State Schools and State Universities in the US

Apr 2024

10 Minute Read

Tagged as: Choosing a School/Program

Discussion of different types of universities in the US, what state schools/universities are (including branch campuses), and their basic hallmarks

Choosing a college can be a very stressful process.  Many students feel as though their entire future rests on this one decision.  You might even think that your future career (not just the next four years of your life and a great deal of money) rests on this decision. A plethora of books and magazines publicize college rankings and make you feel like you should attend whichever school is ranked highest on the list. To add to your stress, parents, relatives, and friends all seem to have their own opinions on where you should go to school.

In order to reduce the stress in selecting a college, consider adopting the following slogan, "College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won." Finding a good fit requires time and thoughtfulness.  Because your friends are going there or because of where it ranks on a list does not take into account who you are and who you will become. The most important factor in choosing a school is finding a place where you can flourish and grow.

Knowing the Types of Schools

The variations found in American institutions of higher education are almost endless, but an introduction to the most common types of universities talked about in the US can help you find the best fit for you.

  • Elite
  • State
  • Liberal Arts
  • Two-year

The State Schools

Every state has a university system, which usually falls under the name of "University of (insert state name here)." Because these schools receive much of their operating support through tax dollars, they charge considerably less tuition than most private schools.  And since these universities are often quite large, they have a tremendous amount of resources, both in terms of facilities and personnel.  Some state schools rival the Ivy League and other elites in terms of reputation and selectivity.  State schools are able to offer considerable incentives for the best and brightest to attend their university, including hefty scholarships for the right students.

The State System

The Flagships

Public universities typically have a flagship school. Flagship universities represent the largest and most comprehensive schools in the country and are typically the focal points of the educational system within their states.  They usually enroll more students than any other four-year college and therefore, they receive the lion’s share of the resources, publicity, and money. They often have outstanding athletic programs to complement their educational resources. (Think of all of the biggest "football schools" you know; most of those are considered flagship schools!)

Because of their size, flagship universities are often broken down into smaller units, usually known as colleges. For example, Rutgers University, the flagship university of New Jersey, has several specialty colleges within its system, such as the Mason Gross School of the Arts, and Rutgers College, the school of liberal arts.  A small college within a flagship system allows you to carve out your own niche with small class sizes while still feeling part of a larger community.

The Branch Campuses

Most state university systems have branch campuses throughout the state.  Some of these are tied directly to the flagship universities, while others operate independently.  Branch campuses are good choices for students who don’t quite have the grades to get into a flagship, or who want a more manageable college experience.

If you want to attend a public university, you have plenty of quality options other than attending the big flagship school.

Features of State Schools

Large Size

State schools can resemble small cities, with tens of thousands of students, teachers, and staff, and hundreds of academic disciplines. Campus life brings even more hustle and bustle, with Greek life, intercollegiate athletics, and student activities.  Everything is on a large scale:  the football games, the dances, and the lecture halls. Some students feel lost in this environment while others thrive.

Selectivity Varies

Selectivity differs greatly among these schools, particularly if you want to attend a state school outside of your home state. However, if you have above average test scores and have graduated in the top 20 percent of your class, you’re very likely to gain admission to your own in-state school.  Further, it’s likely you will be able to attend one of your state’s branch campuses, even without stellar grades.

However, for nonresidents wishing to attend the best state schools, the competition is much more intense. For example, out-of-state students wishing to attend the University of Michigan will compete against other applicants with Ivy League–level academic records.


Public universities offer some of the best deals in higher education, especially for in-state residents.  An in-state resident at the University of Florida paid about $4,000 for a year’s tuition in 2012.  Even out-of-state residents often pay $10,000 per year less than they would at a private college.

Exceptional Resources

Large state universities have access to state-of-the-art facilities and offer just about every class you could imagine.  Typically, these same resources can also be found at their smaller branch campuses.  For example, if you want to study nursing at a large hospital or learn journalism at a real television station, a large state university can provide these opportunities.

For example, the University of Washington was ranked the #1 primary care medical school, and #12 overall for medical research in 2017. The UW hosts thousands of international students as well. Its large state-funded budget and alumni donors make this sort of research possible.

In sum, it isn’t necessarily true that small name schools always have the best quality education. State schools have a lot to offer in terms of both opportunity and student experience.

For more information on other types of schools, check out some of our other posts:

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