Many colleges spend years planning and implementing new strategies. It’s vitally important for a college to work to an ambitious yet achievable plan. Some college plans stand out for their vision. The 30 colleges in this article all have major goals for the next 10 years and the potential to achieve those goals.
Naturally, every college has its own specific priorities, meaning that no two college strategic plans are alike. But while every college strategic plan is unique, there are broad ambitions that every US college should strive for, whether they’re one of America’s oldest institutions or a relatively new place of learning. Every college in America should hope to improve the quality of its education continuously. Every college should hope to expand its areas of expertise. And every college should hope to make the world a better place. These three factors are of paramount importance in this ranking.
Of course, 2020 meant that colleges across the world had to adapt to extreme changes. In many ways, coronavirus and the calls for racial justice were tests of college strategic planning. If a college managed to handle the crises well while achieving its aims, it shows that the college is on track to achieve its long-term goals. Therefore, this article looks at how colleges adapted their goals to the 2020 crises in assessing the feasibility of their strategies.
Any one of the colleges below is a strong choice for a student who wants to attend a university with both ambitious goals and the demonstrated ability to accomplish those goals. But it’s also possible that none of the following colleges are right for you. If that’s the case, then this article can still be a vital resource. Each entry contains a summary of what the college’s goals are and how it is achieving them. These have been included for you to compare and contrast with your own college options. If any college you’re considering has similar goals as the following institutions, then that’s a strong sign that it’s a college worth attending!
The research for this article comes from a range of sources that indicate college ambition. This includes the statistics of colleges gaining significant funding, colleges that are attracting talent, and colleges demonstrating that they are making a strong impact on society. These sources are as follows:
- National Science Foundation: Rankings by total R&D expenditures
- US News, 10 Colleges Where the Most Alumni Donate
- Insider, The 25 Best Colleges for Students Who Want to Change the World
- Times Higher Education, Impact Rankings 2020
- US News, Most Innovative Schools
- Niche, 2021 Colleges with the Best Professors
After selecting the most highly cited colleges in the above sources, we researched each college’s strategic plans and aims for the next decade. This research formed the final ranking.
The ranking criteria for this article are as follows: Evidence of ambitious goals, evidence of ability to achieve ambitious goals, evidence of college goals benefiting student education/society, and combined ranking on the source lists.
The ranking, from 30 to one is as follows:
30. St. Lawrence University
Canton, New York
In 2021, St. Lawrence University released an action plan for improving its diversity and inclusion. This plan’s overall mission is to “create an empowering and supportive University environment that welcomes, values, considers, and respects every person and idea.” To do this, the college has created a range of short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals. The first assessment of this plan’s success will take place in the 2022-2023 academic year. Insider names St. Lawrence University the 10th best college for students who want to change the world.
29. Mercer University
One of the imperatives in Mercer University’s current strategic plan is to grow itself as a place of discovery and innovation. Part of this mission includes surpassing $60 million in yearly National Science Foundation research expenditures by 2028. This discovery and innovation funding is going strong in 2021. For example, in January 2021, two of the college’s school of medicine faculty members were able to gain over $407,000 in funding to develop an antiviral drug for herpesvirus. Insider states that Mercer University is the 11th best college for students who want to change the world.
28. Elon University
Elon, North Carolina
Elon University created a 10-year plan called Boldly Elon. They consulted with thousands of members of the college’s community to bring this together. The college’s final plan has four goals: to make bold innovations in learning, to build a healthier and more inclusive community, to develop lifelong networks, and to expand its admissions footprint. In 2021, the college is continuing to expand its networks and make the world a better place. For instance, the college’s physical therapy faculty members and students have recently created a flexible program “that positively impacts healthcare disparities” by engaging with differences with sensitivity. US News considers Elon University to be the 10th most innovative college in America.
