The Decade's Hottest Schools

The past 10 years transformed the collegiate landscape, creating a whole new class of first-choice schools. Kathleen Kingsbury on 15 colleges that soared in the rankings.

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

1. University of Southern California

Los Angeles
Student Pop. 35,000

Stanford. Duke. Northwestern. These are just some of the schools that counselors report USC will soon surpass as one of most sought-after campuses in the country. Rachel Petrella, a counselor at California’s La Jolla Country Day School, said she once saw 40 percent of her private-school students put USC on their list—as a backup. Now, she says, it's a first-choice school for most of them. “USC has undergone an extraordinary makeover in the past decade,” Petrella says. “It’s matriculating a completely different caliber of student than it once was.” Counselors like Petrella report USC does a terrific job showcasing its academic assets, particularly the honors science college and the access to its high-tech research facilities. At the same time, its financial aid is among the most generous nationwide—a $2.4 billion endowment (though down $1.2 billion since 2008) allows more than 60 percent of students to receive some type of aid. Add in a winning athletics program—Trojan football has consistently ranked in the top 5 nationwide in recent years—and its proximity to Hollywood, and applications to the school have risen about 35 percent since 2000.

2. Vanderbilt University

Nashville, Tennessee
Student Pop. 12,514

While always a favorite for its Southern charm and tough academics, Vanderbilt accepted only 20 percent of its applicants last year, making it one of the most selective colleges in the nation. That said, this Almost Ivy is the quintessential example of the supply/demand crunch of the 2000s. Just 10 years ago, Vanderbilt admitted 59 percent of applicants. That drop is due to generous merit-aid packages—about 60 percent of undergrads receive financial aid—and its visionary former chancellor Gordon Gee. One example of the school’s marketing prowess: Under Gee’s direction, Vanderbilt spent $150 million to create freshmen-only housing in 2007 and trimmed its class size to 1,570 so all first-year students would fit into the new 10-dorm complex, called the Commons, modeled after another iconic higher-ed institution, Yale’s residential college system. The following year, applications to Vanderbilt increased 30 percent.

3. Indiana University at Bloomington

Bloomington, Indiana
Student Pop. 40,354

Whereas Wisconsin and Michigan dominated the 1990s, Indiana University is hands-down the "It" state school of the aughts. In 2008, the school had 500 more students accept admissions offers than it had planned, and about 40 percent of Hoosiers—the largest percentage in the Big 10—now hail from out-of-state. “It’s the only public school I’m considering,” says Molly Timmons, a Scarsdale, New York, high-school senior, whose main attraction to the school is, “All my friends are applying.” The pull to this picturesque research university is equally strong, if indescribable, among West Coast applicants. “Maybe because it ‘looks’ like college is supposed to, it's just a huge draw,” says independent college consultant Arun Ponnusamy. “I'm still always shocked how many kids in Malibu are willing to consider Bloomington.”

4. Elon University

Elon, North Carolina
Student Pop. 5,666

Elon graduates of the 1990s would barely recognize this Southern university today—and they’d face tough competition to get in again. The North Carolina university’s refocus on undergraduate teaching and its 14-to-one student-teacher ratio had already made it a popular choice in recent years, and its admit rate has dropped from 60 percent 10 years ago to about 40 percent today. Like USC and Tufts, Elon has “gone out of its way to recruit applicants interested in the sciences by luring them with the possibility of undergraduate research,” Petrella says. “That’s something they know they won’t get at a bigger university that has thousands of graduate students as well.” Evanston, Illinois, high-school senior Michael O’Reilly agrees. “When I visited the campus last summer, I quickly realized that I would actually get to know and work with the faculty,” the aspiring physics major says. “I think now I would even put it over Illinois, Virginia, or Michigan as my first choice.” Also see: Davidson College or Wake Forest University.

5. Tufts University

Medford, Massachusetts
Student Pop. 9,531

Despite a slight drop last year, applications to this midsize university outside Boston have increased some 80 percent in the last decade. Plus, as admissions dean Lee Coffin said in September, “The academic profile of the enrolling class [in 2009] is, arguably, the best one in Tufts’ history.” Eighty-five percent of freshman this year ranked in the top 10 percent of their high schools, and 56 were valedictorians. “Its admissions office has gone above and beyond the nitty-gritty to convince students they are ‘Tufts’ material,” Petrella says. “It has done a great job pulling away as a backup to, say, Harvard.”

6. Ohio Wesleyan University

Delaware, Ohio
Student Pop. 1,850

Founded in 1842 by Methodists, Ohio Wesleyan was once a draw mainly to future missionaries. That changed in 1996 when the private liberal-arts college was named as one of the late Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives. Pope, whose guidebook has been a bestseller for 15 years now, called OW, “one of the best academic bargains in the country.” Applications have since risen nearly fourfold from 1998 to 2008. Another bonus for parents: 95 percent of OW students receive financial aid. Also see: Ohio’s College of Wooster, Dennison College and Kenyon College.

