Many foreign visitors to the United States of America, especially those with pre-college-age children thinking about studying abroad, are interested in touring its famous universities. This article is a short overview of university tourism in the U.S., focused on the nation’s most prestigious research and educational institutions as well as the most notable and historic campuses.
For more detailed information about visiting the individual schools here, you will find extensive information for visitors on their own websites, which should be considered the most up-to-date source of information, as well as the linked Wikivoyage city articles.
The Ivy League, which you would often hear Americans talking about, refers to a group of 8 prestigious private universities located near the East Coast. The 8 universities that make up the Ivy League are Harvard University, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. While officially a sports confederation, all 8 universities are also very well regarded academically and are considered to be among the most prestigious universities in the world. However, not all prestigious universities in the United States are members of the Ivy League, and there are non Ivy League universities which rank alongside, or even higher than some of the lower ranked Ivies.
Universities are research-oriented educational institutions with undergraduate and graduate programs. For historical reasons, some universities such as Boston College, Dartmouth College, The College of William & Mary, and College of Charleston have retained the term college instead of “university” for their name. Graduate programs grant a variety of master’s degrees (like the Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) or Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in addition to doctorates such as the Ph.D. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education distinguishes among institutions on the basis of the prevalence of degrees they grant and considers the granting of master’s degrees necessary, though not sufficient, for an institution to be classified as a university.
Some universities have professional schools. Examples include journalism school, business school, medical schools which award either the M.D. or D.O., law schools (J.D.), veterinary schools (D.V.M.), pharmacy schools (Pharm.D.), and dental schools. A common practice is to refer to different faculties within universities as colleges or schools.
Community colleges are often two-year colleges. They have open admissions, usually with lower tuition fees than other state or private schools. Graduates receive an associate’s degree, such as an Associate of Arts (A.A.), upon graduating. Many students earn an AA at a two-year institution before transferring to a four-year institution to complete studies for a bachelor’s degree.
Community colleges have an increased standardization of curricula and adherence to some university guidelines at the colleges, which improve the chances that community college credits are transferred to in-state universities. The aim is to maximize the number of transferred credits, as this forces students to avoid redundant coursework, pay less tuition, putting them at an advantage upon transfer.
The renamed colleges, with cooperation from a university, can offer courses that go beyond the 2-year-level of education that is typical of community colleges. Some colleges offer particular, specialized 4-year bachelor’s degrees on behalf of the university.
According to National Student Clearinghouse data, community college enrollment has dropped by 1.6 million students since its peak year of 2010–11. In 2017, 88% of community colleges surveyed were facing declining enrollments. A The New York Times report in 2017 suggested that of the nation’s 18 million undergraduates, 40% were attending community college; of these students, 62% were attending community college full-time, 40% of them worked at least 30 hours a week or more, and more than half lived at home to save money.
Liberal arts colleges
Four-year institutions emphasizing the liberal arts are liberal arts colleges, entirely undergraduate institutions and stand-alone. They traditionally emphasize interactive instruction, though student research projects are of growing importance. They are known for being residential and for having smaller enrollment, class size, and higher teacher-student ratios than universities. They encourage a high level of teacher-student interaction, with classes taught by full-time faculty, rather than graduate student teaching assistants (TAs), who often teach classes at some Research I universities and other universities. Most are private, although there are public liberal arts colleges. Some offer experimental curricula, such as Hampshire College, Beloit College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Pitzer College, Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, Bennington College, New College of Florida, and Reed College.
Technical schools are four-year institutions that emphasize a particular trade or set of technical skills, primarily for the sake of employability.
For-profit higher education (known as for-profit college or proprietary education) refers to higher education institutions operated by private, profit-seeking businesses. Students were “attracted to the programs for their ease of enrollment and help obtaining financial aid,” but “disappointed with the poor quality of education….”University of Phoenix has been the largest for-profit college in the US.
Since 2010, for-profit colleges have received greater scrutiny from the US government, state Attorneys General, the media, and scholars. Notable business failures include Corinthian Colleges (2015), ITT Educational Services (2016), Education Management Corporation also known as EDMC (2017), and Education Corporation of America (2018).
