Columbia University. Creative Commons photo by Fl
Columbia University, ranked in the top 10 by some measures. Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Barbara (Jorbasa)

In recent weeks, as they do about this time each year, several publications have attempted to crown the best university in America.

So what is the best university in the country? The answer?s not quite so simple. In fact, just about the only thing these rankings agree on is that they really don?t agree what America?s best university is. U.S. News and World Report picked Harvard University and Princeton University to tie in the number one place, while the Times Higher Education World University Rankings placed the California Institute of Technology in the number one spot, sticking Harvard at number four and Princeton down at number six.

Washington Monthly?s rankings give the University of California - San Diego the win, with Princeton, Harvard, and Cal Tech nowhere to be seen in the top 10. And while Forbes Magazine followed U.S. News in selecting Princeton as its number one school, its number two school is Williams College ? a school that doesn?t even appear on any of the other rankings.

(Scroll to the bottom of this article to see all the top 10 lists)

How useful are rankings then, if they can?t even agree on a top contender?

Why different rankings have different results

College counselor Beth Gilfillan wrote in the Times? Room for Debate that ?rankings can be dangerous? for those attempting to pick a college. Students often rely on rankings to make their decisions without considering how the rankings are determined, or how much weight to afford them.

The fact of the matter is that each ranking comes out with different results because each uses very different criteria. U.S. News and World Report, for example, is the only one of the four to include selectivity as a major determinant. Is it any surprise, then, that its rankings are dominated by Ivy League universities?

And the Forbes list is the only one to feature Williams College because it?s the only list that considers small liberal arts colleges at all. U.S. News gives such colleges their own separate ranking, while the others exclude them entirely.

The THE rankings put an emphasis on research funding and output, where Washington Monthly heavily weights opportunities for low income students and participation in community service. Forbes focuses on the success of graduates, as defined by things like how many graduates take prominent positions as CEOs and presidents.

(See the full criteria used by each ranking at the bottom of this article)

How to find your best university

According to Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability, no ranking can tell you the best university in America, because ?the ?best? school for one student may not be the best for another.? He wrote in the New York Times that students should consider things like their academic interests, location preferences, financial means, and admissions competitiveness in choosing where to apply.

[Universities that offer financial aid to international students]

For two of our new bloggers this year, for example, it was important to find colleges that did not require SAT or ACT scores; one didn?t have the opportunity to take the SAT exam before applying and the other felt his SAT score was the weakest part of his application. The U.S. News rankings disqualify any school that does not require standardized test scores.

EducationUSA advisor Doreen John advised students to also think about their personality in deciding where they want to go. ?You may get into MIT  or Stanford," she said, as quoted in The Star, "but will you do well there

?Applying to big name schools is all well and good,? reflected Nareg Seferian, who went to St. John?s College, a small, relatively unknown college in New Mexico. ?But sometimes what you really want out of an education can be really special and well worth the obscurity.?

[Read more on what factors international students consider in picking a college]

Making a new ranking

When Nick was deciding where to apply, he came up with his own university ranking system, comparing schools based on the criteria that were most important to him. He explained his system like this:

?Selecting schools was probably the hardest part in my experience applying to U.S. colleges, simply because there are so many of them. This seemingly impossible process became a little more manageable as I prioritized my criteria in the search.

I basically had two main criteria, namely the quality of the department to which I was applying and its financial aid program (or the availability of any scholarship program specifically for international students).

I wanted to study political science so in using the search tool on and from exhaustive research on the schools? websites, I came up with a list of 10 colleges. I then placed them in different categories: safe schools, fit schools, reach schools, and dream schools by looking at their acceptance rates ? obviously the lower the rate, the harder it is to get in. Above all, this list made sure that I wasn?t overreaching.?

So what?s the best university in America? It depends on what you want.

Full rankings:

U.S. News and World Report

#1: TIED Harvard University and Princeton University
#3: Yale University
#4: TIED Columbia University and University of Chicago
#6: TIED Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University
#8: TIED Duke University and University of Pennsylvania
#10: TIED California Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College

Criteria: Assessment by peer institutions (survey of presidents, provosts and deans of admissions), retention rate (freshman returning and 6-year graduation rate), faculty resources (largely based on class size, faculty salary), selectivity (SAT/ACT scores, proportion of freshmen graduating in the top of their high school class, acceptance rate), financial resources (average spending per student), graduation rate, alumni giving rate

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

#1: California Institute of Technology
#2: Stanford University (tied with University of Oxford, UK)
#4: Harvard University
#5: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
#6: Princeton University
#9: University of California, Berkeley (#7: University of Cambridge, UK, #8: Imperial College London, UK)
#10: University of Chicago
#11: Yale University
#13: University of California, Los Angeles (#12: ETH Zurich, Switzerland)

Criteria: Teaching (Thomson Reuters reputation survey, amount and variety of doctoral and research students including ratio of doctoral to Bachelor?s degrees, institutional income v. academic staff), Research Influence (number of times a university?s published work is cited by scholars), Research (academic reputation survey among peers, research income, research output by papers published), International Outlook (ratio of international to domestic students and staff, proportion of published research with one international co-author), Industry Income (how much research income an institution earns from industry)

Washington Monthly

#1: University of California, San Diego
#2: Texas A&M University
#3: Stanford University
#4: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
#5: University of California, Berkeley
#6: University of California, Los Angeles
#7: Case Western Reserve University
#8: University of Washington, Seattle
#9: University of California, Riverside
#10: Georgia Institute of Technology, Main

Criteria: Social Mobility (% of students receiving federal assistance and grad rate of low-income students), Research (spending on research, PhDs awarded, faculty prestige), Service (participation in Peace Corps and ROTC, community service participation, resources focused on service)

Forbes Magazine/Center for College Affordability

#1: Princeton University
#2: Williams College
#3: Stanford University
#4: University of Chicago
#5: Yale University
#6: Harvard University
#7: United States Military Academy
#8: Columbia University
#9: Pomona College
#10: Swarthmore College

Criteria: Student Satisfaction (mostly evaluations on, also retention rates), Post-Graduate Success (listings of alumni in Who?s Who in America, alumni salaries, achieving position as CEO, Board of Directors or President of leading global companies, non-profits and government), Student Debt (Average federal student loan debt, loan default rates), Four-year graduation rate, Academic Success (students receiving nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarship or Marshall Scholarship, alumni receiving PhDs)