North Carolina’s Best Public Colleges and Universities of 2021

Public colleges and universities account for almost 75 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. The best public colleges in North Carolina provide broad access to reputable degree programs, affordable tuition, and sprawling educational communities.

North Carolina’s Best Public Colleges and Universities of 2021

Colleges and Universities in North Carolina

Among these schools are over 60 public colleges and universities, including the state’s largest school, North Carolina State University, which serves almost 30,000 students. Tuition costs average about $9,000, just below the national average, and students also have the option to enroll in over 1,000 online courses. Another notable public school is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is one of the country’s oldest universities.

The 25,000 students who attend UNC will walk the same halls as Francis Collins, Thomas Wolfe, and former president James K. Polk. North Carolina’s private schools have also made a name for themselves, including the well-known Duke University located in Durham. Here, students can earn degrees in some of the top programs, like nursing, political science, and business. Additionally, students can attend one of the many small schools which serve less than 5,000 students, like Campbell University in Buies Creek, or a religiously affiliated school, like Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City.

From its coastal beaches to its lush forests, it’s no wonder the Wright Brothers dreamed of taking flight over North Carolina. This state is rich with history, scenic views, and famous people who once called it home, like John Coltrane and Nicholas Sparks. Students hoping to earn their associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree also have the option of choosing from over 100 schools in the Tar Heel State.

Whether you prefer ocean views or wooded forests, North Carolina has something for everyone. Discover more about the state’s higher learning options.

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What is a public college? And what is the difference between a private and public college?

Public and private colleges and universities operate under different business models — one is a private company with private funding; the other is owned by the state and receives both state and federal funding to operate. If you’re weighing the pros and cons of private vs. public college, consider that many public colleges provide diverse course offerings, influential professors, and an excellent return on your investment.

Public colleges are schools that receive most of their funding from tax revenues. As a result, the cost of a four-year degree at a public university is often lower than the equivalent cost at a private college — especially for students attending a public school in their home state. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average annual cost (tuition, fees, room and board for full-time students) at a four-year public university was slightly over $20,000. In contrast, private universities cost, on average, nearly $43,000 annually.

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This list is composed entirely of public colleges and universities that offer four-year undergraduate degrees. We’ve identified 15 public universities in North Carolina; 9 of which meet our criteria. The list below of the best public universities in the state satisfies the following four conditions:

  1. It must receive direct funding from the state.
  2. It must be fully accredited.
  3. It offers a broad range of bachelor’s degree programs.
  4. Its graduation rate must be greater than 50%.

How do we determine North Carolina's best public colleges and universities?

The best colleges pound for pound!

The people affiliated with a school are ultimately what make it great. This is why, at the undergraduate level, we rank the best colleges and universities based on what we call Concentrated Influence. Concentrated Influence takes the combined influence score of a college or university’s top academic influencers (including faculty and alums) and divides it by the school’s total number of undergraduates.

Using concentrated influence gives small and mid-sized schools an opportunity to shine by taking away the size advantage of larger universities. A small school with proportionately more influential faculty than a large school, whose influence in absolute terms may be bigger, will nonetheless score higher in a concentrated influence ranking. Our approach highlights undergraduate schools that truly rank for excellence, regardless of size.

If you are serious about finding the best colleges and universities for a bachelor’s degree, you should be asking where the most influential professors are teaching and whether their graduates are themselves advancing the school’s reputation for academic excellence.

Most ranking sites rely on an opaque combination of reputation surveys and arbitrary performance metrics. Concentrated Influence provides a ranking that is free from bias, insulated from manipulation, and reflective of real-world educational outcomes.

Find out more about our ranking methodology here.

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Best Public Colleges & Universities in North Carolina

  1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    #1

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

    #75 institution's overall influence
    #38 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Acceptance

    23%

    Graduation

    91%

    Student body

    25K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1375/31

    Chapel Hill, NC

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    What is University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill known for?

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • History
    • Law
    • Political Science
    • Business
    • Communications
    • Mathematics
    • Chemistry
    • Nursing
    • Religious Studies
    • Education

    Most Influential Alumni

  2. North Carolina State University
    #2

    North Carolina State University

    #196 institution's overall influence
    #176 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Acceptance

    47%

    Graduation

    78%

    Student body

    30K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1320/29

    Raleigh, NC

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    What is North Carolina State University known for?

    North Carolina State University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Physics
    • Biology
    • Computer Science
    • Mathematics
    • Chemistry
    • Business
    • History
    • Economics
    • Communications

    Most Influential Alumni

  3. Appalachian State University
    #3

    Appalachian State University

    #769 institution's overall influence
    #1467 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    69%

    Graduation

    72%

    Student body

    19K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1185/25

    Boone, NC

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    What is Appalachian State University known for?

