Most people have heard of the illustrious eight private schools that make up the Ivy League. But what about high-quality public universities, or "Public Ivy League" schools? Are there any public schools out there that can match the caliber of top private schools?
Find out what the Public Ivies are and why you should consider applying to them.
Feature image credit: jojolae/Flickr
What Is a Public Ivy School?
Richard Moll’s 1985 book The Public Ivys: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities lists 15 public universities Moll considered equivalent to Ivy League schools based on the following four criteria:
- Admissions selectivity
- Undergraduate program quality and the importance of liberal arts
- The amount of resources available to spend on students, facilities, world-class faculty, and research
- Image and prestige
As a result, the term "Public Ivy" has become a shorthand for especially prestigious public universities and colleges in the US.
What Are the Public Ivies?
Moll's original list of Public Ivy League schools consisted of the following 15 schools (listed below in alphabetical order):
- College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA)
- Miami University (Oxford, OH)
- University of California system:
- University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Texas at Austin
- University of Vermont (Burlington)
- University of Virginia (Charlottesville)
Moll also identified nine "worthy runners-up," or public colleges and universities that were very high quality but fell just short of Public Ivy status. These were as follows:
- Binghamton University (New York; also known as SUNY Binghamton)
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta)
- New College of Florida (Sarasota; originally New College of the University of South Florida)
- Pennsylvania State University (University Park)
- University of Colorado Boulder
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)
- University of Washington (Seattle)
- University of Wisconsin–Madison
The College of William and Mary is one of the 15 original Public Ivy schools. (benuski/Flickr)
Public Ivy Rankings
There are more lists of Public Ivy League schools out there besides just the original list created by Moll in 1985, including several lists from Howard and Matthew Greene's The Public Ivies (2001).
We've gone through all these lists and gathered the most up-to-date information about the selectivity, academic quality, resources, and prestige of all public universities in America today.
Based on our research, we’ve created a table of what we consider to be the top 26 Public Ivy League schools in the country. The schools have been divided into different tiers (Tier I = blue, Tier II = green, Tier III = yellow) based on selectivity and reputation for academic excellence.
|School||State||In-State Tuition||Out-of-State Tuition||Size||Acceptance Rate|
|3||UNC Chapel Hill||NC||$9,018||$36,000||19,117||21%|
|4||University of Virginia||VA||$14,188||$48,036||16,777||26%|
|5||University of Michigan||MI||$15,558||$51,200||30,318||23%|
|6||UC Santa Barbara||CA||$12,570||$42,324||23,070||32%|
|9||University of Florida||FL||$6,380||$28,658||35,491||42%|
|10||William and Mary||VA||$17,434||$40,089||6,377||38%|
|12||UC San Diego||CA||$14,480||$44,234||30,285||30%|
|14||University of Georgia||GA||$12,080||$31,120||29,611||54%|
|15||University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||IL||$16,862||$34,312||33,915||62%|
|18||University of Washington||WA||$11,207||$36,587||32,099||52%|
|22||University of Maryland||MD||$8,824||$36,891||30,762||44%|
|23||University of Connecticut||CT||$14,406||$37,074||19,133||48%|
|26||University of Minnesota Twin Cities||MN||$13,318||$31,616||34,633||52%|
The Public Ivy League: Awards Circle
Though all the schools on our list of Public Ivy League schools provide great options to students for inexpensive and high-quality education, we wanted to highlight the stand-outs when it came to cost, size, and selectivity.
#1: Most Selective
- UCLA (12% admissions rate)
- UC Berkeley (17% admissions rate)
These two highly competitive schools in the University of California system are not only extremely selective, but also academically rigorous and prestigious universities.
#2: Least Selective
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (62% admissions rate)
UIUC is a great choice if you're looking to attend a top Public Ivy but might not have the GPA and test scores to get you into the most competitive schools.
#3: Cheapest for In-State Students
- University of Florida ($6,380/year)
- Florida State University ($6,516/year)
If you live in Florida and are looking to stay in-state for school, it's hard to do much better than the University of Florida or Florida State. Both schools' four-year tuition costs are barely half of what you'd pay for one year at an Ivy League or comparable private school.
Also, sun. Sun is nice (says the woman who chose to go to school in New England). (Boston Public Library/Flickr)
#4: Cheapest for Out-of-State Students
- Florida State University ($21,683/year)
If you want to attend a Public Ivy school but your state schools don't make the cut, then Florida State is a great option for you. You'll get the public school cost with the Public Ivy standards of academic rigor, resources, and name recognition.
#5: Smallest Undergraduate Population
- College of William and Mary (6,377 undergraduates)
If you're looking for a medium or even a smaller Public Ivy school experience, then William and Mary is the best bet for you, particularly if you apply to the honors program. While larger than most of the top liberal arts colleges, William and Mary is still comparable in size to smaller Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Brown.
