Top Universities for Postgraduate Study in the USA
Written by Mark Bennett
What to expect in this guide
Are you contemplating pursuing a Masters degree in the USA? Wondering if American universities are up to par for a graduate study programme? We're here to clear your doubts and guide you in the right direction!
What you’ll find on this page:
- The top 20 American universities in 2023 according to Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).
- How relevant these rankings are for Masters study.
- Where to look for domestic USA rankings.
Want to know more? Keep reading to find out where in the rankings your institution sits!
If you’ve been thinking about studying a postgraduate course in the USA, the sheer size and scope can be daunting. Over 4,300 American higher education providers cater to the ever-growing population of students. Even though only around 1,000 of them offer Masters/PhD-level degrees (which narrows things down slightly) there's still a huge variety of institutions to choose from.
In this guide we talk about the different kinds of institutions, university organisations and some of the top picks for postgraduate study in the USA according to international ranking tables.
Types of US higher education institutions – college vs university
Americans often use the term ‘college’ as an equivalent term for ‘university’; so, ‘going to university’ becomes ‘going to college’. However, ‘college’ is more often used to refer to undergraduate education. With some exceptions, colleges are usually smaller, with a focus on a few, specific subject areas and do not generally offer postgraduate programmes.
There are two common types of colleges in the US:
- Community colleges that only offer undergraduate programmes (many of which are associate degrees, preparing students for Bachelors-level study).
- Liberal arts colleges which may have postgraduate programmes awarding Masters degrees and even PhDs, but the majority focus on undergraduate education
In the US, universities are primarily higher education institutions offering both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees
Normally, to be classed as a university, an institution has to include a certain number of faculties or schools. These can either focus on specific subjects or a particular level of teaching. It's common for a large American university to include dedicated undergraduate colleges alongside more advanced graduate schools.
Universities are where most of the academic research happens in the USA. This means they have the expertise and facilities to deliver advanced degrees such as Masters and PhD qualifications.
Individual universities in the USA can either be public or private, depending on their funding status.
- Public universities are funded and administered by the state rather than the federal government. They tend to be large and often very prestigious institutions. Most US states maintain a single state university but sometimes they might operate across a network of sites (in which case individual campuses may specialise in particular academic fields). Because they are supported by state funding, fees at public universities are usually lower than those at private universities.
- Private universities in the USA are not funded by the state, but neither are they necessarily run on a commercial (for-profit) basis. Instead, they sustain their research and teaching activity through external investment (from charities or other organisations), and with the revenues they raise from tuition fees. Private universities are often more expensive than state universities, but most will also offer scholarships and other funding packages to help encourage and support students.
Colleges vs universities in the UK
Colleges in the US almost always refer to tertiary education (undergraduate or over) whereas colleges in the UK can deliver academic or vocational courses to students aged 16–18, in order to prepare them for university or employment. Read more about the distinction between colleges and universities on our guide.
Often existing as part of larger universities, graduate schools offer only Masters and PhD level qualifications. You may hear students go from ‘college’ to ‘graduate school’ (or ‘grad school’).
An individual university may have more than one graduate school, specialising in different subject areas. Some graduate schools focus on professional training like in Business, Medicine and Law. They may sometimes also be referred to as ‘professional schools’.
US university organisations
The US higher education system is home to various organisations and groups of universities, some of which are internationally famous. It’s worth knowing a little about organisations like this as you decide where you want to study in the USA.
The Ivy League
We may as well start with the big one! The Ivy League is probably the most famous university association in the world. Its name is shorthand for academic excellence and student prestige.
Formed of eight of the country’s highest-ranking universities, the Ivy League are some of the most sought after by students. However, you must remember that admission is highly competitive, and you shouldn’t think they are the be-all and end-all of American educational excellence. There are many top-ranking universities that aren’t members!
You can find more information on our Ivy League guide.
The private nature of the Ivy League has led some top public universities in the US to be referred to as 'Public Ivies'. The Public Ivies aren't a formal association (and their 'membership' is completely unofficial), but the term is still a meaningful mark of respect.
The Association of American Universities (AAU)
The Association of American Universities is a membership organisation comprising leading public and private North American research universities. It includes 60 US institutions (including seven of the eight Ivies!) as well as two in Canada. In practice, the AAU is similar to the UK’s Russell Group. Membership serves as a badge of quality and allows universities to collectively lobby on higher education issues.
The Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education
The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education system is based on the number of programmes US institutions offer at different levels, and the dominance of different subject areas in their research and training activity. The Basic Classification groups institutions according to the level and size of their degree programmes. Where a university offers postgraduate programmes, you can also use its Graduate Instructional Program Classification to see which disciplines predominate in its provision.
Top US universities for a postgraduate study
The following table gives the top 20 universities in the USA, based on global university rankings.
This information is based on the latest rankings tables, researched and published by Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). For more information on using international rankings as a postgraduate, see our guide.
Domestic rankings of US universities
There are a wide range of domestic rankings that only include universities in the USA. Most are produced by American media outlets and similar organisations. Domestic rankings don't compare US universities internationally; instead, they rank US institutions against each other. While this is useful if you're narrowing your search to the USA, it’s less helpful if you're still comparing a range of options for postgraduate study abroad.
We haven't summarised specific US university rankings here, but significant examples include:
- The U.S. News and World Report’s Best Grad Schools ranking looks at universities providing postgraduate ('graduate') qualifications in 12 broad fields.
- The Washington Monthly National University Rankings doesn't produce a specific ranking of graduate schools, but its main rankings do consider each university's research performance in detail, making it more relevant to advanced degree programmes such as Masters and PhDs.
- The America's Top Colleges ranking is published by Forbes magazine (an influential American business publication). This ranking focusses primarily on student-centred metrics such as satisfaction, academic success and graduation rate.
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