What is a Public Ivy?

A guide to the top public colleges—and why one of them might be the right choice for your child         

the term “public ivy” was coined in 1985 by richard moll to recognize schools with, in addition to a reputation for academic excellence, “the look and feel” of an ivy league school

the term “public ivy” was coined in 1985 by richard moll to recognize schools with, in addition to a reputation for academic excellence, “the look and feel” of an ivy league school


When parents think of colleges with reputations for excellence, Ivy League schools usually top the list. In addition to providing a quality education, the eight Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Columbia—are well-known for being highly selective, private institutions.

But many parents are unaware of a lesser-known alternative that offers the prestige and academic rigor of an Ivy League school: the Public Ivy. 

The term "Public Ivy," was coined in 1985 by Richard Moll, then the dean of admissions at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in his book Public Ivies: A Guide to America's Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities. Moll considered the eight schools in his book Public Ivies because they provided an educational experience on par with the Ivy League, often at a fraction of the price.

Nearly thirty-five years later, subsequent lists have been published using different criteria to determine which schools should be awarded the title. Today, any given school’s status as a Public Ivy is up for debate, but generally speaking, a Public Ivy is a public college or university with a reputation for academic excellence that provides a college experience similar to an Ivy League. 

What are the Public Ivies?

Here are the eight original Public Ivies from Richard Moll’s book, in no particular order (Note: data are current as of March 2019):

University of Michigan—Ann Arbor

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 27

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 29,821

  • Tuition and fees: $49,350 (out-of-state), $15,262 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $11,534

  • Acceptance rate: 27%

  • Average SAT score: 1450

University of Virginia

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 25

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 16,655

  • Tuition and fees: $48,891 (out-of-state), $17,350 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $11,590

  • Acceptance rate: 27%

  • Average SAT score: 1410

University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 30

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 18,862

  • Tuition and fees: $35,169 (out-of-state), $8,986 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $11,190

  • Acceptance rate: 24%

  • Average SAT score: 1370

University of Texas—Austin

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 49

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 40,492

  • Tuition and fees: $37,480 (out-of-state), $10,606 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $10,804

  • Acceptance rate: 36%

  • Average SAT score: 1350

College of William and Mary

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 38

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,285

  • Tuition and fees: $44,701 (out-of-state), $21,830 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $12,236

  • Acceptance rate: 36%

  • Average SAT score: 1430

Miami University (Ohio)

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 96

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 17,147

  • Tuition and fees: $33,577 (out-of-state) $14,825 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $13,031

  • Acceptance rate: 68%

  • Middle 50% of accepted students scored between 1230 to 1390 on the SAT

University of Vermont

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 96

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 11,339

  • Tuition and fees: $42,516 (out-of-state), $18,276 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $12,462

  • Acceptance rate: 67%

  • Average SAT score: 1259

University of California (In his book, Moll applies the label to the entire UC system, but we’ve include data on the top two most competitive UC schools)

University of California, Berkeley

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 22

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 30,574

  • Tuition and fees: $43,232 (out-of-state), $14,240 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $17,764

  • Acceptance rate: 17%

  • Average SAT score: 1440

University of California, Los Angeles

  • U.S. News & World Report rank: 19

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 31,002

  • Tuition and fees: $41,294 (out-of-state), $13,280 (in-state)

  • Room and board: $15,991

  • Acceptance rate: 16%

  • Average SAT score: 1370 

Moll also included a list of runners-up in his book:

Major differences between Public Ivies and Ivy League schools

When comparing the experience of attending a Public Ivy to the experience of attending an Ivy League school, there are a few key differences to keep in mind.


One big difference is typically size, both in terms of a school's overall undergraduate population and its student-faculty ratio. Generally speaking, Public Ivies tend to have undergraduate populations in the tens of thousands while most Ivy League schools enroll under 7,000 undergraduates.

For example, UCLA currently reports just over 31,000 undergraduates and has a student-faculty ratio of 18:1, whereas Princeton reports around 5,400 undergraduates and a student-faculty ratio of 5:1. 

Lower student-faculty ratios are often considered desirable since they mean that a student is more likely to receive individualized attention from their professors. On the other hand, larger undergraduate populations tend to be more diverse and have a wider range of extracurricular and social activities for students to participate in. Classes at a big school may fill up more quickly, but there will typically also be a larger course catalog to choose from.

Students will ultimately want to consider their own academic and social needs when considering school size as well as do individualized research on specific schools. It might surprise you to learn that, in some situations, an Ivy League school may actually be bigger than a Public Ivy. For instance, College of William & Mary has an undergraduate population of a bit over 6,200 while Cornell's student body is just shy of 15,000.

