By Iris Stone
What’s not to love about North Carolina? From the temperate weather to the fun beach towns, it’s almost surprising this state isn’t overrun with residents! North Carolina is also a top performer in collegiate circles, due in no small part to the state’s distinguished public school system – particularly its crown jewel, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. And yet UNC has plenty of competition, from Duke University (an academic and athletic powerhouse) to Davidson (a premier liberal arts college) to affordable schools of all shapes, sizes, and affiliations.
With such a wide variety of options, you’re practically guaranteed to find something in North Carolina that fits the bill. And if you’re indecisive, this top 30 ranking will help you get started. By using a detailed methodology, we’ve identified the NC schools that strike the best balance in terms of their ability to meld low price with high performance. You’ll be able to check off all the items on your college wish list – and breathe a sigh of relief when you write the tuition check!
Our Ranking Methodology:
Graduation Rate: This indicator refers to the percentage of students who complete their degree within 150% of normal time (six years for a typical four-year degree program). Schools that perform well in this area have a track record of keeping students engaged and successful for their entire time on campus. We weighted this category 30% of the total and retrieved the information from College Navigator.
Net Price: In order to make sure that cost was still a factor in the ranking, we also considered overall net price as an indicator. Taken from data on College Navigator, “net price” is an approximate value that refers to the average amount of money a student could expect to pay each year after taking into account tuition, room and board, living expenses, scholarship awards, and financial aid packages. We weighted this category 25% of the total.
Acceptance Rate: Academically challenging, popular universities tend to be more selective and thus have a lower acceptance rate. In order to pinpoint those colleges that boast rigorous academics and also receive a large number of applications, we considered acceptance rate – the percentage of students out of the total number of applicants who receive an acceptance letter. We retrieved this information from College Navigator and weighted it 30% of the total.
20-Year Net Return on Investment: Taken from information on the website PayScale, this statistic provides a picture of how much students can expect to make after they graduate from a particular college. More specifically, the figure is calculated by taking the average income an alumnus will make over his or her first 20 years after graduation and subtracting the amount paid in tuition. Schools with a high ROI tend to be better at preparing their students for the job market. We weighted this category only 15% because data was not available for all colleges considered.
After adding all the points, we gave each university a final score out of 200. The schools below have scores ranging from 80 to 176, and each has something different to offer in terms of its cost, quality, and reputation. No one college is perfect (which is why the scores vary so much) but this ranking offers you a premier selection of universities to help get you started on your search for an education in North Carolina.
30. Meredith College
Once upon a time, Meredith College welcomed its very first class of students, which included just 200 women! A century later, MC has grown into a cozy crowd of 2,000, and men are welcome to apply for graduate programs. The school focuses on strengthening and empowering its students, and you’ll frequently see the tagline “going strong” incorporated as a way to demonstrate Meredith’s success. This approach seems to have had remarkable success in encouraging students to be active and engaged in their education. As one example, nearly 30% of MC learners study abroad, while the national average is just 9%! Experiential learning in general is common on campus, and a full 94% will intern, conduct research, take a trip, or participate in community outreach before donning a cap and gown.
Net Price: $22,642/yr
29. Brevard College
Brevard College takes all the traditional benefits of a liberal arts college and amplifies them to the greatest degree possible. Most small private schools will emphasize their small class sizes and “personalized attention.” Brevard puts its money (or yours, rather) where its mouth is: since there are only 700 students, most class sizes consist of 15 people or fewer. You’ll know almost everybody – in and out of your major – and others will notice if you don’t show up to lecture! Attentive advisors also highlight the need for interdisciplinary learning to mean more than broad degree programs; if you want to study medicine without giving up your passion for music, or major in theatre while still making time for outdoor adventure classes, Brevard will figure out a way to make it happen.
Net Price: $20,417/yr
28. Montreat College
In every state there are at least a few small, religious schools with traditional values, and Montreat is one of the best colleges in North Carolina that fits this description. Above all, Montreat works to cultivate a peaceful community of learners who share a Christian worldview. Although you aren’t required to make religion the focus of your academic studies, programs in Bible and Religion, Outdoor Ministry, and Worship Arts provide a creative path for future church leaders. Many students also opt to make religion a focus of their extracurricular activities. The annual Montreat Film Festival awards prizes to short films that explore “ultimate spiritual truths,” while the ongoing Crossroads: Faith and Culture Project seeks to merge messages of pop culture, art, and faith into one.
