth.”  He didn’t rise from the ghettos of America.  He went to Lakeside School – probably the best private school in the Seattle area.  His father was the partner of a large law firm and as you can see from the Wiki article, his mom served on the Board of Directors of the United Way.  At Lakeside, he met co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen.  Allen currently is worth over $17 billion, the 38th richest person in the world.  Before he dropped out of Harvard, he met Steve Ballmer who was CEO of Microsoft from 2000 to 2014.  Basically, Gates networked his company into one of the most powerful companies in the world. Without being able to meet some of the brightest minds in the various education settings he had been connected to, he would most likely have found worst team members and possibly even failed.

Harvard, Yale and the many others we’ve listed above have incredible alumni networks.  They operate very tightly and filter one another by their own University degree.  It’s not a bad filter given that many times their selectivity based on simply the university one attended does vet out very smart and talented people.

As popular Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote:

First, an Ivy degree is treated as a certification of intelligence and self-discipline. Apparently adding a few Harvard students to a team raises its average intelligence and makes it more effective at solving problems. That, the employers feel, is more valuable than specific knowledge, which smart people can pick up quickly in any case.

Did you know President Obama went to Harvard?  How about his wife?  Yes, Michelle Obama did as well.  It probably didn’t hurt on the way to two terms of President of the most powerful nation on earth that many of his friends were Harvard grads and so were his wife’s.

With this said, I would argue the following Top Liberal Arts Colleges also deserve mention:

As we wrote before, the “Little Three Ivies:” Williams, Amherst, & Wesleyan.

Written by Brandon Na, one of Asia’s Top Debate and Test Preparation Instructors.  Brandon graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 1994 after turning down the University of Washington.  He graduated with Honors from his public school which was ranked the #14th debate team in the nation and was a nationally competitive debater.  Brandon has had a colorful career working for some of the top dotcoms including Amazon.com, Expedia.com and DoubleClick (which is currently a division of Google.com).  He has spent 1/3 of his life in technology, another 1/3 in other arenas that have provided him incredible insight and now more than a 1/3 in education where he finds the most fulfillment.  His students in debate and public speaking have consistently excelled in tournaments — one of his crowning coaching achievements involved leading a team of students who placed First in the 2013 World Scholar’s Cup Tournament of Champions. He worked with the same team to repeat their title as #1 at the following Global Round with over 2000 participants. Recently, both the Jr. and the Sr. teams who took 1st Place in Writing at the Tournament of Champions at Yale in 2015 were coached by Brandon either as a team or individually. In terms of Test Preparation, Brandon has helped students achieve a perfect 2400 on the SAT and a plethora of 2300+’s. On the ACT, he’s helped students reach the 99% Percentile and 99%+ Percentile regularly with perfect 36‘s on the Reading and Essay sections. With regards to the SSAT, his students have regularly achieved 95%+ percentiles with 3 former students obtaining the top score possible – in the 99% Percentile.