To identify the Best Colleges in North Carolina 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 North Carolina anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in North Carolina
North Carolina’s best colleges and universities rank alongside the best colleges and universities in the nation. From the founding of the University of North Carolina – one of the two schools that identify as the first public university in the US – North Carolina has established a public higher education system that only a few states can rival. That includes some of the best regional institutions in the South, like Western Carolina University 67 , Appalachian State University 69 , the University of North Carolina Wilmington 65 , and many more. North Carolina is also home to a number of leading public historically black universities, including North Carolina Central University 57 and Elizabeth City State University 57 . North Carolina’s top-ranked public institutions could easily fill out a top 10 just on their own.
However, North Carolina is also known nationwide for their exceptional private colleges and universities. Not one, but two Southern Ivies call North Carolina home – Duke University 77 and Wake Forest University 73 , both built on the philanthropy of North Carolina’s tobacco magnates and both counted among the greatest private research institutions in the nation. Small liberal arts colleges abound, including Davidson College 78 and Elon University 74 , providing a link between the traditional, classical humanities and sciences, and the more specialized needs of modern professional education and leadership. North Carolina’s exceptional higher education system has made it a 21st century model of economic growth and development, and promises even bigger things in the future.
Here are the top colleges and universities of the Tarheel State.
The most prestigious small liberal arts college in North Carolina, Davidson College was founded in 1837 by the Presbyterian Church; it is named for William Lee Davidson, the Revolutionary War brigadier general who donated the land for the college. For its first few years, the college struggled with local community support before a $250,000 donation gave it the largest endowment of any college outside the Ivy League. In nearly 200 years of existence, Davidson has built on that foundation, developing a reputation that rivals any elite liberal arts college in New England. Beginning in 2007, Davidson was the first small liberal arts college to end all student loans, in the manner of the Ivy League; all students have their financial needs met with scholarships, grants, and work study. Today, Davidson College is ranked the #10 best national liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report, and stands as Forbes’ highest-ranked Southern college.
Davidson is recognized as one of the most selective institutions in the South, accepting only 20% of applicants; nearly all accepted students are in the top 10% of their high school graduating class. A quarter of all students come from a minority background, and around 6% are international. Davidson is a traditional liberal arts college, steeping undergraduate students in the classical humanities and sciences as a foundation for leadership and graduate education, and a student:faculty ratio of 10:1, as well as small classes, ensures that students have the utmost support and mentorship. As many as 80% of students take part in study abroad, and Davidson’s pre-professional programs – including pre-med, pre-engineering, and pre-law – are some of the most accomplished in the nation. From any angle, Davidson College is a prime example of North Carolina’s best colleges.
Duke University is one of the nation’s most accomplished private research institutions and a Southern Ivy – a Southern university with the reputation of the Ivy League. However, Duke began humbly, as a small, rural subscription school (a common form of schooling in the era, when public schools were rare, in which students paid a monthly fee to learn) in Trinity, NC. Founded by a collaboration between Methodist and Quaker citizens, the school would grow into Trinity College, moving to Durham, NC with the support of Washington Duke, a tobacco baron; with the establishment of the Duke Endowment by Duke’s son James B. Duke – a then-astoundingly large trust of $40 million for the establishment of colleges and hospitals – Trinity became Duke University, and Duke’s rise began. Today, Duke University is ranked in the top 10 national universities by U.S. News & World Report.
Duke is one of the foremost research universities in the world – counted in the top 10 wealthiest colleges in the US, top 10 highest research expenditures, and #11 (according to Forbes) among colleges that count billionaires among their alumni. Duke has produced more Rhodes, Marshall, and Goldwater Scholars than nearly any other university; its faculty includes Nobel Prize and Turing Award winners. Research at Duke includes fields from medicine (including groundbreaking AIDS studies) to engineering, chemistry to philosophy, and many of Duke’s individual programs are top-ranked worldwide. Undergraduate research and learning is still central to Duke’s mission, with a wide range of interdisciplinary studies and traditional majors. At every level, Duke University excels, showing what it means to be a top North Carolina university.
Elon University was founded in 1889 by the Christian Connection (a precursor to the United Church of Christ), originally as a small, local college. Elon’s rise in the late 20th century has been a topic of discussion and study; while the college started the 1970s as a little-known religious college, largely composed of local commuters, by the 20th century it had built a national reputation for excellence, attracting students from around the nation and eventually raising the student body to more than 80% out-of-state students. While Elon retains a historic tie to the United Church of Christ, today Elon is independent and non-denominational. Elon is highly selective, and ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the #1 regional university in the South, as well as one of the most innovative institutions in the nation.