New England and the Mid-Atlantic are home to the densest cluster of the top American universities, and therefore a good place to start the tour—you can cover a lot of institutions without having to spend too much time in transit.
Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, is one of America’s top small liberal arts colleges, with a charming campus.
Brown University is located on the East Side of Providence, Rhode Island. The neighborhood is also called College Hill. Brown is within walking distance of downtown Providence.
Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is one of America’s top small liberal arts colleges, and also one of the oldest (founded 1794). It is located in a charming coastal town 30 minutes from Portland, Maine (by car), and a 2-hour drive from Boston.
Dartmouth College is located in the small town setting of Hanover, New Hampshire. An Ivy League member founded in 1769, it bears the name “college” due to its focus on undergraduate studies, but is a University with highly respected graduate schools in Arts & Sciences, Medicine, Engineering (Thayer) and Business (Tuck). Dartmouth can be reached by bus from Boston or by Amtrak’s Vermonter line to nearby White River Junction, Vermont. From Boston by car (about 2.5 hours), take Interstate 93 to Interstate 89 to Rt. 120. Hanover is about a five-hour drive from New York City.
Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Its landmark location is Harvard Yard, the heart of Harvard College (the undergraduate arm of Harvard University), and the home of the College’s freshman dormitories, the mammoth Widener Library, and the statue of John Harvard (a favorite with tourists). The Yard is directly adjacent to the Harvard Red Line station. Across Massachusetts Avenue from the train station is the Harvard Coop, a three-building university store housing a cafe, a bookstore, and mountains of Harvard paraphernalia. Harvard Square has a profusion of bookstores and coffee shops. Harvard University has the distinction of being the oldest university in the United States.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commonly known as MIT, is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just two metro stops away from Harvard University. Arriving by train from the south will bring you to South Station, which connects directly to MIT and Harvard on the Red Line subway. Arrival by plane will bring you to Logan Airport, from which Cambridge can be reached by car, or by train by taking the Red Line to Harvard or Kendall/MIT.
Salve Regina University, located in Newport, Rhode Island, is a small Roman Catholic university founded in 1934 by the Sisters of Mercy. Located among the opulent cottages along Newport’s breathtaking Cliff Walk, the school 75-acre campus is centered around the Richard Morris Hunt designed Ochre Court, a large châteauesque mansion built in 1892. The campus also includes 21 buildings on seven contiguous 19th-century estates. Noted as one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States, several of its buildings have served as backdrops in feature films and many have been targeted for preservation awards by the Getty Foundation, White House Millennium Council, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is one of America’s top small liberal arts colleges, and also one of the oldest (founded 1793).
Yale University is in New Haven, Connecticut. Travelers looking to avoid expensive Amtrak fares are in luck if they are traveling from New York City; New Haven is the last stop on the New Haven line of the Metro-North commuter railroad. A one-way ticket will cost up to $18, depending on time of travel. Travelers can walk to campus (about 20–30 minutes, somewhat conservatively speaking), take a taxi, which should be under $10, or call the Yale shuttle if they have friends who are Yale students. A recognizable destination for taxis should be “Phelps Gate,” which is a gate that opens onto the east end, roughly speaking, of Old Campus, a major open space on campus.
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh are two highly collaborative universities located adjacent to each other in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the Oakland neighborhood. Founded in 1787, the University of Pittsburgh was home to Jonas Salk when he developed the first polio vaccine. Known for its strengths in the biomedical and health sciences, Pitt’s campus has several points of interest including the Nationality Rooms in the Charles Klauder designed Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story gothic revival skyscraper that is the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere. Carnegie Mellon, whose campus was designed by Henry Hornbostel, is famous for its world renowned School of Computer Science, where many of today’s computer technologies were pioneered, as well as its theatre arts.
Columbia University is at 116th & Broadway in New York City. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, it was originally situated next to Trinity Church in Manhattan’s Financial District. From there, it moved to Park Place (near City Hall), then to E49th Street and Madison Avenue, and finally to its present Morningside Heights campus in 1897. The campus can be reached by the 1 train or by the M60, M104, M4, and M11 buses.
