12 of the Best Colleges and Universities in North Carolina: What to Know

NC Central University in Durham offers top-tier programs in education, science, law, and business. (Image via Discover Durham)

By Emily Krauser

June 5, 2023

North Carolina boasts some of the best public universities, private colleges, and historically Black universities (HBCUs) in the nation. We listed 12 of them based on tuition, academics, and the diversity of their student population.

With more than 50 four-year universities and colleges in North Carolina — and 17 alone in the UNC system — it can be hard to discern which school will be the best for you or your college-bound kids.

Whether looking for rigorous academics, a robust Greek life, or the ability to study and then quickly enjoy outdoor adventures, North Carolina has top school options aplenty. Many of these are well-known outside of the state, including the “Research Triangle” trio: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University.

While all ranking systems have their benefits and flaws, here are 12 consistently top-rated colleges in North Carolina, listed alphabetically.

Duke University

Located in Durham, Duke University isn’t just the top school in North Carolina, according to U.S. News & World Report, but one of the best-ranked in the nation. 

One of the most selective schools in the South, Duke was founded in 1838. The four-year liberal arts private school has impressive computer science and engineering programs, top-notch research opportunities, and an extremely low student-faculty ratio of 6:1. One-third of its students graduate with degrees in public policy, economics, biology, and psychology.

Beyond academics, Duke has a minority enrollment of 46% and a robust Greek life comprising 35 fraternities and sororities. The campus, nicknamed the “Gothic Wonderland,” is one lovely place to live and study.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $63,450
Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,543
Acceptance Rate: 6%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 91%
SAT Range: 1480-1570
ACT Range: 33-35
Campus Size: 8,693 acres

East Carolina University

You don’t have to be a swashbuckler to attend East Carolina University, but Pirate pride rolls deep. Founded in Greenville in 1907, ECU is tied for 118th in top public schools in the country, according to U.S. News. Newsweek ranked ECU the best online college in the state and 6th nationwide, and the university graduates the highest number of medical professionals who go on to practice in North Carolina. 

One-third of its students major in business-related fields and health programs, including a dental program that focuses on providing care to in-need populations.

Science is key here, with the school serving as a regional hub for NCInnovation and supporting biologists taking part in aquatic studies. ECU is also the only institution in the Tar Heel state to have a dental school, medical school, and college of engineering and technology. Outside of studies, there is a modest Greek life and over 450 student organizations, and according to Barstool Sports, ECU ranks in the top 20 party schools in the country.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $7,297 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 22,463
Acceptance Rate: 94%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 45%
SAT Range: 1000-1200
ACT Range: 17-23
Campus Size: 1,600 acres

Elon University

Ranked No. 1 in undergraduate teaching for the last two years and the No. 6 most innovative national university by U.S. News, Elon University is a longstanding private institution located east of Greensboro in Elon. Founded in 1889, the school focuses on “innovation, student success, and experiential education,” which is reflected in its 12:1 student-faculty ratio and top five ranking by Princeton Review for best-run colleges. 

Elon is one of only 18 private universities in the country that has an accredited communications school and their business school is among the top 40. The most popular majors include speech communication, finance, marketing, and psychology. Unlike most universities on this list, Elon has a 4-1-4 academic calendar, which means students have two four-month semesters and take one course in January.

Students are known for being preppy, friendly, and very involved in campus activities and they’re praised for having a tight-knit community and caring professors. In a unique take on campus traditions, Elon gifts students with an acorn when they start classes and an oak sapling upon graduating to symbolize how much they’ve grown. 

There’s no shortage of symbolism here — in 2000, Elon changed its mascot from the Fighting Christians to the Phoenix. They named it that because the school recovered from a devastating fire in 1923. The school does, however, have the least amount of diversity by the numbers of any other on this list at 17% minority enrollment. 

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $42,241
Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,302
Acceptance Rate: 78%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 79%
SAT Range: 1170-1340
ACT Range: 25-30
Campus Size: 656

North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University

The largest HBCU in the country and a land grant doctoral research university, North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University was founded in Greensboro in 1891.

It is ranked No. 1 for public HBCUs, according to U.S. News, as well as landed on top lists for most innovative and social mobility. The school was originally founded to teach “practical agriculture and mechanic arts” to African-Americans in the Tar Heel state and became part of the UNC system in 1972. There’s a focus on interdisciplinary studies and hands-on education at NCA&T, and the university is well-known for its solid reputation in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM).

