Special Report

The 50 Hardest Colleges and Universities to Get Into, Ranked

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Student debt has ballooned in the United States in recent years. As of the end of 2023, Americans collectively owe some $1.73 trillion in student loans, more than double the outstanding balance at the end of 2010. With more college graduates saddled with decades of debt, many have started to question the value of a college education.

A recent Gallup poll found that the share of American adults with a high level of confidence in higher education fell from 57% in 2015 to just 36% in 2023. These attitudes are reflected in falling enrollment numbers. Since peaking at 21 million in the fall of 2010, the number of Americans attending college has declined every year. As of fall 2022, only 18.6 million Americans were attending college.

Despite the long term decline in college enrollment, data conclusively shows that a four-year college degree remains a sound investment. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the typical recent college graduate earned $60,000 in 2023, about $24,000 more than the typical worker with only a high school diploma — and for graduates of some top-tier colleges, salaries tend to be even higher. (Here is a look at the colleges with the most upward mobility.)

The U.S. is home to some of the most renowned colleges and universities in the world. With a reputation for fast-tracking graduates into rewarding careers, many top-ranked American schools review tens of thousands of applicants a year, and can only accept a small portion of them.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 50 hardest colleges and universities to get into. The schools on this list were identified using a two-part index composed of the admissions rate – the share of applicants who are offered admission – and the median SAT score among students admitted in the fall of 2022. Supplemental data on the average annual cost of attendance, median earnings 10 years after entry, and the graduation rate — or the share of students who graduate within eight years after entry — are from the U.S. Department of Education.

Every school on this list admitted fewer than one in every five applicants. For several schools on this list, the admissions rate is less than 5%. Median SAT scores at these institutions range from 1450 to 1560 out of a maximum possible score of 1600. The exact criteria these schools use to decide who is accepted varies but generally include personal statements, high school transcripts, extracurricular activities, and standardized test scores – like the SAT.

These schools include well known Ivy League institutions, like Brown, Harvard and Yale, major research institutions like Carnegie Mellon and MIT, and small liberal arts colleges and universities, like Amherst, Colgate, and Williams.

While the benefits of earning a degree from any one of the schools on this list can extend beyond the working world, incomes among former students underscore the high standing graduates from these institutions have in the job market. Median incomes among graduates 10 years after enrollment exceeds the median among all recent college graduates in all but one school on this list, and the typical graduate from many of these schools earns at least $90,000 a decade after enrolling. (Here is a look at the college majors most likely to earn six figures.)

50. University of Virginia-Main Campus

Source: Aaron Josephson / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
  • Admissions rate: 18.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 17,041 (45% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $20,507
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $80,584
  • Location: Charlottesville, VA

49. Vassar College

Source: fdastudillo / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 18.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,500 (63% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $35,236
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $64,639
  • Location: Poughkeepsie, NY

48. Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus

Source: CRobertson / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 17.1%
  • Median SAT scores: 720 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 16,554 (71% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $14,820
  • Graduation rate: 90%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $96,375
  • Location: Atlanta, GA

47. Washington and Lee University

Source: krblokhin / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 17.0%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,857 (63% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $27,417
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $84,232
  • Location: Lexington, VA

46. Boston College

Source: DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 16.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 9,757 (44% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $38,412
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $96,325
  • Location: Chestnut Hill, MA

45. Carleton College

Source: Cynthia Shirk / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 16.6%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,008 (64% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $31,800
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $70,334
  • Location: Northfield, MN

44. Tulane University of Louisiana

Source: RAUL RODRIGUEZ / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 11.5%
  • Median SAT scores: 720 in reading and writing, 730 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 8,515 (66% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $42,217
  • Graduation rate: 68%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $59,812
  • Location: New Orleans, LA

43. Franklin W Olin College of Engineering

  • Admissions rate: 19.1%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 361 (95% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $21,474
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $116,968
  • Location: Needham, MA

42. Emory University-Oxford College

  • Admissions rate: 15.0%
  • Median SAT scores: 720 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,066 (59% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $31,883
  • Graduation rate: 91%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $81,802
  • Location: Oxford, GA

41. Bates College

Source: Jennifer Yakey-Ault / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 13.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,821 (39% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $26,560
  • Graduation rate: 90%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $65,860
  • Location: Lewiston, ME

40. Colgate University

Source: RickSause / Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 12.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 3,152 (47% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $24,489
  • Graduation rate: 90%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $86,737
  • Location: Hamilton, NY

39. Wellesley College

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  • Admissions rate: 13.6%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,383 (61% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $21,561
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $75,784
  • Location: Wellesley, MA

38. Haverford College

Source: aimintang / iStock via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 14.2%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,420 (46% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $29,138
  • Graduation rate: 91%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $78,330
  • Location: Haverford, PA

37. Middlebury College

Source: Amy Li / iStock via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 12.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,837 (45% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $29,047
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $69,022
  • Location: Middlebury, VT

36. Grinnell College

Source: Wolterk / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 10.8%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 750 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,714 (89% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $28,610
  • Graduation rate: 87%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $62,529
  • Location: Grinnell, IA

35. Hamilton College

  • Admissions rate: 11.8%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,049 (54% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $26,296
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $77,214
  • Location: Clinton, NY

34. Georgetown University

Source: tabor-roeder / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 12.2%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,325 (39% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $24,570
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $101,797
  • Location: Washington, DC

33. University of Notre Dame

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  • Admissions rate: 12.9%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 8,950 (60% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $32,369
  • Graduation rate: 97%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $93,220
  • Location: Notre Dame, IN

