The Best College in Every State
The elements that make for a great college go well beyond the quality of the education that gives the place a reason to exist in the first place. Physical beauty of the campus, quality of life, athletics, clubs, douchiness (perceived or otherwise), parties, nightlife, notable alumni... basically, everything that goes on at a college contributes to, or distracts from, its overall quality. And the things one person loves could be a negative for other students. One kid’s epic tailgate is another kid's worst nightmare. It’s all subjective.
To name the best college in each state, our crack team of (definitely totally unbiased!) former scholars weighed various elements of the college experience presented at each institution in order to crown a winner. Are they right? Well, that probably depends on the sweater you rock during the weekend. But for our money, these are the best colleges in every single state.
Editor’s note:Yes, we understand that some of our notable alumni didn’t graduate from the college. Such is life and burgeoning professional sports careers. But if they have a solid link, we included them. Consider this their honorary degree.
Alabama: University of Alabama
Notable alumni: Harper Lee, Bernie Madoff, Timothy Leary, Joe Namath
Why it's great: Though Alabama's oldest and largest university is known to most as a crimson-colored football juggernaut, there's a lot more to this school than Saturdays in the fall. Yes, having an elite, big-time football program is as integral to the American college experience as keg stands. But the marketing machine that is the Nick Saban era has brought in more applications, and with that a more competitive academic environment. This is part of why Alabama has the best law school and best business school in the state, and continues to improve its academic rating as its athletic reputation spreads.
Alaska: Alaska Pacific University
Notable alumni: Olympic cross-country skiers Sadie Bjornsen and Kikkan Randall
Why it's great: The central philosophy around APU's curriculum is one of "active learning," and on paper it sounds an awful lot like the college equivalent of a Waldorf school, only subbing the hippie teachers out with... well, with some hippie professors. But also total badass professors who call Anchorage home, and whose office hours are held within the forest-covered campus that includes a 900-acre farm. This is a place with a heavy focus on majors like marine sciences and outdoor studies in addition to counseling psychology and creative writing, one that uses the sprawling landscapes of Alaska as extensions of its classrooms and remains committed to native education and governance.
Arizona: Arizona State University
Notable alumni: Jimmy Kimmel, Pat Tillman, David Spade, Linda Ronstadt
Why it's great: While in-state rival AU may be legendary for its party scene (not that there's anything wrong with that) Arizona State has solidified itself as one of the preeminent colleges in the US, notably by snagging the title of US News & World Report's "No. 1 school for innovation" from traditional nerdlinger colleges like MIT and Stanford. But... what does that really mean? Arizona State emphasizes customized learning, entrepreneurship, and using their world-class research labs and facilities to provide students from all over the world (Arizona State is one of the top US public universities for international students, by the way) a lesson plan based on their own long-term goals instead of forcing them into pre-determined academic tracks. And, as the massive solar panels that line swaths of the school will tell you, the Tempe campus is one of the most self-sustainable schools in the country. So it's also not a bad place to be in the event of the apocalypse. Just saying.
Arkansas: Hendrix College
Notable alumni: Mary Steenburgen, Douglas Blackmon
Why it's great: Hendrix exists almost as the antithesis of Arkansas' Razorback culture: It's a small (1,300 students compared to UA's 26,000) liberal arts college outside Little Rock that was recently described as "Where you go if you studied too much in high school and feel the need to get naked a lot to make up for lost time." Not bad for a Methodist school! This is an institution where students blossom and explore themselves without the rampant craziness of a bigger school, where they can study neuroscience and theater in intimate classrooms (student-to-teacher ratio here is 11:1), then get down on a campus-wide dance competition at night. It's a stopping point for globally respected academics to visit and speak to a tiny crowd thanks to the prestigious Hendrix-Murphy program. And if students aren't content ripping it up among themselves on campus, well, Fayetteville's only two hours or so away.
California: University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles -- Westwood
Notable alumni: Jackie Robinson, James Dean, Carol Burnett, Francis Ford Coppola
Why it's great: California has almost as many colleges and universities as it does dudes writing screenplays, and picking the best is a tough chore. But no school combines academics, sports, and the California lifestyle like the slow-clapping Bruins. The school ranks 21st in the vaunted US News & World Report large university rankings, behind only Stanford and Caltech in the state. And did you ever hear anyone who went to those schools use the word "fun?" No. However UCLA not only crushes the classroom, it's all-around athletics might be the best in America. The Bruins have won 113 NCAA team championships, tied with Stanford for most of any school, and is home to the best stadium in college football. Westwood feels as much like a college town as one could put in the middle of LA, a warm, shady suburb that's both welcoming and energetic. Throw in a short (by SoCal standards) drive to the beaches at Malibu and Santa Monica, and you've got the best all-around college experience in the Golden State.
