Hidden Public Gems: 2018

There is a pervading stereotype that private colleges are the ideal places to pursue a higher education—however there are numerous public colleges and universities that rival their private counterparts.

This Hidden Gems list highlights the best public colleges that are diamonds in the rough.

To qualify as a College Raptor Hidden Gem, a school must have the following requirements:

  • Receive fewer than 5,000 applications a year
  • OR  less than 40th percentile of applications received by all schools in that state
  • Have fewer than 7,000 undergraduate students enrolled


25. University of Nebraska at Kearney

Wikimedia Commons user Ammodramus

  • Location: Kearney, NE
  • Student Enrollment: 6,747
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 636

Located in mid-Nebraska, UNK not only educates students from the region but also all 50 states and over 50 foreign countries. Students have access to over 120 undergraduate majors in addition to an Honors Program. Most popular majors include Business, Elementary Education, and Operations Management. As a fun fact, in 1910 the student body selected the antelope as the school mascot because “it symbolized strength, swiftness and the ability to adapt to adverse conditions.”

24. University of Alabama in Huntsville

Wikimedia Commons user Anivron

  • Location: Huntsville, AL
  • Student Enrollment: 7,866
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 633

As a top tier public research university, UAH is one of three members in the Alabama state system. Top fields of study include majors in engineering and science given Huntsville’s vibrant technology-based economy (home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center). Its Propulsion Research Center ([PRC]) provides research support to NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.


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23. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

Wikimedia Commons user Magicpiano

  • Location: North Adams, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,641
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 623

Founded in 1894, this institution originally provided training for teachers in the state of Massachusetts. Now it is more known as a public liberal arts college with over 50 areas of study. Along with offering an Honors Program, MCLA also provides internships through its Berkshire Hills Internship Program.

22. South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Flickr user Elizabet Gojcoj (Note: Image is of Black Hills, not SDMT)

  • Location: Rapid City, SD
  • Student Enrollment: 3,230
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 610

With its location in the Black Hills, SDSMT started as a school for mining education but has since evolved to be a leader in science and engineering in the South Dakota region. Internships are a cornerstone of a Mines education and 75% of students experience a paid internship prior to graduation. Within steps of campus, students enjoy the tourist attractions that Rapid City offers.

21. SUNY Maritime College

Wikimedia Commons user Jim.henderson

  • Location: Throggs Neck, NY
  • Student Enrollment: 1,860
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 609

Located in the historic Fort Schuyler on the Throggs Neck peninsula, SUNY Maritime College prepares its students for the global maritime industry. Its 1,800 students receive both traditional classroom instruction in addition to lab learning with summer sea terms abroad. Located just 30 minutes from downtown Manhattan, students compete on 17 athletic teams including Privateers football, volleyball, soccer, and cross country.

20. Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Berks

Flickr user Penn State

  • Location: Reading, PA
  • Student Enrollment: 2,906
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 607

After joining the Penn State system in 1958, Penn State Berks offers 20 bachelor’s degrees and 4 associate degrees. It is an active campus where each student club commits 24 hours of community service each semester. While it shares the mascot of Nittany Lions, this pack competes in NCAA Division III athletics.

19. University of Washington-Tacoma Campus

Wikimedia Commons user Joe Mabel

  • Location: Tacoma, WA
  • Student Enrollment: 4,599
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 595

UW Tacoma is one of the three campuses that make up the University of Washington. With its strong community focus, it is a member of the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. Part of the UW Tacoma campus is actually in the historic Union Station District with several of its classroom buildings being century old remodeled brick buildings. Land and sea surround this campus with the Port of Tacoma to the west and Mount Rainier to the east.

18.Eastern Connecticut State University

Wikimedia Commons user Faolin42

  • Location: Willimantic, CT
  • Student Enrollment: 5,261
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 559

96.9% of students at this public university are undergraduates with test scores were between 20 and 24 for the ACT or 940 and 1110 for the SAT. Business, Psychology, and General Studies are the most popular declared majors. Eastern teams compete as the Warriors in NCAA Division III league play.

17. Westfield State University

Flickr user masshighered

  • Location: Westfield, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 6,496
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 492

First established in 1838 by noted educator and social reformer Horace Mann, Westfield State is one of the oldest public universities in the U.S. With nearly 40 majors on campus, the most popular are Business, Criminal Justice, and Psychology. The Owls compete in NCAA Division III and support 19 different athletic teams.

16. University of North Carolina at Asheville

Flickr user Blue Bullfrog

  • Location: Asheville, NC
  • Student Enrollment: 3,891
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 451

“Levo Oculos Meos In In Montes” is the school motto, which translates to: I lift my eyes to the mountains–an appropriate slogan as the university is near the Appalachian range. UNC Asheville is also nestled next to three national forests and a national park. The university has an acceptance rate of 76%.

15. California State University Maritime Academy

Flickr user US Embassy

  • Location: Vallejo, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,075
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 433

The campus is situated on San Pablo Bay, where they have their practice ship, the T.S. Golden Bear III, anchored. They have a first year retention rate of 85% and a majority of the students are from California. Cal Maritime students are known as the Keelhaulers, though informally the female sports teams are called the Sea Hags.

14. Georgia College and State University

Flickr user Ken Lund

  • Location: Milledgeville, GA
  • Student Enrollment: 6,889
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 407

Serving as Georgia’s public liberal arts university, theGeorgia College campus is located in the state’s former capitol. Capstone experiences are paired with one of the over 30 degrees offered by the college. Most popular majors include Nursing, Business, and Marketing. The Bobcats sport blue and green as they compete in the NCAA Division II Peachbelt Conference.

