Many years ago, someone coined the term “Public Ivy League School.” The phrase was meant to refer to state universities that have such high academic standards and international stature that they approximate – if not equal – anything the Ivy League has to offer.
Not many public universities can claim this. However, three undoubtedly do.
In fact, one of the most common questions I get from my clients is what are the top state universities in the USA. I think it’s a very good question. Obviously every state in the nation has publically-funded universities. But just like private universities, not all public universities are created equal. There are real differences in the academic rigor, alumni loyalty, endowments, and selectivity between state universities.
Here are my top three institutions:
1. The University of California, Berkeley. Most private college counselors would likely identify UC Berkeley as among the top universities in the United States. Having attended the institution I can tell you from experience that it is arguably the top public university in America. Berkeley’s long history of Nobel Prize winners, the stunning location where you can literally see the Golden Gate Bridge from the campus, to being the flagship university of America’s most important state all play a role here. Being in close proximity to San Francisco and to Silicon Valley doesn’t hurt either. International rankings place UC Berkeley as America’s top state university, and Cal – as everyone refers to UC Berkeley – routinely ranks in the top ten universities in the world.
2. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Michigan is a close second to UC Berkeley in my view, and it shares many of Berkeley’s qualities. Virtually every department at Michigan is in the top 10, and they can draw faculty from the same pool as the Ivy leagues as well as UC Berkeley. In addition, unlike UC Berkeley, Michigan does have a vigorous and winning athletic tradition (ok, maybe not their football team these days). So if a student wants a balance of rigorous academics as well as having the opportunity to watch big-time sports, this is a great place to do it. Michigan is less selective, in my experience, than Berkeley in both undergraduate and graduate admissions.
3. University of Texas at Austin. Surprisingly, many of my clients who live in the northern United States won’t consider UT Austin because they have this strange fear of being in Texas. I’m not entirely sure why anyone would stereotype an entire state, because UT Austin is anything but a caricature of what most people think Texas is like (full disclosure: I love the Lone Star State). Apart from being the state capital, the University of Texas embraces a liberal approach to academics. Austin the city has experienced phenomenal growth, and mind-boggling traffic jams, but the reason why this is a public Ivy League schools (among other reasons) is that alumni from UT Austin are notoriously loyal to the institution and help their graduates get jobs. UT Austin has also become increasingly harder to get into, even for Texas residents.
There are many people who will read this and argue that the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Virginia, UCLA, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should also be included on this list. I concede that an argument can be made that these schools share some of the attributes of Cal, Michigan, and Texas. However, in my experience as a private college counselor and as a former practicing attorney, if you want to go to a truly blue-chip “Public Ivy” that will set you apart from other job applicants and also give you an advantage for graduate school admissions, you can’t make a better choice of either Berkeley, Michigan, or Texas.