Elon is primarily an undergraduate institution in the liberal arts tradition, with around 6000 bachelor’s students and just under 1000 graduate students. Students have access to more than 50 traditional majors, and undergraduate education takes place over a 4-1-4 semester schedule (two 4-month semesters, with a short 1-month winter session for special courses). Elon is particularly known for the Love School of Business, ranked one of the 30 best undergraduate business schools in the nation by Bloomberg Businessweek. In graduate and professional studies, Elon offers business, education, physician assistant, and other programs, along with doctoral programs in physical therapy and the J.D. from the School of Law. Elon is one of the most exciting up-and-coming institutions in the South, and easily one of North Carolina’s best universities.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Founded in 1789, the University of North Carolina was not the first public university chartered – the University of Georgia grabs that distinction – but it was the first to admit students, giving it a solid claim to the nation’s oldest public university. UNC did not just define higher education for the state of North Carolina, growing into a center of culture, research, and learning – it helped define what public higher education meant nationally, as other states looked to the first public colleges for inspiration. UNC is a quintessential public research university in a quintessential college town, and its influence can be felt across North Carolina, the South, and the US. A top-tier national university with the highest level of research activity, UNC is a U.S. News & World Report top 30 national university, and top 5 public university.
With more than 28,000 students, UNC is the second-largest university in North Carolina, and offers students a full range of majors, graduate degrees, and doctoral programs. Despite its size, UNC is still one of the most selective public universities in the nation, a sign of its desirability and reputation. As a corner of the Research Triangle – the industry and technology center of the South, bordered by UNC, Duke University, and North Carolina State University – UNC has been one of the most important institutions in the nation for studies across the disciplines. UNC Health Care, in particular, is one of the top academic healthcare centers in the US, and a world leader in cancer research and treatment. North Carolina’s flagship university shows what it means to be a top-tier university.
Wake Forest University
In 1833, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina bought a former plantation named the Forest of Wake to establish an institute to teach future ministers for the church. Founded in 1834, Wake Forest University began as the Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute – so called because students paid their way by working on the plantation. In just a few years, the manual labor went by the wayside, but Wake Forest College grew steadily, opening a law school and medical school by the turn of the century. In 1946, a gift from the Reynolds Family (of R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company) convinced the college to relocate to Winston-Salem, NC, though it kept the Wake Forest name, and the university continued to grow into one of the state’s most accomplished private research institutions. Today, Wake Forest is ranked as one of the top 5 undergraduate educators, and top 30 national universities, by U.S. News & World Report.
With recognition as a top undergraduate institution, Wake Forest is rooted in the liberal arts model, with students gaining a thorough grounding in the humanities and sciences. However, this classical education is used to build a fully modern professional education, marked by a wide range of interdisciplinary options and excellent opportunities for undergraduate research alongside some of the most accomplished faculty in the world. Wake Forest is further known for its top tier School of Law, and for one of the most prestigious medical schools in the South (ranked as one of the best research hospitals nationally by U.S. News & World Report). Though the Baptist-founded university is independent and non-sectarian today, its School of Divinity is highly respected, especially in medical-related fields like bioethics. Whatever the discipline, Wake Forest University is one of North Carolina’s best.
Elizabeth City State University
Elizabeth City State University, a respected, public historically black college, was founded in 1891 as a normal school for future teachers in North Carolina’s segregated black schools. The normal school format – in which students taught real students in a real school, earning a 2-year degree – had fallen out of fashion by 1937, when the institution became the Elizabeth City State Teachers College, offering full 4-year bachelor’s degrees. In 1972, the college became part of the newly-formed University of North Carolina System and was elevated to university status. Today Elizabeth City State is highly regarded in eastern North Carolina, ranked by U.S. News & World Report in the top 100 regional universities for the South, and #32 among HBCUs.
Elizabeth City State is primarily an undergraduate institution, with nearly 30 bachelor’s degrees in fields ranging from business and education to pharmacy and computer science. With an eye on the best possible undergraduate teaching, ECSU puts a premium on undergraduate research, with students taking part in studies alongside faculty members and on their own, as well as engaging with the most current technology. Graduate degrees include education, school administration, biology, and mathematics, with concentrations directed toward teacher education – fitting Elizabeth City State’s heritage as a teacher’s college. ECSU is also well known for community engagement, taking a leading role in life in Elizabeth City and throughout eastern North Carolina, an area known for economic struggle. With its roots deep in its place, and a view for the future, Elizabeth City State is a top North Carolina college on the way up.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington is a comprehensive public research institution in the UNC System. Founded in 1947, UNCW began as a junior college intended to meet the increased demand for higher education in the coastal region from WWII veterans returning to civilian life, using their GI Bill funds to go to college. As the junior college model became too constricting, Wilmington College became a 4-year institution, then joined the UNC System in 1969 as the sixth member. Today, UNC Wilmington is a large public research university with nearly 16,000 students, offering degree programs from the bachelor’s to doctoral level, and is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top 20 regional institution for the South.
With more than 50 bachelor’s programs, 36 master’s, and four doctoral degrees, UNC Wilmington meets more of coastal Carolina’s educational needs than any other public university; the Watson College of Education and the School of Nursing are particularly popular and highly-regarded. With its proximity to Camp Lejeune and other military bases, UNCW is famed for its military friendliness and outreach to veterans and active personnel, having been recognized by Military Times as a top college for vets. With a curriculum rooted in interdisciplinary, market-ready learning, concentrated on career preparation and lifelong learning, UNC Wilmington has also been ranked by Kiplinger’s and Forbes as a best value, providing students with a strong job-market reputation in North Carolina and beyond.