13. Missouri University of Science and Technology

Wikimedia Commons user Adavidb

  • Location: Rolla, MO
  • Student Enrollment: 8,886
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 405

Founded in 1870 as one of the first tech institutions west of the Mississippi, Missouri S&T has been building a reputation of discovery, creativity, and innovation. Not only do 98 degree programs fill their course catalog but so do 18 different design teams including solar car, Mars rover, and Formula SAE. Its campus has some unique features including a Stonehedge replication, the Millennium Arch, and a Solar Village.

12. University of Washington–Bothell Campus

Flickr user J Brew

  • Location: Bothell, WA
  • Student Enrollment: 5,277
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 390

Sharing a campus with Cascadia College, University of Washington’s Bothell Campus is actually the largest campus branch in the state. A vast majority of the students are from Washington state with study abroad programs and weekend/evening college classes available. Business, Nursing, Media Studies, and Computer Science are the four most popular majors on the campus.

11. University of Minnesota – Morris

Wikimedia Commons user Gobonobo

  • Location: Morris, MN
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • Student Enrollment: 1,856
  • College Raptor Ranking: 337

University of Minnesota’s Morris campus accepts approximately 58% of applicants. Biology is the top major at the university, but Psychology and Economics are not far behind. A participant in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, popular sports include football, baseball, track, and soccer. 

10. Pennsylvania State University–Penn State Erie-Behrend College

Flicker user mkw87

  • Location: Erie, PA
  • Student Enrollment: 4,327
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 319

Penn State Behrend is the largest of the Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses with 4,100 undergraduate students. Undergraduate research is a critical focus and the College provides an annual amount of $350,000 directed towards research opportunities. The College also houses Knowledge Park which is a research and development collaboration with area companies. On an environmental note, the Behrend campus is home to over 200 native and exotic tree species.

9. Pennsylvania State University–Penn State Harrisburg

Flickr user Penn State

  • Location: Middletown, PA
  • Student Enrollment: 4,678
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 304

As the largest of the University’s Commonwealth Campuses, Penn State Harrisburg offers 33 full bachelor degree programs on its urban campus — which is actually the decommissioned Olmsted Air Force Base. Ten different research centers and institutes are operated through the College. Athletics at Penn State Harrisburg took a 10-year hiatus but returned to NCAA Division III competition in 2005.

8. Arizona State University–Polytechnic

Wikimedia Commons user davidpinter

  • Location: Mesa, AZ
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • Student Enrollment: 4,078
  • College Raptor Ranking: 281

Located in Mesa, Arizona, ASU – Polytechnic receives just under 2,000 applications each year. Approximately 1,500 of those students will be accepted, with just under 500 enrolling in the school for their freshman year. Most students are from Arizona, but many are also from the surrounding states of California and Nevada.

7. Citadel Military College of South Carolina

Flickr user Mark Goebel

  • Location: Charleston, SC
  • Student Enrollment: 3,506
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 272

The Citadel is best known nationally for its Corps of Cadets which makes up its 2,300 undergraduate student population. Students live and study under a classical military system that emphasizes leadership and character development. Annually on Leadership Day, over 7,500 hours of community services is given by the Corps.

6. Massachusetts Maritime Academy

  • Image provided by Massachusetts Maritime Academy

    Location: Buzzards Bay, MA

  • Student Enrollment: 1,674
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 255

Located at the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal, Massachusetts Maritime Academy has been providing education in the maritime industry since 1891. The Regiment of Cadets and uniforms play a noticeable role in campus life. Career experience hours are logged during Sea Terms and Corporate Education Programs. Nearly 40% of students are active in one of the 15 Buccaneer athletic programs offered at MMA.  

5. Arizona State University–West

Wikimedia Commons user NickSchweitzer

  • Location: Glendale, AZ
  • Student Enrollment: 3,619
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Rank: 241

Commonly known as ASU West, the campus focuses on interdisciplinary and collaborative programs in the liberal arts and sciences, education, and business to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce. ASU West was the first to offer an undergraduate degree from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. ASU West is also an environmentally friendly campus, generating nearly all of its electricity from a 4.6MW on-site solar array.

4. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Wikimedia Commons user DASonnenfeld

  • Location: Syracuse, NY
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • Student Enrollment: 2,222
  • College Raptor Ranking: 233

Accepting only 54% of those apply, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is a fairly competitive school. Most majors focus on biology, such as Conservation, Environmental, and Wildlife. With a student-to-faculty to radio of 12 to 1, a majority of students stay after their first year, resulting in an 88% retention rate.

3. Virginia Military Institute

Flickr user J. Stephen Conn

  • Location: Lexington, VA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,717
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 232

VMI’s school motto is definitely a reflection of their military-affiliations–“In peace a glorious asset, in war a tower of strength.” On this campus, the five most popular majors are Civil Engineering, International Relations & Affairs, Economics, History, and Biology. Their interesting mascot is Moe the Kangaroo.

2. Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Wikimedia Commons user MassArt

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,990
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 221

This public school for art, music, and design has a 71% acceptance rate. On average, the ACT scores fall between 21 and 26, while the SAT scores fall between 980 and 1,170. The student-to-faculty ratio remains low at 8:1. The first-year retention rate lands at 90%. Illustration, Graphic Design, and Digital Arts are currently the most popular majors.

1. St Mary’s College of Maryland

Flickr user Elvert Barnes

  • Location: St. Mary’s City, MD
  • Student Enrollment: 1,735
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above
  • College Raptor Ranking: 135

Despite it’s name, St. Mary’s is a non-secular school. It’s name gives homage to its location on the banks of the St. Mary’s River. Of all the students on campus, a whopping 98% are undergraduate students. St. Mary’s has a 87% first year retention rate, and a six year graduation rate of 81%. 

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!

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