To identify the Best Colleges in Virginia for 2017-2018 we averaged the latest results from the most respected college ranking systems with thousands of real student review scores from around the web to produce a unique College Consensus rating for each school. You won’t find a more comprehensive ranking of the top colleges and universities in Virginia anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Virginia
The best colleges and universities in Virginia account for some of the most important institutions in American history, period. Three of Virginia’s colleges were founded before the American Revolution: Washington & Lee University 78 , Hampden-Sydney College 67 , and the College of William & Mary 70 , though only William & Mary is considered a Colonial College (the other two were not chartered as colleges until after the Revolution). That gives Virginia alone three of the oldest colleges in the nation – more than any other state. The University of Virginia 72 is a pioneering public research university, founded by Thomas Jefferson himself as the exemplar of American Revolution values, while the Virginia Military Institute 65 is a model of the senior military college.
In addition, Virginia has some of the nation’s most acclaimed public institutions; not only the land-grant polytechnic institute known as Virginia Tech 68 – one of the most productive and innovative STEM universities in the nation – but smaller regional colleges like the University of Mary Washington 67 and James Madison University 73 . Hampton University 68 , one of the most prestigious historically black colleges, traces its lineage back to the Emancipation Tree, where a fearless freed black woman taught escaped slaves to read and write even before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Virginia has so many world-class colleges and universities that a top 10 ranking leaves out a ridiculous number of excellent institutions.
Here are the top colleges and universities of the Old Dominion.
Washington and Lee University
One of the oldest institutions in America, Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy; it is not considered a Colonial College, however, because it was not chartered as a college until after the Revolution. Originally a classical school training young boys in Greek and Latin (the standard for elite education in the day), W&L began moving toward college status when George Washington gave what was the largest donation ever made to a school at the time – prompting its renaming to Washington College. The second half of the name came in 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee became president of the college for the last five years of his life. In those years, the school added engineering, business, and law, setting the course for the college’s future. Today, Washington and Lee is ranked in the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
Washington and Lee is a highly selective university – less than a quarter of applicants are accepted – and though the university was all-male until 1985, today half the student body is made up of women. The modern W&L is made up of the undergraduate college (simply called “The College”); the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics; and the School of Law. With its heritage of leadership, W&L’s business, economics, and politically-related programs are popular and highly rated, while the School of Law is one of the most renowned in the nation. Washington and Lee is also unique in having a non-codified honor system – students determine for one another what is a violation, and how to punish violations. With a global reputation, Washington and Lee is among elite company as one of Virginia’s best universities.
University of Richmond
University of Richmond, VA
The University of Richmond was founded by the Baptist Church in 1830. Originally a manual labor school – that is, a school where the students worked in exchange for their education – the academy was initially intended only for men going into the ministry. Unfortunately, the Richmond College made the poor choice of investing its entire endowment in Confederate war bonds, and had to be saved from bankruptcy by donations after the Civil War. Collapse threatened again in 1969, but rather than sell to the commonwealth of Virginia, an alumnus made a $50 million donation to keep the university private – at the time, the largest gift in history. That gift helped turn the University of Richmond into one of the most esteemed colleges in the region, and today U of R is ranked in the top 25 national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report, and a top up-and-coming institution.
The University of Richmond is still primarily known as an undergraduate educator, and is ranked among liberal arts colleges, with more than 100 majors, minors, and certificates at the undergraduate level in the liberal arts, sciences, business, and leadership. However, U of R is becoming well known for its excellent graduate programs, especially in law and business. Richmond is home to the nation’s only dedicated leadership school, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, which has been a pioneer and revolutionary in interdisciplinary leadership education. U of R puts a strong emphasis on undergraduate research, with most programs requiring independent study, capstones, or work alongside faculty researchers, making the University of Richmond one of Virginia’s top schools for career success.