NCA&T awards the highest number of degrees to African-Americans in North Carolina. One-quarter of Aggies graduate with engineering or business management majors, while another quarter study liberal arts and communication fields and psychology. There’s a 3:2 female-to-male ratio here, and a small Greek life community. Aggies are known statewide for their school pride, with loyal alumni and students who carry on traditions like Welcome Week and a stellar Homecoming.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $6,733 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 11,596
Acceptance Rate: 57%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 29%
SAT Range: 990-1170
ACT Range: 16-22
Campus Size: 800 acres

North Carolina Central University

A top-ranked HBCU and regional university in the South, North Carolina Central University was founded in Durham in 1910 by Dr. James E. Shepard, one of the most successful Black businessmen in the early 1900s, as as the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua.

Shepard’s vision was to develop student character through rigorous academics and public service and in 1923, the institution became the first state-supported liberal arts college for Black students in the nation.

NCCU offers top-tier programs in education, science, law, and business. All four are part of the school’s flagships, as are a nationally-ranked nursing program and the arts. Popular majors include business administration, criminal justice, the social sciences, and health professions, and there are top library science and hospitality programs. The institution has a 70% female population and is only the second HBCU to open a resource center for LGBTA+ students.

Giving back to the community is such a tenant that NCCU’s motto is “Truth and Service.” More than 200,000 hours of community service were completed by Eagles during the 2018-19 school year, and they’ve been recognized for their efforts — the college was named a Community Engaged Institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Numerous organizations are devoted to engagement, and there are at least 100 clubs and organizations for students to join. The arts are big, too — a jazz festival is held every spring (a jazz studies concentration is a learning option at NCCU) and the college’s museum has one of the largest collections of African-American art in North Carolina.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $6,599 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 5,892
Acceptance Rate: 77%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 29%
SAT Range: 890-1030
ACT Range: 16-19
Campus Size: 135 acres

North Carolina State University

The largest school in North Carolina is North Carolina State University, located in the capital of Raleigh. 

Ranked 72nd in the nation and 66th for best value by U.S. News and the 2nd best public college in the state by Money magazine, the land-grant public institution founded in 1887 offers a unique blend of campus and city life. STEM is a stalwart here, with 25% of students graduating in engineering, and the school is well-known for its agricultural science program, a founding component of the institution. With more than 100 majors to choose from at this leading public research university, NCSU prides itself on its attentive professors and its design, social science, and humanities teachings.

NCSU has a one-quarter minority student population and nearly 50 frats and sororities. It’s also hard to ignore the deep local roots, especially with the multi-generational representation of current students and alumni.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $9,128 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 26,505
Acceptance Rate: 47%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 64%
SAT Range: 1270-1440
ACT Range: 27-32
Campus Size: 2,137 acres

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The jewel of the UNC system is its main campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, often referred to simply as UNC. Founded in 1795, the school was the first public university in the nation. As such, it is a longtime leader in North Carolina, renowned for innovative teaching and research, and known as a “Public Ivy.” 

It is tied for 5th among U.S. public campuses and ranked 15th in best value nationwide, according to the 2022 U.S. News rankings. That’s the best value in NC. UNC can also claim 54 Rhodes Scholars, the highest of any stateside public university. Some of the strongest majors are also the most popular, including biology, political science, journalism, and psychology, and the business and nursing programs are two of the tops in the country. Class sizes are kept relatively in check for a major university, with 40% of having less than 20 students in a classroom.

The institution is located in the beloved college town of Chapel Hill, where the city of 59,000 supports the school and vice versa. There’s even a startup accelerator at the school known as “Launch Chapel Hill.” UNC has a diverse student body and impressive Greek life — 20% of students belong to its 50 fraternities and sororities. There are also many long-standing traditions to take part in, like taking a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes to boost grades and seniors signing the bricks inside the Bell Tower. 

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $8,998 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 19,897
Acceptance Rate: 19%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 85%
SAT Range: 1320-1510
ACT Range: 29-33
Campus Size: 729 acres

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

The largest urban research university in the state, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte was founded in 1946. The third-largest university in North Carolina prides itself on having a small college, but it is also the fastest-growing school. The institution also takes advantage of being in the Tar Heel state’s largest city with plenty of community engagement and an aim of driving progress forward in the Queen City.