Net Price: $18,394/yr
27. Barton College
Another small college that seeks to make personal relationships a primary goal, Barton offers education on a first-name basis. Although the student body holds less than 1,000, BC does plenty to defy its small stature. With nationally recognized programs in education, social work, and nursing, Barton is one of the best North Carolina colleges for students who want to excel in a helping profession. The school packs quite a punch for all its 65-acres, too; from its stately library to its ever-busy recreation and intramural center, the campus acts as a constant web of activity. But don’t expect to have an easy time getting to all the action – an impressive 38% acceptance rate ensures that the Barton experience is reserved for the best.
Net Price: $20,199/yr
26. Mid-Atlantic Christian University
Elizabeth City, NC
Few schools can claim quite the level of religious devotion that characterizes MACU’s history. The school – which was originally called Roanoke College – rose to prominence as an institution with the sole purpose to educate men for jobs in ministry. Although for most of its history the college stuck close to these basic religious values, in 2006 the school took on the new name Mid-Atlantic Christian University as a sign of its shift toward more general academics. That being said, MACU is still one of the top universities in North Carolina if you’re interested in a religious collegiate experience. And thanks to its location in historic Elizabeth City, MACU students can venture off campus to visit local museums or sail on the Pasquotank River.
Net Price: $16,657/yr
25. Johnson C. Smith University
If you’re looking for a Historically Black College and University, Johnson C. Smith University is one of the best choices you could make. But JCSU isn’t only a top college in North Carolina for students of African American descent; the diversity of the student body and strong sense of culture on campus makes this university perfect for anyone who wants to expand their horizons. The school’s academic degrees cover all the basics, but you might be particularly interested in its 3+3 Pre-Law Scholars Program. Exceptionally talented students can earn direct entrance into the esteemed Charlotte School of Law after completing just three years at JCSU, putting you on the fast track to a successful career in the courtroom.
Net Price: $19,032/yr
24. Piedmont International University
Originally established as Piedmont Baptist College more than 50 years ago, this university recently welcomed a new name to signify its vision of creating an inclusive, global campus. PIU’s academic programs fall into just two areas – bachelor of art degrees in religious topics and bachelor of science degrees in education – but its reach is nonetheless quite large. By expanding into distance education, Piedmont International has welcomed students from nearly 40 countries across the globe. On campus enrollment is not nearly as broad, but the 500 or so students who attend face-to-face classes enjoy their own advantages, including access to the 60,000-volume George M. Manuel Library!
Net Price: $15,119/yr
23. North Carolina Wesleyan College
Rocky Mount, NC
Although North Carolina Wesleyan College maintains strong connections to the United Methodist Church, it is anything but exclusive. The school welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds while encouraging learners to embrace Methodist principles, namely academic freedom, social justice, and the importance of spirituality in the curriculum. It turns out this approach has done wonders for NCWC students, who enjoy an average 20-year net ROI of almost $300,000 – one of the highest in the state! The other essential ingredient in this recipe for success: financial support. North Carolina Wesleyan is not one of the most affordable colleges in North Carolina by accident – 98% of traditional program students receive some sort of help paying for school.
Net Price: $19,317/yr
22. East Carolina University
Everyone has heard of the University of North Carolina, but what about the other cardinal directions? East Carolina University is not to be overlooked. The 400-acre campus sits in residential Greenville, a modest town that earns its name from a plethora of parks and open green spaces along the banks of the Tar River. If you can pull yourself away from the pristine scenery long enough, you’ll notice everything that makes ECU one of the best universities in North Carolina. A spirited athletic program? Try 15+ men’s and women’s NCAA Division I sports teams. Modern facilities? How about a 1.6 million square foot, state-of-the-art health sciences campus and a special music library to meet all your auditory needs.
