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22 Best Colleges in the South: Which One's Right for You?

Posted by Justin Berkman | Dec 13, 2015 8:00:00 AM

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If you’re from a Southern state, or you just love sweet tea, hush puppies, delicious BBQ, and saying “y’all,” you may want to attend college in the South. If you’re considering going to college in the South, you should have an idea of which schools are the best in the region.

In this article, I’ll rank the best colleges in the South and offer tips on finding the best Southern colleges for you.


Which States Are in the South?

For my rankings, here are the states that I considered to be in the South: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky. Interestingly, there is some discrepancy about which states are in the South.


How I Ranked the Best Colleges in the South

While rankings can be subjective, you can get a general idea of which colleges are better based on their reputations and objective statistics. I placed the best 22 colleges in the South into four tiers, with tier one including the highest ranked schoolsI determined my rankings by looking at the rankings from US News, Forbes, and NicheEach ranking list uses different variables to determine its rankings, but here are some of the most important factors that are considered when determining college rankings:

Academic Reputation  The academic reputation of a school is what education experts think about the academics at a particular college. US News gives a peer assessment survey to university presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions to help rate academic quality. Additionally, it surveys high school counselors across the country.

Freshman Retention Rate — The freshman retention rate is the percentage of freshmen that return for their sophomore years. Typically, better colleges have higher retention rates. A high retention rate shows that students at the school are satisfied with the school and receiving the necessary support to succeed.

Graduation Rate — The graduation rate is the percentage of students that graduate within 6 years. Better schools have higher graduation rates. If a higher percentage of students is graduating, then the students are seen as being more capable, and the college is providing the necessary support and resources to enable students to successfully finish college.

Student Selectivity  Student selectivity refers to the qualifications of the students and the competitiveness of the admissions process. Better schools have students with higher high school GPAs and standardized test scores. Also, better schools tend to have lower acceptance rates. More selectivity generally equates to a higher caliber of student.

Financial Resources  Ranking lists consider schools’ per student spending. More spending per student is indicative of having more resources and positively influences a school’s ranking.


I weighted the US News rankings a little more heavily because US News has the most prestigious ranking list; therefore it has the greatest impact on a school’s reputation. All of the schools were among the 25 top Southern colleges in at least two of the three ranking lists I looked at. Honorable mention schools made the top 25 in at least one list.

I included the average standardized test scores, acceptance rates, and US News ranking for each school. Because US News ranks national universities and liberal arts colleges separately, after the ranking, I put NU for national university or LA for liberal arts college. I also put public colleges in bold.



Sarah Reid/Flickr 


The Best Colleges in the South, Ranked

Without further ado, here are my rankings of the best Southern colleges.


Tier 1

The first tier is composed of highly selective private colleges. Their acceptance rates range from 13% to 17%, and they're all ranked in top 20 in US News for national universities. Their graduation rates are between 92% (Rice) and 95% (Duke). All three colleges meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.

School Location Average SAT Score Average ACT Score Acceptance Rate US News Ranking
Duke University Durham, NC 2250 34 13% #8 NU
Rice University Houston, TX 2180 33  17% #18 NU 
 Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN  2215  33   13% #15 NU 


Tier 2

There are seven colleges in the second tier. Their acceptance rates range from 18% (Washington and Lee) to 35% (Wake Forest), and they're all in the top 35 in their respective categories in the US News rankings.  Their graduation rates are 88% (Wake Forest and Washington and Lee) to 94% (University of Virginia). There are four public colleges and two liberal arts colleges in the second tier.

School Location Average SAT Score Average ACT Score Acceptance Rate US News Ranking
College of William and Mary Williamsburg, VA 2035 30 33% #34 NU
Davidson College Davidson, NC 1992 31 26% #9 LA
Emory University Atlanta, GA 2040 30 26% #21 NU
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chapel Hill, NC 1901 29 29% #30 NU
University of Virginia Charlottesville, VA 1997 30 30% #26 NU
Wake Forest University Winston-Salem, NC 1325 (on Math and Critical Reading only) 30 35% #27 NU
Washington and Lee University Lexington, VA 2082 31 18% #14 LA



University of North Carolina graduates (Evonne/Flickr) 


Tier 3

There are six colleges in the third tier, representing five states. Their acceptance rates range from 26% (Tulane) to 47% (University of Florida). Their graduation rates range from 81% (University of Texas and University of Miami) to 88% (University of Florida). University of Richmond is the only liberal arts college in this tier.

School Location Average SAT Score Average ACT Score Acceptance Rate US News Ranking
Georgia Tech Atlanta, GA 2049 31 41% #36 NU
Tulane University New Orleans, LA 1985 30 26% #41 NU
University of Florida Gainesville, FL 1887 28 47% #47 NU
University of Miami Coral Gables, FL 1965 30 40% #51 NU
University of Richmond Richmond, VA 1945 30 31% #32 LA
University of Texas-Austin Austin, TX 1873 28 40% #52 NU


Tier 4

There are six colleges in the fourth tier, only one of which is a public university. Their acceptance rates range from 51% (SMU) to 69% (Centre College). Their graduation rates are between 77% (SMU) and 84% (Furman), and their US News rankings are from 45-61 in their respective categories.

School Location Average SAT Score Average ACT Score Acceptance Rate US News Ranking
Centre College Danville, KY 1840 28 69% #45 LA
Clemson University Clemson, SC 1795 29 57% #61 NU
Furman University Greenville, SC 1845 28 64% #51 LA
Rhodes College Memphis, TN 1910 29 58% #51 LA
Sewanee: University of the South Sewanee, TN 1870 28 60% #48 LA
Southern Methodist University Dallas, TX 1935 29 51% #61 NU



Southern Methodist University (Ed Uthman/Flickr)


Honorable Mention


How Should You Use This List?

If you want to go to one of the best universities in the South, research the schools on the list that interest you to determine if you want to apply to themThink of the factors that are important to you in a college including cost, size, selectivity, location, and the majors offered. Look at the school’s website and use guidebooks, college finders, and search websites to help you in the college selection process. If possible, consult with teachers, counselors, parents, current students, and alumni.

Also, just because a school didn’t make the list doesn’t mean it’s a bad school. In your college search, you should identify the school that’s the best fit for you. Some schools may not rank well because they’re not as selective or have fewer financial resources. However, they may have academic programs, professors, and a campus environment that will enable you to have a high quality of life while you’re in school and reach your academic and professional goals.


What's Next?

Make sure you know how to do college research right.

Also, before you complete your college applications, learn everything you need to know about the college essay.

Finally, if you're interested in attending a selective college, check out the most selective colleges in the country.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Justin Berkman
About the Author

Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.

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