Start naming the best universities and colleges in the country and chances are most of them will be located in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston. Students flock to the university system here from all over the globe, and for good reason. Here’s our primer on the area’s top universities.

The Universities of Cambridge and Boston

Harvard University

Founded in 1636 and named after clergyman John Harvard, this Ivy League university has a global name thanks to legendary academics and its diverse student body. Harvard’s alumni draw plenty of attention as well. A whopping 130 Nobel laureates have connections to the university, and eight U.S. presidents call it their Alma Mater. Over the past 350-plus years, the university has become synonymous with the square and neighborhood that bears its name. A walk through Harvard’s lush campus ringed with brick buildings is a must when you’re in Cambridge.


The founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1861 came amid a period of great industrialization in the northeast of the United States. Unfortunately, the Civil War began just two days after the fledgling school opened, so classes were postponed until 1865. After toying with the idea of merging with Harvard, MIT (often then known informally as Boston Tech) moved to its current location along the Charles River in Cambridge in the 1920s. Over the past 150 years, the world-renowned institution can claim more than 85 Nobel laureates, 40-plus Rhodes Scholars and 30 astronauts among its alumni.

Tufts University

Tufts, founded as Tufts College in 1852 by members of the Universalist Church, has stood as an institution of higher learning in Medford and Somerville since Charles Tufts donated the first 20 acres of land. The university also has an affiliate program with the Museum of Fine Arts, and offers graduate degrees in engineering, dentistry, and international relations (the oldest such program in the US). Tufts’s beloved elephant mascot, Jumbo, gets its name from P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant. What’s the connection? The circus ringleader was one of the schools early donors, and housed his collection of taxidermy animals on campus.

Boston University

The company you keep says a lot about you, and the same can be said of a school’s alumni and staff. Boston University (often called BU) counts Martin Luther King Jr. as an alum, and poet laureates Robert Lowell and Robert Pinksy and human rights crusader Elie Wiesel taught at the school. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone while a professor at BU, and screen sirens Julianne Moore and Faye Dunaway honed their craft at the school. While BU’s founding in 1839 as a small school in Newbury, Vermont might not be glitzy, it continues today as one of the best educational institutions in the country.