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11 Top Universities in the US That Aren't in the Ivy League

MAR 18, 2020 • 11 min read


Ever heard of Duke, Stanford or MIT?

None of these incredible schools are in the Ivy League, yet their classes are just as challenging, their professors are just as impressive, and their acceptance rates are just as competitive!

The Ivy League actually began as a college athletics conference in the northeast. That's right, its formation had nothing to do with academics!

It's simply a coincidence that all of the universities within the League happen to be some of the best colleges in the world.

It totally makes sense, then, that there are some pretty phenomenal non-Ivy universities – they just weren’t part of the same sports league!

Top non-Ivy League colleges

Whether it's on the West Coast, in the Mid West, the North East, or the South, there's a non-Ivy university to suit you.

West Coast

1. Stanford University: Stanford, California

Best US Colleges - Stanford

Often dubbed the “Ivy of the West”, Stanford’s geography is probably the main reason why it’s not in the Ivy League. However, that’s pretty much the only downside of Stanford’s location (if you consider not being an Ivy a “downside”).

There isn’t much wrong with Stanford, aside for the fact that it's the hardest university in the US to get into. Its athletics and academics are world class, plus it’s sunny 262 days a year!

The campus is picture perfect and you never have to walk to class in a blizzard.

Sounds like a win-win to me!

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 4.65%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $69,109 USD

Undergraduate Population: 7032

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 11%

QS World University Ranking: 2

2. California Institute of Technology (Caltech): Pasadena, California

Best US Colleges - Caltech

It might seem silly to have both MIT and Caltech on this list but what can I say, they are the two best universities in the US for STEM subjects, and they each cater to a slightly different audience.

MIT students love the snow, and Caltech students love the sun. MIT students enjoy having large classes, and Caltech students thrive in smaller environments. MIT students have an affinity for engineering, and Caltech students have an affinity for pure science. (Disclaimer: I know both schools have strong engineering and pure science programs, but MIT tends to focus more on the former and Caltech on the latter.)

If you dream of working in research or becoming a professor in STEM, attending Caltech will help make your dream come true.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 8%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $68,901 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 979

Percentage of International Undergraduates: N/A

QS World University Ranking: 4

3. University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley): Berkeley, California

UC Berkeley - Best Engineering Schools

No one ever said great universities had to be private schools! Take the number one public university in the US, for example: UC Berkeley.

Berkeley prides itself on high-end academics (especially in STEM), awesome athletics, and phenomenal professors (like most unis on this list), but the university also has a long history of activism and social movements that make the school unique. From the Free Speech Movement to various rallies to help minorities, UC Berkeley students love to make their voices heard.

There’s another bug that’s hard to escape at Berkeley: the technology bug. The uni’s proximity to Silicon Valley makes it very easy for you (and everyone else) to get involved in the tech scene. Plus, the education you’ll receive at Berkeley will prepare you well for life in “the Valley”.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 18.3%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): In-State: $34,400 USD per year, Out-of-State: $61,654 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 27,126

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 12%

QS World University Ranking: 27

Mid West

4. University of Chicago (UChicago): Chicago, Illinois

University of Chicago

While most colleges on this list are special because of what goes on after you get in, part of what makes UChicago so unique is its insane essay prompts. These crazy essay prompts give you an insight into UChicago's character and set the tone for your four plus years at college.

Think of UChicago as the Ivy League’s quirky brother!

A quirky brother that has produced more Nobel Prize winners in economics than any other university.

Yep, that’s right, UChicago has a beast of an economics program. In fact, it’s one of the best universities for economics in the States.

Your time at UChicago is bound to be challenging, but like its essay prompts, the university will push you to your limits and force you to think outside of the box. In a good way.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: N/A but 2016: 7.9%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $74,526 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 5,547

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 10%

QS World University Ranking: 9

5. University of Michigan (Michigan): Ann Arbor, Michigan

best-college-town-Ann Arbor, Michigan

If John F. Kennedy referred to Harvard as the Michigan of the East, you know Michigan must be a pretty great university.

By now, you must have realised that all of the universities on this list have very strong academics and Michigan is no different; however, the university also boasts an insanely good football team (have you heard of Tom Brady?) and a world class performing arts program.

Not to mention, the CEO of Google and the founders of Nest, Groupon, and Craigslist all graduated from Michigan, ultimately adding to the already growing technology scene at the university.

P.S. Michigan has one of the largest alumni networks in the world, so no matter where you end up, there’s sure to be fellow "Wolverine" nearby.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 26%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): In-State: $28,007 USD per year, Out-of-State: $61,388 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 28,983

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 7.1%

QS World University Ranking: 21

6. Northwestern University (NU): Evanston, Illinois

Northwestern Arch

Northwestern is known for its challenging courses, highly esteemed professors, and caring atmosphere, so much so that the university even has a happiness club!

