Looking Beyond Ivy Leagues 

With high-quality education, smaller classes and diverse programs, lesser-known U.S. colleges open doors of opportunities beyond the more well-known institutions. 

By Paromita Pain

October 2022

Looking Beyond Ivy Leagues 

More students are looking at lesser-known institutions offering high-quality education, and exploring community colleges as well for technical or professional training that often serve as stepping stones to transfer to four-year institutions. (Photograph courtesy Hillsborough Community College)

An education in the United States can be life-changing. But finding a college that suits a student’s academic interests and is affordable at the same time is no easy task. Luckily, the United States has a variety of colleges and universities that can suit students from every walk of life—whether it is in terms of passions, prospects or finances

Education fairs, interactive sessions with EducationUSA advisers and even the internet can help students find schools that fit their needs, opening doors of opportunities beyond the more well-known institutions.

Unnati Singhania, EducationUSA adviser at USIEF Kolkata, says students can start their research by dividing their shortlist into different categories for increased chances of admission and scholarships. She recommends creating lists with some schools from their “dream” range, where the student’s profile is slightly lesser than the average students of that college, some in the “match” range, where their profile is similar to the average students and some in the “reach” range, where their profile is better than the average students. 

“We ask students to keep an open mind. There are more than 4,700 accredited higher education institutions in the United States with some great programs and affordable options,” she says. Singhania also recommends exploring Colleges that Change Lives, a book and website showcasing lesser-known and affordable colleges for international students.

Beyond rankings

When looking for the right school that checks all the important boxes, it may be helpful to look beyond rankings and into what a school offers and how it matches individual needs. “I encourage students to look beyond rankings. Rankings are not assigned by the U.S. government, but instead by private companies which use many variables in their calculations that may not put the student’s success first,” explains Singhania.

She shares her own story of selecting the College of Wooster, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, where she was awarded a 45 percent merit-based international student scholarship and completed a double major in business economics and psychology. “Then I did my post-degree work experience in Chicago by smartly using the alumni circle and career services,” she says. 

High quality institutions 

Today, more students are following this path and looking at lesser-known institutions offering high-quality education, and exploring community colleges as well for technical or professional training that often serve as stepping stones to transfer to four-year institutions. 

Sohini Mukherjee recently graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in biology (cell and molecular biology track) from Lycoming College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. She got to know about Lycoming College at an EducationUSA university fair. Besides her biology research, Mukherjee nurtured her poetry writing skills by working with her English professors and participated in a summer research experience with the religious studies department. “Every professor at Lycoming was hardworking and kind,” she says. Mukherjee is now enrolled in  Pennsylvania State University for graduate studies. 

“Our students are not anonymous faces in a crowd of 300 in a lecture hall. Instead, their individual strengths and needs are known to their professors,” says Marleni Feinstein, special assistant to the president for international initiatives, and international student adviser at Lycoming. 

Colleges like Lycoming, where students and faculty can build meaningful relationships in small classes are a draw for international students looking to make the most of their education opportunity in the United States. Rohit Raj, a student from a village in Bihar is a sophomore studying physics at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, and winner of the Next Genius scholarship offered by the college. 


Like many students, he also considered shifting to “better-known” colleges like California Institute of Technology and Stanford University after the first year. But he decided to stay back at Juniata for a variety of reasons, including the financial support offered by the college and its eagerness to provide Raj with the resources he needs to excel. “After I told them [Juniata College] I was planning on going, they did everything they could to support me. They asked me what I wanted and why I was looking for a transfer, and tried to provide everything for me,” he says. “Just looking at their intent and the way they wanted to provide me with everything [I needed], I decided this was the place for me and I didn’t pursue a transfer.” 

Raj now plans to attend graduate school in the United States, and to earn a Ph.D., ideally at the intersection of particle physics and cosmology. 

Community colleges

Besides offering the advantage of smaller classes and personalized interaction, community colleges have programs that help students go on to advanced degrees with more ease. Hillsborough Community College in Florida has a wide range of associate degree programs, dedicated student support services at its Center for International Education and seamless transfer to four-year universities.  

Similarly, community college like Lone Star College in Texas specializes in quality higher education, which enables its graduates to transfer to institutions like Duke, Rice and Cornell universities. “We also offer extensive out-of-the-classroom programming to strengthen students’ transferability and success,” says Perzen Akolawala, director of international programs at Lone Star College. “Engineering seminars in participation with the NASA/Texas Space Grant Consortium, congressional internships, Model United Nations, pre-professional leadership training and international capstone travel are just a few of the wide-ranging cocurricular opportunities that round out a robust curriculum.” 

Welcoming international students 

Smaller institutes are extremely welcoming of international students. For instance, Beloit College, a private liberal arts institution in Wisconsin, is home to a diverse international community comprising students from over 40 countries. Hernan Santacruz’19, assistant director of international admissions at Beloit College, emphasizes that Indian students and international students thrive in the college and contribute to the community in significant ways. Saumyaa Gupta, a junior at Beloit, is majoring in political science and psychology with a minor in philosophy, and loves doing research in the field of international diplomacy, peace and conflict studies and human rights law. “Initially, my focus was on big public schools. However, when my high school teacher told me about Beloit, I found that Beloit wasn’t like the typical college I had seen on YouTube or in shows on Netflix,” she says. “Even before applying, Beloit went above and beyond to get to know me as a person and made me feel like I belonged.”  

Finding the right choice 

According to Singhania, attending EducationUSA’s university-led webinars, in-person interactions and virtual fairs are a few ways to explore more universities and expand the shortlist of schools for applications. She also suggests conducting basic research on colleges of interest to find if they have the specializations and resources to enable students to reach their career goals. “Tech savvy students are more aware of their choices than ever before. It is tough to fool them with brand names if the programs do not match their interests and subject choices,” she says.

While looking for funding options in case of a transfer plan, she suggests that students study the fineprint. “They should check if they will qualify for a scholarship in their last two years when transferring to a four-year U.S. institute to complete their bachelor’s degrees. They may compare the cost of attendance after this transfer process with going to a lesser-known, affordable four-year institution and then make an informed choice.”

 Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.


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