There are 171 majors across the university’s seven colleges, with almost half of all students majoring in business and related fields like marketing, health professions, computer and information services, and engineering. There’s a close to even male-female ratio and 43% minority enrollment, but the school does have one of the higher student-faculty ratios at 20:1.
Outside of class, there are more than 400 student organizations to choose from and sports teams to support.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $7,214 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 24,116
Acceptance Rate: 80%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 43%
SAT Range: 1120-1320
ACT Range: 21-26
Campus Size: 1,000 acres

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

In 2022, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was named a best college by Forbes and Princeton Review (the latter also recognized the university as one of the best regional schools in the southeast), the most affordable North Carolina university by net cost by the New York Times, and number one in social mobility in the state by U.S. News

Founded in 1891, the public institution is part of the UNC system and is the largest school in the Triad. More than 10% of students graduate as business majors, but there’s a focus on the sciences — other popular majors include psychology, nursing, exercise science and kinesiology, and biology.

The university is one of the most diverse on this list — half of all students are first generation, 56% are minorities, and two-thirds are female, which reflects UNCG’s history as the only public women’s college in the state from 1891-1963. There’s a good split between campus and city life, and Greensboro in a great college town with six other colleges and universities located there. With more than 175 majors to choose from, 300 student groups, seven living-learning communities, and 17 Division 1 sports teams, there’s plenty for Spartans to get involved with both in and out of the classroom.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $7,468 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 15,178
Acceptance Rate: 91%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 39%
SAT Range: 1095-1260
ACT Range: 21-26
Campus Size: 266 acres

University of North Carolina Wilmington

The University of North Carolina Wilmington offers students a blend of historic city and beach life like no other in the UNC system. 

Founded in 1947, the university is a top doctoral and research institution with the feel of a private school, and it’s tied for 202nd on U.S. News’ list of best national universities. UNCW offers excellent programs in nursing and business, both of which have made U.S. News’ best undergraduate program lists, as well as creative writing and marine biology (UNCW was the first university in the nation to offer a B.S. in coastal engineering). There is a state-of-the-art education building and, as UNCW is located in “Wilmywood,” a solid film studies program with a well-equipped film center. 

There’s a solid Greek life that 5% of the campus is a part of, as well as many other on-campus organizations and a community-focused culture celebrating the arts. UNCW is a picturesque campus as well with plenty of nature, including a wildflower preserve and trails, and the buildings are inspired by Georgian architecture.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $7,238 (in-state)
Undergraduate Enrollment: 14,488
Acceptance Rate: 68%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 56%
SAT Range: 1210-1330
ACT Range: 24-28
Campus Size: 661 acres

Wake Forest University

Founded in 1834, Wake Forest University is a private institution with Baptist roots located in Winston-Salem. The university was ranked 29th overall and 23rd in best value in U.S. News’ 2022 best college rankings and has a strong focus on liberal arts. 

Its mission statement doubles down on the Wake Forest motto of Pro Humanitate (“for humanity”), and there’s an emphasis on student-teacher research — the faculty-student ratio is 11:1 — and demanding academics. Half of the undergraduate population graduates with majors in business, marketing, social sciences, and communication, including journalism.

The Deacons have a nearly even male-female ratio split and a 23% minority enrollment. There is a strong community-minded atmosphere that can be seen in its many extracurricular activities and impressive Greek life, with nearly half of the students belonging to fraternities and sororities. Wake Forest’s suburban campus is located in a sweet spot to reach the mountains, the beach, or larger cities like Raleigh and Charlotte in just a couple of hours. Locally, students — known for their preppy vibes — take advantage of “Wake Wednesdays” for nights out.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $62,128
Undergraduate Enrollment: 5,472
Acceptance Rate: 25%
4-Year Graduation Rate: 86%
SAT Range: 1350-1500
ACT Range: 30-33
Campus Size: 340 acres

Western Carolina University

The westernmost school in the University of North Carolina system, Western Carolina University was founded in 1889 in Cullowhee. There are residential, hybrid, and online program options and in addition to the main campus in Cullowhee, an instructional campus is located in Asheville. It is the only rural school to make this list and ranks 263rd on U.S. News’ list of national universities. Located in a biodiverse region near the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, WCU is considered a top adventure college, making the school a great place to learn and take part in recreational activities.

There are over 120 majors to choose from and a 17:1 student-faculty ratio, and the school has a top undergraduate research reputation. Forty percent of students major in business and marketing or health professions, with other top majors including education, protective services, and visual and performing arts. WCU has the least amount of Greek life of any school on this list, but that’s likely because the appeal here is the great outdoors. There are more than 170 student organizations and 50 club and intramural sports options in addition to the hiking and biking trails in the area.

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Yearly Tuition and Fees: $4,453
Undergraduate Enrollment: 10,145
Acceptance Rate: 74%
4-Year Graduation Rate: N/A
SAT Range: 1060-1230
ACT Range: 19-25
Campus Size: 682

All tuition and fees, enrollment, and campus size calculations come from U.S. News’ latest rankings or individual school websites.

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