Top 15 Public Universities in the U.S.

The best public universities rival the country’s most renowned institutions in everything from academics to experience to reputation. Keep reading to learn more about the best public universities in the U.S. 


Should You Apply to a Public University?


Public universities provide a “large” school experience. While this generally means larger class sizes, it also equates to more social opportunities, extracurricular activities, and resources. The greater number of teachers and students on campus also equates to more diversity of people, opinions, and perspectives. When it comes time for a career, a larger school also translates to a larger alumni network to help you get your foot in the door. 


Another benefit of public universities is that they’re less expensive than private schools—so long as you’re applying in-state, that is. The price of public colleges for out-of-state students is exponentially higher. According to U.S. News, the average cost of tuition and fees at private colleges in 2018-19 was $35,676, compared to $9,716 for in-state and $21,629 for out-of-state students at public universities.


Don’t write private colleges off completely, though. In fact, due to generous financial aid packages, it’s often less expensive to attend a private college than it is to attend an out-of-state public university.


Because both public and private universities have their pros and cons, you’ll want to consider fit when deciding which colleges to apply to—that is how a school aligns with your needs academically, socially, and financially. 


The 15 Best Public Universities in the U.S.A.


1. University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA)

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Acceptance Rate: 12%

U.S. News Ranking: 20

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1360-1550/29-32

Enrollment: 31,543


Located on 400 acres near the California coast and in one of the world’s most recognizable cities, it’s no wonder that UCLA receives more applications than any other college in the country. UCLA is part of the UC System, a collection of ten campuses offering undergraduate and graduate classes across the state of California with more than 280,000 students enrolled, employing more than 227,000 faculty and staff, and with two million alumni living and working around the world.


2. University of California—Berkeley (Cal)

Location: Berkeley, CA

Acceptance Rate: 17%

U.S. News Ranking: 22

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1330-1530/29-35

Enrollment: 31,780


Located in the Bay Area of California, Berkeley is a small, artsy city that offers students access to two major metropolises (Oakland and San Francisco) along with the hub of high tech, Silicon Valley. Don’t let the funky vibe around the college dissuade you from thinking Cal is a serious place, Cal Berkeley faculty have won 25 Nobel Prizes in fields ranging from physics to literature. Perhaps Cal’s Nobel Laureates are extra driven—one of their rewards is free lifetime parking at a coveted space on the college’s central campus. 


3. University of Michigan—Ann Arbor

Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Acceptance Rate: 23%

U.S. News Ranking: 24

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1380-1550/32-35

Enrollment: 31,266


Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, has commonly ranked among the best college towns in the country, thanks to its vibrant nightlife and awesome food scene. On campus, world-class faculty and staff turn out students who go onto some of the best companies and graduate schools in the nation—no wonder they keep singing Hail to the Victors. 


4. University of Virginia (UVA) 

Location: Charlottesville, VA

Acceptance Rate: 24%

U.S. News Ranking: 26

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1340-1520/30-34

Enrollment: 17,011


Vocabulary is one way UVA separates itself from the other great public universities—the school has a language of its own. For example, the campus is called “the grounds” and there are no freshmen, sophomores, juniors, or seniors; rather, there are first-years, second-years, third-years, and fourth-years. Another oddity to outsiders, while officially the UVA athletic teams are the Cavaliers, unofficially they’re known as the Wahoos or simply the Hoos. 


5. University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

Location: Chapel Hill, NC

Acceptance Rate: 23%

U.S. News Ranking: 28

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1210-1420/28-33

Enrollment: 19,355


Chartered in 1789, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill has the distinction of being the first public university in the United States. Today, UNC is just one of many public colleges and universities but remains one of the best public universities in the U.S., thanks to its incredible research facilities, exceptional faculty and staff, and a brilliant and diverse student body. If you ever get tired of UNC’s beautiful campus, Chapel Hill is frequently recognized as one of the country’s best college towns. 


6. University of California—Santa Barbara

Location: Santa Barbara, CA

Acceptance Rate: 30%

U.S. News Ranking: 30 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1280-1520/26-31

Enrollment: 23,349


The University of California—Santa Barbara isn’t only one of the best public universities in the U.S.A., it’s also one of the prettiest. Students can take in an ocean view from campus and the beach is just minutes away. UC Santa Barbara’s beautiful campus attracts more than just students who love the beach, it also attracts serious academics—six Nobel Laureates call it home.  