27. University of Massachusetts, Amherst
The current strategic plan at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was formed with the vision of shaping “a sustainable financial strategy.” But the plan also aims to “dramatically improve every aspect” of the college. In 2021, the college sought to improve its equality by launching the Black Presence Initiative, highlighting the role of African American contributions to the college. Niche placed the University of Massachusetts, Amherst at 92nd for having the best professors in America. Times Higher Education names the college’s system as being between 101st to 200th on a global list of colleges making an impact. National Science Foundation states the college had the 104th highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
26. Florida International University
In 2020, Florida International University released a new strategic plan. This plan had the overall vision of the college being recognized as a top 50 public university. One of the key ways it aims to achieve this goal is to “amplify learner success & institutional affinity.” A large part of achieving this goal is ensuring that the college’s students graduate in a timely fashion. In 2021, Quality Matters stated that the college’s online courses were number one in the nation, showing that the college is well prepared to increase online learning. Times Higher Education ranks Florida International University as being between 101st to 200th in its list of the most impactful colleges globally. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 123rd highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
25. Northeastern University
The current strategic plan that Northeastern University uses focuses upon building networks and using technology to allow people to learn from anywhere. Naturally, these goals adapted well to coronavirus. This heavily networked and portable approach to learning can be seen in many of the college’s decisions. For instance, in February 2021, the college announced that it would soon allow its faculty and staff members to purchase take-home coronavirus testing kits. US News considers Northeastern University to be the 11th most innovative college in America. Niche considers it to have the 85th best professors. National Science Foundation notes that it had the 135th highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
24. University of Washington
The current strategic plan used by the University of Washington was launched in 2011. However, it is updated every two years. The current iteration of the strategic plan has a range of ambitious goals for the college. Perhaps the most impressive are its two transformation goals of embracing technological/interdisciplinary collaboration and investing in people/infrastructure. The college achieves these goals by running a range of initiatives. One of the most effective initiatives at the college is The Innovation Imperative. Since coronavirus, this initiative has focused on engineering innovation to improve medicine. National Science Foundation notes that the University of Washington had the fifth-highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
23. Amherst College
In 2015, Amherst College launched a strategic plan for its next decade. In this plan, the college outlined seven major priorities. One priority, “Developing bold and exemplary approaches to financial, environmental, and institutional sustainability,” is advancing well, especially in regards to the environment. The college believes that it will reach climate neutrality by the year 2030. US News notes that Amherst College has the joint fifth-highest number of alumni donations of any American college. Niche considers the college’s professors to be the 64th best in America.
22. The University of Wisconsin, Madison
In 2020, The University of Wisconsin, Madison released a new strategic plan. One of the goals of this plan is to expand the college’s access by developing new modes of educational delivery. Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic tested this goal. However, the college has helped students stay on track during the pandemic. For instance, it created the UW-Madison Emergency Student Support Fund and provided many other basic needs resources. In 2021, it extended its reach by adding four new degrees to its online programs. National Science Foundation notes that in 2017, The University of Wisconsin, Madison had the sixth-highest research and design expenditure.
21. Wellesley College
By 2026, Wellesley College aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from on-campus activities by 37% compared to 2010 levels. This is just one of the many goals in the college’s current sustainability plan. In 2020, the college launched the Camilla Chandler Frost ’47 Center for the Environment. This center uses student ambassadors to foster a range of environmental initiatives. The center opened thanks to the alumnus Chandler Frost’s large donation. It demonstrates how the college is able to incorporate alumni donations into its strategic planning. US News notes that Wellesley College saw the joint sixth highest percentage of alumni donations of any American college between 2017 to 2019. Niche considers the college to have America’s 60th best professors.
20. Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire
Niche names Dartmouth College’s professors as the fifth-best in America. And US News notes that 44% of alumni donated to the college between 2017 to 2019. Lastly, National Science Foundation notes that Dartmouth College had the 76th highest research and design expenditure in 2017. At present, Dartmouth College has nine major strategic priorities. These priorities range from broad aims to specific physical changes. For instance, the second goal is to create leaders through experiential learning, but the third goal is to transform the west end of its campus into a creative and collaborative innovation hub. And in May 2020, the college’s president announced that he was creating a commission to champion new access and affordability strategies, which will ensure that more of the college’s strategic priorities can be met.
