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Top Universities in New York City: Columbia or NYU?

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated May 19, 2021 Updated May 19, 2021
  • Columbia University and New York University (NYU) are two of the best universities in New York City.
  • Both rank highly in the QS World University Rankings: USA 2021, but which one is right for you?

One of the most famous cities in the world and a global capital of culture and business, New York City is also an important hub of higher education. There are over half a million students in NYC, and more than 100 universities and colleges, of which an impressive 13 are included in the latest QS World University Rankings: USA 2021

From this vast array of options, two universities in New York stand out from the crowd: Columbia University and New York University (NYU). These two universities in New York City are ranked joint seventh and ninth respectively in the 2021 USA rankings, and they also feature in the top 10 in several of the 51 disciplines covered in the QS World University Rankings by Subject

Between them, these two universities have produced a galaxy of famous alumni, from politicians (Barack Obama), business magnates (Warren Buffet) and writers (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac), to musicians (Lauren Hill), film directors (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen) and fashion designers (Tom Ford). 

Feel like following in their footsteps? Let’s take a closer look at each university’s strengths. 

Choosing between the two top universities in New York City 

Columbia University, traditionally seen as the academic big shot of the two, is part of the Ivy League group – America’s most historically prestigious and selective institutions. However, far from living in its rival’s shadow, NYU has an identity and appeal all of its own.  

Based in New York’s trendy downtown, and with buildings throughout the city, NYU is a world-class university and boasts one of the world’s most dynamic environments for arts, music and culture. Whereas Columbia offers the relative seclusion of an Ivy League campus experience, NYU places students in the heart of the city. Based in arty Greenwich Village, with no walls or gates, the university is, as it proudly states, “in and of the city”. 

As you might expect from world-renowned institutions in such a desirable location, admission to either institution is extremely competitive. Few students will be lucky enough to receive an offer from either, let alone both, but if you have good grades and are looking for the most exciting study experience the US has to offer, chances are at least one of these two top universities in New York City will be on your shortlist. 

To help you decide which might be more suitable for you, here’s a look at how they compare. 

 
 

Columbia 

NYU 

QS World University Rankings: USA 2021 

  • Ranked seventh in the USA. 

  • Ranked sixth in the USA for research impact  

  • Joint seventh for learning experience 

  • Joint 44th for diversity and internationalisation 

  • Sixth for employability  

  • Ranked ninth in the USA, 13th for research impact  

  • Joint 22nd for learning experience  

  • Joint first for diversity and internationalisation 

  • 10th for employability. 

Subject strengths, based on the broad subject areas in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021 

 

  • Ranked 10th in the world for arts & humanities 

  • 10th in the world for English language and literature 

  • 10th for earth and marine sciences  

  • 10th for social policy and administration  

  • Joint 10th for geology 

  • Ranked first in the world for philosophy 

  • 10th in the world for accounting and finance 

  • 12th for mathematics 

  • 12th for economics and econometrics 

  • 12th for social sciences and management 

  • 13th for psychology 

Location 

Central campus located on the upper west side of Manhattan. 

Six different locations in Manhattan, with a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi

Central campus is in Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan. 

Student community 

Approx. 31,455 students enrolled (as of autumn 2020

8,842 undergraduates; 18,272 graduate students; 4068 on continuing education/special programs 

International students: 36 percent of total 

Approx. 58,461 students enrolled (as of 2019

26,981 undergraduates; 25,904 graduate and professional students; 5,576 on non-credit programs 

International students: 24 percent of total 

Tuition fees 

For 2020-2021, undergraduate tuition was US$58,920 per year, plus other mandatory fees. 

For 2020-2021, undergraduate tuition was between US$61,671 per year plus other mandatory fees. 

QS World University Rankings: USA 2021 

Ranked seventh in the US this year, Columbia has been a consistent presence near the top of the world rankings over the past decade. It ranks well across all the indicators, narrowly beating NYU in three categories: research impact, learning experience and employability.  

These results indicate that academics across a broad range of disciplines have identified Columbia among the world’s top universities in their field of expertise, while employers worldwide regard it as producing some of the world’s most employable graduates. 

Despite trailing a little behind, NYU has nonetheless forged a strong reputation as a world-class institution. It’s ranked ninth in the USA overall, and places first in the diversity and internationalisation indicators. 

The biggest gap between the two is in the indicator assessing learning experience. Here, Columbia claims a substantial lead. It ranks seventh in the USA to NYU’s joint 22nd. 

Subject strengths 

Another factor to consider when assessing these two universities is their performance in the latest QS World University Rankings by Subject. A quick glance at the 2019 tables shows that both top universities in New York are best-established in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and both make the global top 10 in several subjects.  

NYU in fact claims first place in philosophy, with its next strongest positions in performing arts (sixth), communications and media studies (seventh) law (eighth), and mathematics (12th). Columbia’s highest places are for anatomy & physiology (fourth), history (sixth), law (seventh), English literature and language, and earth and marine sciences (both in 10th). 

As the table below shows, there are some social science subjects, such as economics and law, in which the two are pretty much on a par. In other cases, one or the other has a clear lead – for instance, Columbia ranks much higher for physics, while NYU shines brighter in performing arts. 

