What makes a university prestigious?

Is it that they are harder and more rigorous? My intuition would tell me that the more prestigious a university is, the harder should be the curriculum and the fewer people should be able to graduate from it since the curriculum is so hard. I expected, for example, that Harvard should have a very low graduation rate since it is so prestigious and thus should be hard to study at. As far as I know, that does not seem to be the case in the US and a high graduation is supposed to be a good thing. Is that so? If so how do universities manage to maintain both quality and quantity of graduates?

All in all, I have always assumed that a big part of what makes a university prestigious is how hard it is to study there. Is that so in the US?

  • 5
    That's an awfully lot of questions for one post.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 20:07
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    Someone once noted that Harvard is such a vast storehouse of knowledge because the first year students bring so much with them and the graduates take so little away.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 20:09
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    Some of these questions can be answered by a simple internet search. Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 20:26
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    Also: closely related; perhaps the same question from a different angle: Why are high pass rates for courses considered acceptable in the US?.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 22:13
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    You've posted a lot of questions comparing the US to Russia, in Russia are universities considered prestigious only when a lot of their students fail out? Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 23:06

2 Answers 2


One mistake that you seem to be making, perhaps in your other questions here also, is an assumption that there is a single linear scale, or that all such linear scales are aligned. That isn't the case. The space is multidimensional. It isn't even completely well defined except that there are a finite number of universities at any given moment.

Basically, though, a university gains (or "tends to" gain) prestige when it does a good job on many of the varied parts of its defined mission, which is usually more than just undergraduate education. This good job needs to be recognized and usually recognized over a long period of time.

A place like Harvard is nearly four hundred years old and has been recognized in both teaching and research. It has many "Schools" with different missions. Law, Engineering, Math, the Humanities... It has a great library.

Almost every US state has one or more high prestige state funded universities. Some have several. They do a good job throughout their mission over long periods and it gets generally recognized.

A few other high prestige places, like Olin are much younger (50 years) with a limited mission, but they do a good job and it eventually gets recognized. It is the recognition of a job done well that brings the prestige, not the fact that it is hard or expensive.

With the prestige comes the ability to be selective in both students and faculty, making entry harder. If only good students and good faculty are present, then it is clearer that the place does a good job and prestige increases. The match between students and universities isn't random. Scandals, on the other hand can result in a setback.

But, for the students accepted at a "hard" prestigious university, the difficulty is about the same as at a more modest place with, perhaps, less accomplished students. So, you are unlikely to see any discrepancy in graduation rates. What you will see, perhaps, is a discrepancy of the ratio of graduates going to grad school or not, or the ratio of students going into academia vs industry.

The process of prestige building can be slow. My undergraduate institution has always done a good job but its prestige has increased greatly over the more than 50 years since I attended. It has been consistently good at its mission, which doesn't include doctoral study. Some places do a good job but its recognition is only local, so prestige may be less than otherwise. Lots of moving parts.

Building prestige (good students, faculty, research, ...) usually takes a lot of money, so the ability to attract it is a factor. Get a lot of NSF grants and prestige may go up.

Some very small colleges with a limited mission make the grade (Wellesley) because they send graduates to good grad schools and have a highly qualified faculty.

Having widely recognized faculty with a wide public presence is a big plus (Cornell, Carl Sagan).

Lots of dimensions.

  • I have heard that a large number of international students is considered a good thing. My intuition and experience tell me that a large number of people who barely speak the language and aren't integrated into the culture is anything but good. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 9:02

As a rough guideline, for undergraduate education, prestige is basically selectivity. A university is more prestigious if it is harder to be admitted when someone applies to go to that university.

This does correlate to some version of quality of education for two reasons. One is that more people apply to go to universities that do a better job. (Actually, it's not clear; maybe it's just that more people apply to universities that are more prestigious, making this a self-reinforcing cycle.) As a result, those universities can choose which applicants to admit. A second reason is that, when a university has better students, it can run classes that teach material more quickly and at a higher level, because it does not need to cater to weaker students.

Of course, it's entirely possible that people want to go to Harvard because being admitted to Harvard is a signal that you're capable no matter what education you get afterwards, and it's hard to prove to a third party that you were admitted to Harvard if you don't go there.

(Only 4.6% of applicants to Harvard for 2022 were admitted.)


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