The 10 Best “Hidden Gem” Public Universities In the US

Everyone knows the best public universities in the country – colleges like UCLA, Michigan, Berkeley, etc.

No one is doubting these are excellent institutions to receive an education. 

However, in higher education today we are seeing a rise in “hidden gem” universities. These schools, although not traditionally ranked as highly as others on most lists, are institutions consistently demonstrating excellence in their curriculum as well as in student opportunities.

What makes a school qualify as a “hidden gem” public university?

The most important metric we look at is learning outcome. The schools we examine here are routinely helping students ascend to the highest ranks in their fields, as well as competitive starting salaries upon graduation.

We are also looking at specific curricular opportunities these universities offer. Some hidden gem public universities have significantly stronger specific majors then even those in the Ivy League.

Finally, to be deemed as a hidden gem public university, the school must be outside the top 200 in the 2020 US News National Universities list.

Without further ado, here are College Gazette’s picks for 10 of the best hidden gem public universities in the US.

Keep in mind these picks are simply the opinion of College Gazette, and your picks for the 10 best hidden gem public universities in the US may be different.

Wayne State University (Detroit, MI)

Wayne State University
Del arte, Old Main WSU – Detroit Michigan, CC BY-SA 3.0

We start our list with an amazing hidden gem university based in Detroit, Wayne State University.

The third-largest university in all of Michigan, Wayne State is classified by the Carnegie Classification as a doctoral university with very high research activity. This makes sense, given that Wayne State spends an impressive $220m+ on research annually!

Wayne State is home to a significant medical program with over 1,000 students, the Wayne State University School of Medicine. Students in the program are matched in medical residencies well above the national average; an amazing 98%+ of students in this program were placed into a medical residency in 2018. 

Opportunity is at the heart of the Wayne State experience; Wayne State is home to more than 400 student organizations. Additionally, Wayne State is affiliated with over 100 institutions worldwide, providing students unprecedented options for study-abroad programs.

Few universities in the midwest embrace technology the way Wayne State does. Wayne State is the home of TechTown, a business & technology research park that created nearly 2,000 jobs between 2007 and 2017. Speaking of technology, Wayne State was the first college nationwide to offer an electric-car driving engineering program.

Alumni of Wayne State include winners of the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Emmy, Tony, and Golden Globe awards.

East Carolina University (Greenville, NC)

East Carolina University
Vam09, Jarvis Hall at ECU, CC BY-SA 3.0

An important public university situated on top of 1,600 acres, East Carolina is noted for having a tier-1 STEM program. 

Nearly 12,000 of the school’s 28,000 students are enrolled in a STEM-related program, and with good reason; the employment outlook for a science & technology major at East Carolina University is exceptionally high, with recent alumni getting significant jobs in major technology corporations.

Due to the school’s significant status in technology, many landmark discoveries and breakthroughs have occurred at East Carolina University. These include the first robot-assisted heart valve surgery in the country by Randolph Chitwood, a cardiothoracic surgeon & faculty at ECU.

East Carolina has risen in recent years in large thanks to the significant accomplishments of its students, alumni, faculty. One recent designation East Carolina University has received is a top-50 Public Health school ranking from Niche.

A school focused on employing people of diverse backgrounds, in 2009 the school was awarded the Patriot Award, a prestigious accolade recognizing employers who provide outstanding support for employees serving in the National Guard.

A number of East Carolina alumni have ascended the ranks in every major field. Some of the most famous include WWE CEO Vince McMahon, Pulitzer-prize winning journalism Dan Neil, actress Sandra Bullock, and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale (Carbondale, IL)

Veeresh dandur, Pulliam Hall (SIU), CC BY-SA 3.0

The oldest campus in the Southern Illinois University system, SIU Carbondale is in the 5% of all schools nationwide designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as an institution with High Research Activity. 

While there are 5,300 total schools in the US, less than 300 achieve this prestigious label marked by significant research activity, expenditure, and resource dedication.

Progressive attitude towards students with a variety of learning backgrounds have always been at the forefront of SIU. In 1978, the school founded Project Achieve, the first program nationwide providing support to college students with specific learning disabilities. 

The legacy and impact of this effort has had a monumentally positive outcome; nearly every university in America today offers significant support for students of all learning backgrounds.

The Salukis celebrate uncommon traditions highlighting unique, out-of-the-box passions and thinking. One annual event at SIU is their HackSI, a technology and innovation conference demonstrating SIU student accomplishments for the greater Illinois community. In their most recent HackSI, students showcased a Lego-created piano, a phone-powered Bluetooth Boombox, unusual drone sequences, and more.

However, technology is not the only unique strength of SIU-Carbondale. In their 2020 rankings, ranked the school’s Agricultural Sciences program in the top 50 nationwide.

University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth (Dartmouth, MA)

UMass Dartmouth
Ogandzyuk, Expanded UMass Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, CC BY-SA 4.0

UMass Dartmouth is well-known for its tremendous impact on communities; the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll awarded UMass Dartmouth received a top-20 rank four times for its commitment to Civic Engagement

Many tier-1 public university programs exist at this hidden gem of an institution. The Charlton School of Business, the business school at UMass Dartmouth, has a number of nationally ranked business programs. The Princeton Review named it one of the best business schools in America in a recent guide.

One unique designation the university has recently received is from US News for its excellence in Social Mobility. Ranked in the top 85 schools nationally, this ranking demonstrates UMass Dartmouth is a school empowering students of all economic and social backgrounds.

In 2016, the school was given the prestigious label as a higher-research activity university by the Carnegie Classification, a ranking given to only 5% of all schools in the nation.

