American college and university faculty, staff, alumni, students, and applicants monitor rankings produced by magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Academic Ranking of World Universities, test preparation services such as The Princeton Review or another university itself such as the Top American Research Universities by the University of Florida’s The Center. These rankings are based on factors like brand recognition, selectivity in admissions, generosity of alumni donors, and volume of faculty research. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 27 of the top 50 universities, and 72 institutions of the top 200, are located within the United States. The US has thereby more than twice as many universities represented in the top 200 as does the country with the next highest number, the United Kingdom, which has 29. A small percentage of students who apply to these schools gain admission. Included among the top 20 institutions identified by ARWU in 2009 are six of the eight schools in the Ivy League; 4 of the 10 schools in the University of California system (Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco); the private Universities of Stanford, Chicago, and Johns Hopkins; the public Universities of Washington and Wisconsin; and the Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology. Also renowned within the United States are the so-called Little Ivies and a number of prestigious liberal arts colleges. Certain public universities (sometimes referred to as Public Ivies) are also recognized for their outstanding record in scholarship. Some of these institutions currently place among the elite in certain measurements of graduate education and research, especially among engineering and medical schools.
Each state in the United States maintains its own public university system, which is always non-profit. The State University of New York and the California State University are the largest public higher education systems in the United States; SUNY is the largest system that includes community colleges, while CSU is the largest without. Most areas also have private institutions, which may be for-profit or non-profit. Unlike many other nations, there are no public universities at the national level outside of the military service academies. Prospective students applying to attend four of the five military academies require, with limited exceptions, nomination by a member of Congress. Like acceptance to “top tier” universities, competition for these limited nominations is intense and must be accompanied by superior scholastic achievement and evidence of “leadership potential.” Aside from these aforementioned schools, academic reputations vary widely among the ‘middle-tier’ of American schools, (and even among academic departments within each of these schools.) Most public and private institutions fall into this ‘middle’ range. Some institutions feature honors colleges or other rigorous programs that challenge academically exceptional students, who might otherwise attend a ‘top-tier’ college. Aware of the status attached to the perception of the college that they attend, students often apply to a range of schools.
Some apply to a relatively prestigious school with a low acceptance rate, gambling on the chance of acceptance but, as a backup, also apply to a safety school. Lower status institutions include community colleges. These are primarily two-year public institutions, which individual states usually require to accept all local residents who seek admission, and offer associate’s degrees or vocational certificate programs. Many community colleges have relationships with four-year state universities and colleges or even private universities that enable their students to transfer to these universities for a four-year degree after completing a two-year program at the community college. Regardless of perceived prestige, many institutions feature at least one distinguished academic department, and most post-secondary American students attend one of the 2,400 four-year colleges and universities or 1,700 two-year colleges not included among the twenty-five or so ‘top-tier’ institutions.