Cornell University is located in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell, the university is situated on a hill that overlooks the scenic Finger Lakes region of New York State. It also has a separate medical school campus in New York City on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Georgetown University, is in Washington, D.C. and is the oldest Jesuit university in America, founded in 1789. The university is located in the historic Georgetown neighborhood in northwest Washington. Georgetown’s campus is a combination of Gothic revival and Georgian styles. The highlight of the campus is Healy Hall which contains Gaston Hall, a richly decorated auditorium where world leaders often come to speak.
Howard University in Washington, D.C. is perhaps the best known of the historically black colleges and universities. It counts among its alumni many pre-eminent figures in the African-American community
Johns Hopkins University, is in Baltimore, Maryland, and is one of a handful of elite schools to have been a part of the ‘top ten’ club of U.S. News & World Report rankings. The park-like main campus of Johns Hopkins, Homewood, is set on 140 acres in northern Baltimore. The architecture was modeled after the Georgian-inspired Federalist style of historic Homewood House (now a museum). Hopkins was a model for most large research universities in the United States. Besides the main Homewood Campus, there is also a separate East Baltimore Campus comprising of the hospital and famed medical school, as well as the Downtown Baltimore Campus which is home to the Peabody Institute, the university’s music conservatory, and its beautiful George Peabody Library, as well as the university’s business school.
New York University (NYU) is located in Greenwich Village in New York City, near Washington Square (easily accessible via the West 4th St. subway station, which is on a mainline of the subway in lower Manhattan (“blue lines”).) The medical school is part of the Langone Medical Center on 1st Av. between 31st and 33rd Sts.
Princeton University is located in Princeton, New Jersey and is noted for its Collegiate Gothic style campus as well as the colonial-era Nassau Hall that once served as the temporary capitol of the United States. The article on the town carries more detailed information about the school. The campus can be reached by car or train from nearby New York City in about an hour, depending on traffic or train frequency.
The United States Military Academy, located in West Point, New York, established in 1802, is a four-year undergraduate federal service academy located approximately 50 miles north of New York City on the bank of the Hudson River. The academy has produced countless American military and governmental leaders, and its historic and scenic neogothic granite campus can be toured only by guide which can be arranged at the visitor’s center for a fee.
The United States Naval Academy, located in Annapolis, Maryland, is an undergraduate college that educates and commissions officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Founded in 1845, its impressive campus on the Chesapeake Bay is steeped in history, monuments, and military tradition. Its alumni include numerous individuals that have impacted United States. Tours are available year round during regular visiting hours (9AM to 5PM daily), but access to the campus requires a valid picture ID for those over the age of 16.
The University of Pennsylvania, informally known as UPenn, is located in the western region of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Penn campus is accessible by Amtrak and very close Amtrak’s 30th Street Station. Penn is integrated into Philadelphia’s urban transport grid, making it easily accessible by bus, subway, and car. Penn spans from 40th St to 32nd St, with the core of the campus between Walnut and Spruce streets.
University of Rochester is located in Rochester, New York.
Rockefeller University, located in New York City, is one of the most prestigious biomedical research institutions in the country. Only admits graduate students.
Nearly all of the East Coast universities are easily reachable by the Boston-Washington Amtrak Northeast Corridor rail line, although it is much faster to fly between far-flung cities on the Corridor (Boston to Washington is a 90-minute flight versus an eight-hour train ride on the Northeast Regional or a seven-hour ride on the more expensive Acela Express). Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. and cities between are also served by commercial bus lines, the cheapest of which are Chinatown bus services, which travel between the Chinatowns in the four major cities (as well as midtown in New York City; Chinatown in NYC is downtown, and so the buses serve both locations). Road travel, whether by bus or by car, may not be the best option for the farthest-flung points. Car travel can be a nightmare in tangled cities like Boston (home to the infamous Big Dig) and New York. Renting or driving, however, does afford one the most freedom of movement.
The California Institute of Technology, popularly known as Caltech, is located in Pasadena, California. By air, fly in to Burbank Airport and take one of several shuttle buses (about $15) to campus.
