In the United States, it is typical for each state to have one or more flagship state universities. All of them are reasonably good institutions, but some are absolutely top-notch, such as in Michigan, California, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Typically, tuition at these universities is extremely expensive for out-of-state students and much cheaper for in-state students. So, at least in principle, these universities principally serve the best students from their respective states who choose to study at public schools.

How is it then that some schools became absolutely top-notch and others less so? To my mind there is no obvious factor explaining which of the state schools became top-notch; for example, Wisconsin is not, and never has been, an unusually populous or wealthy state.

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    An undoubtedly oversimplified but probably largely correct answer is that some states (at some crucial point in the past) made the funding of higher education a higher priority than other states did. With 50 different state legislatures involved over a period of many decades, it's not surprising that there is no obvious single factor explaining the observed outcomes. May 19, 2014 at 13:45
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    Also, in many cases the statement "Typically, tuition at these universities is extremely expensive for out-of-state students and much cheaper for in-state students" is now outdated. In response to severe budget cuts from the states, some of these schools are now extremely expensive for in-state students as well. May 19, 2014 at 13:46
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    Also: snowball effect. Reputation attracts quality which in turn increases reputation, etc. Even in the ideal case where all institutions started with similar quality, it's likely to diverge quickly.
    – Cape Code
    May 19, 2014 at 14:29
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    You might be interested in the California Master Plan for Higher Education: sunsite.berkeley.edu/~ucalhist/archives_exhibits/masterplan May 19, 2014 at 14:59
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    States also vary dramatically in population and economic activity. There are close to 40 million people in California and less than a million in Wyoming, and the per capita income/wealth is higher in California than Wyoming. May 19, 2014 at 21:17

5 Answers 5


Different states have very different political attitudes towards their flagship schools as well. This makes a difference with funding levels of course. It also makes a difference in terms of how money is to be used. A governor/executive, combined with a university president, that wants to grow a flagship institution can help earmark funds to attract top-notch researchers, link business activity and academic areas to grow in, and so on. It takes planning and vision as well as money, and that varies a lot from state to state.

  • The use of "as well" here is confusing. "As well" as what?
    – KRyan
    May 19, 2014 at 19:15
  • "as well" as different funding directives (from the question and comments)
    – Suresh
    May 19, 2014 at 21:20

The one thing that has to be remembered is that classes at Universities are run by humans... and they aren't all of the same caliber.

If a University has decided to focus on a particular school, Civil Engineering for example, then they will expend the funds necessary to attract highly competent and well known professors in that area. This might mean that funds aren't available to attract similar talent in another college at that University, such as English Literature. However it also means that the university will get a reputation for turning out better candidates in those areas.

Next, Universities are funded through a variety of ways. Only one is the actual cost of tuition. Private funding, such as provided by various businesses or alumni, is a big part of this. If a particular college within the University graduates a large number of high dollar workers then those private donations are likely to be largely earmarked for that same college.

Point is: Quality is determined by your professors and tools available and these are generally determined by the Money a University has or is willing to spend.

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    Athletics are a big deal when it comes to funding too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the “Public Ivies” (as they’re sometimes called) have strong football or basketball programs. May 20, 2014 at 1:31
  • @BraddSzonye - perhaps the exception proves the rule, but my alma mater, Miami University (Ohio), which is often on "public ivy" lists, had an 0-12 football record (Go Redhawks! Woot!), and a 13-17 basketball record in the 2013-2014 school year. Rah. May 20, 2014 at 2:44

State population, and proximity to a large city likely also plays a role. Its not a perfect correlation, but UCB, UCLA, Georgia Tech, UT-Austin, and several other "big name" state schools are either in or near major citys in high population states.

I'm guessing states like the Dakotas don't have enough students to build larger campuses, and hire as many profs. Looks like neither Dakota has even 1 million people. I'm guessing there just isn't very much real demand for education in these states, since fewer students are getting degrees the universities have less money for big ticket items like stadiums, rec facilities and "star" faculty.

