25 Best Colleges In the South 2024 - Ranking & Fees

Top colleges in the South
May 13, 2024
10 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/30/24

If school spirit, sports culture, and manageable living costs are important to you, you’ll want to read this guide to the best colleges in the South. Whether it’s Duke in North Carolina or the University of Florida, attending one of the best colleges can make acquiring a great education fun.

A university's academic reputation is important, but a lot more goes into your final choice of school. 

The schools in this list were selected according to their national rankings. In addition to academics, this post will highlight the affordability, student resources, sports culture, and community life of all the following southern schools. Get ready for a lot of Greek life, Division I football, and great barbecue!

25 Best Colleges in the South

Here’s a list of the best small colleges in the south, spread out across several states so you can find the school that’s in your ideal city:

School U.S News Ranking
Duke University 7th Best National University
Rice University 17th Best National University
Vanderbilt University 18th Best National University
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 22nd Best National University
Washington University in St. Louis 24th Best National University
Emory University 24th Best National University
The University of Virginia 24th Best National University
The University of Florida 28th Best National University
Georgia Institute of Technology 33rd Best National University
Wake Forest University 47th Best National University
William & Mary University 53rd Best National University

School U.S News Ranking
Davidson College 16th National Liberal Arts Colleges
University of Texas at Austin 32nd Best National University
University of Richmond 25th National Liberal Arts Colleges
Furman University 46th National Liberal Arts Colleges
University of Georgia 47th Best National University
Texas A&M University 47th Best National University
Virginia Tech 47th Best National University
North Carolina State University, Raleigh 60th Best National University
University of Miami (FL) 67th Best National University
Tulane University 73rd Best National University
Clemson University 86th Best National University
Southern Methodist University 89th Best National University
James Madison University 124th Best National University
Elon University 133rd Best National University

1. Duke University

Duke University
Ranking 7th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 6%
Average GPA 5.5%
Average SAT Score 1520
Average ACT Score 34
In-State Tuition $66,325

On the top of the best colleges in the south list is Duke University. Duke University's education is well worth the Ivy League-esque costs, largely due to its brilliant student support system

This includes several unique opportunities for engagement with faculty, including a $70 allotment to invite a faculty member to a lunch conversation and a series of informal dinners hosted by faculty in their homes.

Duke University is also home to The Archive: the school’s literary magazine. If you’re a creative storyteller, poet, artist, or photographer, The Archive will help you thrive by considering your work for publication.

2. Rice University

Rice University
Ranking 17th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 7.7%
Average GPA 7.51%
Average SAT Score 1530
Average ACT Score 34
In-State Tuition $57,210 per year

Rice University in Houston offers more than 50 undergraduate majors among six divisions of study. You can find your preferred program in architecture, engineering, the humanities, music, natural sciences, and social sciences. Beyond these programs, you can find many more minors in other disciplines.

The university also cultivates a close-knit community by assigning all students to one of 11 residential colleges. Moreover, Rice takes much pride in its Division I basketball team, the Rice Owls. In fact, students are entitled to free tickets to Owls games.

3. Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University
Ranking 18th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 5.09%
Average GPA 3.91
Average SAT Score 1480–1570
Average ACT Score 33–36
In-State Tuition $61,618 per year

Vanderbilt University offers 70 undergraduate programs in liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education, and human development. Considering the wide range of programs, you’re likely to find an education that fits your interests.

However, Vanderbilt’s strongest selling point may be its mandatory experiential learning. All first-year students must participate in an experiential learning project relating to their chosen area of focus. 

In the current job climate, relevant work experience during college is an absolute necessity. Immersion at Vanderbilt is invaluable for you during and after university.

Also, if baseball is your game, then Vanderbilt is your school. The Vanderbilt Commodores baseball team won the 2019 NCAA championship and is ten-time regional champ. In fact, the team is so good that Vanderbilt was the only school with multiple first-round picks in the 2021 MLB draft.

4. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Ranking 22nd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 19%
Average GPA 4.0
Average SAT Score 1415
Average ACT Score 31
In-State Tuition $7020 per year

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has many opportunities for students to get involved with their university community. Almost 20% of the student body partakes in the university’s Greek organizations. 

The university is also the home of the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team, which Micheal Jordan played for during his NCAA career.

Moreover, UNC-Chapel Hill is your perfect fit if you have an early interest in media. You can hone your journalistic skills by working for the Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student-run newspaper. Alternatively, if you’re a podcast addict, you can get involved with radio through WXYC, UNC’s radio station.

5. Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis
Ranking 24th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 11.44%
Average GPA 4.00
Average SAT Score 1530
Average ACT Score 34
In-State Tuition $61,750 per year

Washington University in St. Louis is a private institution that has a great academic support system. There are tutoring services for students who need help in math, statistics, economics, business, and engineering courses. The Writing Center also assists students with writing papers and preparing for presentations. 

Moreover, the school offers an MCAT prep course if you're a prospective med student.

6. Emory University

Emory University
Ranking 24th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 14.49%
Average GPA 3.5
Average SAT Score 1450–1530
Average ACT Score 33–35
In-State Tuition $63,400 per year

Emory University is a relatively metropolitan university with a student body of 69% out-of-state and 18% international students. Emory may be your best choice in the South if you're more comfortable in a multicultural atmosphere.

Emory is also unique in requiring students to complete two physical education courses. If you thrive in the gym-class atmosphere through high school, Emory’s your college. Learn more about this excellent school in our complete guide to Emory University.

7. The University of Virginia

The University of Virginia
Ranking 24th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 16.38%
Average GPA 4.32%
Average SAT Score 1460
Average ACT Score 33
In-State Tuition $21,381 per year

The University of Virginia is extremely accommodating toward national guard members, military service personnel, and veterans due to its impressive list of “state tax advantages, education and tuition assistance, employment assistance, vehicle tags benefits, as well as hunting and fishing license privileges.”

UVA is not only accessible and accommodating but fun as well. In fact, the college has cultivated a thriving community with over 800 clubs to join and 17 courts, fields, and rec centers. Moreover, Greek life is a large part of the UVA experience.

8. The University of Florida

The University of Florida
Ranking 28th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 23%
Average GPA 3.9
Average SAT Score 1385
Average ACT Score 31
In-State Tuition $6,380 per year

The University of Florida is a public institution and is probably best known as the home of the Florida Gators NCAA Division I football team. The UF community is as close as it is spirited. This is most apparent every Friday during Gator Nights, where students come together over free entertainment and late-night snacks.Georgia Institute of Technology

9. Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology
Ranking 33rd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 13.81%
Average GPA 4.07
Average SAT Score 1310–1500
Average ACT Score 28–34
In-State Tuition $10,258 per year

The Georgia Institute of Technology offers bachelor’s degrees in several divisions of study, including business studies, computing, design, engineering, liberal arts, and the sciences. The university also cultivates a close-knit student body, as about 45% of undergraduates live on campus.

While Georgia Tech is one of the top Southern universities, it isn’t contained just within the Southern states. The university has additional campuses in neighboring Savannah, Ireland, France, Costa Rica, Singapore, and China. In other words, Georgia Tech is a school spread out across three continents.

10. Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University
Ranking 47th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 22.31%
Average GPA 3.91
Average SAT Score 1425
Average ACT Score 31
In-State Tuition $67,642 per year

One of the top colleges in the south is Wake University. Wake Forest University is a private institution that offers 45 major and 60 minor undergraduate programs to its students, catering to any academic interests you may have. 

Also, more than 60% of WFU’s student body participates in the school’s study abroad programs that give access to more than 70 countries. WFU is as much an international university as it is a southern college.

Wake Forest does a lot to ensure it has a booming campus life. For instance, the college requires that students live on campus for at least six semesters, familiarizing themselves with the school community. Also, its Division I football team’s fierce competition with other North Carolina-based teams does a lot to stir up school spirit.

11. Elon University

Elon University
Ranking 133rd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 67.2%
Average GPA 4.09
Average SAT Score 1277
Average ACT Score 28
In-State Tuition $46,958 per year

Elon University located in Elon, North Carolina offers over 70 undergraduate majors, nine graduate programs, and numerous interdisciplinary and research opportunities, providing a rich academic experience. 

The school is a prestigious, medium-sized private university known for its active and hands-on learning approach. Students collaborate closely with committed faculty who prioritize both teaching and research. The curriculum is based on classic arts and sciences subjects, supplemented by professional and graduate programs recognized nationally. If you’re interested in a school that is student centered and offers hands-on learning, consider applying to Elon University! 

12. James Madison University

James Madison University
Ranking 124th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 73.5%
Average GPA 3.5
50th Percentile SAT Score 1240
50th Percentile ACT Score 26
In-State Tuition $13,576 per year

James Madison University (JMU), founded in 1908, stands as a prominent public institution nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. With a commitment to academic excellence, JMU is rapidly emerging as a leader in higher education. 

