With more than 4,000 institutions offering accredited degrees, the US has everything from community colleges to the Ivy League schools. More than a fifth made it on to The Times Higher Education Supplement's list of the world's top 200 universities last year
Harvard University (1)
Location Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nearest big city Boston
Areas of excellence Medicine, law, business
Harvard University was founded in 1636, just 16 years after the Pilgrim Fathers landed in what was to become the United States of America. It is one of America's elite Ivy League schools, which, interestingly, are united by sport rather than academics. But this just goes to underline the American focus on whole-person development.
Harvard is clearly in a class of its own. It has educated seven US presidents. Its faculty have won 40 Nobel and 44 Pulitzer prizes. Its library of more than 15-million volumes is the world's second largest, after the Library of Congress in Washington. Its endowment of more than U$22 billion is second only to the Vatican's. It receives US$300 million a year in government research funding.
There are close to 20,000 students, including nearly 6,600 undergraduates. Annual tuition, room and board comes to about US$40,000 a year, but financial aid is available for low- and middle-income students.
'Harvard University encourages interested people to apply to study here regardless of their financial circumstances,' the university's website says. 'Harvard College's admissions process is need-blind. The Admissions Committee does not consider an applicant's financial situation when they evaluate the application. Harvard's financial aid policy is need-based, however. Harvard tries to meet the financial need of every student.'
University of California at Berkeley (2)
Location Berkeley, California
Nearest big city San Francisco
Areas of excellence Chemistry, English, mathematics
The University of California (UC) at Berkeley is the first and largest of UC's 10 campuses, each of which is virtually a free-standing university. Berkeley is consistently ranked as the top public university in the United States. It was ranked first in the world by The Times in terms of peer review. Its faculty have won 18 Nobel and five Pulitzer prizes. UC Berkeley's roots go back to the California gold rush of 1849. It was formally established in 1855 in Oakland, moving to Berkeley 11 years later. Its curriculum was modelled after that of Harvard and Yale, with the addition of modern languages. Perhaps best known for the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, Berkeley has more than 32,000 students. International students account for only 2 per cent of freshmen, but 21 per cent of graduate students.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (3)
Location Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nearest big city Boston
Areas of excellence Engineering, business, science
Established to meet the demands of a rapidly industrialising America, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) admitted its first students in 1865. Its founder 'stressed the pragmatic and practicable', the school's website says. MIT has evolved into one the world's top institutions of higher learning, with excellence in teaching and research. Its Nobel Prize winners include 24 professors, 23 alumni, four researchers and one staff physician. It has a number of interdisciplinary centres, laboratories and programmes. MIT's riverfront campus is sprinkled with landmark buildings by renowned architects, revealing the importance the institution places on the arts. It is dotted with sculptures, murals and paintings. MIT's undergraduate programmes are committed to providing a well-rounded education covering science, technology and the humanities. As an indication of its exclusivity, MIT has the lowest acceptance rate - 16 per cent - for undergraduates in the United States. More than 70 per cent of its undergraduate classes have fewer than 20 students. In terms of campus diversity, Asian-Americans make up 30 per cent of the student body. There are more than 4,100 undergraduates and nearly 6,200 graduate students, more than 2,700 of which are international, with 45 per cent coming from Asia.
California Institute of Technology (4)
Location Pasadena, California
Nearest big city Los Angeles
Areas of excellence Maths, science, engineering
From the discovery of antimatter and the different capacities of the left and right halves of the brain to the foundations of molecular biology, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has been at the cutting edge of scientific and technological research since it was established in 1891. Its faculty and alumni have won 31 Nobel Prizes. Founded in 1891, Caltech has about 2,200 students, including 900 undergraduates. It has an impressive 3-1 student/faculty ratio. It has one of the most demanding core curriculums in the United States, focusing on maths, science and technology. Annual tuition, room and board, and other living expenses come to more than US$41,000 a year. The institution has a long-standing policy of providing financial aid to outstanding students who would otherwise not be able to attend. Rather than living in dormitories, fraternity houses or off-campus apartments, most undergraduates live in one of seven student houses - four of which were modelled after residences at Oxford University. There is a dinner each night served by student waiters. Each house accommodates 65 to 100 students. Freshmen must live on campus.
The numbers next to the university names refer to their ranking by The Times
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities
Western Association of Schools and Colleges