Stanford University is located in Palo Alto, California and is reachable from the San Francisco airport, either by airport shuttle bus (SuperShuttle) or by car, or by a transfer from BART (starting at the San Francisco Airport) to the rail line Caltrain at the Millbrae stop, then continuing on to Palo Alto on Caltrain. The “Marguerite” shuttle travels throughout Palo Alto serving the Stanford campus. An alternative is the smaller San Jose airport, which is closer to the Stanford campus than SFO. The university operates a free art museum on campus with a large collection of works by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) is arguably the most prestigious public university in the United States, and is located in Berkeley, California and is reachable from the San Francisco airport as well as the Oakland airport. From San Francisco International Airport (SFO IATA), take the BART train to the Downtown Berkeley stop. From Oakland International Airport, drive or take a shuttle ($2 USD) to the Oakland Coliseum/Airport BART stop, which you can then take to the Downtown Berkeley stop.
University of California, Los Angeles, more commonly known as UCLA is located in Westwood in Los Angeles, California.
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) is located in La Jolla, California, a beachside community in San Diego.
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), located in San Francisco, is one of the country’s most prestigious medical, dental, pharmacy and nursing schools, as well as one of its most prestigious biomedical research institutions. Only admits graduate students.
University of Southern California (USC) is located in Los Angeles, California.
University of Washington (UW; locally “U-Dub”) is located in Seattle, Washington, in the University District.
Travel to the West Coast can occur through a variety of routes, but most will fly into San Francisco or Los Angeles. For cheaper rates, consider flying into Sacramento or Ontario (California), and renting a car for travel. The most famous universities on the West Coast are difficult to reach with public transportation and are in some of the heaviest auto traffic areas in the United States. Ask locals about “rush hour” times (the busiest traffic). The fastest route to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles is taking Interstate 80 out of San Francisco, changing to Interstate 580 in Oakland and merging onto Interstate 5 in the Central Valley; US Highway 101 is more direct but is a slower and longer drive, expect traffic bottlenecks south of San Jose and west of Thousand Oaks.
Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois (just north of Chicago), with its medical and law schools next to Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago. Evanston is easily accessible from Chicago using public transport, with the Foster and Noyes stations on the Purple Line of the Chicago ‘L’ being at walking distance from Northwestern’s main campus. The closest station to the medical and law schools is Chicago station on the Red Line.
The University of Chicago is a private university located principally in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Founded in 1890 by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost research institutions. The world’s first nuclear reactor, which would later lead to the development of the first nuclear bomb, was developed here by Enrico Fermi in 1942. The neo-gothic campus is bisected by the Midway Plaisance which is a remnant of the 1893 World’s Fair. The university’s Oriental Institute is one of the world’s foremost authorities in Ancient Near East history and archaeology, and operates a free museum where you can view many of the artifacts they have excavated.
The University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign (UIUC) is located on the border between Champaign and Urbana, Illinois.
The University of Michigan main campus is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, near Metro Detroit.
The University of Minnesota is one of the largest universities (in terms of student population and landmass) in the U.S. Its main campus is in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the agricultural buildings located in St. Paul. There is a free bus that travels to each section of the university.
The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic university located in South Bend, Indiana. The university, founded in 1842 by the French priest, Fr. Edward Sorin, is renowned for a picturesque campus. Popular attractions include the Oxford-inspired South Dining Hall, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Lakes of St. Mary and St. Joseph, University of Notre Dame Stadium (the House that Rockne Built), the Grotto, the Main Building with its namesake Golden Dome, and the Hesburgh Library, famous for its colossal “Word of Life” mosaic commonly referred to as “Touchdown Jesus”.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is located between the shores of Lake Mendota and the Wisconsin Capital Building in the downtown isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin. It is noted for its picturesque campus, Big Ten athletics, and vibrant downtown.
Washington University in Saint Louis is located in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Midwest is a in general a very car dependent region of the US, so renting or bringing your car is for the most part the best way to get around. The Chicago metropolitan area is fairly accessible by public transport, and Northwestern University is accessible on the Chicago “L”. The University of Chicago is surrounded by rough neighbourhoods, so care should be taken travelling to the campus.
The College of William & Mary, one of the oldest universities in the country, is located in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. The campus is noted for the Sir Christopher Wren Building which is the oldest college building in the United States and a National Historic Landmark.