    Appalachian State University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Mathematics
    • Communications
    • Economics
    • Criminal Justice
    • Anthropology
    • History
    • Earth Sciences
    • Political Science
    • Medical
    • Education

    Most Influential Alumni

  4. University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    #4

    University of North Carolina at Charlotte

    #818 institution's overall influence
    #1385 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    67%

    Graduation

    57%

    Student body

    26K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1195/24

    Charlotte, NC

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    What is University of North Carolina at Charlotte known for?

    University of North Carolina at Charlotte's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Anthropology
    • Religious Studies
    • Mathematics
    • Engineering
    • Computer Science
    • Sociology
    • History
    • Psychology
    • Economics
    • Business

    Most Influential Alumni

  5. East Carolina University
    #5

    East Carolina University

    #765 institution's overall influence
    #1186 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    82%

    Graduation

    61%

    Student body

    26K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1115/22

    Greenville, NC

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    What is East Carolina University known for?

    East Carolina University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Nursing
    • Medical
    • Social Work
    • History
    • Political Science
    • Biology
    • Criminal Justice
    • Education
    • Psychology
    • Computer Science

    Most Influential Alumni

  6. University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    #6

    University of North Carolina at Greensboro

    #712 institution's overall influence
    #1364 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    84%

    Graduation

    54%

    Student body

    18K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1075/22

    Greensboro, NC

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    What is University of North Carolina at Greensboro known for?

    University of North Carolina at Greensboro's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Nursing
    • Literature
    • Sociology
    • Education
    • Psychology
    • Chemistry
    • Economics
    • Mathematics
    • Biology
    • History

    Most Influential Alumni

  7. University of North Carolina at Asheville
    #7

    University of North Carolina at Asheville

    #2929 institution's overall influence
    #555 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    94%

    Graduation

    62%

    Student body

    3K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1155/24

    Asheville, NC

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    What is University of North Carolina at Asheville known for?

    University of North Carolina at Asheville's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Mathematics
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
    • History
    • Religious Studies
    • Engineering
    • Anthropology
    • Chemistry
    • Biology
    • Political Science

    Most Influential Alumni

  8. Western Carolina University
    #8

    Western Carolina University

    #2077 institution's overall influence
    #632 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $4K

    Acceptance

    40%

    Graduation

    57%

    Student body

    10K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1120/22

    Cullowhee, NC

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    What is Western Carolina University known for?

    Western Carolina University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Nursing
    • Anthropology
    • Literature
    • History
    • Social Work
    • Medical
    • Criminal Justice
    • Education
    • Business
    • Biology

    Most Influential Alumni

  9. University of North Carolina Wilmington
    #9

    University of North Carolina Wilmington

    #2329 institution's overall influence
    #1260 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    61%

    Graduation

    72%

    Student body

    15K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1255/25

    Wilmington, NC

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    What is University of North Carolina Wilmington known for?

    University of North Carolina Wilmington's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Social Work
    • Chemistry
    • Biology
    • Computer Science
    • History
    • Psychology
    • Anthropology
    • Communications
    • Literature
    • Sociology

    Most Influential Alumni

Honorable Mentions

North Carolina Central University

North Carolina Central University

#1111 institution's overall influence
#789 overall school desirability

Tuition + fees

$6K

Acceptance

47%

Graduation

43%

Student body

7K

Median SAT/ACT

975/18

Durham, NC

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What is North Carolina Central University known for?

North Carolina Central University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

  • Mathematics
  • Earth Sciences
  • Chemistry
  • Criminal Justice
  • Law
  • Education
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Social Work
  • Nursing

Most Influential Alumni

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

#1029 institution's overall influence
#1173 overall school desirability

Tuition + fees

$7K

Acceptance

61%

Graduation

43%

Student body

11K

Median SAT/ACT

1030/19

Greensboro, NC

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What is North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University known for?

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

  • Engineering
  • Political Science
  • Communications
  • Nursing
  • Mathematics
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Education
  • Criminal Justice
  • Economics

Most Influential Alumni

Winston-Salem State University

Winston-Salem State University

#2742 institution's overall influence
#1448 overall school desirability

Tuition + fees

$6K

Acceptance

65%

Graduation

47%

Student body

5K

Median SAT/ACT

960/17

Winston-Salem, NC

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What is Winston-Salem State University known for?

Winston-Salem State University's faculty and alumni have been influential in:

  • Nursing
  • Social Work
  • Chemistry
  • Education
  • Biology
  • Medical
  • Economics
  • Mathematics
  • Political Science
  • History

Most Influential Alumni

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