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Public Ivy: A Comprehensive Admissions Guide to Public Ivies

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In 1985, Richard Moll coined the term “Public Ivy” to describe a number of prestigious public universities that offer an experience similar to that of a traditional Ivy League.

In his book, Public Ivies: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities, he sought out universities that prided themselves on these four points:

  • strong academic performance
  • selective admissions process
  • resources available to invest in top-rated professors and research
  • rich history, culture, and presence on campus

Of these set criteria, Moll cultivated a list of only 15 of the nation’s most prestigious public schools:

However, while Moll only included these 15, more colleges have been identified as Public Ivies since then, specifically in Howard and Matthew Greene’s The Public Ivies: America’s Flagship Public Universities (2001).

Their list doubled the number to 30 total colleges, which they categorized by geographic location. Greene’s Public Ivy list reads as follows:

Northeastern

  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Rutgers University
  • State University of New York at Binghamton
  • University of Connecticut

Mid-Atlantic

  • University of Delaware
  • University of Maryland
  • College of William & Mary
  • University of Virginia

Southern

Western

  • University of Arizona
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Diego
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Washington

Great Lakes & Midwest

  • Indiana University
  • Miami University
  • Michigan State University
  • Ohio State University
  • University of Illinois
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Minnesota
  • University of Wisconsin

Other schools, like Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Pittsburgh were listed as “worthy runners-up” in Moll’s original book, and while they were not added to the list of Public Ivies, many consider them in the same academic and prestigious league.

What are Differences Between a Public Ivy and Ivy League

The main difference is that a Public Ivy is a public, state-funded university, while the Ivy League itself comprises eight elite private universities on the U.S. East Coast.

  • The Ivy League is also an officially recognized group of schools, whereas “Public Ivy” is somewhat of a less recognized term; the list of which colleges count can differ from expert to expert, and it generally functions as shorthand for “good, prestigious school with academic rigor comparable to that of an actual Ivy League.”

While the Public Ivy exists to better align these state schools with the Ivy League, there are some key differences that you should consider during your college search.

Public Ivies are Cheaper (Especially for In-State)

Any public school will be cheaper than any private school, but the differences in tuition and academic fees can really make your head spin – try $53,000 (Yale) versus $35,000 (UNC-Chapel Hill).

Keep in mind, UNC’s tuition applies to out-of-state students only. For those who currently reside in North Carolina, that price drops dramatically to under $9,000 per school year. This is the same case for every Public Ivy.

This is because the state itself has incentive to keep you, a high-achieving student with great high school records and a promising future career, in their state.

They’re willing to subsidize the price of education in the hopes that you’ll be something great as an alumnus or alumna of their college.

Private universities have no such incentives to recruit students of a certain geographical location, so even people who live mere miles away from any private school pay the same as those who traveled across the country to be there.

  • While price certainly matters while choosing a university, remember that you don’t always get the full tuition.
  • Financial aid exists, and many public and private universities alike have departments that will do anything they can to mitigate financial strain.

Ivy Leagues are known for their need-based financial aid; Public Ivies also may have need-based aid, but they also are more likely to give out merit-based scholarships and grants to prospective students as well.

Public Ivies are Less Selective

Acceptance rates for Ivy Leagues are notoriously low – Harvard regularly hits 5-6%, and all other Ivy Leagues also hit mid-range, single-digit percentages. Public Ivies, on the other hand, tend to admit far more of their applicants.

  • Of the more selective schools, UC Berkeley reaches just under 17%.
  • However, Public Ivies like the University of Georgia are around 53%.

Other Public Ivies tend to fall somewhere between these two – a far cry from the paltry admittance rate of the real Ivy League.

While part of the reason may factor into the prestige and selective admission process of Ivy Leagues, a key factor is the size of classes and the number of people applying.

  • Ivy Leagues, known for their status, attract just about every academically motivated and intellectually gifted student in the nation.
  • Their applicant pool is probably extremely high, and with only eight legitimate Ivy Leagues, the competition is extremely tough.

Most have small undergraduate classes as well. In fact, Harvard has under 7,000 undergraduates enrolled; very few seats are available, so few people are accepted, no matter how outstanding their record may be.

  • Public Ivies, on the other hand, may see fewer applicants, simply because there are more public schools to choose from, and because the in-state/out-of-state tuition difference might make students in neighboring states look at their own state universities instead.

The class sizes are also much larger. For instance, UC Berkeley has about 30,500 undergraduates enrolled at their university.

  • That alone is over four times as many Harvard enrollees. While not all Public Ivies have huge undergraduate student populations (the University of Vermont only has around 11,000, for instance), they usually accept more students simply because there are more spots available.

While GPA and SAT/ACT scores don’t average as high in incoming freshman demographics for Public Ivies, keep in mind that these schools were specifically selected as comparable to Ivy League schools in terms of academic rigor.

No matter how high your GPA or test scores were, you are guaranteed a quality education at any one of these universities.

Are you a freshman, sophomore, or junior? Our College Planning Boot Camp will teach you how to excel for college admissions. Your first session is free.

Class Size

Because the undergraduate population is so low in Ivy League schools, they also have tiny faculty-to-student ratios. For Harvard and Yale (whose ratios are 7:1 and 6:1, respectively), have classrooms of under 20 students for about 75% of their total classes.  