7. Colorado College

Colorado College Colorado Springs, Colorado
Student Pop. 2,075
A scenic campus tucked into the Rocky Mountains, this private liberal arts college is one of several that has seen its application figures rise as the Ivy League became increasingly hard to crack. It accepts about 26 percent of applicants now, half the number it did in 1999. That said, many students also come West for the school’s unique "block plan," which divides the year into eight segments in which students focus on one class exclusively. “Its academics are definitely respected,” Erin Alexander, a high school senior from Newton, Massachusetts says of Colorado’s appeal. “But you can go skiing on the weekend, too.” Also see: Minnesota’s Carleton College.

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8. Washington University

St. Louis
Student Pop. 13,507

U.S. News and World Report ranks Wash U. as one of the top 15 universities in the country, so it is no surprise that it has long been admired as a Midwestern backup to the Ivies. But the St. Louis school, known for its state-of-the-art campus and research capabilities, has turned up its charm even more over the past decade and is even luring some students away from the Ivy League altogether. “Crazy, savvy marketing to parents and students with customer service that would rival the Ritz… the kids just feel wanted,” Ponnusamy says. “More than any other premier school out there, they've embraced the notion of an education as a commodity—at least in the admissions process—and deliver accordingly.” About 22 percent of applicants were admitted in 2008, compared to 40 percent 10 years earlier.

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9. Bard College

Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Student Pop. 1,996

Ten years ago, Bard College would not have even made most top high-school seniors’ lists as a safety school. It accepted more than half of its applicants. Recently, however, “the perception is that Columbia and Vassar are impossible to get into, NYU has no campus, Sarah Lawrence is weird,” Ponnusamy says, “so Bard has created a niche of cool and intellectually curious kids who can still get into the city with some regularity—even though it is hours away.” Throw in a bucolic campus and a faculty of intellectual leaders, and you've got a school whose admit rate has dropped by almost half since a decade ago. Also see: Los Angeles’ Occidental College.

10. California State University

Various campuses, California
Student Pop. 450,000

Californians have always flocked to the Golden State’s affordable and well-regarded public universities, but the nation’s largest public higher-education system can thank the economic meltdown for its recent rise in exclusivity. Cal State has announced it will cap its enrollment due to an influx of demand and severe budget cuts since 2008. Already this year, the system’s 23 campuses have seen applications rise 19 percent over the same time last year, a figure sure to continue to climb. Also see: UCLA or UC-Berkeley.

Gretchen Ertl / AP Photo

11. Rhode Island School of Design

Providence, Rhode Island
Student Pop. 2,360

Combine the glamour of reality-TV shows like Project Runway and Top Design with the enticement of potential employers like Google and Apple, and it’s no surprise that design school has become a red-hot option for high-school seniors in recent years. And RISD is the cream of the crop. The school's faculty and alumni also happen to include several bold-faced names from the hipsterati, including graphic artist Shepard Fairey (of the Obama HOPE poster), fashion designer Nicole Miller, and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Less than 30 percent of applicants get accepted. Also see: The Savannah College of Art and Design and New York’s Parsons School of Design.

12. University of St. Andrews

St. Andrews, Scotland
Student Pop. 7,258

Overseas institutions have long been attractive bargains for Americans, and Scotland’s oldest university (and Prince William’s alma mater) is no exception. More than a third of the students at St. Andrews’ come from abroad, and one academic year’s fees total less than $25,000. “The cost can be significantly less daunting for some families and a heavy factor for considering going abroad,” says Terence Giffen, director of college counseling at Connecticut’s Taft School. Also see: University of Aberdeen and Montreal’s McGill University.

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13. Washington and Lee

Lexington, Virginia
Student Pop. 2,155

In 2007, mutual-fund magnate Rupert Johnson gifted his alma mater $100 million, the largest donation in the school’s history. Most of the funds went to establishing the merit-based Johnson Scholarships, which promise a full ride to about one-tenth of freshmen each year. That’s a deal too good for some applicants to pass up, and the scholarships have made Washington and Lee a competitive option to "public Ivies" like the University of North Carolina and University of Virginia, which have long attracted top-notch students from around the country with similar honors programs.

Tim Sloan / Getty Images

14. George Washington University

Washington, D.C.
Student Pop. 25,078

Despite being one of the most expensive schools nationwide, in the first half of the decade GW went from being a safety spot for Georgetown applicants to being a destination school in its own right. Former President Stephen Trachtenberg raised millions of dollars to transform the urban Washington, D.C. campus into an asset rather than a liability. Two-thirds of GW students now come from the top 10 percent of their high-school class, and last year’s acceptance rate was about 35 percent compared to nearly 60 percent in 1999. Also see: New York University.

Mary Knox Merrill, The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

15. University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia
Student Pop. 34,180

Students and counselors report UGA’s academic cachet increases each year. That is thanks, in large part, to the state’s HOPE scholarships. Any Georgia high-school senior with a 3.0 GPA or higher qualifies, and more than $2.9 billion in aid has been meted out to students in the past 15 years. Now only 55 percent of applicants to the institution are admitted annually, a drop from nearly 70 percent in the 1990s. And as UGA has become more selective, it has caught the attention of out-of-state students as well.