Duke vs. UNC: How Do They Compare?

The North Carolina rivals might differ in cost and culture, but they only sit 10 miles apart. Find out more about how Duke and UNC compare.
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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Published on August 24, 2023
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Margaret Weinhold is an associate editor for BestColleges, where she focuses on core content. She is passionate about increasing visibility and accessibility around higher education. Margaret holds a BA in English from the University of Virginia....
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  • The two prestigious North Carolina universities — one private, one public — are storied basketball rivals.
  • Both are academic powerhouses with professional schools of law, medicine, and business.
  • The private Duke University is among the most elite — and most expensive — in the nation.
  • UNC is more accessible and affordable, but still admits far fewer applicants than other public universities in the country.

The one-hundred-year-old rivalry between Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, centering on men's basketball, is among the nation's most notorious. And it's been around for almost as long as the Southern institutions themselves.

Located just 10 miles apart along old "Tobacco Road" in now-suburban North Carolina, Duke and UNC share plenty of history. Despite their proximity, however, the schools diverge in structure, cost, and student make-up.

Then there are the similarities: The faculty and alumni of Duke and UNC both include Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, US presidents, and CEOs. The ever-growing academic offerings of both schools include a variety of majors and minors, as well as top-ranked professional schools of medicine, law, and business.

5 Things to Know Before Becoming a Tarheel

  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a strong claim to the title of oldest public university. Chartered while a new America was still waging war against Great Britain, UNC began enrolling students in 1795.
  • UNC has a big student body, but don't mistake that for a big admission rate. The acceptance rate is slim (25%) compared to most state colleges, which admit the majority of applicants.
  • Most students hail from "North Cackalacky" itself. State law holds that no more than 18% of each first-year class may be from out-of-state, which means a full 82% must be from North Carolina.
  • About 20% of the UNC student body belongs to a fraternity or sorority — substantial but significantly less than other Southern colleges.
  • Earning a bachelor's degree from UNC requires either a second major, a minor, or a certain number of courses in a secondary department. The school allows up to three majors.

5 Things to Know Before Becoming a Blue Devil

  • The private Duke University has religious roots — it was founded by Methodists and Quakers in 1838 — and it had a healthy influx of tobacco money: An endowment from industrialist James Buchanan Duke gave the school its name some 50 years later.
  • Duke requires undergraduate students to live on campus for the first three years. A small share of second-semester juniors are exempted by a lottery system.
  • Duke's tightly-knit undergraduate experience includes a strong Greek presence. About 37.2% of undergraduates at Duke belong to fraternities and sororities.
  • Student demographics at Duke trend older and more international. Graduate students outnumber undergraduate students. And over half the grad students are foreign. Among undergraduates, just 7% are North Carolina residents.
  • Duke requires undergraduates to complete their degree in no more than 10 terms, and more than eight requires permission from a dean.

Duke vs. UNC: 3 Key Differences

These storied American colleges are a brisk walk from each other across North Carolina's low, rolling foothills. Despite the proximity, each school has a distinct culture and differs greatly when it comes to size, structure, and student make-up.

1. Size

The incoming first-year class at UNC is about the same size as the whole undergraduate population at Duke. Around 20,000 undergraduates attend UNC — typical for a large state school. Meanwhile, Duke enrolls fewer than 7,000 undergraduates and is similar in size to Harvard and Yale.

The student-to-faculty ratio at UNC is 13-to-1, which is also near the national average for four-year public institutions (14-to-1), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Duke's low student-to-faculty ratio (6-to-1) actually bests several Ivy Leaguers, as well as the national average for four-year private nonprofit institutions (10-to-1).

Size Differences Between Duke and UNC
Factor UNC Duke
Undergraduate enrollment 19,395 6,717
Acceptance rate 25% 8%
Student-to-faculty ratio 13-to-1 6-to-1

2. Cost

Duke is a big-name school with a big price tag to match. The hefty $60,000 annual undergraduate tuition is on par with other elite private institutions.

UNC, a public institution, is markedly more affordable, especially for North Carolina residents. Out-of-state students pay $35,000 annually to attend UNC. Students who live in-state pay less than $8,000 a year — a small fraction of a Duke check, but still about twice the average public tuition cost for the state.

3. Reputation

Both Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are renowned in higher education — highly ranked, highly regarded, with student spirit in spades. While neither fall under the Ivy League banner, both are considered elite institutions.

Duke is a "T10" college — one of those instantly recognizable 10 U.S. colleges that dominate prestige lists — and considered one of the "Little Ivies." The flagship of the University of North Carolina system, UNC Chapel Hill is considered to be one of the "Public Ivies."

Frequently Asked Questions About Duke vs. UNC

Is Duke or UNC more prestigious?

Both colleges are considered Ivy League-adjacent, and between academics and sports, they are equally household names. Still, between private status, research size, and narrow admission rates, Duke University is arguably more prestigious.

Is Duke or UNC harder to get into?

Duke admitted a mere 6.3% of applicants for the class of 2026 — a rate that puts the school on the same footing as Harvard and Yale. Meanwhile, UNC admitted 16.8% of applicants for the class of 2026 — a much friendlier figure but small compared to many state schools, which often accept between 50-90% of applicants.

Is it more work to apply to Duke or UNC?

Neither Duke nor UNC require special submission materials. To apply to Duke, use the Common Application, Coalition Application, or QuestBridge Application. Duke applicants must apply to either the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences or the Pratt School of Engineering. To apply to UNC, use the Common Application.

Which is better, Duke or UNC?

When it comes to basketball, UNC — which housed a young Micheal Jordan — has Duke beat 143-117. It may appear that UNC has the greater athletics, while Duke carries the academics, but the schools both boast competitive sports, vast research, and serious student pride.

UNC is more closely bound to its surrounding community, with a heavy majority of in-state students. While Duke, with a population of transplants and a strong "town and gown" divide, is in its own world — known as the "Duke bubble."

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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