7. University of Florida

Location: Gainesville, FL

Acceptance Rate: 37%

U.S. News Ranking: 30

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1320-1460/30-33

Enrollment: 35,405


With a total enrollment of more than 50,000 students, there’s always something going on at the University of Florida. For example, the Gator Growl the world’s largest student pep rally—an event so big that it has its own website. Students will also find more than than 1,000 student organizations and 2,700 intramural teams on the University of Florida’s campus  

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8. Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)

Location: Atlanta, GA

Acceptance Rate: 21%

U.S. News Ranking: 35 

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1390-1540/31-34

Enrollment: 15,964


While Georgia Tech offers a wide variety of majors—from analytics to urban design—the school is best known for its engineering majors, all of which offer five-year programs that allow students to graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. An indicator that Georgia Tech attracts great minds: it ranks 14th for in-state students on Payscale’s list of the best value colleges. 


9. University of California—Irvine

Location: Irvine, CA 

Acceptance Rate: 27% 

U.S. News Ranking: 35

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1250-1510/24-31

Enrollment: 30,382


The University of California—Irvine (UCI) one of just 66 U.S. and Canadian universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities, a collection of schools on the cutting edge of innovation and scholarship. UCI is the youngest member of the Association of American Universities and one of three UC System schools represented (UCLA and Cal Berkeley are the others). Setting UCI apart is its Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences, the only ICS program in the Cal System. 


10. University of California—San Diego

Location: La Jolla, CA

Acceptance Rate: 32%

U.S. News Ranking: 35

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1300-1520/26-31

Enrollment: 30,794


Surrounded by the beach on one side and mountains of homework on the other—the University of San Diego is a paradox. On one hand, the school provides incredible recreational possibilities and some of the best weather in the country—with temperatures rarely dipping below 50°F or rising above 80°F. On the other hand, the school is thought of as one of the best science schools in the nation and features state-of-the-art labs and extraordinary libraries. The school is also home to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the largest geological and marine science institute in the world.


11. University of California—Davis

Location: Davis, CA

Acceptance Rate: 39%

U.S. News Ranking: 39

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1260-1470/28-34

Enrollment: 30,982


Originally the farm school for U.C. Berkeley (hence the school’s nickname, the Aggies), UC Davis has gone on to become one of the best public schools in the U.S. The school’s ties to agriculture remain strong—students can get meat from an on-campus slaughterhouse, and it is renowned for its Viticulture and Enology program (the study of grape growing and winemaking). In fact, oenophiles will be impressed to learn that the UC Davis wine cellar has an unbroken chain of vintage wines from every year dating back to 1937. 


12. William & Mary

Location: Williamsburg, VA

Acceptance Rate: 38%

U.S. News Ranking: 39

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1300-1490/30-34

Enrollment: 6,256


Founded by King William III and Queen Mary II of England in 1693, William & Mary is the second-oldest college in the U.S. and the first (and only) American institution of higher education to receive a coat of arms from the College of Heralds. William & Mary is one of the 15 colleges called a “public Ivy,” and it’s a leading research university offering more than 40 graduate and professional programs. 


13. University of Texas at Austin

Location: Austin, TX

Acceptance Rate: 32%

U.S. News Ranking: 42

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1230-1480/26-34

Enrollment: 40,163


The saying goes “everything is big in Texas,” and that’s true at UT Austin—it has the tenth-largest undergraduate enrollment in the U.S.; it’s home to the seventh-largest library in the country (it holds almost 10 million volumes); and its eight-foot, 44-inch wide, 500-pound, near-century-old Big Bertha drum (dubbed “the world’s largest drum”) still features prominently at home football games. 


14. University of Wisconsin—Madison

Location: Madison, WI

Acceptance Rate: 54%

U.S. News Ranking: 42

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1280-1450/27-32

Enrollment: 33,456


Sometimes called the “Berkeley of the Midwest,” Madison has it all, from nightlife to top-notch cuisine to a bustling music scene. It also has great attractions, like its farmers market at the foot of the state house and eclectic events like Freakfest (a Halloween party)—making it one of the country’s great college towns. It’s not all fun and games at UW, though; its alumni are decorated in a wide range of fields—for example, they have 20 Nobel Prize winners, 41 Pulitzer Prizes, and 10 Academy Awards. 


15. University of Georgia

Location: Athens, GA

Acceptance Rate: 46%

U.S. News Ranking: 47

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1320-1460/28-33

Enrollment: 29,848


Founded in 1785, the University of Georgia is one of the oldest public schools in the nation and the country’s first state-chartered university. While there’s a lot to love about UGA, one thing stands above the rest: the school’s Bulldog mascot, Uga. Uga was named “best mascot” in 1997 by Sports Illustrated, was the first mascot to attend the Heisman Trophy ceremony in 1982, and appeared in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. There have been ten Ugas dating back to 1956; deceased Ugas are interred in a mausoleum near the main entrance at the southwest corner of Sanford Stadium and flowers are placed on their graves before every home game. 


Wondering if you have what it takes to get into one of the best public universities in the U.S.? We can help! When you create a CollegeVine account, you’ll be able to find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free! Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.

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