Net Price: $12,908/yr
21. University of North Carolina at Asheville
Again, plenty of people have heard of UNC. But most people picture the state’s flagship public campus, forgetting about the hidden gems in the UNC system. Take Asheville, for example. Not only is it the sole dedicated liberal arts branch of UNC, it’s also one of the most successful – at least with regards to its 64% graduation rate (the third highest of all UNC campuses). Asheville is also one of the smallest public schools in the state, and the 3,700 students who attend prefer it that way. Instead of a big campus with a big name, UNC Asheville students favor an intimate education in a rural setting – and a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Net Price: $12,040/yr
20. University of Mount Olive
Mt. Olive, NC
The University of Mount Olive is an expert in accessible education; of its more than 4,500 students, 80% are adult learners with nontraditional needs. UMO has campuses all across North Carolina – including Wilmington, Goldsboro, Durham, Jacksonville, and of course Mount Olive – and caters to the needs of busy professionals. Mount Olive also offers online classes and reserves an entire campus for students who need to attend evening courses, making it one of the best colleges in North Carolina for nontraditional students. Several of the academic degree programs reflect professional learners’ interests, such as Business Administration, Leadership, and Education.
Net Price: $12,245/yr
19. Catawba College
Salisbury doesn’t exactly get a lot of attention as one of America’s great cities, but maybe it should! Although there are only about 30,000 residents, the town is just a short drive from some of North Carolina’s busiest metropolitan hot spots. It’s also just two hours to the mountains and four hours to the beach, giving outdoor adventurers of all types a convenient weekend retreat. But location is just one of the perks of attending Catawba College. Despite it’s rather small size, CC has achieved large-scale recognition; named as a top North Carolina college for undergrads by U.S. News and Princeton Review, Catawba also earns accolades for its music and theater programs, environmental sustainability, and reputation for “grateful grads.”
Net Price: $19,665/yr
18. Fayetteville State University
Leveraging the support of the UNC public school system and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Fayetteville State University has grown into one of the most popular historically black colleges in North Carolina. FSU’s liberal arts curriculum seeks to provide its students with a comprehensive education that will prepare them for “meaningful and productive lives.” Fayetteville State is also a popular choice for student athletes and sports fans. The school supports 10 NCAA athletic teams and an extremely competitive football program that claims multiple division championships. Students who prefer creativity to competition will get their fill, too – an online radio station and a biweekly newspaper provide the perfect starting point for budding journalists.
Net Price: $6,848/yr
17. Elizabeth City State University
Elizabeth City, NC
It’s easy for colleges to make some generic commitment to excellence in education, but Elizabeth City State University goes a step further in detailing its vision for students. Innovation, technological skill, wellness, and human health are all priorities for ECSU, and the school takes a special interest in the development of natural science and aviation programs. Elizabeth City State is also one of the most affordable North Carolina colleges, thanks to an annual net price that is nearly impossible to beat. And yet somehow the school boasts high-tech facilities and special programs that defy its budget, including an onsite planetarium and an e-mentoring/internship initiative that helps new students acclimate to college life.
Net Price: $2,490/yr
16. Elon University
Elon University is easily one of the most selective, reputable private colleges in North Carolina. With an admissions rate of 54%, only a slim majority of applicants can hope to receive an acceptance letter. And why are so many students lining up to attend Elon? For starters, its 81% graduation rate suggests a commitment to student engagement and satisfaction that far surpasses the average school. But this top North Carolina college goes beyond numbers. Campus life is teeming with culture, fun, and camaraderie, from the close-knit spiritual groups to the Greek organizations that offer a lifetime of friendship and service to others.
Net Price: $32,305/yr
15. University of North Carolina Greensboro
A proud constituent of the University of North Carolina system, UNC Greensboro offers a supportive environment in one of the state’s biggest cities. With approximately 13,000 undergraduates and a city population of more than 275,000, Greensboro is one of the few colleges that successfully blends a small community vibe with metropolitan resources. The school’s call for students to “do something bigger altogether” demonstrates its dual commitment to active and collaborative learning. UNC Greensboro also holds distinctions from the Carnegie Foundation for both its research activity and level of community engagement.
Net Price: $10,076/yr
14. Winston-Salem State University
Implicit in the mission of any Historically Black University is the goal to respond to unmet needs in society, to extend the boundaries of collegiate education. Winston Salem State University goes a step further, designing a curriculum that seeks to educate the “whole student.” WSSU also holds a few very specific claims to fame, including the very first B.S. in Motorsports Management in the country. It’s also one of the top colleges in North Carolina for the quantity of nurses it produces, and houses the Diggs Gallery – one of the premier African American art galleries in the region. And thanks to its rock-bottom tuition rates, WSSU graduates students in an ideal financial position. Need proof? The 20-year net ROI averages around $209k.
