Best public universities in the United States 2021

Find the best public universities in the US using Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education’s US College Rankings data

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October 7 2020
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When many people think of the best universities in the US, they call to mind the Ivy League – a group of eight highly ranked private universities.

However, while the resources available to the country’s top private institutions can mean that they dominate the upper echelons of university and college rankings, the best public universities in the US should not be overlooked. Most public universities in the US are state universities, operated by the state government, and are often grouped into “systems”.

Every US state is required to have at least one public university, although some of the larger states may have many public universities. Such institutions will often offer discounted tuition fees for students who are residents of the state.

Based on data collected by The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings, we’ve put together a list of the top 100 public universities in the US.

The best public universities can be found across the US, but there are clusters of high-ranking institutions in California and New York. Some 25 of the best public universities are present in the top 100 of the overall US College Rankings.

The WSJ/THE US College Rankings is a more student-centred ranking because of its emphasis on student outcomes and engagement. While previously we have used results from the US Student Survey for the ranking, we were unable to conduct a survey in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we have used data from the 2019 survey to inform this year’s ranking. The full methodology can be found here.


Explore more top universities in the US

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Top 5 public universities in the US

1. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor was founded in 1817 with just seven students taught by two professors. By 1866, there were 1,205 students, and the first women were admitted to the university in 1870.

The university was also the first in the US to hold seminars as a method of study.

Student-run newspaper The Michigan Daily was founded in 1890 and is published five days a week during the academic year.

Other student publications include The Michigan Review and the Michigan Independent. Students also run the humour publications Gargoyle and The Every Three Weekly. Several academic journals are also published at the institution.

2. University of California, Los Angeles

Located in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, the University of California, Los Angeles is part of the University of California system.

The university offers more than 125 majors and 80 minors for undergraduates, as well as almost 150 graduate degree programmes.

The most popular undergraduate majors are business, economics, biology, psychology, political science and economics.

The university is affiliated with 13 Nobel laureates, 12 MacArthur fellows and 113 National Collegiate Athletic Association titles, while 261 Olympic medals have been won by alumni or students. Additionally, more than 140 companies have been created based on technology developed at UCLA.

Notable alumni include NFL Super Bowl quarterback Troy Aikman; the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley; actor James Franco, and Taylor Wang, the first Chinese-born astronaut.

best university in the US

3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of 17 campuses that are part of the University of North Carolina system.

It was chartered in 1789 and the university started enrolling students in 1795, meaning that it is one of the oldest public universities in the US.

The university offers 71 bachelor’s, 107 master’s and 74 doctoral degree programmes.

Students are able to participate in more than 550 student organisations, and the student-run newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, has won national awards for collegiate media.

4. University of California, Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley is one of 10 research universities affiliated with the University of California system.

Alumni, faculty and researchers include 94 Nobel laureates, 20 Academy Award winners, 14 Pulitzer winners, 117 Olympic gold medallists and 13 Fields Medal winners.

The university is split into 14 colleges and schools covering chemistry, engineering, business, natural resources and optometry, among others.

5. University of California, Davis

The University of California, Davis is the third campus of the University of California system to feature in the top five of the US College Ranking.

It was founded primarily as an agricultural campus but has expanded over the past century to cover medicine, law, education, nursing, veterinary medicine and business management.

The university is well known for its commitment to sustainability, with 29 per cent of the food bought for the dining rooms being sustainably grown. An on-campus biodigester, which was invented at the university, has the daily capacity to turn 50 tons of waste into energy for the campus.


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Top 100 public universities in the US

