Top 25 Best Public Colleges: 2018 Rankings

Public colleges and universities are plentiful in the United States. They receive funding from the government, and every state has at least one public school.

We’ve put together a list of the top 25 public colleges from around the United States.

25. Georgia Institute of Technology–Main Campus

Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

  • Location: Atlanta, GA
  • Student Enrollment: 25,034
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Georgia Institute of Technology, more commonly known as Georgia Tech, has many nationally recognized programs but most notable are in engineering and biological sciences. Founded in 1885, the institution now has a global presence with campuses in France and China. Student athletics are also a large part of life at GT as the Yellow Jackets compete on a national level.

24. University of Georgia

Flickr user Patrice M Christian.

  • Location: Athens, GA
  • Student Enrollment: 36,130
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

UGA is the state’s flagship university and is the birthplace of the American system of public higher education. It is also known for having one of the country’s largest and best research libraries.  Athens is consistently ranked as one of the best college towns and the campus of UGA is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Bulldog’s most historic athletic rivalry is with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.   

23. United States Merchant Marine Academy

Flickr user Carey Akin.

  • Location: Kings Point, NY
  • Student Enrollment: 930
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

As a federal service academy, United States Merchant Marine Academy educates and licenses Merchant Marine officers. All students go through a rigorous academic program and a year-long commercial vessel experience. Because of this, USMMA graduates are highly sought after post studies.  All students have a service obligation after graduation.

22. University of Wisconsin–Madison

Flickr user Phil Roeder.

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Student Enrollment: 42,716
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

As Wisconsin’s flagship university, UW is one of the leading research institutions in the Midwest and has been noted as one of the nation’s public Ivy universities. In 2012, it had the 3rd largest research expenditures of all universities in the U.S. in the amount of $1 billion. Regularly known for competitive athletics teams, the Badgers compete in the NCAA Division I Big 10 conference.  

21. University of Washington–Seattle Campus

Flickr user Curtis Cronn.

  • Location: Seattle, WA
  • Student Enrollment: 45,408
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This large flagship university in Washington state is one of the oldest institutions on the west coast and has views of the Cascade mountain range. Speech Communications, Psychology, and Biology top the most popular majors list. The University launched its CoMotion initiative to act as an innovation hub and has generated 81 startup companies in the past five years.

20. University of Connecticut

Flickr user Chris C Chen.

  • Location: Storrs, CT
  • Student Enrollment: 27,043
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Founded in 1881, this public research university has four regional campuses in addition to the main campus in Storrs. Offering over 110 undergraduate majors, the most popular among students are Psychology, Economics, and Speech Communications. UConn was the second U.S. university to be invited to join the Universitas 21, which is an elite grouping of international higher education institutions working to foster global citizenship. On the athletics court, they are most well known for Huskies basketball and have won 15 national championships since 1995.

19. SUNY at Binghamton

Wikimedia Commons user Yb20061462.

  • Location: Binghamton, NY
  • Student Enrollment: 16,913
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

As one of the four public universities in the NY state system, SUNY at Binghamton provides a hillside campus with 190 acres of protected forests and woodlands containing hiking/biking/running trails and a six-acre pond. Most popular majors include Psychology, Accounting, and Nursing.  

18. University of California — Irvine

  • Location: Irvine, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 30,836
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This public research university was founded in 1965 to help accommodate the growing number of students in the UC school system. Since then, they have become an institution with cutting edge research and dedicated to public service. Offering nearly 100 undergraduate majors, professors are focused on innovation. The Anteaters have earned 28 national titles in nine different sports.  

17. The Ohio State University

Flickr user Mathieu Thouvenin.

  • Location: Columbus, OH
  • Student Enrollment: 58,663
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Operating as the third largest university in the U.S., OSU has something for any student and offers over 150 undergraduate majors and 1,000 student organizations. Psychology, Finance, and Speech Communications rank as its top areas of study. Brutus Buckeye leads OSU’s sporting teams as they compete in NCAA Division I athletics. Buckeyes have won 100 Olympic gold medals.

16. University of California — San Diego

Flickr user O Palsson.

  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 32,906
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Founded in 1960, UCSD has quickly become one of the top research universities in the U.S. Although it is a large university, each of their six undergraduate colleges offers their own residence halls, student services, and even graduation ceremonies. CONNECT, UCSD’s innovation-business accelerator, has helped develop over 3,000 companies in the San Diego region. Nearly 90,000 students applied for admission in 2017.

15. The United States Coast Guard Academy

Flickr user Coast Guard News.

  • Location: New London, CT
  • Student Enrollment: 898
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

The most popular majors on this campus include: Business Administration, Political Science and Government, Oceanography, and Civil Engineering. Nearly 2,000 students apply to this small college each year, though only about 400 are accepted. Objee the Bear is the mascot of this academy.

14. University of California — Santa Barbara

  • Location: Santa Barbara, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 23,497
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This palm tree lined campus is one of the largest in the UC school system. With over 70,000 applications received last year, this research university is a top destination for students interested in Psychology, Sociology, and Economics. UCSB operates 8 research centers which are funded by grants through the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Gauchos compete in 10 men and 9 women sporting events.  

13. The College of New Jersey

Wikimedia Commons user Tomwsulcer.