At JMU, students benefit from unparalleled access to world-class educators who prioritize teaching and the pursuit of knowledge above all else. Situated in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the university hosts a vibrant community, boasting a student body of 20,346 undergraduates and 1,878 graduate students. 

With an extensive array of 139 programs of study, JMU offers a diverse and enriching educational experience tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of its students.

13. Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist University
Ranking 89th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 52%
GPA Mid 50% 3.61-3.95
SAT Score Mid 50% 1360-1490
ACT Score Mid 50% 30-34
In-State Tuition $61,980 per year

Southern Methodist University (SMU), a nationally recognized private institution near downtown Dallas, boasts a diverse and high-achieving student body of over 12,000 students from across the globe. With small classes, extensive research opportunities, and innovative programs, SMU serves approximately 7,000 undergraduates and 5,000 graduate students across eight schools. 

Its powerful supercomputing ecosystem supports research excellence and fosters an entrepreneurial spirit. Committed to developing ethical and enterprising leaders, SMU leverages its connection with Dallas to provide unique learning and career opportunities. 

14. Clemson University

Clemson University
Ranking 86th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 38%
Average GPA 4.4
SAT Score Mid 50% 1240-1400
ACT Score Mid 50% 28-32
In-State Tuition $15,554 per year

Clemson University, spanning 1,400 acres in Upstate South Carolina, offers students a blend of small-town living and city access. With cutting-edge research facilities statewide, it engages in life-changing research across various academic fields. 

The university boasts over 22,566 undergraduate and 5,900 graduate students, offering over 80 majors, 90 minors, and 130 graduate programs. Achieving high retention and graduation rates, Clemson maintains an intimate student-to-faculty ratio and secures substantial external research funding.

15. Tulane University

Tulane University
Ranking 73rd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 14.3%
Average GPA 3.7
Average SAT Score 1448
Average ACT Score 33
In-State Tuition $68,678 per year

Tulane University offers an array of over 75 majors and minors, providing diverse opportunities for undergraduate students. Their core curriculum spans humanities, fine arts, social sciences, and sciences, ensuring a well-rounded education. As part of the Tulane Interdisciplinary Experience Seminar (TIDES) in your first year, students gain insight into New Orleans through an academic lens. 

Tulane fosters a vibrant, transformative community that encourages exploration and innovation and embraces diversity. Tulane is recognized among the top research institutions as one of 65 members of the prestigious Association of American Universities.

16. University of Miami

University of Miami
Ranking 67th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 19%
Average GPA 3.8
Middle 50% of SAT Score 1380-1500
Middle 50% of ACT Score 31-34
In-State Tuition $60,718 per year

The University of Miami is a leading research institution in one of the world's most vibrant and multicultural cities. Hosting over 19,000 students worldwide, the university is dedicated to education, discovery, and service to South Florida and beyond. 

Established in 1925, the university has 12 schools and colleges and offers nearly 350 majors and programs. It is a proud member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), which recognizes its outstanding research. While much research occurs within the Miller School of Medicine, investigations span diverse fields, including marine science, engineering, education, and psychology.

17. North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University
Ranking 60th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 39.5%
Middle 50% Range GPA 3.79–3.97
Average SAT Score 1330
Average ACT Score 28
In-State Tuition $8,986 per year

North Carolina State University (NCSU) has led education and research since 1887. The school offers diverse programs with over 100 undergraduate majors and 200+ graduate options. Ranked highly for entrepreneurship and globally recognized, the campus provides top-tier facilities and a supportive community. 

Committed to real-world solutions and interdisciplinary collaboration, NCSU has been a leader in education and research since 1887. As a land-grant institution, it prioritizes accessibility and strives to positively impact society.

18. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech
Ranking 47th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 57.1%
Average GPA 4.0
Average SAT Score 1316
Average ACT Score N/A
In-State Tuition $12,698 per year

Virginia Tech located in Blacksburg, Virginia, the main campus of the university boasts nine colleges and a graduate school, offering over 110 undergraduate majors and 120+ master's and doctoral programs. 

With a diverse student body totaling 38,000 across the main campus and beyond, they maintain a favorable 13:1 student-faculty ratio. The main campus spans 2,600 acres and includes 221 buildings, as well as an airport. 

Additionally, Virginia Tech has facilities across the state and worldwide, including a strong presence in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area. 

19. Texas A&M University

Texas A&M University
Ranking 47th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 63%
Average GPA 3.68
Average SAT Score 1275
Average ACT Score 29
In-State Tuition $11,550 per year

Founded in 1876 as Texas's first public institution of higher education, Texas A&M University has evolved into a prominent research-focused institution. Their mission is to equip future leaders with the skills and knowledge to tackle tomorrow's challenges. As one of the largest public universities nationwide, the school holds distinctive land, sea, and space-grant designations. 