#6: Largest Undergraduate Population
- Ohio State University (46,820 undergraduates)
If you want the big school, lose-yourself-in-a-crowd feel while still getting a good education, then OSU in Columbus is a great pick for you.
Should You Apply to Public Ivy League Schools?
So why attend a Public Ivy League school over an equally or more prestigious private school? In this section, I’ll go over the five most crucial factors of cost, selectivity, size, academics, and athletics.
Because they’re public universities, Public Ivy schools are significantly more cost-effective for in-state students than either Ivy League or other top-tier private schools.
In fact, the average cost for the 26 schools listed above came in at about $14,000/year for in-state students —that's definitely lower tuition than for any academically comparable private schools, which are closer to $45,000/year.
For out-of-state students, however, tuition at the Public Ivies can get pricey, especially for the best schools. The price range for the top seven Public Ivies goes all the way from the still-low cost of $31,370/year at Georgia Tech to the much higher cost of $51,200/year at the University of Michigan, which is basically the same price as a top private college.
So while public Ivy schools can still be cheaper than equivalent private schools if you live out-of-state, they are definitely more cost-effective if you live in the same state.
There is a wide range of selectivity among schools in the public Ivy League, from the most competitive schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley to the relatively less selective schools like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rutgers University.
While schools in the Public Ivy League are still fairly difficult to get into (particularly when it comes to specific honors programs within the schools), there is no doubt that top-tier private schools and Ivy League universities are significantly more selective.
Compare the admissions rates for top eight most selective of the Public Ivies vs eight of the most highly ranked Ivy League and other top-tier private schools:
|School||Acceptance Rate||Public or Private?|
|UNC Chapel Hill||21%||Public|
|University of Michigan||23%||Public|
|University of Virginia||26%||Public|
|UC Santa Barbara||32%||Public|
|UC San Diego||30%||Public|
The only two Public Ivies that even approach the top private schools in selectivity are UCLA and UC Berkeley.
Part of the reason Ivy League schools and equivalent private schools (Stanford, MIT, or top liberal arts colleges) have lower admissions rates than Public Ivy schools has to do with school size. The median undergraduate population for an Ivy League institution is around 6,400 students, while for a Public Ivy it's closer to 25,000 students.
Class size is one of the reasons applying to an honors program or college within a Public Ivy League school is so important. In an honors program, you’ll likely be in smaller classes and get more individualized attention.
Having rigorous academic programs is a defining characteristic of a Public Ivy League school, and most of the schools on our list have honors programs for high-achieving students who wish to challenge themselves.
However, there is a huge variance in quality both between different schools and among different programs or colleges within the same school.
For instance, UC Davis has one of the best programs in the country for agriculture, but some of their other departments are of relatively low quality (compared to what you’d find at a highly ranked private school). In contrast, UC Berkeley is a great school across most academic fields.
Because of this, it’s important to do a little more research into Public Ivy schools than you would for a top-10 private university or college, particularly if you're looking at a second- or third-tier Public Ivy. You don't want to go to a school hoping to get a top pre-med education only to find out they have a weak bio department.
Not only do Public Ivies have some of the top college sports teams in the nation, but they give out athletic scholarships.
While this is true for some top private schools as well (Northwestern being the most prominent example), it's not the case for any Ivy League college and many other top private schools such as MIT and UChicago. If you’re a serious athlete and want to be part of a world-class team, then a Public Ivy League school might be a great choice for you.
Similarly, if sports being a big part of campus life and having good sports teams is important to you as a fan, the Public Ivy League schools are a good fit. Nine of the 26 Public Ivies listed above are Big Ten Schools, with strong sports cultures and team spirit.
UConn basketball players have some serious skills. (Mike Mozart/Flickr)
Public Ivy League Schools: The Bottom Line
If you want to apply to an academically rigorous, fairly selective, and well-known public school, you should absolutely consider applying to a Public Ivy. It makes great financial sense to apply to a Public Ivy in your state, and while Public Ivies can get more expensive for out-of-state students, they're still usually cheaper than a private college or university.
Applying to an honors program within a Public Ivy, particularly if it's not in the top level of schools, is a must if you want a high-quality education. Honors programs have the bonus of being smaller and full of more academically driven students than the rest of the student body while at the same time being able to draw on the resources of a larger institution.
Finally, do the research to find out which schools are outstanding in the areas you’re interested in studying. You might even discover that the best program in the country for the subject you're interested in is at a Public Ivy school in your state!
Boston Public Library/Flickr
Still wondering about the pros and cons of public universities? Use our discussion of public vs private colleges to figure out which type of school is right for you.
Learn what it takes to get into an Ivy League school with this guide by a Harvard alum.
Want to see if you have what it takes to get into the top private universities in the country? Find out how you stack up against the competition with our article about good SAT scores for the Ivy League Plus schools.
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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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.