That said, many Public Ivies offer more intimate or advanced programs nestled within them, which provide students with a smaller community as well as special academic and social opportunities. Often known as honors programs or colleges, these programs can range in scope from strictly academic to those that encompass both residential life as well as coursework.

An example of the former is the University of Illinois Campus Honors Program which allows students to take specialized versions of general education courses as well as interdisciplinary seminars (freshman class size: 125).

A more immersive experience can be found in the University of Michigan's Residential College where a select group of students live and take classes, often focused in the humanities and arts, in the same building (freshman class size: 250).

The University of Texas Plan II Honors Program is somewhere in-between with its liberal arts-style interdisciplinary curriculum and special social opportunities like student dinners and reading groups (freshman class size: 175).


Though challenging academic programs can be found at any Public Ivy, it's worth keeping in mind that some Public Ivies are known as all-around academic powerhouses, comparable to an Ivy League school, while others may be renowned for a particular program or department.  

A great example of the former is UC Berkeley, which is considered one of the best universities in the country with high-ranking programs in a wide variety of disciplines. In contrast, the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign is a top school for engineering and UC San Diego is well known for its biology department.

It's always a good idea to research any school your child may be interested in attending. This includes speaking with current students and faculty members, touring the campus, and browsing the school’s website to understand its various program offerings


One attractive quality of Public Ivies are their comparatively low tuition rates, especially for in-state applicants. Of the twelve schools we chose as Public Ivies, 2018-2019 in-state tuition ranged from $8,986 at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to $21,830 at College of William & Mary. 

The majority of Public Ivies currently charge between $10,000 and $15,000 per year for in-state tuition. When compared to the cost of attending nearly any private college or university, where typical tuition rates are upwards of $50,000 per year, it's undeniable that in-state tuition at a Public Ivy is hugely cost-effective. 

However, if your child wishes to attend a top Public Ivy like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor or the University of Virginia as an out-of-state student, you may pay close to $50,000 a year, which is on par with tuition at many private schools. 

That said, out-of-state tuition at many Public Ivies is still significantly lower than at comparable private institutions. For example, the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign currently charges $32,568 for out-of-state students. When compared with similarly-ranked Northeastern, which costs $51,387 per year, this is a very good deal.

If your child is able to attend a Public Ivy in your home state, this may be the most affordable way for them to receive a quality education. If there are no Public Ivies in your state but your child is committed to attending one, they should research financial aid options, which would defray the cost of tuition as an out-of-state student.

Financial aid

On the whole, Public Ivies tend to offer less generous financial aid than top-tier private colleges and universities, which often have substantial endowments and are not dependent on ever-changing state funding.

In some cases, need-based financial aid at Public Ivies is largely reserved for in-state students, though other scholarship opportunities may still be available for out-of-state students. UC Berkeley, for instance, does not grant need-based financial aid to out-of-state students, though out-of-state students may still be eligible for other types of aid, such as the Prospective Regents and Chancellor's Scholarships.

Nevertheless, some Public Ivies do offer financial aid to out-of-state students as well. For instance, the University of Virginia promises to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need for both in-state and out-of-state applicants alike.

Competitiveness of admissions

Acceptance rates among Public Ivies vary quite a bit. For instance, UCLA admits 16 percent of its applicants (and fewer every year) while the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign admits 62 percent. Most other Public Ivies tend to have rates somewhere in the 20-40 percent range.

However, even the most selective Public Ivy has a higher acceptance rate than that of any Ivy League university, which generally sit in the single digits, sinking as low as five percent. Though selectivity and prestige are often correlated, it's worth keeping in mind that acceptance rates are affected by the sizes of incoming classes, which are almost always much larger at Public Ivies, as well as the number of applications received, which is typically much higher at world-renowned universities like Harvard.

 (Watch: What SAT or ACT score do you need to get into an Ivy League school?)

Nevertheless, competition for acceptance into many Public Ivies has grown increasingly stiff, particularly as these schools become more desirable to out-of-state applicants. Many public universities are required to accept a certain percentage of in-state applicants, which may put out-of-state applicants at a disadvantage. The University of Virginia, for instance, caps its out-of-state population at one-third of its entire student body, which means that acceptance rates are significantly higher for in-state students (39 percent versus 22 percent for non-Virginians). 

It's a good idea to research what admissions policies your state's Public Ivy has in regard to in-state applicants. For example, the University of Texas-Austin is known for its unique policy of automatically admitting Texans who graduate in the top 6 percent of their high school class.

Final Thoughts

Though acceptance rates and levels of rigor can vary from school to school, a Public Ivy is a great option for students who want an excellent education at a relatively low cost. When your child is creating their perfect college list, they should research each school's specific programs, size, tuition rates, and financial aid options to make sure it's a great fit.