  • Location: Ewing Township, NJ
  • Student Enrollment: 7,406
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Located in a suburban area, The College of New Jersey’s campus is in close proximity to New York City and Philadelphia. In addition to academics, students enjoy over 200 clubs and organizations. The new Campus Town complex provides housing and recreation complexes for students as well as local businesses. The “Lions” compete in NCAA Division III athletics.

12. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Flickr user bujcich.

  • Location: Champaign, IL
  • Student Enrollment: 45,842
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

As one of the original land grant institutions founded in 1867, the University of Illinois operates as a top public research university. Its campus houses the second largest university library in the country as well as home to the fastest supercomputer on a university campus. The University offers over 150 undergraduate and 100 graduate programs with an average ACT between 26 and 32. The fighting Illini sport bright orange and blue as they compete against other NCAA Division I opponents.  

11. University of Florida

Flickr user Todd Van Hoosear.

  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Student Enrollment: 50,654
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

As a large public research university, it is divided into 16 colleges offering over 100 undergraduate majors and 200 graduate degrees. UF also operates over 150 research centers and institutes. Their “Florida Gators” in bright orange and blue have won over thirty-nine national team championships.  

10. University of Maryland–College Park

Flickr user carmichaellibrary.

  • Location: College Park, MD
  • Student Enrollment: 38,140
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Located just outside of Washington D.C., the University of Maryland is the state’s flagship research university. The University has developed several research partnerships in the “M Square Research Park” with the Federal government due its proximity to the nation’s capital. Faculty include 3 Nobel laureates, 2 Pulitzer Prize winners, 3 Emmy winners, and 2 Tony winners.  

9. The United States Military Academy

Flickr user mikek7890.

  • Location: West Point, VA
  • Student Enrollment: 4,348
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

The United States Military Academy (or USMA) attracts students from all around the country, though most come from California, Texas, Florida, New York, and of course, Virginia. Here the students follow a code: “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” There is a 7:1 student to faculty ratio and a 93% first-year retention rate.

8. The United States Air Force Academy

Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

  • Location: USAFA, CO
  • Student Enrollment: 4,111
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

In addition to rigorous military training, all cadets at the Academy participate in intercollegiate or intramural athletics as well as a specialized leadership curriculum. The Academy’s mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.”

7. College of William and Mary

Flickr user benuski.

  • Location: Williamsburg, VA
  • Student Enrollment: 8,484
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This historic school has a royal founding. King William III and Queen Mary II sent letters in 1693 to establish the school, making W&M the second oldest institute of higher learning in the United States after Harvard. Their mascot is the griffin, and they play in the NCAA I-FCS division. Track, football, soccer, and swimming are popular sports on campus.

6. University of Michigan–Ann Arbor

Flickr user Jason Crotty.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Student Enrollment: 43,651
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Originally founded in Detroit in 1817, the public university has expanded over the years to a combined area of over 34 million square feet, which includes its central campus in Ann Arbor, regional campuses in Flint and Dearborn, and an extension center in its original home. Its most popular majors are Business, Economics, Psychology, and Computer and Information Sciences.

5. University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

Flickr user Tim Schleicher.

  • Location: Chapel Hill, NC
  • Student Enrollment: 29,084
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

UNC Chapel Hill shares the title of oldest public university in the United States with two other schools, since it began enrolling students in 1795. North Carolina competes athletically as the Tar Heels, and the popular school colors are Carolina blue and white. Students can also participate in over 550 officially recognized student organizations.

4. University of California–Los Angeles

Flickr user Andy Dietler.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 41,908
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Political Science is the most popular major at this powerhouse school followed by Psychology, Economics, and Sociology. Their freshman retention rate is an impressive 96%. UCLA’s alumni have gone on to win numerable awards including: 105 Academy awards, 278 Emmy awards, 3 Pulitzers, and 3 Grammy awards.

3. University of California–Berkeley

Flickr user K. Oliver.

  • Location: Berkeley, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 38,189
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Berkeley, the result of an 1868 merger of the private College of California and the public Agricultural, Mining and Mechanical Arts college, is the oldest research university in the UC system. The school’s faculty, alumni, and researchers make up an impressive group which includes Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, and Olympic gold medalists.

2. University of Virginia–Main Campus

Flickr user Rex Hammock.

  • Location: Charlottesville, VA
  • Student Enrollment: 23,883
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison (among others), helped select the city of Charlottesville to be home to this university. Here you’ll find Liberal Arts Studies and Business to be the most popular majors. Notable UVA alumni are Olympians, astronauts, and U.S. leaders, including former president Woodrow WIlson.

1. United States Naval Academy

Flickr user Butch Dalisay.

  • Location: Annapolis, MD
  • Student Enrollment: 4,525
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Built atop the former Fort Severn, the United States Naval Academy is 33 miles away from Washington D.C. They have an impressive 98% first-year retention rate and an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio. “Anchors Aweigh” is their well-known fight song played at sporting events, where they show off the colors navy blue and gold.

About our methodology

Colleges are ranked based on a combination of factors, including graduation rates, campus diversity, endowment per student, and other data as reported via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the most recently-available enrollment year. Some colleges may have been excluded from rankings based on certain criteria, including specialization and classification. Learn about our full methodology.

Interested in any of these schools? Check out College Raptor’s free match tool to see if they’re a good fit for you!

College Raptor Staff

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