Appalachian State University
In 1899, facing a significant shortage of qualified teachers in the Appalachian region, brothers Blanford and Dauphin Dougherty raised $1000 from the people of Watauga County to open the Watauga Institute. As they raised interest in surrounding counties, the Dougherty brothers successfully campaigned in 1903 to have the Watauga Institute named a state school, which became the Appalachian Training School for Teachers. The school quickly grew to a normal school, then a teacher’s college, and finally into a state university, joining the UNC System in 1972. Today, Appalachian State is ranked in the top 10 regional colleges of the South, and a reliable best value, by U.S. News & World Report.
With around 18,000 students, Appalachian State has emerged in the 21st century as one of North Carolina’s best universities. The university keeps its student:faculty ratio closer to that of a liberal arts college than a typical large public university, and that commitment to student support shows in Appalachian’s strong reputation for undergraduate research and learning. With its background as a teacher’s college, Appalachian is still one of North Carolina’s top producers of schoolteachers, but it is also known for its excellent nursing and business programs. More than 150 undergraduate majors, and more than 60 graduate programs, gives Appalachian students a wide range of opportunity, but more importantly, Appalachian is known for its huge positive impact on the Appalachian region – not only in educating its professionals and leaders, but in community service, educational outreach, and employment. Appalachian State is a key part of North Carolina’s mountain life.
Western Carolina University
Like Appalachian State, Western Carolina University began with the people of the Appalachian region – in this case, Cullowhee, NC – taking matters into their own hands to meet their educational needs. In 1888, lacking a satisfactory public school, the people of Cullowhee established the Cullowhee Academy, a semi-private academy, boarding school, and normal school. After establishing the success of the venture, Cullowhee Academy convinced the legislature to make it the first public normal school in the state. The school grew, adding career training and 4-year degrees, and by 1967 the Western Carolina Teachers College was a full university. Today, WCU is ranked in the top 50 regional Southern universities by U.S. News & World Report.
As a regional university, Western Carolina is deeply committed to the well-being of North Carolina’s Appalachian and Native American people, as a professional and academic educator, as a preserver of culture, and as a protector of the community. WCU is ranked in the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement classification for their dedication to outreach and service. Numerous research centers, including the Mountain Heritage Center, the Cherokee Center, and the Craft Revival Project are centered around preserving and fostering mountain culture and traditions. Western Carolina is also known for their forensics program, as home of one of the nation’s two “body farms.” With top education and nursing programs, and a host of opportunities, Western Carolina University deserves to be called one of the Carolinas’ top universities.
North Carolina Central University
Founded in 1909 as the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua (Chautauqua being a popular adult education format of the day, centered on lectures and cultural performances), North Carolina Central University began as a private school founded by prominent educator James E. Shepard. The school would be sold and reestablished as a private normal school to educate African-American teachers for North Carolina’s segregated black schools, then taken over by the state to form the Durham State Normal School. In time, the normal school became the North Carolina College for Negroes, NC Central became the nation’s first public liberal arts college for black students (in 1925), establishing an influential presence in Durham’s historic Hayti neighborhood.
Ranked as the #13 best HBCU in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, NC Central University is a key component of North Carolina’s higher education system. NCCU’s curriculum is rooted in the traditional liberal arts, with all students developing a thorough base in the arts, humanities, and sciences, and Central has been a top producer of African-American excellence in leadership and culture. As a center of black culture in North Carolina, Central is known for its music programs, especially Jazz Studies; artists such as jazz saxophonist Brandford Marsalis and hip-hop DJ and producer 9th Wonder have established productive and illuminating relationships with Central. One of North Carolina’s top universities, there is no other public institution quite like NC Central University.
North Carolina State University at Raleigh
North Carolina State University, founded in 1887, is North Carolina’s land-grant college, originally called the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. The first mission of NCSU, according to the land-grant act, was focused on cultivating the most modern agricultural methods and expanding knowledge of mechanics – the precursor to modern engineering. While NCSU also included traditional liberal arts, and gradually expanded both classical and professional programs, its focus has remained on STEM, from their world-class veterinary school to its pioneering engineering, textile, and design programs. NC State is also one of the three corners of the Research Triangle, with Duke (#2) and UNC (#4). North Carolina State University is ranked in the top 100 national universities, and the top 35 public universities, by U.S. News & World Report.
While NCSU, under North Carolina’s segregated school system, was originally an all-white institution (North Carolina A&T University was the all-black land-grant university), today, NCSU is ranked as one of the most diverse universities in the nation, not only including a large population of American minority students, but a large proportion of international students drawn to State’s top engineering and professional programs. Some of NCSU’s programs, including nuclear engineering and biological & agricultural engineering, are ranked among the best in the world. The Centennial Campus is a model of public/private, university/industry collaboration and interaction, and represents one of NCSU’s most influential initiatives. With NC State University, North Carolina confirms its reputation as a 21st century leader in technology.