Virginia tops the U.S. in public university rankings

top ten states

Virginia ranks in the number one spot for state colleges and universities in a survey by SmartAsset, the second year in a row it has taken top honors.

Schools in Virginia have a graduation rate of 71%, second-highest graduation rate in the study. Additionally, SmartAssets says they provide their students great long-term value. The data shows that Virginia’s schools offer a 20-year average return on investment of $417,711, the fourth-most in the study. But attending college in Virginia is on the more expensive side. The state has the sixth-highest average net price.

Key Findings

  • Consistency – For the fourth year in a row, Virginia and California occupy the top two spots. Eight of last year’s top 10 also ranked in the top 10 this year.
  • Mixed bag – No one area dominates more than another. Some Northeast states, like New York and New Jersey, rank well, as do some Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina. California also gets an A grade while in the Midwest, Michigan secures a top 10 spot.

Top ten states

1. Virginia

This makes four years in a row in which Virginia was either the best or second-best state for higher education. Schools in this state have a graduation rate of 71%, or second-highest in our study, and offer their students great long-term value. Our data shows that schools in Virginia offer a 20-year average return on investment of $417,711, or fourth-most in the study.

Attending college in Virginia is on the more expensive side, this state ranks in the bottom 10 for average net price.

2. California

California once again secured a spot among the top two. This state ranked well in all but one of our metrics. Schools here have the second-highest 20-year return on investment and the fifth-lowest average net price.

However, for students who prefer an intimate class experience California may not have the best options. According to our data, California has a student-to-faculty ratio above 24, the highest in our study.

3. Wyoming

The Cowboy State takes third. This state ranks highly because of how many locals attend state colleges. Around 62% of high school graduates in Wyoming end up attending local 2-year or 4-year institutions. For that metric, Wyoming ranks 10th.

Wyoming schools also have low student-to-faculty ratios. Its student-to-faculty ratio is 14, fifth-best in our study. With some improvement in the graduation rate (currently 55%), Wyoming might be able to climb into one of the top two spots.

4. Iowa

No public colleges do a better job at graduating its students than Iowa. Overall, 72% of students in public colleges in Iowa graduate, the highest rate in our study. Students tend to do well once they graduate, as well. The 20-year return on investment for graduates of public schools in Iowa is $369,400, ninth most in the country.

5. North Carolina

Once again North Carolina scores well in in higher education. Not only does North Carolina score well in this study, but this state contains many of the best community colleges in the country.

On average, attending one of North Carolina’s public colleges is fairly affordable. The average net price for the 2015-2016 school year, according to The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, was $11,500. North Carolina ranks 12th in that metric. Most students who attend North Carolina public colleges graduate, according to our data. North Carolina public colleges and universities had an average graduation rate of just under 61%.

6. Connecticut

Connecticut ranked sixth this year, jumping half a dozen spots from last year. Public colleges and universities in this state have some of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios in the country. At 13.9 only three states have a lower student-to-faculty ratio than Connecticut. But perhaps more important is the graduation rate. Around 66% of students at public institutions in Connecticut graduate, the fourth-highest rate.

Connecticut’s score is hurt by the fact that most graduates of Connecticut high school decide to go out of state for their higher education.

7. New Jersey

The Garden State takes the seventh spot. Public colleges and universities in New Jersey do a successful job graduating their students. Our data shows that the average New Jersey public institution has a graduation rate around 68%, the third-highest rate in our study.

New Jersey schools also have a low student-to-faculty ratio and a better than average 20-year return on investment.

8. Delaware

Delaware secured another top 10 spot in this study. This makes four years running where the Delaware state university system was rated in the top 10.

What makes attending Delaware state institutions so good for its students is the long-term value. According to our data, the average Delaware public college or university has a 20-year return on investment of $423,000. Combine that with Delaware having the seventh-lowest student-to-faculty ratio and it’s no surprise this state ranks so high.

9. New York

New York has some good all-around scores. The average public college or university has a student-to-faculty ratio of 15.7 and an average net price of just under $12,000. Both of those scores are in the top 20. New York has a graduation rate of 55% and 20-year return on investment of $356,000, also two scores which beat the majority of other states.

In fact the state only has a below-average score in one metric: percent of high school graduates who attend an in-state public college or university.

10. Michigan

Our list ends in the Great Lake State. Overall Michigan gets a B+. This state’s public institutions seem to be well-loved by its high school graduates. According to our data, around 62% of Michigan high school graduates went on to attend one of Michigan’s 2-year or 4-year public colleges. While Michigan had no top 10 scores it also had no below-average grades.


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.