Tennessee’s Best Public Colleges & 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 Tennessee provide broad access to reputable degree programs, affordable tuition, and sprawling educational communities.

Tennessee’s Best Public Colleges & Universities of 2021

Colleges and Universities in Tennessee

About one third of the higher learning institutes in Tennessee are public schools. Students who attend these schools can expect to pay anywhere between $4,000 to $13,000 in tuition and have the option to pursue degrees in fields such as economics, history, nursing, literature, education, and criminal justice. Tennessee’s largest public school, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, boasts some impressive alumni, including Oprah Winfrey, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cormac McCarthy. The private school alumni are equally as notable. For example, author James Patterson and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus both attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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Tennessee also offers nearly 30 religiously affiliated schools, the largest being Belmont University in Nashville, located just blocks from the famous Music Row. Here, students can study a wide range of fields including Christian leadership, audio engineering technology, and biophysics. Additionally, Tennessee offers students several loan forgiveness programs. Math and science teachers, minority teachers, and registered nurses interested in becoming teachers or administrators who meet certain requirements may be eligible.

Tennessee is home to mouthwatering barbecues, electrified blues, and the sweeping majesty of the Smoky Mountains National Park. And with access to countless historic sites, unique museums, and lush green spaces, students attending one of the more than 60 colleges and universities in The Volunteer State will have plenty to do and see in their downtime.

Discover more about the top programs and higher education learning opportunities available in Tennessee.

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What are Tennessee’s Colleges & Universities?

Tennessee’s Best Overall

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

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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This list is composed entirely of public colleges and universities that offer four-year undergraduate degrees. We’ve identified 9 public universities in Tennessee, all of which satisfy 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.

Best Public Colleges & Universities in Tennessee

  1. #1

    University of Tennessee

    #215 institution's historical influence
    #1285 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $13K

    Acceptance

    78%

    Graduation

    71%

    Student body

    27K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1240/27

    Knoxville, TN

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    What is University of Tennessee known for?

    University of Tennessee’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Business
    • Biology
    • Mathematics
    • Medical
    • History
    • Education
    • Literature
    • Law
    • Computer Science

    Most Influential Alumni

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  2. #2

    Tennessee State University

    #1017 institution's historical influence

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Graduation

    26%

    Student body

    7K

    Nashville, TN

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    What is Tennessee State University known for?

    Tennessee State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Education
    • Medical
    • Business
    • Engineering
    • Political Science
    • Literature
    • History
    • Biology
    • Communications
    • Computer Science

    Most Influential Alumni

  3. #3

    Middle Tennessee State University

    #1003 institution's historical influence
    #1328 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Acceptance

    94%

    Graduation

    51%

    Student body

    18K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1135/23

    Murfreesboro, TN

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    What is Middle Tennessee State University known for?

    Middle Tennessee State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Business
    • Economics
    • Chemistry
    • Education
    • Earth Sciences
    • History
    • Political Science
    • Medical
    • Literature
    • Communications

    Most Influential Alumni

  4. #4

    University of Memphis

    #505 institution's historical influence
    #787 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $10K

    Acceptance

    85%

    Graduation

    52%

    Student body

    16K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1120/22

    Memphis, TN

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    What is University of Memphis known for?

    University of Memphis’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Computer Science
    • Business
    • Mathematics
    • Law
    • History
    • Education
    • Engineering
    • Medical
    • Political Science
    • Philosophy

    Most Influential Alumni

  5. #5

    University of Tennessee at Martin

    #2163 institution's historical influence

    Tuition + fees

    $10K

    Acceptance

    65%

    Graduation

    54%

    Student body

    6K

    Martin, TN

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    What is University of Tennessee at Martin known for?

    University of Tennessee at Martin’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Education
    • Political Science
    • History
    • Business
    • Mathematics
    • Biology
    • Medical
    • Earth Sciences
    • Engineering
    • Nursing

    Most Influential Alumni

  6. #6

    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

    #1131 institution's historical influence
    #1007 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $10K

    Acceptance

    83%

    Graduation

    50%

    Student body

    10K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1130/23

    Chattanooga, TN

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    What is University of Tennessee at Chattanooga known for?

    University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Medical
    • Education
    • Psychology
    • History
    • Literature
    • Political Science
    • Chemistry
    • Biology
    • Engineering
    • Communications

    Most Influential Alumni

  7. #7

    Tennessee Technological University

    #1858 institution's historical influence
    #1420 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Acceptance

    80%

    Graduation

    57%

    Student body

    9K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1125/24

    Cookeville, TN

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    What is Tennessee Technological University known for?

    Tennessee Technological University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Business
    • Biology
    • Education
    • Computer Science
    • Psychology
    • History
    • Mathematics
    • Political Science
    • Medical

    Most Influential Alumni

  8. #8

    East Tennessee State University

    #1185 institution's historical influence
    #564 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $9K

    Acceptance

    78%

    Graduation

    50%

    Student body

    12K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1075/23

    Johnson City, TN

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    What is East Tennessee State University known for?

    East Tennessee State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Medical
    • Education
    • Mathematics
    • Business
    • Biology
    • Literature
    • Communications
    • Political Science
    • History
    • Computer Science

    Most Influential Alumni

  9. #9

    Austin Peay State University

    #1964 institution's historical influence
    #581 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    91%

    Graduation

    48%

    Student body

    11K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1065/21

    Clarksville, TN

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    What is Austin Peay State University known for?

    Austin Peay State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Education
    • Business
    • Medical
    • History
    • Political Science
    • Computer Science
    • Engineering
    • Criminal Justice
    • Literature
    • Mathematics

    Most Influential Alumni

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