Net Price: $7,737/yr
13. Salem College
If you want a college experience that’s about as intimate as they come, Salem College is a clear contender – and a top one at that. This women’s college enrolls a mere 1,100 students at a time, establishing a mature community of learners who hail from all over the world. Salem is in fact the oldest women’s institution of higher learning in the United States, and over the past 250 years it has perfected the art of “fostering independence in women.” Progressive ventures like the Women in Science and Mathematics Program, the Center for Women Writers, and the renowned School of Music bring students a wealth of resources.
Net Price: $15,497/yr
12. University of North Carolina Wilmington
It can be easy to blend all the UNC campuses into one – or at least confuse which one is which – but the University of North Carolina Wilmington works hard to distinguish itself from the pack. Drawing on its identity as a coastal college, UNC Wilmington has grown into an academic hub for all things seaworthy. Specifically, degree options in Biology and Marine Biology, Physics and Physical Oceanography, and Environmental Studies offer a clear path to careers in sustainability and natural design. Of course, students of all majors will find the resources and support to lead a happy college life, as evidenced by this cheap North Carolina college’s graduation rate of 71% – the second highest in the UNC system.
Net Price: $14,418/yr
11. North Carolina A&T State University
North Carolina AT&T State University may have a history that dates back to 1890, but the school is anything but stuck in the past. In fact, NC AT&T State has taken the initiative to modify its programs to fit the needs of a 21st century student body. Don’t worry – all the traditional features, from small class sizes to attentive professors – are here to stay, but the school has also made a push toward diversification. This shift applies to both the students and the majors, and a visitor on campus today will see students from all over the country (and the globe) pursuing degrees in everything from Meteorology to Nanoengineering, Geomatics to Motorsports Technology.
Net Price: $10,145/yr
10. University of North Carolina Charlotte
If size and location are two of your top considerations for college, the University of North Carolina Charlotte can provide plenty of both. Its urban location in the state’s largest city serves as an invaluable resource for students when it comes to both internships and weekend activities. A quick drive can take you either to the ocean or the mountains, but you might not even want to leave campus! With more than 27,000 students and a whopping 1,000 acres, UNC Charlotte is a constant hub of activity. Between regular theatre performances at the Robinson Hall for Performing Arts and nearly daily campus events – including NCAA Division I athletic games where you can cheer on your beloved 49ers – Charlotte practically eliminates boredom from students’ vocabulary.
Net Price: $10,196/yr
9. University of North Carolina School of the Arts
The UNC School of Arts makes a memorable first impression with one relatively simple guarantee: that students can do what they love. Creative minds and artistic spirits find a home all their own at UNCSA, a distinctive university uniquely suited to the applicants it attracts. All students receive a solid foundational education in the liberal arts – a requirement that UNCSA claims is crucial for the “broader education of the artist.” However, classmates quickly categorize themselves based on their ultimate career goals as they shift their focus to one of six artistic areas of study: dance, drama, design/production, visual arts, filmmaking, or music. With a 43% acceptance rate, getting into this top university in North Carolina for artists is no guarantee, so be prepared to nail your audition interview!
Net Price: $11,959
8. North Carolina State University
Once upon a time, North Carolina State University was a simple land-grant institution with programs limited to agricultural and mechanical subjects. Although the university has since expanded its offerings – and its accompanying reputation – many times over, it maintains a strong dedication to hands-on education. No matter what course of study you pursue at NC State, your time on campus will no doubt be punctuated by at least one internship, research experience, co-op, study abroad adventure, or volunteer commitment. And by getting out of the classroom and into the lab (or office, or student organization, or airport…) students seem more inclined to stick around; NCSU boasts a graduation rate of 75% – one of the highest in North Carolina!