Public University Rank 2021 US College Rank 2021 University City State
1 23 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Ann Arbor Michigan
2 26 University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles California
3 33 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chapel Hill North Carolina
4 34 University of California, Berkeley Berkeley California
5 38 University of California, Davis Davis California
6 39 University of California, San Diego La Jolla California
7 =43 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Champaign Illinois
8 45 University of Washington-Seattle Seattle Washington
9 47 Purdue University West Lafayette West Lafayette Indiana
10 51 University of Virginia (Main campus) Charlottesville Virginia
11 =56 University of Florida Gainesville Florida
12 61 University of Texas at Austin Austin Texas
13 65 University of Wisconsin-Madison Madison Wisconsin
14 =71 Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta Georgia
15 73 William & Mary Williamsburg Virginia
16 =74 University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara California
17 =77 University of Maryland, College Park College Park Maryland
18 =80 University of California, Irvine Irvine California
19 82 Michigan State University East Lansing Michigan
=20 =83 Texas A&M University-College Station College Station Texas
=20 =83 United States Naval Academy Annapolis Maryland
22 =89 University of Illinois at Chicago Chicago Illinois
23 91 University of Minnesota Twin Cities Minneapolis Minnesota
24 97 University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh campus Pittsburgh Pennsylvania
25 =100 Ohio State University (Main campus) Columbus Ohio
=26 =104 University of Connecticut Storrs Connecticut
=26 =104 Indiana University Bloomington Bloomington Indiana
=28 =109 Penn State (Main campus) University Park Pennsylvania
=28 =109 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg Virginia
30 112 North Carolina State University Raleigh North Carolina
31 =121 University at Buffalo Buffalo New York
32 =124 Stony Brook University Stony Brook New York
33 =133 University of Utah Salt Lake City Utah
34 =135 University of Arizona Tucson Arizona
35 =147 Rutgers University-New Brunswick New Brunswick New Jersey
36 =149 University of Georgia Athens Georgia
=37 =151 University of Delaware Newark Delaware
=37 =151 University of Massachusetts Amherst Amherst Massachusetts
=37 =151 Virginia Military Institute Lexington Virginia
40 =158 Binghamton University, State University of New York Vestal New York
41 =162 University of Iowa Iowa City Iowa
42 173 University of Colorado Boulder Boulder Colorado
43 =175 Temple University Philadelphia Pennsylvania
44 =178 George Mason University Fairfax Virginia
45 =183 Colorado School of Mines Golden Colorado
46 =187 Florida State University Tallahassee Florida
47 =189 Clemson University Clemson South Carolina
48 192 University of California, Riverside Riverside California
=49 =193 New Jersey Institute of Technology Newark New Jersey
=49 =193 State University of New York Albany Albany New York
51 =196 Arizona State University (Tempe) Tempe Arizona
52 =198 University of Colorado Denver Denver Colorado
53 =201 California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo California
=54 =203 Michigan Technological University Houghton Michigan
=54 =203 Washington State University Pullman Washington
56 =215 Missouri University of Science and Technology Rolla Missouri
57 224 Southern Illinois University Carbondale Carbondale Illinois
58 =225 University of Oregon Eugene Oregon
=59 =229 CUNY City College of New York New York New York
=59 =229 Miami University Oxford Ohio
61 =235 Rutgers University-Newark Newark New Jersey
62 239 University of Kansas Lawrence Kansas
63 242 University of Oklahoma Norman Oklahoma
=64 =243 Auburn University Auburn Alabama
=64 =243 University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Honolulu Hawai'i
66 =248 CUNY Bernard M. Baruch College New York New York
67 =252 University of Wyoming Laramie Wyoming
68 =255 University of California, Santa Cruz Santa Cruz California
69 =262 The College of New Jersey Ewing New Jersey
=70 =264 Iowa State University Ames Iowa
=70 =264 Louisiana State University Baton Rouge Louisiana
=70 =264 Rutgers University-Camden Camden New Jersey
73 =270 University of Maryland, Baltimore County Baltimore Maryland
74 275 San Diego State University San Diego California
=75 =276 CUNY Hunter College New York New York
=75 =276 University of South Florida (Tampa) Tampa Florida
77 280 San Jose State University San Jose California
78 =281 James Madison University Harrisonburg Virginia
79 283 University of Minnesota Morris Morris Minnesota
80 284 University of Alabama at Birmingham Birmingham Alabama
=81 =289 University of South Carolina-Columbia Columbia South Carolina
=81 =289 Wayne State University Detroit Michigan
=83 =291 University of Cincinnati-Uptown Cincinnati Ohio
=83 =291 The University of Tennessee-Knoxville Knoxville Tennessee
=85 =298 University of Mississippi University Mississippi
=85 =298 SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Syracuse New York
=85 =298 University of Vermont Burlington Vermont
88 =303 Mizzou - University of Missouri  Columbia Missouri
89 =310 University of Washington-Bothell  Bothell Washington
90 =313 California State University, Long Beach Long Beach California
91 =315 University of Kentucky Lexington Kentucky
92 =318 Oregon State University Corvallis Oregon
=93 =323 University of Central Florida Orlando Florida
=93 =323 University of Missouri-Kansas City Kansas City Missouri
=93 =323 Oklahoma State University Stillwater Oklahoma
96 327 CUNY Queens College Queens New York
=97 =330 Illinois State University Normal Illinois
=97 =330 University of Nevada, Las Vegas Las Vegas Nevada
=99 =336 California State University, Chico Chico California
=99 =336 University of Nebraska-Lincoln Lincoln Nebraska

Read more: Best private universities in the US

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