Columbia and NYU in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019 

 
 

Columbia 

NYU 

Accounting & finance 

12th 

10th 

Anatomy & physiology 

4th 

-- 

Anthropology 

12th 

17th 

Architecture 

Joint 14th 

101-150 

Art & design 

Joint 41st 

45th 

Biological sciences 

19th 

44th 

Business & management 

19th 

17th 

Chemistry 

Joint 42nd 

201-250 

Classics & ancient history 

50th 

-- 

Communication & media studies 

Joint 18th 

7th 

Computer science 

18th 

21st 

Dentistry 

Joint 41st 

17th 

Development studies 

16th 

-- 

Earth & marine sciences 

10th 

-- 

Economics 

11th 

12th 

Education 

11th 

Joint 41st 

Engineering (chemical) 

53rd 

251-300 

Engineering (civil) 

51-100 

-- 

Engineering (electrical) 

Joint 49th 

78th 

Engineering (mechanical) 

Joint 87th  

151-200 

English language & literature 

10th 

15th 

Environmental sciences 

33rd 

251-300 

Geology 

Joint 10th 

-- 

Geophysics 

11th 

-- 

History 

6th 

Joint 30th 

Hospitality & leisure management 

-- 

51-100 

Law 

7th 

8th 

Linguistics 

Joint 97th 

40th 

Materials science 

Joint 75th  

-- 

Mathematics 

16th 

12th 

Medicine 

13th 

Joint 33rd 

Modern languages 

11th 

17th 

Nursing 

Joint 18th 

24th 

Performing arts 

Joint 22nd 

6th 

Pharmacy 

Joint 47th 

Joint 82nd 

Philosophy 

25th 

1st 

Physics & astronomy 

Joint 18th 

Join 108th 

Politics & international studies 

13th 

Joint 14th 

Psychology 

12th 

13th 

Social policy & administration 

10th 

46th 

Sociology 

15th 

16th 

Statistics 

Joint 11th 

51-100 

Theology, divinity & religious studies 

40th 

101-120 

Location 

Columbia offers what might be described as a classic Ivy League campus experience: think stately quadrangles, neoclassical columns and immaculately maintained lawns.  

However, unlike other Ivy League institutions such as Princeton or Yale, Columbia is an island of calm in the middle of a bustling metropolis. It may be at the upper western tip of Manhattan, but it’s well within striking distance of all the action.  

Nearby Harlem is one of the city’s most culturally diverse and dynamic neighbourhoods Also in close proximity are Central Park and the Hudson River, offering some picturesque respite from New York’s famous urban jungle. 

While for many students Columbia will offer the perfect combination of scholarly seclusion and proximity to the action, NYU offers a more immersive urban experience. With locations dotted around the city, the university’s main base is Greenwich Village, an area famous for its arty scene, and in the middle of New York’s cultural and social heart. 

NYU’s central Washington Square location has no walls or gates separating it from the surrounding streets, which are filled with restaurants, bars and cafés. Studying here means you can expect to be at the centre of one of the most culturally dynamic areas in the world. 

New York itself is consistently ranked within the top 20 of the QS Best Student Cities ranking, with a score of seventh in the student view indicator, which is based on a survey asking students to rate their city on aspects such as affordability, ease of getting around, employment opportunities, arts and culture and more. 

Student community 

NYU has a significantly larger overall student population than Columbia, particularly when professional courses are included.  

However, both are at the larger end of the scale, offering large and diverse student communities – with Columbia offering a more diverse student body compared to NYU (Columbia places 63rd in the world for its percentage of international students whereas NYU ranks 94th). 

As befits its research-intensive status, Columbia is more heavily geared toward graduate studies, with graduates outnumbering undergraduates by two to one. NYU, by contrast, has more than three times the undergraduate population of Columbia, with a higher proportion of undergraduates than graduate students. 

Fees and funding 

Leading US private universities are notoriously expensive, and neither of these two top New York universities is an exception to that rule. At both universities, international students are charged the same overall fees as those from within the US.  

Annual undergraduate tuition fees (plus other student fees) amount to US$61,671 at NYU for 2020-2021, while the 2020-2021 rate was a total of US$58,920 (including other mandatory fees) at Columbia. At graduate level, fees vary depending on the graduate school and course, but master’s programs are likely to start at around $50,000-52,000 per year at both institutions. 

At both schools, most students pay for their education through a combination of private savings, loans, scholarships and financial aid. Half of all Columbia students receive aid from the university, with the average amount awarded being $52,073. Similarly, many students at NYU benefit from some form of financial assistance. 

Like all US universities, both institutions provide net price calculators on their websites, which allow prospective students to get an estimate of how much they would be required to pay, and what financial aid they may be eligible for. NYU’s net price calculator can be found here, with a full range of funding options detailed here. Columbia’s net price calculator is here, with information about funding here

This article was originally published in July 2013. It was last updated in May 2021 to include the latest data from the QS World University Rankings and other sources. 

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This article was originally published in June 2018 . It was last updated in May 2021

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Written by

The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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