Net Price: $13,579/yr
7. Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University’s humble location in rural Cullowhee (home to a mere 10,000 people) can be misleading. Don’t be fooled! This small town may have little name recognition, but WCU’s reputation deserves plenty of attention. When it comes to academics, this cheap college in North Carolina brings both quality and quantity. 100+ undergraduate specialties provide practically limitless opportunities – and a few especially tempting options; the school’s programs in project management, entrepreneurship, and teacher education are all highly ranked, and its emergency medical care degree is the first of its kind in the entire nation!
Net Price: $12,916/yr
6. Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University definitely has a reputation for value, thanks to an extremely low tuition rate – especially for in-state students. Although it is one of the most affordable North Carolina colleges, ASU’s appeal doesn’t stop there. The 18,000 or so students who call themselves Mountaineers enjoy a vibrant campus characterized by constant activity and a strong sense of community – a hallmark of the ASU experience. And it doesn’t hurt that the impressive Blue Ridge Mountains loom close by, offering both a spectacular view and exciting off-campus playground for energetic students. With so much to offer, it’s no surprise that most Mountaineers stick around for the long haul; 70% graduate within six years.
Net Price: $11,508/yr
5. Davidson College
For student-centered learning, Davidson College is the place to go. If you consider yourself compassionate, creative, and intellectually curious, you’ll finally find your niche with like-minded students at Davidson. As one of the best universities in North Carolina, this campus supports an ambitious group of individuals who are uniquely involved; nearly 25% of students join one of the NCAA Division I athletic teams, and at least eight out of 10 extend their learning by traveling overseas. Research is also an integral aspect of the undergraduate experience at Davidson College. From semester-long independent projects to targeted research programs abroad, you’ll find no shortage of ways to take your degree beyond the basics.
Net Price: $22,457/yr
4. Wake Forest University
Winston Salem, NC
There’s a reason Wake Forest University consistently ranks among the top 30 universities in the nation. Actually, there are lots of reasons! Combining the traditional educational values of a liberal arts college with the substantial resources of a large state school, Wake Forest seeks to offer a one-of-a-kind experience. The undergraduate college provides a close-knit community of teachers and students who can grow and learn together in a supportive environment. Professors are as much mentors and role models as they are instructors, and they’ll help guide you through a uniquely flexible curriculum. All incoming students complete a First-Year Seminar, a specialized course that includes “intense intellectual interchange” and thought-provoking discussions that also helps ease the transition to college life.
Net Price: $25,826/yr
3. North Carolina Central University
When North Carolina Central University first opened its doors in the early 1900s, it was little more than a religious training school for local residents. It soon transformed into the first public liberal arts college in the country catering specifically to African Americans, and NCCU’s reputation has continued to grow ever since. Many of its academic programs – including the law school and creative arts degrees – have gained national acclaim, and the college is quickly becoming a leader in cutting-edge research. And since NCCU is located in the “Research Triangle,” students have unparalleled access to labs, specialized institutes, and collaborations with other top North Carolina Colleges.
Net Price: $9,701/yr
2. Duke University
Sports fans may know Duke University for its remarkably competitive athletic program (the school boasts more than 20 NCAA Division I teams and holds 16 national championships) but the Blue Devils have much more to offer than a great jump shot. In fact, the university performs well across every metric, with a slim 11% acceptance rate, near-perfect 95% graduation rate, and $600k+ 20-year ROI. The 9,000-acre campus can be intimidating at times, but students seem to have no trouble getting involved. Programs like DukeEngage will help you find fun activities both around town and overseas – maybe even on Duke’s campus in China! A full 75% of students complete some kind of service-learning endeavor before graduating, proving that this college is serious about both intellectual and community engagement.
Net Price: $21,764
1. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC
Securing the #1 spot on this best value ranking is UNC Chapel Hill, a long-time athletic rival of Duke and the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina system. If there’s any college in the state that truly “has it all,” it’s probably UNC. From its extreme selectivity (28% acceptance rate) to high student retention (90% 6-year graduation rate) Chapel Hill has you covered from start to finish. The university also prides itself on its diverse student body and pristine campus, and young learners travel from all over the world for a chance to study under UNC’s esteemed professors. And with a 20-year net ROI averaging more than $300,000 -bolstered in part by the school’s incredibly low tuition rate – its no wonder UNC Chapel Hill is one of the best affordable colleges in North Carolina.
Net Price: $10,936/yr
About the Author:
Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher. She now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Her work has included articles related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and careers.