James Madison University
James Madison University dates back to 1908, when the State Normal and Industrial School for Women was founded to provide technical and teacher’s training – the normal school being a 2-year teacher’s education program with hands-on, experiential training as a teacher in a real classroom. Within a decade, the school had been expanded to a full 4-year teacher’s college, and was renamed Madison College in honor of President James Madison, whose plantation had been located in the area. After becoming coed in 1966, JMU experienced a long period of growth and development, building a national reputation for excellence. Today James Madison University is ranked the #2 public regional institution in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
JMU has a student body of well over 22,000, making it one of the largest colleges in Virginia, while still remaining quite selective. A quarter of the student body comes from a minority background, and around 60% of the student body is female. James Madison is a comprehensive research university, with more than 75 bachelor’s degrees, more than 40 master’s programs, and 8 doctoral degrees; their 91% retention rate, with one of the highest graduation rates in the nation, is a solid sign of JMU’s excellence. With its roots in teacher education, JMU still has one of the state’s best Colleges of Education, and its recently-founded School of Engineering, which focuses on environmental sustainability, is gaining national attention. In addition to its academic excellence, JMU is well-known for its community outreach, and has been acclaimed by Washington Monthly for its influence on social mobility for graduates.
University of Virginia
One of the most prestigious public universities in the US, the University of Virginia was founded in 1819 by Founding Father, former President, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, just miles from his plantation, Monticello. Its first board included three founding fathers and former Presidents (Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe), and UVA embodied Jefferson’s Enlightenment ideals of liberal arts and sciences education, providing a model for public universities that followed. Today, UVA’s accomplishments as a top-tier public research university are too many to list, and Virginia’s flagship is ranked the #25 national university by U.S. News & World Report.
The University of Virginia is, simply, central to learning, research, and culture, not only for Virginia, but nationally. UVA’s School of Law is regularly ranked in the top 10 law schools nationwide, while the Darden School of Business, is similarly renowned – ranked as the Economist’s #2 business school in the world. The UVA School of Medicine is one of the nation’s oldest (only the 10th medical school founded in the US) and has been recognized not only as a leader in healthcare, but in research. In the 21st century, UVA and Charlottesville has gained international attention as a new hub of tech entrepreneurship, and Charlottesville has been named one of the top up-and-coming cities for venture capital in the nation. From the fine arts and literature to engineering and medicine, UVA is Virginia’s leading institution.
College of William & Mary
Founded in 1693, the College of William & Mary is one of the 9 Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution, and the oldest college in the South. William & Mary is one of the most influential institutions in American history, having educated Founding Fathers and eminent leaders including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, and numerous others. William & Mary was also the first graduate professional university, with law and medical schools founded in 1779, and the creator of the first student honor code, a staple of higher education. Today, the College of William & Mary is recognized as one of the original Public Ivies (a public university with the reputation of the Ivy League) and one of U.S. News & World Report’s highest-ranked institutions, including the top 10 colleges for undergraduate education.
Though it retains the historic “College” name, the College of William & Mary is actually closer to a public research university, with undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs. William & Mary’s undergraduate programs are highly ranked in part because they intentionally retain the style of a small liberal arts college within a larger research university; their student:faculty ratio of 12:1 is one of the lowest in its class, and nearly all courses are taught by full-time faculty with the highest degree in their field. The college’s schools of Business, Law, Education, and Marine Science are some of the nation’s most respected; the law school is the oldest in the US. A highly diverse student body, one of the most decorated faculties in the world, and network of alumni connections that is unparalleled makes the College of William & Mary one of Virginia’s greatest colleges.
One of the most esteemed historically black colleges in the nation, Hampton University has a deep and rich history. The Union-held area around Hampton, VA had become a safe destination for escaped slaves, who were protected by the Union army, and in 1861 an educated African-American woman, Mary Smith Peake, began teaching the freed people under an oak tree. That tree – under which the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud to the former slaves – is now on the campus of Hampton University, which was established in 1868 by the American Missionary Association. The alma mater of Booker T. Washington, and a leading light in the Civil Rights Movement, Hampton University stands today as a leader, ranked the #3 HBCU in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, and the #21 regional university in the South.
Hampton University was originally a normal school, training black teachers for Virginia’s segregated schools, and the university’s heritage as a home for teacher education remains strong. Hampton draws students from nearly every state and from around the world, and has built a world-class, comprehensive set of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees, from nursing and pharmacy to engineering and business. With a 10:1 student:faculty ratio, students receive close personal attention, excellent mentoring, and access to cutting-edge research in every discipline and field. Hampton has educated generations of African-American leaders, and enters the 21st century as a model of modern educational diversity.
Virginia Tech – one of the foremost STEM research universities in the South – was founded as a Morrill Land-Grant institution in 1872. Originally the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, Virginia Tech followed the Morrill Act requirement to combine liberal arts learning with the most modern applied sciences, setting a foundation for Virginia Tech to develop some of the world’s most prestigious engineering and business programs. Today, Virginia Tech – officially named the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – is ranked one of the 25 best public universities in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, with many individual programs recognized in the top 5 and top 10 nationally and worldwide.