19. Macalester College
Saint Paul, Minnesota
In 2015, Macalester College announced its plan for the next 10 years. Of the many goals in this document, perhaps the most interesting is the college’s dedication to making the path from college to careers more accessible to students. The college called for its entire community to take up this initiative. By 2018, the college had seen success in this area, with its Career Development Office expanding staffing and the Civic Engagement Center expanding its programming. This career access goal has adapted well to coronavirus. For example, when many summer internships were canceled due to the pandemic, four of the college’s departments collaborated to make the Mac Project Corps, which assigned students as virtual consultants for a range of businesses, nonprofits, and startups. Insider considers Macalester College to be the second-best college for students who want to change the world. Niche considers the college to have the 83rd best professors in America.
18. The University of Chicago
The professors at The University of Chicago are the sixth-best in America, according to Niche. US News states that the college is the 35th most innovative in the USA. National Science Foundation states that it had the 55th highest research and design expenditure in 2017. In 2020, The University of Chicago released a three-year strategic plan. One of the goals in this plan was to promote adaptability, communication, and collaboration. The college has continued to do this during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, in February 2021, the college hosted a virtual event that discussed race, politics, and the importance of building coalitions with four African American mayors of US cities.
17. University of Georgia
Growth is a major theme in the University of Georgia’s current strategic plan. Its three main growth focuses are upon research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The college is on track to grow in these areas, despite the difficulties of 2020. For example, in 2021, a postdoctoral fellow at the college’s school of public health secured a two-year $250,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study cyber dating abuse among marginalized teenagers. Niche considers the University of Georgia’s professors to be the 39th best in America. National Science Foundation notes that the college’s research and design expenditure in 2017 was the 53rd highest in America. And Times Higher Education considers the college to be between 101st to 200th for impact on a global scale.
16. American University
The current strategic plan for American University focuses on three specific areas: developing a strategic focus in the fields that the college is already excelling in, exploring new frontiers of learning, and expanding ties to communities. This plan helped the college navigate 2020 well. In fact, the college achieved some considerable milestones in 2020, such as launching the Institute for Community Adaptation, Resilience, and Equity and launching a pilot intervention program for at-risk first-year students to help these students remain in college. US News considers American University to be the 35th most innovative college in America. Times Higher Education considers the college to rank between 101st to 200th in the world for impact. And National Science Foundation states that the college had the 190th highest research and design expenditure of any American college in 2017.
15. Pennsylvania State University
The current strategic plan at Pennsylvania State University lasts until 2025. This plan has five major priorities: transforming education, enhancing health, stewarding the planet’s resources, advancing the arts/humanities, and empowering with digital innovation. In 2020 and 2021, the college maintains these goals, thanks to a range of innovative programs. For example, in late 2020, the college’s Studio for Sustainability and Social Action asked its community’s artists and creators for community-based art projects aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Times Higher Education considers Pennsylvania State University to be the 35th most impactful college in the world. Niche names the college’s professors the 48th best in America. US News considers the college to be the 68th most innovative in America. And National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 23rd highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
14. Georgia Institute of Technology
In 2020, the Georgia Institute of Technology released its strategic plan for the next decade. This plan had six main focus areas: to amplify impact, champion innovation, connect globally, expand access, cultivate well-being, and lead by example. Since coronavirus came to the US, the college has maintained its goals. For instance, in August 2020, the college announced that it would lead a technology coalition to advance inclusive innovation across Georgia. US News considers Georgia State University to be the fourth most innovative college in America. Niche states that it has the 90th best professors in America. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 24th highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
13. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
US News names Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the second most innovative college in America. Niche considers the college’s professors to be the 12th best in America. National Science Foundation states that the college has the 14th highest research and design expenditure. And Times Higher Education ranks the college to be among the 101st to 200th most impactful colleges in the world. In 2017, the college released its global strategy. The college outlined seven goals, which all focused on improving the college’s global activities. For instance, goal number six is to strengthen the college’s governance of international activities. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has maintained its global initiatives despite the travel restrictions brought on by coronavirus. In 2021, the college launched a cross-platform podcast that connected MIT’s activities to the world.
12. Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
In 2018, Purdue University added five new initiatives to its strategic plan. These initiatives are to improve online learning, position the college at the forefront of advancing data science, strengthen its approach to addressing diseases, increase three-year degree options, and develop the Purdue Polytechnic High School. In 2021, the data science goals of the college received a major boost. A 5G living lab was announced, which will open in June. This 5G lab will provide an opportunity for companies to partner with the college, allowing both the college and the companies to develop and test a range of new technologies. US News considers Purdue University to be the fifth most innovative college in America. Niche considers the college’s professors to be the 36th best in America. National Science Foundation stated that the college had the 37th highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
11. Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey
In 2019, Princeton University announced major updates to its strategic plan. Thanks to a large financial gift, the college was able to plan to expand its student body by constructing two new residential colleges. Additionally, this update moved forward the college’s plans to create a new campus south of Lake Carnegie. And the college’s expansion plans have continued ahead despite coronavirus. For example, in late 2020, the college received another financial gift to build yet another residential college, projected to open in 2026. Princeton University is leading the nation in terms of alumni donations. According to US News, 55% of alumni donated money to the college between 2017 to 2019. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 72nd highest research and design expenditure in 2017. US News’s other article names it the 22nd most innovative college. Niche considers the college’s professors to be the 10th best in America.
10. Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
Niche considers Duke University to have the third-best professors of any US college. US News believes the college to be the 14th most innovative in America. National Science Foundation notes that in 2017, the college spent the eighth-most on research and design. In 2017, Duke University adopted a new strategic plan. This plan took over two years to form. Over this time, the college engaged with a wide range of community members, ensuring unity in the plan’s aims. The final plan, Together Duke, created four goals to strive for over the next decade. These goals are to invest in faculty, provide transformative education, strengthen the capacity to address worldwide challenges, and create a supportive campus culture. These goals are currently being achieved, thanks to a number of initiatives that the college is running. And these initiatives have adapted to societal goals. For instance, in 2020, the diversity initiative adopted new anti-racism measures.
9. Carnegie Mellon University
When Carnegie Mellon University released its latest strategic plan, the college’s claimed that “CMU research, innovation, and creativity will help shape the 21st century.” This plan’s goals focused on three areas, namely individual experience, the university community, and societal impact. Despite the difficulties of 2020, Carnegie Mellon University is still on track to achieve its goals. For instance, in 2021, the college became one of the 21 institutions that form Wellcome Leap Health Breakthrough Networking, dedicated to fighting the world’s most pressing health issues. US News considers Carnegie Mellon University to be the eighth most innovative college in America. Niche believes that the college has the 25th best professors in America. And National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 71st highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
8. Rice University
According to Niche, Rice University has the fourth-best professors of any US college. US News names it the 18th most innovative college in America. And National Science Foundation notes that in 2017, it had the 126th highest research and design expenditure in America. In 2018, Rice University unveiled a plan for the next decade. This plan has seven broad goals: to provide transformative education, build renowned graduate programs, invest in faculty, expand inclusiveness, elevate research achievement, extend the impact, and engage with Houston. In late 2020, the college’s president confirmed that the college was meeting its goals despite coronavirus. For instance, the college managed to gain $100 million in funding for its Institute of Advanced Metals. And it also expanded efforts to confront racism, such as by creating a vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
7. Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, New York
In 2019, Stony Brook University updated its strategy. The most ambitious aim within this strategy is to make the college “the region’s undisputed leader in improving economic growth, health, and quality of life.” In 2021, there are positive signs that it is achieving this aim. For example, in February, Healthgrades named the college’s hospital one of the USA’s 100 best hospitals for the third year in a row. Additionally, Times Higher Education ranks Stony Brook University as being between 101st to 200th in terms of colleges worldwide that are making an impact. National Science Foundation states that the college had the 95th highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
6. The Ohio State University
Improving academic healthcare is one of the main goals of The Ohio State University’s current strategic plan. In 2020, this aim continued to advance, with the college beginning the construction of the Wexner Medical Center Inpatient Hospital. This hospital will be 1.9 million square feet and is scheduled to open in 2026. Times Higher Education considers The Ohio State University to be between 101st to 200th on a global scale of the world’s most impactful colleges. US News names the college the 25th most innovative in America. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 22nd highest research and design expenditure in 2017.
5. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In 2020, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, approved a new strategic plan. The college’s chancellor stated that the entire plan had the goal of making the college “the leading global public research university in the nation.” And the college is proceeding with these goals, despite coronavirus. For instance, in late 2020, it opened the KickStart Accelerator, which provided faculty members with an innovative and collaborative startup innovation space. National Science Foundation notes that The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill had the 11th highest research and design expenditure in 2017. Times Higher Education considers it to be the world’s 22nd most impactful college. US News believes that it is the 50th most innovative college. And Niche names the college’s professors the 52nd best in America.
4. Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island
Niche considers the professors at Brown University to be the second-best in America. Insider states that it is the seventh-best college for students who want to change the world. US News considers the college to be the 20th most innovative. National Science Foundation states that the college had the 103rd highest research and design expenditures in 2017. In 2019, Brown University reached the mid-point of its current strategic plan. It proved that the college was on track to achieving its aims. For instance, its students had been able to earn more Fulbright scholarships “than those from any other university in the nation.” Additionally, during this time, the college invested over $528 million in capital projects. Overall, Brown University’s current strategic plan aims to build on its integration of different subjects, strengthen community investments and strengthen its campus and virtual campus. The college has indeed increased its community ties, even in the face of social distancing. For example, in 2021, the college was strengthened its partnership with United Way of Rhode Island and committed to working with the organization for another four years.
3. Stanford University
One of the most impressive goals of Stanford University’s current vision is to build pathways to impact. This goal has a range of programs that seek to cause impacts in different areas. For instance, the Innovative Medicines Accelerator aims to “change the paradigm of biomedical research by accelerating the translation of breakthroughs in the understanding of disease into innovative therapies and cures.” Naturally, in 2020, this program turned its attention to coronavirus. In fact, the accelerator focused its entire attention on the pandemic in May 2020. US News names Stanford University the sixth most innovative college in America. Niche considers the college’s professors to be the 11th best in America. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 10th highest research and design expenditure in 2017. Inside names Stanford the 22nd best for students who want to change the world.
2. Arizona State University
US News believes that Arizona State University is the most innovative college in America. Times Higher Education considers it to be the fifth most impactful college in the world. National Science Foundation notes that the college had the 44th highest research and design expenditure in 2017. And Niche considers its professors to be the 95th best in America. These rankings indicate that Arizona State University is in a fine place to achieve its ambitious goals, such as becoming “the leading American center for discovery and scholarship in the integrated social sciences, and comprehensive arts and sciences.” And the college is using this goal to highlight current issues in the USA. For instance, a 2021 study revealed how NFL coaches have been mostly white men over the last 20 years, showing the need for greater diversity in this area.
1. Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut
Niche considers Yale University to have the best professors of any American college. National Science Foundation states that its research and design expenditures have been increasing over the last several years. By 2017, the college had the 15th highest research and design expenditures of any American college. US News considers the college to be the joint 30th most innovative school in America. In 2019, Yale University adopted a new global strategy. This plan had the following goals: preparing students for global citizenry and leadership, becoming a worldwide leader on global issues, and becoming the college with the most effective worldwide networks. It achieves these goals by opening a new school of global affairs, supporting international activities across the college’s other schools, and more. The college has maintained its global goals in the wake of coronavirus. For instance, the college’s economists have provided the Indian Government with research to help the country’s most vulnerable groups.
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