20. University of Georgia

University of Georgia
Ranking 47th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 36.80%
Middle 50% GPA 4.04-4.32
Middle 50% SAT Score 1310-1470
Middle 50% ACT Score 28-33
In-State Tuition $11,180 per year

The University of Georgia (UGA), established in 1785, holds a rich legacy as the pioneer of public higher education in the United States. Offering over 140 undergraduate degree programs and boasting 800+ student organizations, the school prioritizes providing diverse opportunities to the community. 

UGA’s Double Dawgs Program allows students to earn dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees efficiently. Small class sizes, with a 17:1 student/faculty ratio, ensure personalized attention. With over 130 study abroad programs and hands-on learning experiences, students are equipped for success in their chosen fields. 

21. Furman University

Furman University
Ranking 46th Best National University
Acceptance Rate 52.5%
Middle 50% GPA 3.66
Middle 50% SAT Score 1350
Middle 50% ACT Score 30
In-State Tuition $59,360 per year

Established in 1826, Furman University is South Carolina's oldest private university. It offers a distinctive education across various disciplines, including fine arts, humanities, social sciences, mathematics, sciences, and select professional fields. 

Furman University distinguishes itself as one of the nation's premier undergraduate liberal arts colleges primarily through its academic excellence. With a focus on critical thinking, creativity, and multiple perspectives, their dedicated faculty prepares students for leadership roles and the complexities of the modern world. 

The school's graduates boast a remarkable 99% placement rate within six months of graduation and benefit from small class sizes and a vibrant array of student clubs and organizations.

22. University of Richmond

University of Richmond
Ranking 25th National Liberal Arts Colleges
Acceptance Rate 22%
Middle 50% GPA 3.8-4.0
Middle 50% SAT Score 1440-1530
Middle 50% ACT Score 33-35
In-State Tuition $65,230 per year

Students excel academically at the University of Richmond, often pursuing multiple majors and minors to explore their diverse interests. With small undergraduate class sizes and an 8:1 student-faculty ratio, the vibrant community fosters holistic student development. 

U.S. News & World Report ranks it among the nation's top liberal arts colleges. Acclaimed for its classroom experience, internships, campus beauty, and administrative efficiency, the school continues to strive for excellence in education and beyond.

23. University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas
Ranking 32nd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 11%
Average GPA 3.8
Average SAT Score 1355
Average ACT Score 30
In-State Tuition $11,698 per year

The University of Texas at Austin, reflecting the boldness of its home state, is a leading force in academia. With renowned programs across various disciplines and a vibrant environment for exploration, UT Austin stands as a top-ranked public university. The school drives economic and social progress while serving Texas and beyond as a center of knowledge and creativity.

24. Davidson College

Davidson College
Ranking 16th National Liberal Arts Colleges
Acceptance Rate 14.5%
Middle 50% GPA 3.8
Middle 50% SAT Score 1360-1510
Middle 50% ACT Score 31-33
In-State Tuition $63,580 per year

Founded in 1837 by Presbyterians from North Carolina, Davidson College is a liberal arts institution steeped in history. The school cherishes its traditions while adapting to the evolving needs of today's learners. At Davidson, their core mission is to cultivate compassionate leaders with sharp minds poised to thrive in our interconnected world. 

Their students excel academically and athletically, with over 25% participating in varsity sports and 60% engaging in intramural and club activities. Competing in NCAA Division 1 athletics across 21 varsity sports, their scholar-athletes benefit from a dedicated coaching staff committed to athletic success and academic excellence.

25. William & Mary University

William & Mary University
Ranking 53rd Best National University
Acceptance Rate 33%
Middle 50% GPA 4.1-4.5
Middle 50% SAT Score 1370-1510
Middle 50% ACT Score 32-34
In-State Tuition $18,709 per year

William & Mary University, the nation's second-oldest institution of higher learning, blends tradition with innovation as a leading research university. Recognized as a "Public Ivy," they offer a world-class education at exceptional value. 

Students excel academically and are passionate about service and enjoyment. With renowned professors, the school fosters academic excellence and produces successful graduates.

Do you need help deciding which college to attend? Use our free What College Should I Go to? quiz to help you find the right school for you! 

Why Go to College in the South?

There is a special appeal to the culture of southern cities, their athletic fixations, and the slower, less costly way of life. If you’re still contemplating whether education in the South is right for you, read on and be swayed.