32. Emory University

Source: aimintang / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 11.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,050 (58% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $25,424
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $81,802
  • Location: Atlanta, GA

31. Harvey Mudd College

Source: photo_fiend / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 13.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 905 (65% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $30,026
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $128,215
  • Location: Claremont, CA

30. University of Southern California

Source: EEJCC / Wikimedia Commons
  • Admissions rate: 12.0%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 20,619 (68% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $25,972
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $89,884
  • Location: Los Angeles, CA

29. Claremont McKenna College

Source: photo_fiend / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 10.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,414 (47% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $20,114
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $97,174
  • Location: Claremont, CA

28. New York University

Source: CribbVisuals / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 12.5%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 28,556 (51% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $39,565
  • Graduation rate: 85%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $79,812
  • Location: New York, NY

27. Colby College

Source: romanboed / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 7.6%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,262 (43% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $17,739
  • Graduation rate: 90%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $84,482
  • Location: Waterville, ME

26. Tufts University

Source: ekilby / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 9.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 6,628 (40% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $35,683
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $74,430
  • Location: Medford, MA

25. Washington University in St Louis

Source: warrenlemay / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 11.8%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,713 (44% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $27,595
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $90,646
  • Location: Saint Louis, MO

24. Barnard College

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
  • Admissions rate: 8.8%
  • Median SAT scores: 745 in reading and writing, 760 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 3,016 (41% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $32,514
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $74,415
  • Location: New York, NY

23. Bowdoin College

Source: pavdw / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 9.2%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,948 (53% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $16,925
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $68,211
  • Location: Brunswick, ME

22. Northeastern University

Source: DenisTangneyJr / iStock via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 6.8%
  • Median SAT scores: 730 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 15,645 (67% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $34,255
  • Graduation rate: 89%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $88,842
  • Location: Boston, MA

21. Carnegie Mellon University

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  • Admissions rate: 11.3%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 6,880 (48% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $37,846
  • Graduation rate: 83%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $111,064
  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA

20. Amherst College

Source: DenisTangneyJr / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 7.3%
  • Median SAT scores: 740 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,968 (61% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $17,304
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $81,855
  • Location: Amherst, MA

19. Williams College

Source: stu99 / iStock via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 8.5%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 2,129 (53% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $14,739
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $74,473
  • Location: Williamstown, MA

18. Pomona College

Source: the-consortium / Flickr
  • Admissions rate: 7.0%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,744 (56% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $9,170
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $74,305
  • Location: Claremont, CA

17. Swarthmore College

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  • Admissions rate: 6.9%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 770 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 1,681 (59% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $20,780
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $80,398
  • Location: Swarthmore, PA

16. Rice University

Source: aimintang / iStock Unreleased via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 8.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 4,240 (63% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $17,805
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $87,254
  • Location: Houston, TX

15. Cornell University

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  • Admissions rate: 7.5%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 15,451 (49% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $29,011
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $98,321
  • Location: Ithaca, NY

14. Northwestern University

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  • Admissions rate: 7.2%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 8,691 (54% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $28,230
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $85,796
  • Location: Evanston, IL

13. Vanderbilt University

Source: SeanPavonePhoto / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 6.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,111 (66% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $22,204
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $84,415
  • Location: Nashville, TN

12. University of Pennsylvania

Source: Lucky-photographer / Shutterstock.com
  • Admissions rate: 6.5%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 10,644 (51% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $14,851
  • Graduation rate: 97%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $112,761
  • Location: Philadelphia, PA

11. Johns Hopkins University

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  • Admissions rate: 7.3%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 5,727 (58% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $14,254
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $89,551
  • Location: Baltimore, MD

10. Princeton University

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  • Admissions rate: 5.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 5,236 (61% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $11,080
  • Graduation rate: 98%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $110,433
  • Location: Princeton, NJ

9. University of Chicago

Source: janniswerner / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 5.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,558 (55% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $22,690
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $78,439
  • Location: Chicago, IL

8. Dartmouth College

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  • Admissions rate: 6.4%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 4,533 (52% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $33,023
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $95,540
  • Location: Hanover, NH

7. Duke University

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  • Admissions rate: 6.3%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 6,883 (53% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $31,416
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $97,418
  • Location: Durham, NC

6. Columbia University in the City of New York

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  • Admissions rate: 3.9%
  • Median SAT scores: 750 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 8,832 (57% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $12,836
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $97,540
  • Location: New York, NY

5. Brown University

Source: Wolterk / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 5.1%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,125 (47% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $26,308
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $87,811
  • Location: Providence, RI

4. Yale University

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  • Admissions rate: 4.6%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 780 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 6,535 (57% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $16,341
  • Graduation rate: 97%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $95,961
  • Location: New Haven, CT

3. Stanford University

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  • Admissions rate: 3.7%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,645 (63% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $7,200
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $106,987
  • Location: Stanford, CA

2. Harvard University

Source: jorgeantonio / iStock via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 3.2%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 790 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 7,938 (46% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $13,259
  • Graduation rate: 98%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $95,114
  • Location: Cambridge, MA

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Source: diegograndi / iStock Editorial via Getty Images
  • Admissions rate: 4.0%
  • Median SAT scores: 760 in reading and writing, 800 in math
  • Undergraduate students: 4,629 (77% receive financial aid)
  • Avg. annual cost of attendance: $5,084
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Median annual earnings 10-yrs. after entry: $124,213
  • Location: Cambridge, MA

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