Top 10 Public Colleges and Universities in the U.S. of 2021

July 27, 2021

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Colleges and universities in the U.S. provide an accessible path to higher education for many students. Contrary to what some people might think, the best public universities can prove just as rigorous as many private institutions.

Small liberal arts colleges and large state universities make up the many public schools that offer both on-campus and online degrees. Because of their high-quality faculty and numerous programs, public colleges and universities often do well in college ranking.

What Are the Top Public Colleges and Universities in the U.S.? Here Are Our Top 10:

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Ranking compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team

How We Rank Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you will make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering school rankings that are transparent, inclusive, and relevant for online students.

Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our Ranking Methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.

Top 10 Public Colleges and Universities in the U.S. of 2021

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What Is a Public University?

A public university or college receives funding from its state government, generally resulting in lower tuition for students. Many top public universities in the U.S. started as land-grant schools that states established to educate their residents.

Public universities tend to enroll more students, who often attend larger classes than at private colleges. Some of the best public colleges offer both technical and liberal arts programs, providing students several majors from which to choose.

Public vs. Private Universities

Public institutions tend to enroll tens of thousands of students, compared to private schools, which typically serve up to a few thousand learners. These large student bodies often include learners from various parts of the country and around the world. Compared to private institutions, many top public universities in the U.S. also reflect more diversity.

Many applicants find that they can gain admission to top public colleges more easily than private institutions, which may maintain more rigorous admission requirements. Public universities and colleges generally boast higher admission rates, making them a viable option for students with lower high school grades.

Many students find that public postsecondary education generally costs less than private schooling. State funding and private donations help reduce the cost of tuition and fees. Students can also subsidize their education through loans and other types of financial aid.

The best public universities and colleges offer a wide selection of programs and majors, more so than some private schools. Students might find engineering, business, liberal arts, and other diverse majors coexisting on their public campus. First-year students who remain unsure of their direction might find these diverse offerings beneficial when selecting a major.

Students wanting a rich campus life might appreciate the athletic programs, Greek life, and other activities public universities can offer. Even students who do not pursue athletics can enjoy the sporting events that the best public universities in the U.S. usually offer.

How to Choose a Public University

Check the Accreditation Status

The best state schools and universities hold accreditation, which demonstrates an institution's adherence to the highest academic standards by external agencies. Applicants who choose schools without the appropriate national or regional accreditation might find it difficult to transfer credits from their school to an accredited college or university.

They will also not likely secure financial aid, and they may have difficulty gaining employment.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Choosing a school with national or regional accreditation depends on the kind of education students pursue. National accreditation is typically awarded to technical or trade schools, vocational colleges, and some religious institutions.

Four-year colleges and universities and schools offering graduate degrees generally receive regional accreditation. Individuals enrolled in regionally accredited schools can transfer their credits more easily than they could from a nationally accredited institution. A nonprofit, top state university usually holds regional accreditation, which tends to carry more prestige.

Programmatic Accreditation

Many programs at the best public colleges and universities hold programmatic accreditation, which comes from a professional association associated with a specific discipline. For example, a psychology department might receive programmatic accreditation from the American Psychological Association.

Applicants interested in psychology, business administration, engineering, education, medicine, and other technical disciplines might consider a school with the appropriate programmatic accreditation. This type of accreditation can sometimes hold more prestige than institutional.

Choose a Degree Level

Choosing the right degree level from public universities and colleges can depend on chosen field, desired salary range, and expected job availability. Students should research their desired careers to learn which degree level best fits their goals.

Some learners might pursue an associate degree to supplement their work experience or prepare for a career change. Professionals wanting to gain more advanced skills, increase their income, or become more competitive on the job market might consider a bachelor's or master's degree.

Associate Degree

An associate degree might suit learners who want to acquire more skills or take the first step toward a four-year degree. Both associate of science (AS) and associate of arts (AA) programs take about two years.

This degree can benefit students seeking careers in criminal justice, fashion, accounting, business management, and information technology. The average total cost of an associate degree is about $16,040 per year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals with an associate degree tend to earn a median weekly pay of almost $890, compared to just under $750 for high school graduates. Some learners pursue an associate degree before transferring into a four-year program to save money.

Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's degrees typically take four years to complete. Tuition at a four-year public institution costs an average of $25,620 per year. Students can pursue a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BS) to obtain more specialized training, expanding their employment opportunities.

A bachelor's from a top state college can also make graduates more competitive in the job market and qualify them for admission to a master's program.

Associate degree-holders who advance to a bachelor's from a top public university can potentially increase their earnings. According to the BLS, bachelor's degree-holders make a median salary of about $1,250 per week, compared to about $890 for associate degree-holders.

Master's Degree

Students who want to take their careers to the next level can pursue a master of science (MS), master of arts (MA), or master of business administration (MBA). Most master's programs require up to two years of full-time study and cost as much as $30,000 per year at top U.S. public universities.

