Top Universities for Postgraduate Study in the USA
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Written by Mark Bennett

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.

Graduate schools

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.

Public Ivies

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.

Top 20 American Universities in 2023
University THE 2023 QS 2023 ARWU 2022
Stanford University 2 5 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3 1 3
Harvard University 4 4 1
Princeton University 6 =17 6
California Institute of Technology 7 15 9
University of California, Berkeley 9 10 5
Yale University 10 16 11
University of Chicago 13 10 10
Johns Hopkins University 15 28 16
University of Pennsylvania 16 12 14
Columbia University 17 23 8
University of California, Los Angeles 18 29 13
Cornell University 20 13 12
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 23 33 26
Carnegie Mellon University 24 52 101-150
University of Washington 25 63 18
Duke University 26 57 34
New York University 27 =38 28
Northwestern University 28 62 30
University of California, San Diego 34 53 19
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

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.

Think USA is the place for you? Read our comprehensive guides on PhD applications, funding and student visas.

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Last Updated: 08 January 2024