  • Its not a perfect correlation — "To put it mildly," he responded defensively.
    – JeffE
    May 19, 2014 at 23:58
  • one thing, North Dakota has two competitive "flagship" universities, UND in Grand Forks and NDSU in Fargo. other states with even twice the population (like Maine) have only one. there are some reputable programs with research, but these schools serve as educational institutions more than they are research institutions, which serves their students quite well. and most of the students leave the state after graduation. May 20, 2014 at 1:12
  • Though it is growing and is the capital, Austin is not a particularly large city. It is centrally located (in a very expansive state), and UT has been periodically showered in money and has attracted significant private endowments. May 20, 2014 at 1:16
  • State population probably plays a role primarily via the size of the state budget. I suspect that proximity to a large city would disappear as a factor if you controlled for the fact that most things involving lots of people are close to big cities. There are plenty of "small name" state schools in or near major cities in high population states, too, but somehow their names don't spring to mind as readily. (Not to mention all the big name schools which are famous for being in the middle of nowhere. I think @JeffE may have had one in mind specifically.) May 20, 2014 at 7:11

There are a variety of factors, and the sample is too diverse to come up with a simple answer. For starters, here's a list of all the State-run universities in the USA. This answer is basically an outline, based on my impressions, and I invite others to elaborate on these points with historical documents (this answer is a wiki) or maybe even a statistical analysis if we're lucky.

1) The need for a state school. Some regions already had several private universities that could serve their population. Others (California?) did not, so the state set one up.

2) The political commitment to the University system. Some state schools (CA) are written into the state's constitution. Other's are not (PA). Some were established with land-grants.

3) In a less formal sense, some states have a strong public commitment to public education, while others value it less. The rankings of high schools has some correlation to my perception of flagship university quality.

4) As implied in the question, the total resources available to the state is an issue, though not the only one. Still, overall, larger and wealthier (and more urban) states tend to have more prestigious flagship universities.

5) And then there's randomness (as described by Chris Lively) -- all the stuff that is not a characteristic of the state per se. AKA, historical contingencies, personnel decisions, strategic decisions, and the general legacy of the University's infrastructure..

It would be interesting to see how all these factors contribute to predicting the prestige of the flagship university (a PCA or logistic regression, perhaps)-- but that analysis is outside of my expertise.


The other answers have pointed out a number of important factors, but an additional one is lack of competition. Most of the best state universities are in states and even regions with few large private universities of similar caliber (and especially, where there weren't many when the universities developed). It's notable that the northeast, which is wealthy, populous, and tends to have politics that support higher education still doesn't have any public schools in that caliber---in large part because it has the highest concentration of private schools which fill that niche.

There's a belief that having research institutions brings benefits to a state by creating jobs indirectly. That benefit is a lot of the reason a state would want to put the extra resources into a school to make it a top tier research institution rather that a good school primarily for educating its own students. Private institutions can provide the same benefit, and so reduce the motivation.

(Compare Texas, which has openly discussed that it has too few top research universities relative to its population and wealth and is running a competition among its lower tier research universities to become the states third public R1.)

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    The northeast... doesn't have any public schools in that caliber - take that, Penn State, UMass Amherst, Rutgers..
    – ff524
    May 21, 2014 at 14:13
  • But compared to Harvard, MIT, Brown, Yale, Princeton, Penn, NYU, Cornell ? Not entirely unfair.
    – Suresh
    May 21, 2014 at 14:20
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    @Suresh You're comparing public schools in the NE to private schools in the NE. Henry's argument is about public schools in the NE vs public schools elsewhere.
    – ff524
    May 21, 2014 at 14:51
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    My reading was that Henry was saying "good private schools in an area block out development of public schools". To which your response was to list examples of good public schools in the area, to which my response was to support his claim that that the caliber is not mismatched. But then again, I'm already confused:)
    – Suresh
    May 21, 2014 at 15:18
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    @Suresh: Cornell is a special case. It is a private university and also New York's land-grant university. Some of its colleges are public, funded by New York State ("contract colleges"), and others are privately funded ("endowed colleges"). May 21, 2014 at 16:01

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