Colorado: University of Colorado Boulder
Notable alumni: Jonah Hill, Glenn Miller, Trey Parker & Matt Stone
Why it's great: Let's not mince words here: Boulder is one of the best college towns in America, and it manages to be such without the benefit of a huge athletic/tailgate culture (it's there, don't worry!). That'll happen when you plop a college down in an idyllic mountain town surrounded by roaring rivers and sprawling trails that boasts more consistently sunny days than anywhere else. It's not just the hippie vibe of the town -- with its stellar beer scene and massive walking mall -- that makes CU Boulder great, though. This is a world-class academic institution, one that has churned out a weirdly high number of astronauts (must be that whole mile-high thing?) and dominates in engineering, physics, environmental sciences, and environmental law, all of which consistently rank among the top-10 programs in the country. Apparently, physicists enjoy public hula-hooping, great beer, and nature too.
Connecticut: Fairfield University
Notable alumni: Kevin Nealon (attended), Paul "The Guy Who Said 'Can You Hear Me Now?' on Verizon Ads Until He Switched to Sprint" Marcarelli
Why it's great: Yale boasts an enchanted experience for a select few of the Power Elite who will go on to know the glories of playing softball among gooseberry bushes on Deer Island; Trinity is a conventionally fun place for conventionally handsome men and women who got middling grades while attending boarding schools; UConn is actually pretty great until the entire campus goes into a six-month mourning period whenever the women's basketball team loses. But Fairfield, well, Fairfield is on the beach. A perfectly respectable academic institution with just the right size population to get neither entirely sick of everyone in your class or disappear into a giant crowd, Fairfield also boasts 20 Division-I sports, is weirdly good at basketball and lacrosse, and REMEMBER THE THING ABOUT THE BEACH?!? See, a lot of students at Fairfield get houses on the beach, and those students have Beach Resident Organization-funded keg parties and hold something called The Floating Naut, which is a party at different house every Thursday in honor of a famous Fairfield bar that closed down. Beach houses have names like Banana Hammock and The Shocker, which is a really funny name for a house when you are 21 and don't yet possess the ability to self-reflect.
Delaware: University of Delaware
Notable alumni: Joe Biden, Joe Flacco, Chris Christie
Why it's great: The diminutive state of Delaware does not have a glut of options when it comes to higher education, and overall the state has a reputation for being... let's say, bland. But the best school in the state -- the University of Delaware -- remains anything but boring, and has evolved into one of the best schools for political science, business, and music on the East Coast. While not necessarily a full-blown "party school," it has one of the largest, most involved Greek life programs in the country. UD also literally invented the concept of "studying abroad" in the 1920s, and boasts one of the most comprehensive music programs of any public school in America: The legendary Fightin' Blue Hen Marching Band rolls with 350 members, and has more competitive accolades than Nick Cannon can shake a drum-stick at. As far as alums go, the political roots run deep on both sides of the aisle, with recent(ish) grads like Chris Christie and Joe Biden leading the pack. So there's something for everyone. Uncle Joe approves. And probably winks and points, too.
Florida: University of Florida
Notable alumni: Ryan Lochte, Carl Hiaasen, Erin Andrews
Why it's great: In a state whose residents are known for doing things like throwing alligators through drive-thru windows and running themselves over outside strip clubs, "academics" might seem like kind of a foreign concept. But two Florida schools are actually quite academically respectable. And since you'd need to start scamming Medicare/importing cocaine to afford the University of Miami, sheer value gives the nod to UF, where in-state tuition is a reasonable $6,400 a year and includes the best public education in the state, big-time sports, and $4 liquor pitchers at Balls. Gainesville might not be the Florida you see in travel brochures, but it's one of America's best college towns, set in a sea of Spanish moss and live oaks, with some great tubing rivers nearby. The experience here is everything one expects out of college, with a big Greek system, city-wide tailgates in the fall, and cheap bars aplenty. The alumni base is massive, so the networking done in your four years here pays dividends long after graduation. If you can avoid becoming a completely delusional football fan, a UF education will get you the furthest in Florida.
Georgia: Morehouse College
Notable alumni: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee
Why it's great: Sure, the person writing this went to Morehouse, for full-disclosure's sake. But until Georgia Tech, UGA, Emory or any other college graduates an answer to Dr. King or any number of people that gets close to the amount of alumni who have affected global civil rights, you're all adult day care centers (word to Bob Corker!). Morehouse is the home of the King Collection, a 10,000-piece assembly of original documents written by the civil rights movement leader and ATL native, and is the No. 1 men's college for producing Rhodes Scholars. Oprah Winfrey has funded the education of more than 400 students at the all-male liberal arts college, Denzel Washington's son -- the guy from Ballers -- played football for the Maroon Tigers (not that it made a difference), and the school has a journalism and sports minor started by Spike Lee (to which Charles Barkley donated $1 million) that's dedicated to bringing more African-Americans to media. So fight me. In an intellectual debate, of course.
Hawaii: University of Hawaii
Notable alumni: Bette Midler, Michael Savage, Beau Bridges, Colt Brennan
Why it's great: Because it's Hawaii, that's why. Of course, that could be said for any school in the islands, but since the partying at BYU leaves something to be desired, UH it is. Academically, the main campus at Manoa is tops in the state, drawing high-achieving locals who don't want a six-hour plane flight home. It's the closest thing you'll find to a big state school atmosphere in Hawaii, where major league concerts and comedians are regular attractions, the sports are competitive, and the student body is welcoming. Even mainlanders who go here comment on how friendly everyone is, ingraining the aloha spirit in them for life. The beach is a short bike ride away, and the school is set in one of the most dynamic and diverse cities in America. An education here isn't just about what one learns in the classroom, but what you learn from living in such a fascinating place.