NU’s strengths lie in its journalism and theatre department (hello Stephen Colbert, David Schwimmer, Zach Braff, and pretty much all of Hollywood), as well as its numerous prestigious undergraduate certifications, including an engineering co-op.

NU is also home to one of the largest student run philanthropies in the US: the Dance Marathon, which has raised over one million dollars for charity since 2011!

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 9%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $72,980 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 8,368

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 9.7%

QS World University Ranking: 28


7. Johns Hopkins University (Hopkins): Baltimore, Maryland


Although Hopkins is best known for its medical school, its undergraduate programs are no joke, especially if you want to go into medicine.

Like MIT, your first semester classes are all pass/fail, which allows you to get used to college life and take classes that you are interested in without the risk of lowering your GPA. Hopkins is largely focused on research so there are many opportunities for you to work in a lab, even as an undergrad.

If you want to go into medicine, Hopkins is your best bet.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 11.9%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $71,038 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 5,661

Percentage of International Undergraduates: N/A

QS World University Ranking: 17

8. Duke University: Durham, North Carolina

Duke Chapel close up

If Stanford is the Ivy of the West, then Duke is the Ivy of the South. Duke seems to have it all: a championship basketball team, top notch academics, and lots of funding to give out.

If you can dream it, the university will probably help fund it. A summer of research in Europe? Check. Food and drinks for a holiday? Check. An experiment with NASA? Check!

Not to mention, even though it is a large research uni, Duke encourages you to form strong bonds with your professors. The university will literally pay for you to invite your professors to lunch twice a semester. Say hello to FLUNCHes! – faculty/student lunches!

Between the academics, athletics, and southern hospitality, it’s no surprise that Duke is regarded as one of the best universities in the US.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 7.3%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $72,710 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 6,639

Percentage of International Undergraduates: N/A

QS World University Ranking: 21

North East

9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Cambridge, Massachusetts

MIT - Best engineering schools

There’s not much to say about MIT’s prestige... it’s MIT!

Only the best of the best get in for a reason. MIT is difficult. You are expected to come in with a deep understanding of your major and lots of experience, which makes it somewhat akin to the Oxbridge style of learning.

However, unlike some top universities, the hardest part about MIT isn’t getting in, it’s the courses. Professors are not there to hold your hand. The classes are very challenging, and while you may have been the smartest person at your high school, there will always be someone smarter than you at MIT.

On the upside, MIT features some of the world’s top research facilities equipped with the latest technology. Once you make it through your rigorous course load, you’re almost guaranteed to land an incredible job. Just keep pushing!

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 7.83%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $65,478 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 4,524

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 9.5%

QS World University Ranking: 1

10. Williams College: Williamstown, Massachusetts

11 Colleges that aren't Ivy League - Williams College

According to US World News, Williams College is the number one liberal arts college in the US. While liberal arts colleges are unique to the US, Williams borrowed a page from Oxbridge and uses tutorials throughout its majors.

Tutorials usually consist of you, another student or two, and a professor in a small setting. This intimate atmosphere forces you to come to class prepared and participate, while allowing your professor to give you in-depth feedback.

Williams also makes use of a specialized “entry system,” which helps freshman students acclimate to college life. This level of care and personalised education is what makes Williams on of the best universities in the US.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 14%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $67,700 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 2,042

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 8%

QS World University Ranking: N/A

11. Babson College: Wellesley, Massachusetts

Best US Colleges-babson-college

If you’ve never heard of Babson, you’re not alone. However, if you are looking to start your own business and learn about entrepreneurship, you'd better start researching this awesome colllege!

As a first year you’ll take a course called “Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship”, that’ll not only expose you to basic business knowledge but also requires you to start a business with a group of classmates. The university even loans each group a sum of money to get their business of the ground.

There are a lot of “real world” business courses at Babson that will expose you to the trials and tribulations of life as an entrepreneur. Due to the small class sizes, you are bound to get one-on-one attention from your professors, many of whom are willing to mentor you to get whatever business idea you have off the ground.

Trust me, if you are interested in entrepreneurship and can brace the cold Massachusetts winters, Babson may be the best school in the US for you.

The details:

Acceptance Rate: 25%

Total Cost (tuition, room, board, etc.): $68,482 USD per year

Undergraduate Population: 2,283

Percentage of International Undergraduates: 27%

QS World University Ranking: N/A

Final Thoughts

Now that you know about some of the best universities in the US that aren’t Ivy Leagues, it’s time to start applying!

If you apply to US universities with an open mind and a willingness to find your best fit university, regardless of the “brand”, you’re more likely to end up at a college you love.

Plus, all of the universities on this list (as well as many others) have worldwide recognition and prestige so employers back in your home country are likely to find any one of these universities impressive.

Branch out and your choice of university may surprise you.

Just remember, there is more to life than just the Ivy League.

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