The “mechanical arts” that formed the basis for Virginia Tech’s originally curriculum are the precursor to modern applied science and engineering, and Tech has built on that beginning to become one of the top engineering schools in the nation: top 15 undergraduate, and top 25 graduate. The Pamplin College of Business is also regularly ranked as one of the world’s best. Just as significantly, Virginia Tech is known for its wide and deep connections to industry and technology in Virginia and beyond, not only giving students access to the most advanced research in the STEM field, but a job market pull that few other colleges can match. That opportunity makes Virginia Tech one of Virginia’s leading universities.
University of Mary Washington
The University of Mary Washington was founded in 1908 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women, which then became known as the State Teacher’s College. At the time, women’s education was largely restricted to teaching, and the University of Mary Washington – named for George Washington’s mother – defined excellence for women’s education, so much so that in 1944 it was absorbed by the all-male University of Virginia as their women’s college. When UVA went coed in 1970, the college gained its independence and also began admitting men, beginning a long growth into Virginia’s premier public liberal arts college. UMW is currently ranked one of the top 20 regional colleges in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
UMW is primarily an undergraduate university, with more than 4000 bachelor’s students, but around 500 graduate students are part of UMW’s student body, earning degrees that include the MBA, the Master’s in Education, and the MS in Management Information Systems. As a liberal arts college, the University of Mary Washington maintains a 14:1 student:faculty ratio, and nearly all of the college’s faculty have the highest degree in their field. More than 60 majors and pre-professional programs give UMW a relatively comprehensive selection, and Mary Washington’s balance of quality and affordability (as a public university) has helped the university earn a reputation for value that brings students from across the US and around the world to one of Virginia’s best universities.
The last college founded in the Colonial era, Hampden-Sydney College began at the start of the American Revolution, in 1775, but the economic instability of wartime kept it from being chartered as a college until 1783, when the commonwealth of Virginia recognized it – the oldest private charter in the South. Founding Fathers Patrick Henry and James Madison were on the original board of trustees, and the curriculum was modeled on its fellow Presbyterian institution Princeton University. Surviving the Civil War (according to legend, a Confederate company formed from Hampden-Sydney students was almost immediately captured and pardoned as long as they returned to school), Hampden-Sydney built a reputation throughout the 19th and 20th century for academic excellence, while remaining one of only three all-male liberal arts colleges still in operation.
Ranked one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 national liberal arts colleges, Hampden is as well known for its culture as its academic programs; HSC emphasizes brotherhood, looking to men on the faculty and in the student body to enlighten and empower one another through liberal education, ethics, and community service. Hampden-Sydney proudly has a 10% higher graduation rate than the national average for men, and boasts the #1 alumni network in the nation according to the Princeton Review. A 10:1 student:faculty ratio puts an emphasis on mentorship and character development, and Hampden-Sydney has been rated at the very top for faculty accessibility. All of these strengths makes Hampden-Sydney one of the best colleges in Virginia.
Virginia Military Institute
The Virginia Military Institute is the oldest state-supported senior military college in the US, founded in 1839; its original location, the state militia’s arsenal in Lexington, VA, still stands on the VMI campus as the Old Barracks. The college’s primary purpose was to educate young men for the state militia, in case any danger like the War of 1812 should appear again, and its curriculum was modeled on the United State Military Academy at West Point; in fact, the Virginia Military Institute has long been nicknamed “The West Point of the South.” The Virginia Military Institute is ranked by U.S. News & World Report alongside the elite federal military academies, the only one of the senior military colleges so recognized, and is known for its academic rigor and excellence.
The Virginia Military Institute is one of the six senior military colleges in the US, but unlike the others, which have incorporated graduate education and civilian students (in many cases, making the Corps of Cadets only a small part of the student body), VMI has remained strictly a military college. All students are part of the Corps of Cadets – largely men, with a small percentage of women – and only bachelor’s programs are offered in engineering, the humanities, the sciences, and the liberal arts. Students live under military discipline in barracks, under the same strict guidelines as the first classes. VMI is distinguished as having graduated more generals than any other ROTC program in the nation, though graduates may enter civilian careers or accept officer commissions in any branch of the military.