Idaho: University of Idaho
Notable alumni: Sarah Palin, Mark "Deep Throat" Felt
Why it's great: Idaho's biggest university, UI has all the hallmarks of a classic American college experience, from the rural small-town campus structure (surrounded here by the wilds of the state) to the smorgasbord of major options. So what sets it apart from the state's other institutions like the Lewis & Clark? It manages to take an experience in a state largely known for its wide-open spaces and create an ideal college experience where students make their own global community. It helps, too, that it's a major university where the tuition for in-state student hovers under $7,500, with a focus on curriculum like law, education, engineering, and more. And while the athletics aren't legendary, the fact that the overall experience (and quality of education) helps keep young people in a state many seek to flee is no small potatoes. (Sorry, had to.)
Illinois: University of Illinois
Notable alumni: Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner, Dick Butkus
Why it’s great: Sure, the Chicago area boasts two internationally renowned universities in Northwestern and University of Chicago, but Northwestern somehow struggles on the fun front despite a plush lakefront location and a student body that is 80% wannabe journalists which pretty much mandates a minor in drinking. University of Chicago is where geniuses go to prep for Nobel Prizes and socializing goes to die. Hop on I-57 and head south towards Champaign, however, and you'll find a university that is no academic slouch in its own right and an unfailingly cheerful student body despite the fact that the athletic department is currently a tire fire. Maybe it has something to do with the legal age to enter the bars being 19 -- but don't worry, those 19-year-olds are only going to Kam's five times a week for the stimulating conversation and soft drinks! Oh, and on a closing note, the campus is sneaky-attractive despite its corn-ensconced central Illinois locale -- in fact, their quad was used as a stand-in for Harvard Yard in the 1994 film With Honors in which Brendan Fraser adopts a homeless Joe Pesci. The students are weirdly proud of this factoid.
Indiana: Butler University
Notable alumni: Gordon Hayward (still cringing, NSFW), Karen "Mother" Pence, cult leader Jim Jones
Why it's great: We can already hear the uproar, the furious anger (intermixed with Catholic repression) fomenting inside the Notre Dame fans that only the 15,000th tear-stricken viewing of the end of Rudy can calm. The Purdue alum trumpeting Harry's Chocolate Shop and Neil Armstrong. The IU frat guy from Carmel who doesn't have time to deal with this, as his house was just kicked off campus again. Butler doesn't have the quite the size of the previously mentioned big three, but it consistently punches above its weight in terms of academics, athletics, and party prowess. It's arguably delivered more athletic excitement in the last decade than the other three schools combined (you aren't fooling anyone this year, Irish). Not only do you get the pleasure of taking in hoops in a historic landmark where they filmed Hoosiers, but you also get to attend college in an accessible and up-and-coming metropolis. The Bulldogs are rising.
Iowa: University of Iowa
Notable alumni: Ashton Kutcher, Gene Wilder, Tennessee Williams
Why it's great: While the sharpshooting legacy of Chris Kingsbury ought to be enough, Iowa's oldest public university (first in the nation to open as co-ed, nice move!) brings plenty more to the table, including a party scene that's as enviable as the breakfast joints that soothe its aftereffects (Hamburger Inn No. 2 will always be No. 1). But lest you think Iowa is all shot-fueled grinding at The U followed by an ill-advised yet entirely necessary Pancheros order, it also has one of the grandest literary traditions of any university in the country. The prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop boasts a slew of notable scribes among its MFA graduates, plus one high-profile fictional dropout in Hannah from Girls. On the other hand, Iowa State is bigger. We'll leave it at that.
Kansas: University of Kansas
Notable alumni: Bob Dole, Rob Riggle, Paul Pierce
Why it's great: Well, for starters, Lawrence is fun as hell, and that's not a label we apply too frequently to many Kansas locales (let's just say Manhattan, Kansas won't make anyone forget the other Manhattan anytime soon, sorry K-Staters). It helps knowing that your hoops team is likely to have a shot at a title every year, even if the odds are more likely that it'll end in heartbreak at the hands of some 14-seed like Bucknell or Bradley or Boise Institute of Technology than in an actual title. There's also a fun, hippie vibe (by Kansas standards), a better than it ought to be music scene, and the mix of agony and ecstasy that comes from knowing your twofer of cream cheese pizzas from Pizza Shuttle will be arriving shortly.