A master's degree can equip graduates with specialized technical knowledge and provide more employment and professional advancement opportunities. The BLS projects that jobs requiring master's degrees could grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029. The BLS also reports that graduates with a master's degree earned a median annual salary of $78,210 in 2020.

Median Annual Earnings by Level of Education

Median annual earnings of an individual with a high school diploma: $34,900 Median annual earnings of an individual with an associate degree: $40,000 Median annual earnings of an individual with a bachelor's degree: $54,700 Median annual earnings of an individual with a master's degree: $65,000

Source: NCES

Choose a Major

Choosing a major is a critical decision for many students applying to the best state universities. Applicants should consider specific factors when deciding what they should study, such as the total cost of tuition and fees.

Other considerations include employment rates, job availability, anticipated salary range, and opportunities for earning an advanced degree. Students should consider the major's fit with their personality and the workload they can expect to take on.

Most Popular Associate Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities 39%
Health Professions and Related Programs 18%
Business, Management, Marketing, and Support Services 12%
Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting 3%
Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services 3%

Source: NCES

Most Popular Bachelor's Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Business, Management, Marketing, and Support Services 19%
Health Professions and Related Programs 12%
Social Sciences and History 8%
Engineering and Engineering Technologies 6%
Biological and Biomedical Sciences 6%

Source: NCES

Most Popular Master's Degrees
Major Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Business 23%
Education 18%
Health Professions and Related Programs 15%
Engineering and Engineering Technologies 6%
Public Administration and Social Services 6%

Source: NCES

How Much Does a Degree Cost From a Public University?

The cost of a four-year degree from a public university or college varies depending on the location, program, and residency status. Including tuition and additional expenses, the cost of attending a public institution can total $25,860 per year.

Some students find that paying for higher education is a challenge. They might consider financial aid, scholarships, or work-study programs to offset the cost.

In-state vs. Out-of-state

Students wanting to save money should consider enrolling in the best state schools in the state where they live. Attending an out-of-state school can be considerably more expensive. For example, the average annual cost to attend an in-state four-year school is $25,860, compared to a yearly cost of $43,720 for out-of-state public universities and colleges.

Tuition and fees for public higher education have risen considerably in the past several decades. Adjusting figures for inflation, tuition and fees averaged $2,080 in the 1963-1964 school year, compared to $9,580 during the 2020-2021 term.

How to Pay for College

Cost does not have to be an obstacle to students who might experience challenges financing college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, loans and grants are common forms of payment, with 83% of first-time students attending four-year schools receiving financial aid.

Financial aid helps many students attend top public universities. U.S. citizens and eligible non-citizens can qualify for loans, grants, and work-study programs by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

National, local, and state governments use the FAFSA to award aid to students in need. Using the total cost of attendance and a family's expected contribution, the FAFSA calculates the amount of financial aid students can receive. Available aid can include work-study, repayable loans, and grants that recipients do not have to pay back.

Many students prefer to receive scholarships and grants because, unlike loans, recipients do not need to pay them back. In 2019, 58% of families relied on scholarships, and 48% used grants to fund a student's education at a public university or college.

The federal government and some private organizations provide grants, which vary in eligibility requirements and may include demonstrated financial need or membership in the armed forces. Schools and private organizations offer both need-based and merit-based scholarships.

Work-study is a viable option for students who want to reduce or eliminate the need for student loans. This form of financial aid allows students to work a specific number of hours each week in exchange for financial assistance. Students typically receive a work-study job because of financial need.

Money from work-study can go toward books, personal expenses, and other academic needs. Unlike traditional part-time jobs, work-study allows students to acquire work experience while taking advantage of federally subsidized funds.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the number one public university?

Public university rankings vary according to the organizations conducting them and the criteria they use. Schools like the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan typically rank highly among public universities and the top 25 postsecondary schools nationwide.

What's the difference between public and private universities?

Public and private universities differ in the tuition and fees students pay. Public schools typically cost less than private institutions because of tax revenue and state funding. Public schools also tend to maintain higher acceptance rates.

What is the most expensive public university?

In-state tuition for the most expensive public universities exceeded $18,000 in the 2020-2021 academic year. William and Mary College in Virginia topped this list at about $23,360. Several of the most expensive public schools for nonresidents include some University of California institutions, with UC San Diego the most costly at $41,390 per year.

What is the hardest public college to get into?

Low acceptance rates can make some public universities challenging to get into. The University of California, Los Angeles accepts only 12% of applicants. Acceptance rates at top-ranked public universities usually fall below 40%.

Related Links

UNDERSTANDING THE FAFSA AN OVERVIEW OF FINANCIAL AID SCHOLARSHIPS FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN AND BLACK STUDENTS SCHOLARSHIPS FOR SINGLE PARENTS YOUR GUIDE TO COLLEGE GRANTS AND SCHOLARSHIPS COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS FOR LGBTQ+ STUDENTS SCHOLARSHIPS FOR WOMEN PRIVATE STUDENT LOANS GUIDE STUDENT LOAN REFINANCE AND CONSOLIDATION GUIDE
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