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U.S. News and World Report Release 2021 National University Rankings

SEP 18, 2020 • 14 min read

In the 36th edition of USNews’ National University Rankings, Princeton has claimed the top spot for a historic 10th consecutive year, beating out rivals Ivy League rivals Harvard and Columbia.

The list is out!

In this year’s 36th edition, the top universities in the United States of America yet again faced off over a number of statistics, surveys and other university rankings indicators in an attempt to measure university reputation and performance.

So, who took the title as the USA’s top university in 2021? To many, it would come as no surprise that Princeton University, who have held the title since 2011, have again claimed the honour. To grab the top spot, they received the top standardised score of 100 - an outstanding achievement. The rest of the podium was occupied by Ivy League rivals Harvard (2nd) and Columbia (3rd).

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Check out the full top-10 below:

1. Princeton University
2.Harvard University
3.Columbia University
=4.Massachusetts Institute of Technology
=4. Yale University
=6.Stanford University
=6.University of Chicago
8. University of Pennsylvania
=9. California Institute of Technology
=9. Johns Hopkins University
=9. Northwestern University

There were only small changes to the top-10 rankings this year as compared to 2020’s rankings, and in many respects all of the major players are there. The biggest move was from Caltech, who climbed from 12th to tied 9th. Another notable mention goes to Columbia, who climbed a spot to be awarded outright third place, rounding out an all-Ivy League top-3. Duke University slipped just out of the top-10 to 12th.

Did you know that Crimson Students are 3x more likely to gain admission to Stanford and MIT? If you would like to understand how likely you are to get into a top US college based on your current scores, use our US College Admissions Calculator!


USNews apply a similar, yet slightly different methodology to other rankings such as Times Higher Education (THE) or QS. In particular, US News does not factor in so many nonacademic elements like student surveys about social life or a universities’ ratio of domestic to international students. They do however seem to include several elements that seem unique, such as the average student’s SAT score and graduate indebtedness.

Although the rankings are a product of 36 years of research, they are continually refined based on feedback and discussions with schools and higher education experts. This year US News made some key changes, such as adding two new measures for affordability, and shifting the weighting for affordability, graduation & retention rates, and social mobility higher. The weights for SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing and alumni giving were reduced. Due to COVID-19, acceptance rate was not used at all this year.

Check out the full list of indicators and weightings below:

Graduation & Completion Rates - 22%

  • Average 6-year graduation rate - 17.6%
  • Average first-year retention rate - 4.4%

Social Mobility - 5%

  • Pell Grant graduation rate - 2.5%
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance - 2.5%

Graduation Rate Performance - 8%

Undergraduate Academic Reputation Survey - 20%

  • Faculty Resources - 20%
  • Class size index - 8%
  • Faculty compensation - 7%
  • Percent faculty with terminal degree in their field - 3%
  • Percent faculty that is full-time - 1%
  • Student faculty ratio - 1%

Student Selectivity - 7%

  • Math, reading and writing portions of SAT and composite ACT scores - 5%
  • High school class standing in top 10% - 2%

Financial Resources Per Student - 10%

Average Alumni Giving - 3%

Graduate Indebtedness - 5%

  • Graduate indebtedness total - 3%
  • Graduate indebtedness proportion with debt - 2%

All of the rankings indicators are standardised at the end to provide a universities’ final score.

Data Collection

85% of colleges report their data directly to USNews, with the remaining colleges’ data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. This is then cross-referenced with USNews’ own data collection and previous years' submissions.

Large statistical outliers are flagged, and respondents are required to review, possibly revise and verify any flagged data points. Of course, the academic reputation survey is conducted by USNews, and is intended to be as fair and unbiased as possible.

How Should I Use the Rankings?

If you are considering studying in the US, using a US-specific ranking such as USNews’s National University Rankings, it is likely going to provide a better university comparison than a global ranking system. As discussed above, US-specific rankings will consider common datasets and metrics unique to the US education system, such as SAT scores and Pell Grant graduation rates. The data is also easier to verify within the single jurisdiction.

If you looking at a comparison of global universities, you may prefer using a global rankings list instead.

Of course it is important to remember that rankings, while useful indicators of academic performance and reputation, cannot capture all the things you might be looking for in a university. In other words, using university rankings might be an excellent first-step in your university search, but it is important that you then look deeper and target the right university for you!

At Crimson we are dedicated to helping students find their best-fit university, which starts with looking at each institution and learning as much as possible about where they are, what majors and courses resonate, and exactly what they have to offer.

For more help picking your perfect university, check out our university profiles on some of the US and UK’s top universities, or try our US and UK university Admissions Calculators to generate a list of recommended colleges that are the best fit for you.

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