Kentucky: University of Louisville
Notable alumni: Johnny Unitas, Diane Sawyer
Why it's great: Apologies to the plucky Mountaineers of Berea College, but this ultimately came down to a call between Kentucky and Louisville, a decision that is sure to cause no ill-will within a rivalry that is notorious for its civility, level-headedness, and capacity to detect sarcasm. And yes, Louisville is in the throes of a massive athletics scandal, but let's just set that aside for a moment as we're pretty sure Louisville won't be the last D-I athletic department shown to be not wholly above board. But no amount of NCAA shenanigans changes the Cardinals' proximity to one of America's most underrated cities, and the sense of superiority that comes with knowing that you're doing your Derby Day drinking right near the heart of the action. Even if you're just doing said drinking at Granville like you do any other weekend.
Louisiana: Tulane University
Notable alumni: Lindy Boggs, Jerry Springer, Regina Benjamin, David Filo
Why it's great: Loyola gets lots of props from various college-ranking rankers, but Tulane is actually the waviest of New Orleans' colleges, and beats out its nearby neighbor as well as other beloved Louisiana schools like LSU, Grambling, and Southern for educational acclaim. Carnegie Foundation has praised Tulane's research and community-minded approach to learning, and it is glorified for being one of the country's most sustainable campuses. Though its location in America's greatest good-times city should make it difficult to study, its schools have produced a chief justice of the US Supreme Court, a Speaker of the House of Representatives, a cofounder of Yahoo!, and a bunch of other yahoos of considerable intellect. The band still ain't got shit on Southern or Grambling, though.
Maine: Bowdoin College
Notable alumni: Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Why it's great: Chartered in 1794, Bowdoin seems like your standard, super-old New England liberal arts school -- and in many ways, it is. But is that a bad thing? Set on the southern shores of Maine (which, is quite beautiful, when not horribly frigid), Bowdoin is the ideal setting for anyone who lives to be outdoors: The biggest school-based group is the Outing Club, which sets up kayaking, hiking, and backpacking tours throughout the state. It routinely ranks as one of the highest-rated liberal arts schools in the entire country (currently No. 3 by US News), but it's not all about the humanities. The school has spawned notable businessmen and entrepreneurs, like Netflix's Reed Hastings and Subway co-founder Peter Buck. Consider Bowdoin a bucolic diamond in the rough. And a liberal arts school that is more substance than fluff.
Maryland: United States Naval Academy
Notable alumni: Jimmy Carter, Alan Shepard, John McCain, David Robinson, H. Ross Perot
Why it's great: Though maybe not the most fun one can have in college, it's hard to debate the value of an education -- and subsequent service -- at the US Naval academy. Annapolis has produced one president, 54 astronauts, 24 members of congress, two Nobel Prize winners, and pretty much every dude you meet at a cocktail party and think "I'm not even gonna try and brag to that guy." Though the day-to-day rigors might feel a little like attending Harvard and boot camp at the same time, a degree from Navy is pretty much an express pass to any job interview. The sports might not be hauling in national championships, but the pageantry of an Army-Navy game might be the coolest part of the college football season, made twice as special when you're standing for the whole game in uniform.
Massachusetts: Harvard University
Notable alumni: Jeremy Lin, Hilary Duff (Extension School), probably some presidents?
Why it's great: Sigh.
Michigan: Michigan State University
Notable alumni: Magic Johnson, Sam Raimi, Bubba Smith, Jimmy Hoffa, Draymond Green
Why it's great: Yeah, there are more than two colleges in Michigan. But while there's greatness spanning from Wayne to Northern, it still boils down to Maize/Blue and Green/White. So why does MSU rise above the (very proud) shoulders of its rivals in Ann Arbor? It's certainly not for its contribution of sweater sales in rural Walmarts, which UM has on lockdown. MSU has perpetually been the underdog, but the fact is that it's managed to grow more and more progressive, as UM seems content to remain the same. It's a gorgeous standalone campus that's adopted a "neighborhood" model to help its student body feel more at home, and includes everything from a butterfly house to a Zaha Hadid-designed museum to go along with its storied Dairy Store. There's a world-class med and vet school, a storied journalism program, and unmatched agricultural research facilities (they include winemaking!). The athletic program has excelled primarily by recruiting in-state. It's got a goddamn particle accelerator AND a Tom Izzo. For a college that's perpetually been dubbed an underdog, MSU sure has spent a lot of time quietly dominating its chest-thumping rival. They throw better parties, too, and have the charred couches to prove it.
Minnesota: University of Minnesota
Notable alumni: Bob Dylan, Brock Lesnar, Jessica Lange
Why it's great: It's unusual to have the academic and athletic perks that come with attending a Big Ten university paired with one of America's great cities, let alone TWO of them, but such is the case for the Golden Gophers. Sure, maybe you prefer the relatively modest class sizes and intimate feel of a Gustavus Adolphus (go Vikings!), but there's something nice about attending college in a sea of 50,000 other burgeoning adults, like the hope that you'll never run into that person you sloppily tried to pick up at last call at Stub and Herb's who probably doesn't know any of your friends. Like, you will, and they do -- but at least there's a CHANCE, right? Look, don't worry about it, okay. Just enjoy this Narmer from Erbert and Gerbert's. You'll feel better.
Mississippi: University of Mississippi
Notable alumni: John Grisham, William Faulkner, Archie Manning, Gerald McRaney, Trent Lott
Why it's great: Tough call, since if one wants to work in the Magnolia State's monstrous agriculture industry, Mississippi State is the way to go. But Ole Miss gets the nod here thanks mostly to its absolutely gorgeous campus, highlighted by the stately Greek Lyceum and The Circle with its endless rows of brick beauties. Though the football team is inconsistent, the tailgating in Oxford never is, as many who've been around college football will tell you The Grove is the best place in the nation for pregame partying. If you're looking to come here from out of state, you're not alone: Over half the student body hails from outside Mississippi, making for more of a geographic melting pot than one might expect.
Missouri: University of Missouri
Notable alumni: Jon Hamm, Sheryl Crow, Jim Lehrer, Sam Walton
Why it's great: Wash U has the academic prestige, nerdy reputation, and general geographic confusion from outsiders, but Missouri offers the best total package, even if they do relish their cutesy "Mizzou" moniker just a little TOO much. Like, it's at the top of their website. Calm down, Tigers -- we get it. The athletic successes of said Tigers can be a little bit hit and miss, but there's always the reliability of one of the most renowned journalism programs in the country -- for real, they have their own network TV station, not just some campus TV bullshit. Of course, if you're hoping to use said station as a springboard for an on-camera career maybe tread lightly with the foghorn dip at Harpo's and the Shakespeare's Pizza.
Montana: Montana State University
Notable alumni: Craig Kilborn, Sarah Vowell
Why it's great: At approximately 16,500 students, Montana State is actually bigger than UM in Missoula, and both schools are located in areas that represent the ideals of Montana living, as they're surrounded by serene landscapes and sprawling natural areas. MSU gets the edge, though, not only for the true college-town experience in perhaps the state's best city, but because the myriad programs offered -- 225 programs available, among them engineering, pre-med, and aerospace -- run a massive gamut and encourage extending education, often elsewhere. And that's to say nothing about its world-class natural studies. After all, if you're looking to learn about nature, what better place can you be than 90 miles away from one of the planet's most unique ecospheres? But if you hate bluegrass jams, well, maybe Missoula's a better bet.
Nebraska: Creighton University
Notable alumni: Bob Gibson, Paul Silas, Michael P. Anderson
Why it's great: With all due respect to the big red machine in Lincoln, Creighton is the top-rated regional university in the Midwest. Its also set in Omaha, which might not be London West, but it provides better opportunities for networking, internships, and employment than Lincoln. Sports aren't life at Creighton, but the Blue Jays are a perennial bracket-buster, which makes March an especially fun time. The campus of this Jesuit university is set around the gothic St. John's Church, with brick classrooms and dormitories giving this Midwestern school a stately northeastern feel. And in the classroom, Creighton's small professor-to-student ratio and outstanding academics put it over the top.
Nevada: University of Nevada
Notable alumni: Mills Lane, Colin Kaepernick, Jennifer Harman
Why it's great: UNR has a surprisingly good psychology department that draws graduates students from all over America, and has shifted its focus in recent years to develop is health care service programs. It's also set smack next to Lake Tahoe, which means quick day trips to the slopes at Northstar or Heavenly are easy. Reno has also developed into much more than a fake cop show's punchline, with restaurants, breweries, and even a distillery opening up in midtown. Of course, if that's too pricey this is still Reno, and there's no shortage of $12.95 prime rib buffets for starving students.
New Hampshire: Dartmouth College
Founded: 1769 (nice)
Notable alumni: Connie Britton, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Dr. Seuss, Jake Tapper
Why it's great: Yes, another Ivy. But it's not like, a regular Ivy. It's a COOL Ivy. Did you know the frat that inspired Animal House is (errr, was?) from Dartmouth. Your mileage may vary on that factoid (though prepare to hear it a LOT if you befriend anyone from Dartmouth), but they definitely take their reputation as the hardest-partying Ivy quite seriously, especially the prep school kids whose parents still secretly resent them for not getting into Princeton. But hey, it's still a hell of a degree, odds are pretty good you're going to turn out OK no matter how many keg stands you do. Bonus, when you decide to venture outside, the campus is quite, quite beautiful. Though, it's also New Hampshire -- learning to cross-country ski would be advisable.
New Jersey: Princeton University
Notable alumni: Michelle Obama, Woodrow Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brooke Shields
Why it's great: What? You thought we were going to pick Rutgers? Brooke Shields didn't go to Rutgers, people.
New Mexico: University of New Mexico
Notable alumni: Brian Urlacher, architect Antoine Predock, Penny Marshall
Why it's great: The Lobos, perhaps more than any other New Mexican institution, embody a sense of state pride and community -- even their campus is designed to resemble nearby Pueblo villages to promote a sense of close-knit community among students and locals. And while so much of the school's national attention stems from collegiate sports -- where the Lobos boast a bevy of highly competitive D-I programs -- its academic merits make it one of the premier institutions in the Southwest, notably as a nationwide leader in business, engineering, and medical studies. And the school is one of the foremost epicenters of Hispanic culture and history studies in the entire country. Simply put: everyone from New Mexico loves their Lobos, even if they got their diploma somewhere else.
New York: New York University
New York City
Notable alumni: Martin Scorsese, Alec Baldwin, Lady Gaga
Why it's great: Syracuse has big-school charm, Columbia has ivy-league clout, and the swath of SUNYs have... well, everything (and they kind of smell like patchouli, right?). But NYU remains the gold-standard of Empire State higher ed. There's a reason every teenager from every television show ever "wants to go to NYU one day." It's the college in the heart of the city and has spawned more celebrities than Saturday Night Live. But it's not all about romanticizing the cinematic dreams of the big city: NYU has legitimately great programs in the arts, media, law, and business. It's not a traditional party school (the frats are decidedly uncool here), but it is smack dab in the middle of lower Manhattan, so the kids find some cool stuff to do, obviously. This is the largest private university in the country, and while it's certainly not cheap, it is a college experience unlike any other.
North Carolina: University of North Carolina
Notable alumni: James K. Polk, Thomas Wolfe, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, Andy Griffith
Why it's great: No, we're not just trolling you, Dukies; UNC is, in every way, the best school in the state. The oldest public university in America has perhaps its most beautiful campus, with buildings designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and a residence hall -- Old East -- dating back to 1773. Though just strolling the campus will convince you it's the finest school in the Carolinas, going to school here drives the point home. UNC somehow manages to balance the fun of a big state school -- bigtime sports and an active Greek system -- with academics that land it 30th among national universities. At a reasonable $9,005 a year for in-state tuition, it's a bargain if you can get in. Though really, can you put a price on causing untold misery to generations of Duke fans? Probably not.
North Dakota: North Dakota State University
Notable alumni: Bob Backlund, Carson Wentz, Alf Clausen
Why it's great: The joy of upsetting mediocre FBS teams who thought you'd be a walkover is something that cannot be overstated. And as the undisputed powerhouse of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), football fandom at NDSU is as good as it gets, especially in the concentrated insanity that is the Fargodome. But it's not all pigskin and sub-zero tailgating in Fargo. This school ranks surprisingly high in the National Science Foundation's rankings for agricultural science, computer science, and chemistry. It might not be the big state school insanity of places in the nearby Big Ten, but for North Dakota it's tops.
Ohio: Ohio University
Notable alumni: Matt Lauer, Nancy Cartwright, Ed O'Neill
Why it's great: Few schools balance partying and academics quite as well as OH, with (minimal) respect to the extremely loud mob of Buckeyes likely beelining to the comments section of this story. The oldest university in Ohio has transformed Athens into the picture of a Midwestern college town, but it's not just the rowdy nightlife and crazed Bobcats fans that make the college Ohio's best (sorry, Miami and Oberlin, but you write very nice prose). This is a place where journalism and education departments stand tall alongside business and science, a college that helps shape leaders on a global level, and a place where everybody from young philosophy nerds to MBA students gather under the shared banner of working hard and playing harder. It's basically the academic equivalent of a very serious mullet.
Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma
Notable alumni: Adrian Peterson, Ed Harris, Olivia Munn
Why it's great: It's one of the best big schools in the country for business management, humanities, engineering, finance, and agriculture, and it draws more merit scholars than any other public school in America. Oh, and we hear they're pretty good at football and have an OK band, but who has time for that when you've got some of the most robust academics clubs in the university system? Oh, wait. Apparently everybody has time for that.
Oregon: Reed College
Notable alumni: Steve Jobs, Charles Munch, James Beard
Why it's great: Oregon has an embarrassment of collegiate riches, from the rival University of Oregon and Oregon State to the world-class Oregon Health and Science University, the Shakespearean University of Southern Oregon, and enough art schools to more than justify the state's stereotypes. But as much as it pains us to say it -- largely because it means an extra smug look on the face of our overeducated barista -- Reed is the best of the state. It's an Ivy League school that occupies a swath of Portland, as if a tornado hit some fancy East Coast college town and dropped in, trees and all, into the middle of Stumptown. It's a liberal arts school that makes most of its brethren look like the RNC, a place where super-smart kids go to become super-smart weirdos, which is arguably more important than learning how to properly bong a beer at a Ducks game. Reed craps out Rhodes Scholars and lets freak flags fly proudly, provided that you get your work done... and once those theses are done, they're ceremonially burned. It employs a pass/no-pass system, and keeps enrollment low to maintain a 9:1 student to teacher ratio. Yeah, it's expensive. And it's hard to get in and stay in. Luckily, you can always be a Duck or a Beaver if it doesn't work out. Or you can just go on to be Steve Jobs, who famously dropped out of Reed.
Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University
Notable alumni: Andy Warhol, James Cromwell, Like, a thousand notable scientists, engineers, and mathematicians
Why it's great: Pennsylvania is an enormous, diverse state, with many, many excellent schools: Penn State, Pitt, UPenn, and Villanova all put up viable arguments as the best (and they are great schools), but Carnegie Mellon just checks off too many boxes. Aside from being one of the main feeders to Pittsburgh's ever-expanding tech, medical, and business industries, CMU has long had a reputation of a nerd-centric school where the kids actually have fun. This is only bolstered by its sterling Fine Arts department, which finally unites tech-geeks and aspiring actors in ways The Big Bang Theory could never do. Thanks to a setting in a rising urban area, its unprecedented excellence across diverse fields, and the ability for students to eat Primanti Brothers sandwiches for every meal, Carnegie Mellon is now the cornerstone school of the Keystone State. And by the way, everyone pronounces it "Car-NEG-e." Even if that might be wrong.
Rhode Island: Brown University
Notable alumni: John F. Kennedy, Jr., Chris Berman, Ira Glass, Ted Turner, Countess Cosima von Bülow Pavoncelli
Why it's great: Not to take anything away from the "rich kids who are moderately good at sailing" glory that is Salve Regina, or former US Senator Chris Dodd's beloved Providence (aka the fourth-most fun Catholic college on the East Coast), but Brown is clearly the closest college equivalent of an icy cold Del's Frozen Lemonade and a grilled pizza. Despite being a bound by Ivy League laws that necessitate a certain amount of arrogance and douchebaggery, Brown has always been the weird, crazy, fun Ivy. It's filled with open-minded kids and sometimes Harry Potter characters taking RISD classes (for Brown credit!), gloriously avoiding distribution requirements, and doing experimental things that definitely don't involve illegal drugs so be cool Narcs amidst glorious Colonial-era architecture on that hill in the fancy part of Providence. Oh, and if you were wondering if they have an Egyptology and Assyriology department AND a serious archaeology school, the answer is you are Benjamin Franklin Gates, as played by Nicolas Cage in the 2004 film National Treasure.
South Carolina: College of Charleston
Notable alumni: Robert Mills, Edwin McCain, Brett Gardner, Matt Czuchry
Why it's great: Perhaps no urban campus in America fits in as beautifully with its surroundings as College of Charleston. The cobblestone streets and 18th-century brick buildings seem as much a part of the city's landscape as the historic homes and churches creating a perfect aura of southern charm throughout the campus. As the oldest public school in the state (USC wasn't founded until 1801), CoC is stepped in old southern traditions, most noticeable during its grand graduation ceremonies. Academically, it's no slouch either: It's the premier pre-med program in the state, thanks mostly to its proximity to the Medical University of South Carolina. With King Street only a short ride away, it's also a first-rate party school, even if it lacks the nationally televised sports that typically come with it.
South Dakota: Augustana University
Notable alumni: Fred Ward, Mary Hart, David "Hutch (not Starsky)" Soul
Why it's great: South Dakota's best school is a Lutheran college smacked in the middle of a city that happens to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Midwest. The student body and faculty are extremely small, with less than 2,000 students claiming status as Augies. That's important, as the student to faculty ratio is a tiny 12:1, meaning every student who makes it in (and who can foot a hefty tuition) gets extremely close attention. That's helped Augustana become an unlikely leader in biology, business, and psychology. This isn't an athletic school. It's hardcore in its education. Is that kind of boring? Yeah. But hey, at least Sioux Falls is one of the most underrated places to party in the region. After church, of course.
Tennessee: Vanderbilt University
Notable alumni: Al Gore, Jay Cutler, Willie Geist from Morning Joe, Molly Sims, Rosanne Cash
Why it's great: Vandy allegedly has seven alumni members who became billionaires in the business world, but none of that matters when you have a second-place finisher to the most powerful office on Earth. The school, founded with a $1 million gift from the great-great-great-great granddad of world-renowned actor Timothy Olyphant, sits on an arboretum of 300+ tree species (you'll love the pollen!), has stupid-good research facilities, a heralded medical center, and a formidable law school, while UT in Knoxville has a football team that people actually believe in. Reuters named it No. 10 on this year's most innovative universities in the world, which is a little weird since Reuters could use a website redesign itself, but still. Go Vols!
Texas: University of Texas
Notable alumni: Wes Anderson, Matthew McConaughey, Walter Cronkite, Laura Bush, Lady Bird Johnson
Why it's great: If you know anything about the University, have ever seen a giddy Matthew McConaughey rocking the orange with some aviators, remember Vince Young scrambling into the end zone to best a supposedly unbeatable team of Trojans, or have watched thousands of people throw the horns up in the air in an unabashed display of school pride, then you know this choice wasn't really a choice at all. The Longhorns are Texas, and Texas, is the Longhorns. Now go hook 'em, hoss.
Utah: University of Utah
Salt Lake City
Notable alumni: Jon Huntsman, Karl Rove, Bill Marriott, Ted Bundy, Eric Weddle
Why it's great: Yeah, it's super fun to scream "Go Utes," but that's not the only reason U of U narrowly nudges Brigham-Young out of the top spot for Utah. The school boasts one of the most beautiful urban campuses in the country, embracing and adding to the sprawling, gorgeous landscape of SLC with 1,500 acres of academia. Its law and medical schools are top-tier, but it's in engineering and business that the Utes really stand out, with a focus on innovation and startups that was adopted well before the tech boom (and before Utah probably allowed the internet). Throw in a strong commitment to the arts and the fact that the school counts the creators of Atari andChuck E. Cheese's and U of U manages to leave the BY in its wake.
Notable alumni: James Cromwell, Dispatch
Why it's great: If you've ever met a Middlebury alumnus, you know that Middlebury is special... because they likely won't stop talking about how they went to Middlebury. The private, liberal arts oasis is sandwiched between Vermont's Green Mountains and Adirondacks, meaning it's a paradise for outdoors enthusiasts, especially during winter. But the school isn't afraid to nerd out, either: It's the founder of the International Quidditch Association (which is exactly what it sounds like). It also plays host to the annual Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, one of the most prestigious literary gatherings in the entire country. Basically, it's one Ben & Jerry's cone short of having every beautiful cliché that we all hate/love about Vermont. And that's just fine. You know, because it's in Vermont.
Virginia: University of Virginia
Notable alumni: Robert Kennedy, Katie Couric, Robert Mueller, Woodrow Wilson, Edgar Allen Poe, Tiki Barber, Tina Fey, Georgia O'Keeffe
Why it's great: It's rare that the founder of a university was an actual Founding Father, but such is the case with UVA, which was started by Thomas Jefferson, presided over by Jameses Madison and Monroe, and counted young Woodrow Wilson as one of its students (we like to think of him pranking the dean on the regular). That's a lot of pedigree, and the university has spent the majority of the intervening 200 years keeping up with it, from its lovely post-colonial campus to a list of alumni that reads like a who's who of intellectuals, politicians, and media elites (and Richard Spencer, who is very good at getting punched and ruining great alumni lists). And lest you think that its world-class curriculum -- biology, psychology, international affairs, business, you name it -- and rich history means it's a bunch of nerdlingers resting on their academic laurels, it's also a consistent March Madness contender and a stalwart in tennis, baseball and, rowing. Because of course UVA is good at rowing.
Washington: University of Washington
Notable alumni: Bruce Lee, Anna Farris, Dale Chihuly, Kenny G, Warren Moon
Why it's great: You'd be hard-pressed to find a more attractive campus on the West Coast, filled with neo-Gothic architecture, cherry blossoms, and views of the Cascade Mountains at every turn. The campus is a stunning backdrop for the best academics in the state, which routinely rank among the nation's best in psychology, medicine, and engineering. Student life has options aplenty outside the classroom, with the shores of Lake Washington right on campus, the Burke Gilman trail running through it, and the entire city of Seattle just outside. Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Husky Stadium, perhaps the most picturesque setting in sports and once again home to watchable football.
West Virginia: West Virginia University
Notable alumni: Don Knotts, Steve Harvey, Jerry West, "Mean" Gene Okerlund
Why it's great: Hold the couch burning and poor dentistry jokes for another time, please. Morgantown is far and away the best spot in the state for everything college, whether it's sports, partying, or, almost-heaven forbid, class. The school is set in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia, and in addition to being a short trip to the best whitewater on the East Coast is also within spitting distance of big-city life in Pittsburgh. It's got one of the top rural medicine programs in the country, and provides probably the most diverse student body in the region. Sure, they might set the occasional discarded furniture ablaze after a big football win, but that kind of sports fandom is what makes this school so much fun.
Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin
Notable alumni: Charles Lindbergh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lynne Cheney, Bud Selig
Why it's great: While La Crosse and Stevens Point (probably) have their charms, everyone knows there is but one true University of Wisconsin, and even Marquette alums will probably (begrudgingly) admit that the most fun weekend they ever had in college revolved around a road trip to visit someone's high school friend in Madison. Maybe it was Mifflin weekend. Maybe it was Halloween. Either way it definitely involved a hazy make out session at the KK and multiple slices of mac & cheese pizza from Ian's. As a bonus, the Greek system doesn't wholly dominate the campus party scene the way it does at so many large universities, creating a much more welcoming environment (speaking of welcoming, many cities would count themselves lucky to have a beer garden half as pleasant as Wisconsin does in its student union). As a second bonus, all of the aforementioned revelry hasn't hindered its academic reputation, and you'll still be employable, though it wouldn't be a bad idea to work off some of the beer-cheese weight before that job interview.
Wyoming: University of Wyoming
Notable alumni: Dick Cheney, Sen. Alan Simpson
Why it's great: Wyoming’s top-ranked university is also its biggest and its oldest: It was founded before the Cowboy State even joined the union. At just over 12,000, its student population is average, though by Wyoming standards that makes the Laramie campus some sort of crazy metropolis, one where students flock from throughout the world to study business, education, and health studies. But you know what really matters? This is Wyoming. It’s gorgeous, and students take full advantage of the surrounding wilderness areas for camping, hiking, rafting, climbing, and cowboy-related equine excitement. There’s an educational element to the great outdoors, too, thanks to its involvement in the National Outdoor Leadership School, which includes mountaineering and kayaking. Perhaps most important, though, UW owns a gigantic fossilized brontosaurus skeleton. That alone could put a place like the University of Phoenix in the running for the state’s best. That Wyoming’s a good school and has a huge dinosaur on campus makes it a no-brainer for the state’s best.