A Less Expensive Cost of Living

Tuition costs are enough of a financial burden. Throw in housing costs, groceries, and other encountered expenses, and university life can quickly become financially untenable. This is especially true in cities where many top northern schools are situated. 

Vanderbilt is in Tennessee, the 17th most affordable state. Rice is in the 22nd most affordable state of Texas, and Georgia Tech and Emory are in Georgia, the country’s 13th most affordable state. 

This compares to Ivy league states in the North, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, the 10th and third most expensive US states, respectively.

The Football Culture

A strong selling point of many of the universities listed above is their wonderful school spirit. This rich student life is often directly related to the deep love of Division I sports, with football being the most beloved of them all.

In the South, collegiate football is often a state-wide fixation. Needless to say, the dedication to local NCAA teams is at a fever pitch on actual southern campuses among the student body. Football provides students with a regular opportunity to come together, have fun, and embrace pride in their academic institution.

Great Barbecue

Good barbecue is a matter of great contention in the South. In Texas, they insist on using dry spice rubs to perfect their briskets and roasted pigs. In stark contrast, North Carolinians consider any barbecued meat that isn’t drenched in a vinegar-based sauce as not real barbecue.

FAQs: Top Colleges in the South

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

1. What are the Best Small Colleges in the South?

Here is a list of the two best colleges with a student population of less than 5000:

High Point University

High Point University is a private institution in High Point, North Carolina. It is ranked as the very best regional college in the South. The cost of tuition and fees is about $41,916. Greek life is also alive and well at High Point, with 15 fraternity and sorority chapters for you to join.

Florida Polytechnic University

Florida Polytech is a public institution located in Lakeland, Florida. It is ranked as the third-best regional college in the South. The cost of tuition and fees is around $4,940 in-state and $21,005 for out-of-state students.2. What are the Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the South?

3. Are There Any Downsides to College in the South?

As wonderful as an education in the South may be, there are a couple of downsides for some potential students. Heat and humidity are among the most easily forgotten parts of living in the South. It may seem minor, but if you can’t stand sweltering weather, you may want to steer clear of a southern school.

Another troubling possibility is that if you’re not careful, southern colleges' Greek life and school spirit can work against you. Fun and community are a massive part of your university years, but constant partying or fraternity/sorority-based activities may hinder your academics. 

This shouldn’t be a problem if you have a good sense of work/life balance, but it is something to consider.

4. What Other Cultural Differences Should I Expect?

There are a few minor cultural differences you should know about before packing up and moving southward. For instance, many southern states tend to be more religious. If you are not, this doesn’t mean anything to you, except that you will see many Baptist churches. If you are devout, you may like the subtle religiosity of the South.

This Southern religiosity also means businesses, especially bars and liquor stores, are often closed on Sundays. It’s a negligible cultural difference, though it might take some getting used to.

5. How Do Employers Feel About a Degree from a Southern College?

A degree from a Southern college is just as good as a degree from a comparable Northern college. Fair employers have little geographic bias when it comes to your academic history.

While it is true that employers would rather see a degree from an Ivy League university, any of these quality small colleges will still impress them.   

6. What Is the Best University in the South?

The best schools in the South are Duke University, followed by Rice and Vanderbilt Universities. 

7. What Are the Best Private Colleges in the South?

Duke and Vanderbilt Universities are the best private schools in the South. Both schools are extremely competitive, so ensure your application is strong. 

8. What Is the Most Prestigious College in the South?

The most prestigious school in the South is Duke University. Followed by:

  • Vanderbilt University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Rice university
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

If you’re considering attending these schools, ensure your application is strong!

9. Which School Is the Harvard of the South?

A couple of schools have been dubbed the Harvard of the South. These include Duke and Vanderbilt University. 

10. How Can I Get Into the Best Colleges in Texas?

Our college admission consultants are here to help you get into the top colleges in Fort Worth, Dallas, and San Antonio.

11. Is It Hard to Get Into Colleges in the South?

Southern colleges are some of the top-ranked in the nation. Admission can be difficult – but not impossible! Whether you’re looking to attend school in Charlotte or Georgia, our admissions consultants are here to guide you.

Final Thoughts

Education at a Southern institution can get you the perfect mix of a spirited academic community, a rich local culture, and a quality learning experience. Whether it’s football, the barbecue, the great schools, or Greek life, there are many wonderful reasons to attend college in the South.

Now that you know how beneficial and fun a Southern education can be and understand all the brilliant Southern schools you can attend, nothing stops you from applying to the best colleges down South.

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