Your Guide to the Best Colleges in the South

Rice University
September 7, 2022
Best Colleges in the SouthWhy Go to College in the South?FAQs: Best Colleges in the South

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

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 in the South can make acquiring a great education fun.

The academic reputation of a university is important, but there’s a lot more that goes into your final choice of school. Whether it’s geographic constraints, financial concerns, or the special appeal of a football-loving school, this post will guide you through some of the best colleges in the South.

The schools in this list of the best colleges in the South 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 best colleges in the South. Get ready for a lot of Greek life, Division I football, and great barbecue!

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Best Colleges in the South

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

Duke University

Duke University
Source: Duke University

Duke University is a private institution located in Durham, North Carolina. It is ranked as the ninth-best national university, making it number one on our list of the best colleges in the South. The accolades don’t stop there; Duke is also the 12th best research university in the country.

Duke is similar to its Northern, Ivy league counterparts in both cost and acceptance rate. Namely, Duke’s total annual cost is around $77,069, and its acceptance rate is a difficult 8%. As a frame of reference, Duke’s total annual costs are almost identical to Harvard’s $75,891. Also, Duke’s acceptance rate is better than Harvard’s 5%, but only by a slim margin.

However, an education at Duke is well worth the Ivy league-esque costs. This is largely due to Duke’s brilliant student support system. This includes several unique opportunities for engagement with faculty, including a $70 allotment to invite a faculty member to a conversation over lunch 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.

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University
Source: Forbes

Vanderbilt University is a private institution located in Nashville, Tennessee. It is ranked as the 14th best national university, making it a close second on our list of the best colleges in the South. Vanderbilt is also comparable to Duke in its total annual costs of about $76,044 and 9% acceptance rate.

The university offers 70 undergraduate programs in liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education, and human development. Considering the wide range of offered programs, it’s a good bet that Vanderbilt is offering an education fit for your interests.

However, Vanderbilt’s strongest selling-point may be its mandatory experiential learning. All first-year students are required to 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 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 were the 2019 NCAA championship winners and are ten-time regional champs. In fact, the team is so good that Vanderbilt was the only school with multiple first-round picks in the 2021 MLB draft.

Washington University in St. Louis

Washington University in St Louis
Source: Washing University in St. Louis

Washington University in St. Louis is a private institution located in the titular city of St. Louis, Missouri. It is tied with Vanderbilt as the 14th best national university, with a bonus accomplishment as the 17th best value school in the country. The university’s annual tuition and fees come to about $58,866.

The university also 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, if you’re a prospective med student, the school offers an MCAT prep course.

Rice University

Rice University
Source: The Texas Tribune

Rice University is a private institution located in Houston, Texas. As the 17th best national university and the fifth best value university in the country, it’s no wonder Rice University has made our list of best universities in the South. The total annual cost of attendance is around $69,557, and the college has a 9% acceptance rate.

Rice offers more than 50 undergraduate majors among six divisions of study. You can find your preferred program in disciplines like 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.

Emory University

Emory University
Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia

Emory University is a private institution located in Atlanta, Georgia. It is ranked as the 21st best national university and one of the best colleges in the South. Emory’s total annual cost is about $72,884, and it has a 16% acceptance rate.

The college is also relatively metropolitan with a student body comprised of 69% out-of-state students and 18% international students. If you’re more comfortable in a multicultural atmosphere, Emory may be your best choice in the South.

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

University of Virginia

University of Virginia
Source: University of Virginia

The University of Virginia is a public institution located in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is ranked as the 25th best national university, and it is a much more accessible institution with a total annual cost of around $69,547 and an easy 24% acceptance rate. UVA has also ranked the ninth-best national university for veterans. 

The university 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.

University of Florida

University of Florida
Source: University of Florida

The University of Florida is a public institution located in Gainesville, Florida. US News ranks it as the 28th best national university, while Forbes names the university as the 10th best college for veterans in the country. It is an extremely accessible college with a total annual cost of around $43,709 and a 37% acceptance rate.

UF 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.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina
Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a public institution that is, of course, located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is tied with UF as both the 28th best national university and the 10th best university for veterans. However, it is a bit less accessible with a total annual cost of about $51,725 and a 23% acceptance rate.

There are many opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill 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.

Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University
Source: Wake Forest University

Wake Forest University is a private institution located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The institution is in a three-way tie with UF and UNC-Chapel Hill for the 28th best national university. The total annual cost to attend WFU is about $77,278, and its acceptance rate is a comfortable 30%.

WFU 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.

Georgia Institute of Technology

The Georgia Institute of Technology
Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

The Georgia Institute of Technology is a public institution located in Atlanta, Georgia. It is ranked as the 38th best national university and the 16th best university for veterans. The total annual cost to attend hovers around $50,914, and the school has an acceptance rate of 21%.

Georgia Tech 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 best colleges in the south, it isn’t contained just within the Southern states. In fact, 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.

Why Go to College in the South?

The best colleges in the South are defined by more than just their geographic locations. 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 mulling over whether an 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 any other encountered expenses, and university life can quickly become financially untenable. This is especially true in cities where many of the top northern schools are situated. 

On the other hand, the states corresponding to the best colleges in the South tend to be some of the most affordable. For instance, Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest are all located within North Carolina, the 24th most affordable state in the country. 

Vanderbilt is in Tennessee, the 17th most affordable state. Rice is in the 22nd most affordable state of Texas, and both Georgia Tech and Emory are in Georgia, which is the country’s 13th most affordable state. This compares to Ivy league states in the North like Connecticut and Massachusetts, which are 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.

While the southern dedication to football is an obvious draw if you happen to be a fan of the sport yourself, you can still benefit from the resulting school spirit if you have little individual interest in the game.

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 being real barbecue at all.

From state to state, the barbecue will vary in spiciness, fuel source, cook time, cook temperature, and even the preferred choice of condiments. However, one thing still remains consistent all throughout the South, and that’s the amazing quality of the food.

A Rich Music Culture

The South isn’t just home to Country and Western music. In reality, states like Texas, Kentucky, and Georgia have a history steeped in Jazz, Blues, Soul music, and Rock and Roll. No matter what your preferred genre of music may be, the southern states have concerts and festivals for you.

Nashville, Tennessee, is often considered the great musical Mecca of America. With more than 165 showcases throughout Downtown Nashville, there is never a dearth of good music or good times. 

CMA fest, one of the biggest music festivals in the country, is held in Nashville every year. This is especially good news for Vanderbilt students as their university’s main campus shares its home city with CMA fest.

FAQs: Best Colleges in the South

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the best colleges in the South.

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

Here is a list of the three best colleges in the South with a student population of less than 5000:

High Point University

High Point University is a private institution located 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 $39,752. Greek life is also alive and well at High Point, with 15 fraternity and sorority chapters for you to join.

Ouachita Baptist University

Ouachita Baptist is a private institution located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. It is ranked as the second-best regional college in the South. The cost of tuition and fees is about $30,140. If you like the great outdoors, you will love OBU’s Outdoor Recreation program.

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?

Here is a list of the three best colleges in the south dedicated to the liberal arts:

Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee is a private institution located in Lexington, Virginia. It is ranked as the 11th best liberal arts college in the country, making it the very best liberal arts college in the South. Its tuition and fees run about $59,380.

Davidson College

Davidson College is a private institution located in Davidson, North Carolina. It is ranked as the 13th best liberal arts college in the country, making it the second-best liberal arts college in the South. Its tuition and fees amount to around $55,000.

The University of Richmond

The University of Richmond is a private institution located in Richmond, Virginia. It is ranked as the 22nd best liberal arts college in the country, making it the third-best liberal arts college in the South. Its tuition and fees will run you about $58,570.

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. One of the most easily forgotten parts of living in the South is the heat and humidity. 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, the Greek life and school spirit of southern colleges 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 exactly mean anything for 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 are often closed on Sundays, especially bars and liquor stores. It’s a negligible cultural difference, though it might take some getting used to.

5. Are all Cities/States in the South the Same?

“The South” is a mere blanket term that does not account for the intense regionality of the southern states. The French, Spanish, and African history of Louisiana creates a very different local culture than a state like Texas with a distinctly Mexican past.

These regional differences are felt in the food, the music, the values, and the mores of all the different cities and states that make up the American South. However, the local culture of North Carolina is more similar to that of Texas than it is of Connecticut.

6. 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 the schools on this post of the best colleges in the South will still impress them.

Final Thoughts

Receiving an 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 so many wonderful reasons to go to college in the South.

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

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