What is the very best university in the nation? The question can perhaps be rephrased: What is the very best university in the Northeast? Time and again, on list after list, the top-rated university in the country is a Northeastern one.
The names stay the same, though the order sometimes changes. Is it Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Princeton, Harvard, Yale, or Yale, Princeton, Harvard? Given the prestige that comes with a degree from any of these university, it is sometimes difficult to see any difference.
But there is, of course, a difference. Each school offers its own version of the best and each graduates students who can quickly and easily identify fellow alums. A Yalie is a Yalie is a Yalie, be he John Kerry or George Bush (to cite two recently profiled graduates of that institution).
To graduate from any of these schools is to be a member of an elite club. For many hopefuls, it seems, education is an afterthought. The primary goal is just getting in. Once the yearned-for admission is achieved, it is time to exhale. In the fantasy of many applicants, admission means that a lifetime of doors opening, jobs appearing, and riches all but guaranteed. Like any cliché, this fantasy has a basis in reality. Graduates from the schools on this list go on to big things, and big things are often done by graduates of these schools.
Is it the ambition to be the best that student arrive with that makes them become CEOs and presidents? Or is there something inherent in the education offered at these institutions that shapes leaders? That is a chicken and egg question, it is very hard to know the answer. But if someone is to solve that question, it is not unlikely that he or she will hold a diploma from one of the esteemed schools on this list.
1. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Harvard has so long been synonymous with the best (think "the Harvard of …") that its first place seat on this list is unlikely to shake the institution one way or the other. Despite its many detractors, Harvard continues to attract top students and top faculty, making it the high water mark in American education. Being able to "drop the H-bomb," and say you went to Harvard, continues to impress more than any degree.
2. Yale University, New Haven, CT
Number two Yale, alma mater of presidents and the powerful, has a heated competition with Harvard that keeps both schools at their best. A word to the wise: Visit New Haven before accepting a Yale admission. The flavor of the campus and town are different from that at the other Ivies and may not be to everyone's taste.
3. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Third place Princeton University has recently plundered some of Harvard's most prestigious departments for faculty, gaining the school headlines and new enthusiasm among applicants. Forever the American home of Einstein, Princeton's bucolic setting makes it the ideal place to ponder imponderables on the road to success.
4. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Founded by no less prestigious a figure than Benjamin Franklin, Penn lures top applicants away from the top three schools on this list by providing one of the very best educations available anywhere in the world, with a stress on integration between academic and non-academic experience . Penn is simply a great school.
5. Columbia University, New York, NY
Last, but in no way least, is Columbia University. Located above Central Park in Manhattan, Columbia capitalizes on its city-that-never-sleeps location to attract some of the most creative and visionary students and faculty in the nation to its campus. Columbia is a terrific school, offering stellar education alongside impossible-to-beat cultural and internship opportunities.
If you are admitted to more than one of these schools, first, congratulations. Second, some advice: it is essential to spend time on and around campus before making your decision, each is excellent and each has a flavor all its own.