These aren’t bad numbers at all, but it does go to show that an Ivy League will allow for more individualized attention for students than Public Ivies.

Only Certain Undergraduate Programs May be “Ivy Worthy”

While some Public Ivies may gain that title for the entire university, some schools have more prestigious colleges (or academic programs) than others.

For instance, UC Berkeley is a great all-around school, ranking highly in programs ranging from engineering to political science, while the University of Georgia has a strong interest in agricultural research and engineering.

  • UNC-Chapel Hill has strong political science and social science programs, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor ranks highly in economics and business.

 Keep in mind that some undergraduate programs may be better than others within one university.

Do your research and make sure that the ones you apply to have a highly ranked program in your intended field of study.

Athletics

Ivy League sports aren’t often talked about.

They do still have organized sports teams – Harvard apparently has 42 Division 1 sports teams. Professor John Mason of Columbia University claims that 20% of the Ivy League freshman class is composed of recruited athletes.

That being said, Ivy Leagues don’t seem to advertise their high ranks in football like many Public Ivies do.

 State schools, on the other hand, often highly revere athletics as a massive part of school identity.

  • The University of Georgia, for instance, has a highly ranked football team – in 2017, UGA almost won the National Championship, the highest award in competitive college football.
  • Given that Athens is a college town, many fans will travel to see their favorite team play, and you’re likely to hear “Go Dawgs!” at one point while there.

Not every Public Ivy has this kind of environment, but sports often brings a sense of school spirit and pride in state colleges.

If you like cheering on for a team, or you’re interested in joining a school’s sports team, a Public Ivy might be right for you.  

If you’re especially skilled in that sport, you might even snag an athletic scholarship as well, something that Ivy Leagues do not award their kinesthetically gifted students.

Prestige

Ultimately, a Public Ivy won’t be as impressive on a resume than an Ivy League.

  • Harvard, Yale, Princeton – all the Ivy Leagues’ names carry a lot of weight and are instantly recognizable as great schools.
  • Public Ivies don’t quite have that level of name recognition, though many people still acknowledge that they are great, academically-challenging schools.

That being said, most jobs and businesses look for experience over education.

If you can do something – an internship, a project, or a portfolio – at a Public Ivy that better aligns with what the company is looking for, they’ll be more likely to hire you over a Dartmouth graduate who doesn’t have as much experience under their belt.

Advice from Experts and Current Students

We’ve collected advice and feedback from a few former Public Ivy students!

From Joan Michelson, executive producer and host of Green Connections Radio:

I attended two public universities, UCLA for my BA and Baruch College, CUNY, for my MBA, both of which were great experiences.

I liked the quality of the professors (for the most part) and the diversity of my classmates. I was an English major at UCLA and am a journalist and professional communicator, so my degree came in handy. I also studied nutrition and had great tutors to help me with chemistry/organic chemistry and they have come back into my world now all these years later. One of my professors had me come back to talk to his students about career choices for English majors and that was fun.

I made friends with folks I met through the DC-based UCLA alumni group, and stay in touch periodically with my former Baruch classmates as well. I also studied journalism in the UCLA Extension program and one of my professors from there has supported my career and helped me land gigs, and is still a friend.

My Baruch class was all experienced professionals, which was great because we could give our own real-world experiences. For example, we had a UN Ambassador, an MD, a couple of Ph.Ds and a bunch of corporate folks and entrepreneurs across industries, and it was about 50-50 male-female too. A few of my classmates decided to give us all “awards” at graduation, such as “most improved” etc., and mine was “most likely to ask a question.” Not surprising for a journalist!!

I definitely think state schools are a good investment, especially if you can get in-resident rates. Like anything else, it’s what you do with what you learn and experiences there that matters.

From Vanessa Aguirre, marketing director of Prolitfic:

I’m a second-year psychology/Plan II major at the University of Texas at Austin. I’ve had so many great classes. But there’s also professors who not only don’t care if you learn the material, but they make it a point of pride to make it almost impossible to.

Naturally, the classes with the best professors fill up first. Registration and professors aside, it’s nice being around people who want to do well just as much as you do. Granted, this can slide into competitive perfectionism, but it can also lead to constructive improvement. Just focus more on the working together and less on the competing against one another.

From Patty Traik, a computer engineer:

I loved my time at UNC-Chapel Hill. Choosing classes and getting to know everyone is tough, but once you get the hang of it, things become much easier to deal with. I think the best part about Public Ivy schools is how they bring a wide range of people together. There is a lot of diversity.

Attending a Public Ivy has helped my professional life because I’ve been able to network with so many familiar people and alumni.

Public Ivies: Are They Right for You?

Overall, whether or not you should choose a Public Ivy instead of going for an Ivy League is completely up to your circumstances.

Public Ivies tend to be more affordable and less selective, so if money is an issue, or if your scores don’t align well with Ivy League standards, you may consider going for a Public Ivy for a great chance at quality education.

To better improve your experience with regard to academics, look into the honors program of state colleges.

These programs allow for the kind of selective, high-tier experience of an Ivy League, complete with smaller classes and more rigorous curricula.

In the end, an Ivy League will always hold the prestige of being the “better” school, but don’t overlook Public Ivy schools.

Keep them in mind as you research different colleges to apply to – you may be surprised to find you favor a state school!