Duke University, one of the South’s most prestigious universities, is located in Durham, North Carolina. The Gothic-inspired Duke Chapel is the tallest building on campus and is the University’s most notable landmark. Just south of the Chapel on Chapel Drive is the Undergraduate Admissions Office, where tours of the university are offered on a daily basis. Duke maintains for visitors that provides more detailed information. Duke’s campus can be reached off exits from the 15-501 freeway.
Emory University, is in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. Several original buildings on this campus were designed by Henry Hornbostel, who incorporated local stone and materials in the Georgia marble and red terracotta tile of the structures to give the campus a unique style.
Rice University located in Houston, is one of the most noted schools in Texas. Its campus is designed primarily in the Byzantine architectural style and it is noted for the Lowrey Arboretum which is spread throughout the grounds.
Tulane University is a private, nonsectarian research university located in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. Founded as a public medical college in 1834, the school grew into a comprehensive university in 1847 and was eventually privatized under the endowments of Paul Tulane and Josephine Louise Newcomb in 1884. Tulane is a member of the Association of American Universities and the colloquial Southern Ivy League.
The University of the South is located in Sewanee in the state of Tennessee. It is generally ranked as the best liberal arts college in the southern United States, having graduated 26 Rhodes Scholars. The university domain is some 13,000 acres (52 square kilometers), mostly forested with trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Texas A&M University is located in College Station in east-central Texas. Founded as a military school and still home to over 2,000 military cadets, A&M has a very large campus of over 5,500 acres (22 square kilometers), over 50,000 students (now mostly civilians), and enough distinctive traditions to fill books. See this page for just a few of them.
The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) is located in Austin, the capital of Texas. If Texas A&M in College Station is Sparta, UT and Austin are Athens. Diverse and liberally tolerant, the campus of the University of Texas in Austin sports Spanish revival architecture. With more than 50,000 students, UT is both one of the largest and most highly regarded public universities in the southern US. Austin, a large liberal metropolitan city, is an island of liberalism in Texas and is located along I-35.
The University of Texas at El Paso, more commonly known as UTEP (pronounced “you-tep”), is in El Paso at the far western edge of Texas. While not as academically prestigious as either UT Austin or A&M, it is notable for its unique campus architecture. Almost every building on campus is designed in the style of a dzong, a Bhutanese monastic fortress.
The University of Virginia (UVA; the letters are pronounced separately) is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the most prestigious public universities in the country, UVA was founded by Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and two-term U.S. President. Much of Jefferson’s original design for the central Grounds (what would be called a “campus” at most other schools) survives, and UVA is the only university in the U.S. designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. He considered the University so important a legacy that he directed that his gravestone include his status as founder of the University, to the exclusion of his U.S. Presidency.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill, or just UNC) is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was the first state-supported university in the U.S. to admit and graduate students as a public institution, though not the first such school to be chartered (the University of Georgia has the latter distinction; in addition, William & Mary has been a public institution since 1906). The Duke and UNC campuses can easily be visited in a single trip, or even a single day, as they are only 8 miles/13 km apart.
Vanderbilt University, sometimes shortened to “Vandy”, is a private research university located in Nashville, Tennessee, founded by shipping and railroad tycoon “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1873. Vanderbilt’s campus is approximately 1.5 miles from downtown Nashville, the campus itself is a national arboretum and features over 300 different species of trees and shrubs. Today, Vanderbilt’s park-like 330 acre campus is cited as an example of romantic architecture. Vanderbilt is located on West End Avenue, which may be accessed by I-40 or I-440.
Baylor College of Medicine, located in Houston, Texas, is one of the nation’s premier medical schools and a major biomedical research hub. Only admits graduate students.
The southern United States is a large geographic area with an excellent network of interstate highways connecting major metropolitan areas. Nashville, Tennessee is a centrally located city in the south and may be accessed by Nashville International Airport. In some cases, however, driving in between southern cities may take a prohibitive amount of time and flying to certain locations (e.g., Texas) from other parts of the south may be more efficient.
Canada’s universities are also extremely popular with foreign students, but there isn’t nearly the same variation between them as in the United States. Unlike in the U.S., Canadian schools are almost all funded by the government and fees are capped (for Canadians, anyway), so there isn’t the same cutthroat competition for wealthy students and donors on the basis of reputation. Nevertheless, the oldest and largest schools do have a certain caché. The biggest schools are all part the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities.