Certain public U.S. universities, by virtue of their age and/or their research achievements have earned the title of being a Public Ivy. Admissions expert Richard Moll coined the term in his 1985 book, but the current source for identifying which qualify as offering an education equal to Ivy League is The Public Ivies:  American’s Flagship Public Universities (2001) by Howard and Matthew Greene of Greene’s Guides and include 30 colleges and universities.

Given that “Ivy” League refers only to the athletic league to which the eight Ivy League colleges belong, but because the group includes some of the oldest US colleges and has come to mean elite colleges, it is appropriate to note that some of the oldest colleges aren’t in the Ivy League yet are still academically amazing.  A few of the oldest schools are private liberal arts colleges, such as Union College and Franklin & Marshall, but others are public “state” universities, definitely worth attention.

The oldest is William and Mary, in the historic original capital of the colonies, Williamsburg, VA.  Named for the British king and queen from the House of Orange in Holland, William and Mary was founded in 1693 as the second institution of higher learning, following Harvard, and boasts, among many notable alumni, the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson himself.  Beginning as a private college but in need of funding from the State of Virginia following the Civil War, W&M is now one-quarter public, in an amazing location that captures life and society in colonial days, and you can be sure it’s extremely competitive in admissions.  

Jefferson went on to be U.S. President, then build his beautiful home Monticello and later, in its image, the University of Virginia, completed 1819. It is an impressive campus, continuing to offer an impressive education to a competitive student body.  The law school is particularly revered.

The Rotunda at U VA.

The 7th university founded in the U.S. in 1743 is the University of Delaware in historic Brandywine country in Newark, DE, just southwest of Philadelphia, with easy train access.  Like several of the original Ivies, what is now U Delaware was founded in PA as a religious training school.  By 1834, Delaware College began granting degrees.  U of D’s impressive freshman retention rate of 95% reflects the positive experience of our students, yet the acceptance rate is a relatively applicant-friendly 67%.

Chartered in 1766 as all-male Queen's College in New Brunswick, NJ, northeast of Philadelphia, an hour by bus or train from New York City, the school was affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church and was renamed Rutgers College in 1825 in honor of a trustee and Revolutionary War veteran. 

Because William and Mary began as a private college, the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA, just outside of Atlanta, receiving its charter in 1785, was the first state-chartered public university in the U.S. and calls itself “the birthplace of the American system of higher education.” The site was selected, but students were not admitted till 1801.

Contemporary Georgia Peaches, Bailey and Abbie, cheer for their U Georgia Bulldogs’ always-outstanding football team.  Abbie, in second year, reports fantastic teachers and describes Athens as a fun town with a strong sense of community, awesome people, tasty restaurants and coffee shops, and super cool concert venues and festivals. As a horticulture major specializing in sustainably- grown veggies, she loves the local farmer’s market and plans a herb internship at the organic UGArden this summer.

Also considered a public Ivy is nearby Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.  Academically, it really is the M.I.T. of the south and extremely competitive in admissions.  Unlike M.I.T., Georgia Tech has a serious football team with lots of school spirit quite apparent at the games.

In 1795, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  UNC – Chapel Hill opened its doors and is proud of being the only public institution to confer degrees in the 18th century.  Nowadays, it remains extremely competitive in admissions, boasts an amazing school of business and a great basketball team.

Lest I offend fellow Wolverines, I must mention the University of Michigan. Only 45 minutes west of Windsor, ON, U of M has welcomed many Canadians since its inception in 1817 to the great college town of Ann Arbor, offering highly ranked programs in engineering, business, law, medicine and social work.

University of Michigan Solar Car Team


Competing against Michigan in the Big Ten athletic league, we find even more Public Ivies, well worthy of consideration:    Indiana U in beautiful Bloomington, often attracting musicians from Canada.  Rival Michigan State in East Lansing, with an incredible botanical garden on campus, both human and veterinary medicine, and one of the top secondary education programs, only a 4-hour drive from Toronto.  The University of Illinois is in equally attractive Urbana-Champaign, 100 miles south of Chicago, with a formidable engineering program even outranking Michigan’s.  U Wisconsin in Madison, accessed through flights via Milwaukee or Chicago, overlooks Lake Mendota, and though chilly in winter, their science department is renowned.  I must mention The Ohio State University in Columbus, attracting Canadians interested in their fine public relations program, for example.  The University of Iowa is the furthest west of the group and has a particularly fine math department.  The University of Minnesota, very high ranking in chemical engineering, is in the exciting multicultural Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, with direct flights from almost everywhere.   

Not in the Big Ten, but a school strong in athletics as well as academics is Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) often known as Miami of Ohio (as opposed to the one in Miami, Florida.  Penn State University (you’ll want the flagship at University Park, though there are branches all over the state) often plays football against Big Ten teams, even though they are not in the Midwest.  Their college town in the geographic center of PA is terrific, football stadium breathtaking, campus dairy’s ice cream incredible, courses excellent, and 6-year direct entry medical school highly desirable.  

In the western part of PA is the University of Pittsburgh, in a great city, originally founded as Pittsburgh Academy in 1787 after the revolutionary war on what was then the western frontier of the US, then becoming the University of Western Pennsylvania, then the University of Pittsburgh in 1908, and finally becoming a state university in 1966.  Known as “Pitt,” it has a splendid medical center and receives huge funding for health research.

The fifth university founded in New England, is the beautiful, laid-back University of Vermont in Burlington on Lake Champlain, easily reached from Montreal, hosting a relatively few 10,000 undergraduates.  Founded in 1791, students love it, and for skiing, snowboarding, and lots of snow in the winter, it’s the place to be.

Founded relatively recently in 1946, Binghamton University qualifies as a Public Ivy because of providing a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies the school as a Research University with high research activity.  Only a 5 ½ drive from Toronto, via Syracuse, part of the eminent State University of New York system, with branches in Stony Brook, Cortland, Buffalo and Albany, to name a few, Binghamton attracts students in business, biology, engineering, psych --- and especially neuroscience.

Still in the east is the University of Connecticut in Storrs, not far from Hartford. Founded 1881, UConn is very proud of their Huskies basketball team and as a land grant college, is strong in agriculture-related sciences including biology and veterinary medicine. Together with health sciences and business, Canadians are attracted to the non-credit practicum in Horse Riding, offering English and Western as well as Dressage, not just open to Animal Science majors.

Founded in 1856, the University of Maryland – College Park is in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area, just north of downtown Washington.  28,500 loyal undergraduate Terrapins take great joy in passing their terrapin (giant turtle) sculpture on campus and giving it a pat for luck before each game.  Favorite majors are: Biology, Computer Engineering and Information Sciences, Kinesiology and Exercise Science.  It’s a great place to be.

A gem of a small school finding itself in the Public Ivies is the New College of Florida. Founded in 1960, affiliated the University of South Florida, New College became independent in 2001 and has recently had significant capital upgrades. 800 students have much that to brag about, as the school ranks among the top public liberal arts colleges.  More importantly, NCF has a flexible and innovative curriculum with no traditional majors and written evaluations rather than grades. Along with traditional courses, students include their personal goals, such as learning to sail.  Located on the shore of the waterway beside Sarasota, with Longboat Key in the distance, that sounds like a good plan.

Further north is the University of Florida in Gainesville.  With 35,000 undergraduates, it couldn’t be more of a contrast.  With engineering, management, biological sciences and journalism as popular majors, loyal Gators love their football team, and getting an acceptance offer these days has proven increasingly challenging.

No one loves football more than Texans, and the University of Texas – Austin has many Longhorn fans among their 40,500 undergraduates.  As the state capital as well as the tech, literary and music capital, Austin is a wonderful place to be even for non-sports fans. Favourite majors are: engineering, social sciences, business, management, and geology. One student’s favourite feature:  no snow.

But you enjoy snow?  The University of Colorado at Boulder in the Rock Mountains offers plenty; students love the outdoors, and when the roads are clearer take to their bikes to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery.  Founded five months before Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876, CU-Boulder (as they call it, flagship for the CU system) welcomes 33,000 undergraduate Buffaloes.  Happily, the school is not frighteningly competitive in admissions, but don’t expect the assignments to be easy. 

Moving further west to Seattle we find the University of Washington.  Right on the Pacific, it is no surprise that studies in forestry and fisheries are very strong.  In the 1936 Olympics, the UW men’s rowing team representing the U.S., all strong lumbermen, defeated the favored Germans, much to the dismay of spectator Adolph Hitler.  For an inspiring story, read Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  Nowadays, UW crew happily welcomes enthusiastic Canadian women too.

The University of Arizona is not near or a body of water to support rowing (Arizona State offers crew), but they do offer beach volleyball, have great winter weather in Tucson, and remain extremely attractive to the top golfers.  As well as offering a superb program “SALT” to support students with learning differences, U of A, and AZ State, do not require SAT’s for admission.  This in no way diminishes their academic rigour for their 33,000 enrolled students who often choose business and marketing, health sciences, biology and social sciences as their majors.

 At last we must tackle the impressive University of California system, with several campuses making it to Public Ivies.  UC Berkeley, east of San Francisco, seems to have the highest ranking, top engineering, business and other academic areas, and the toughest admissions.  Berkeley is a great college town as well, accessible by BART transport to San Francisco. UC Los Angeles (UCLA) usually ranks right up there with Berkeley and is equally formidable in admissions.  But Westwood is right in Los Angeles, and although campus is very serene, the life and traffic surrounding is quite frenetic. Film makers will know it’s the place to be.  

UC San Diego, about 2 ½ hours south of LA, direct flights from Toronto, in glorious La Jolla, overlooking the Pacific, with hang gliders floating above the cliffs and aromatic eucalyptus trees around campus. UCSD is particularly well-known for health sciences, a terrific medical school, psychology and engineering. 

Geisel Library, UCSD

UC Santa Barbara is in an equally beautiful setting, almost equally competitive, also right on the ocean just northwest of Los Angeles.  Also making Public Ivies are UC Irvine in Orange County east of LA, and UC Davis, northeast of San Francisco is particularly strong in health sciences, where we Canadians benefit from their research on the West Nile virus.

High ranking but focusing strictly on Health Sciences is UC San Francisco, not considered a public Ivy. Almost as high is UC Santa Cruz, just south of San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific, boasting a very strong linguistics department.  

Why should you consider any of these schools?   Aside from the tiny New School of Florida, William and Mary at 6,300, U Vermont at 10,000 and U Delaware at 18,000, most of these schools enroll 20,000 to 40,000 undergraduates.  The numbers alone are daunting.  But realistically, you won’t expect to meet that many people in four years.   Your strategy can be to find a smaller group with which to affiliate.  Michigan State, the huge U Texas – Austin, and U Arizona, for example, offer Honors College enrollment to well-qualified candidates, and these are worth accepting, even if they may require a course or two to ensure you have a well-rounded education. As a member of an elite group at a prestigious college, you are already a star.

Students at the University of Michigan but not in the competitive Residential College have still found like-minded friends just in their regular dorms.  Joining an organization related to a special interest of yours, or a club or sports team can help you make new friends.  Some students choose to join a fraternity or sorority. Those already knowing they will be aiming for a small department, like Italian Studies, needn’t worry about all classes being large.  The advantage of a large public university is the huge variety of courses and programs available to you.  I shall add that school spirit for your alma mater, beyond the football games, lasts all your life wherever you travel.


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