There is a definite hierarchy to America’s universities. It’s a pecking order where only a handful of “elite” schools lead the pack in being the most selective, having top faculty, large financial resources and pristine campus facilities. While this hierarchy has, to some extent, remained fairly stable over the last century, there have been a few institutions that, with the help of smart leadership and some unique opportunities, have recently risen to prominence (and experienced a great increase of applications). Here is a list of the top five American colleges and universities that, in the past 25 years, have become some of the nation’s hottest schools.
Duke University, Durham, NC
Duke, once a small regional school called Trinity College, really began its great rise when Terry Sanford, the former Governor of North Carolina, became president. During his time at Duke, he greatly increased the school’s resources: the library’s collection rose by 500% and he established the Fuqua School of Business. After Sanford’s departure, President Nan Keohane continued his work, raising $2.36 billion for from 1996 to 2003. Consequently, applications began to pour in. It probably didn’t hurt that Duke picked up a couple of national championships in men’s soccer and basketball during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s either. For icing on the cake, Duke’s mathematics team has finished in the top five at the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition in eight out of the last ten competitions. Only Harvard can make a comparable claim. Lastly, many are surprised that Duke ranks 5th among all U.S. colleges in the number of Rhodes Scholars they produce.
Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT
Swarthmore, Amherst and Williams have long been thought of as the Harvard, Princeton and Yale of liberal arts colleges. But, recently, Middlebury has stepped out from their shadows and joined those three. Once known as a “tree-hugging, J.Crew school in nowhere Vermont,” Middlebury didn’t even make US News and World Report’s rankings until 1988, when they ranked 17th. Since then, Middlebury’s rankings have improved steadily. Now, Middlebury is ranked solidly in the top five.
But “Midd Kids” can brag more than their impressive rankings. According to Becky Brodigan, the College’s Director of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning, Middlebury improved in “…faculty-to-student ratio (28th to 11th), alumni giving (23rd to 9th), and retention and graduation rank (7th to 4th).” This rise is due to smart leadership. Not too long ago, President Liebowitz announced a five year campaign to raise $500 million. After only about a year, they have already reached half that goal ($290 million as of November 2008). Indeed, Middlebury’s going to give Swarthmore, Amherst and Williams a run for the money.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
Affectionately called “Wash U.,” it used to be considered a consolation prize for ambitious Midwestern students with Ivy League aspirations. Those days, though, are long over. Wash U. is now mentioned in the same breath as Ivy League Universities—and why shouldn’t they be? Their application numbers prove it. Applicant numbers have grown steadily, making Wash U. more selective, where they only accepted 17% of the 22,000 students who applied in 2008. There is a reason why more students are loving Wash U. With innovative new programs and phenomenal faculty, Wash U. always finds ways to improve its reputation as a top research university. For example, it just created the institute on Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability and currently participates in the United States’ largest study of child health ever. Finally, Wash U.’s medical school is considered one of the nation’s best—attracting not only faculty and research dollars, but also top students worldwide.
New York University, New York, NY
NYU’s rise started with a sale. The University Heights campus (a campus in northern Manhattan) was sold because it was bleeding money and the school, in a financial crisis, couldn’t afford it. While many University Heights alumni balked, the sale was a necessity and turned out to be a life-saver. In the 1980’s, NYU spent billions of dollars updating their facilities after the conclusion of then President John Brademas’s billion dollar fundraising campaign for the school. It was a wild success, one that President John Sexton repeated from 2003-2008 with a $2.5-billion campaign for funds to promote NYU’s faculty and financial aid resources (more than $400 million went to creating 718 new scholarships and expanding 412 existing ones, among other worthwhile causes). NYU exceeded its goal by $500 million, making the fundraiser the greatest complete campaign in the history in American higher education.
It’s no surprise that application numbers have increased with every dollar raised. Since the early 1990s, the number of applicants seeking admission tripled, cutting the acceptance rate in half. For example, in 1991, NYU accepted a modest 65% of the 10,000 applicants. In 2007-2008, only 24% of over 37,000 freshmen were accepted. NYU receives more applications than any American private college or university in the United States. If you need more proof of NYU’s popularity, it rated as Princeton Review’s #1 “dream school” for three years in a row, beating out the likes of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. In fact, many will argue that NYU is giving a run to Columbia University as the Big Apple’s top dog in higher education.
University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, CA
USC’s reputation soared at the turn of the 21st century. Due to their Friends and Neighbors Service Day community service projects, a revamped School of Medicine and a distinctive Renaissance Scholars Program, USC was named “College of the Year” in 2000 by Time and The Princeton Review. It only got better from there. With the close of the “Building on Excellence” campaign in 1993, USC set a record in higher education by conducting the most successful fundraising effort ever—$2.85 billion in nine and a half years. Employing some of that money, they have established a new faculty and curriculum building program to further their already ample research resources and staff.
To give you an even clearer picture of just how far they’ve come: Ten years ago, USC’s accepted approximately half of its applicants. In 2007-08, USC’s acceptance rate dropped to 21%. Did you know that USC ranks fourth among all colleges for the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled and, in 2008, USC appeared on Princeton Review’s list of “Dream Schools” at #9 for the first time. The future is indeed looking sunny for this upcoming institution in Los Angeles.