Georgia Southern University (Statesboro, GA)

Unique to Georgia Southern is its one-of-a-kind Effingham Wetlands, a 1,400 acre outdoor nature preserve intended for use as a “living laboratory.” Acquired in 2017, students and faculty use the wetlands as a research opportunity for the study and preservation of biology and wildlife.

Rounding its robust natural environment offerings is the school’s Center for Wildlife Education, a program housing 86 species of birds, 67 species of reptiles, and 70 species of amphibians.

A university holding the prestigious R2 label from the Carnegie Classification, one particular area of research Georgia Southern is known for is renewable energy. Through their Renewable Energy and Engines Laboratory, students and faculty have made advancements with economic and energy consumption impacts within Georgia’s communities.

Due to their focus on renewable energy, The Princeton Review has named Georgia Southern a top eco-friendly college in its Guide to 399 Green Colleges

University of Colorado – Denver (Denver, CO)

University of Colorado at Denver
Nove1986, Tivoli Student Union on the CU Denver Auraria Campus, CC BY-SA 4.0

So what is the University of Colorado at Denver best known for? Perhaps for its remarkable Anschutz Medical Center, which serves over 500,000 patients per year through its medical system.

Widely considered a top-15 “best primary care” school in the country, the Anschutz campus provides an education equal to that of any Ivy League medical program. 

While their public health program is among the very best in the country, the University of Colorado at Denver has many lauded programs.

They are one of the few schools nationwide with a music program focusing on contemporary popular music. This hidden gem of a program, known as MEIS – Music Entertainment and Industry Studies – is an all-in-one music business, songwriting, and performance program designed to help the modern day musician.

So what makes this school a hidden gem? How about that it has the second-best ROI of all public universities in Colorado, coming in ahead of UC Boulder as well as Colorado State University. 

All of this adds up to one fact – not only is CU Denver a top hidden-gem institution, its stature and place in the public eye is rising.

West Virginia University (Morgantown, WV)

West Virginia University
Swimmerguy269, Woodburn hall wvu, CC BY-SA 3.0

If I told you about a school that has produced 25 Rhodes Scholars, 45 Goldwater Scholars, 24 Truman Scholars, and 64 Fulbright Scholars, you’d probably think I was talking about an Ivy-League school.

Actually, that school is West Virginia University, one of the very best “hidden gem” universities in the world. With its impressive track record of graduating the nation’s brightest and most accomplished students, we would personally rank West Virginia University a top-50 university – public or private – in the country.

A vibrant campus life is at the heart of the West Virginia University experience. Sure, the school has legendary football, a famous Greek Week where the various fraternities participate in good-fun competition, and programs encouraging students to take advantage of West Virginia wilderness, such as their Mountaineer Adventure Program.

However, what makes WVU truly special is the people. The students consistently note how close a connection they have with their professors, despite being in a major school with nearly 30,000 enrollees.

Alumni of West Virginia include former NBA player Jerry West, famous infomercial king Billy Mays, and US Senator Joe Manchin.

University of Nevada, Reno (Reno, Nevada)

University of Nevada, Reno is at the forefront of contemporary research in civil engineering due to its amazing Large-Scale Structure Laboratory, a 9,000 square-foot facility utilized for testing unusually huge models as well as earthquake patterns. 

However, engineering is just one of the specialties of the University of Nevada at Reno. Their Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism, founded in 1984, has produced 6 Pulitzer-prize winners in its 35 years of existence. 

The world is taking note of this school’s rising excellence; Washington Monthly, in its most recent 2019 rankings, listed the University of Nevada, Reno as a top-100 university nationwide

One of the highest-rated student newspapers in all of higher education is The Nevada Sagebrush, a publication that has existed for over 125 years employing over 40 people. 

This newspaper won Associated College Press (ACP) journalism award four times between 2007 and 2015, perhaps the highest student newspaper award in all of academia. One of their former editors is business titan Sig Rogich who acted as a political advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

In 2019, the University of Nevada-Reno achieved one of the highest honors in academia, an R1 designation from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, given to only 130 schools nationwide for significant research activity.

Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton, FL)

Florida Atlantic University
Kmgcoolguy4, FAU Social Science Building, CC BY-SA 3.0

Throughout the last decade, Florida Atlantic University has risen significantly. In the latest US News Social Mobility index, Florida Atlantic scored in the top-50, making it one of the best universities nationwide for helping students of all economic backgrounds find success in college and beyond.

FAU is one of the most diverse schools in the country; ever since the school upped its enrollment totals to 30,000 students, the university has been home to students from over 140 countries! Additionally, residents of all 50 states as well as Washington DC study here. It is the most ethnically diverse campus of all Florida public universities.

So what makes Florida Atlantic a top-tier hidden gem university? We note two major aspects of the FAU experience.

One, the learning and employment outcomes. The significant majority of all graduating students find employment or graduate school admission within 1 year of graduating Florida Atlantic.

Secondly, the environment. Students consistently rate Florida Atlantic as having one of the best environments for 1-on-1 student and faculty interactions. For this list, we dived into the students ratings for FAU and noted one common theme among almost all the reviews: easy access to professors as well as a focused academic environment.

Over 150,000 people call themselves alumni of this institution, and many of them have risen to the top of their fields. Notable alumni include Jimmy Clidaras, a distinguished engineer who serves as a senior director at Google, NFL Pro-Bowler Alfred Morris, comedian and television personality Carrot Top, and dozens more CEOs, government officials, entrepreneurs, and entertainers.

Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI)

TheKuLeR, WMUCampus1, CC BY-SA 3.0

An impressive institution, Western Michigan makes the top of our list for best hidden gem public universities.

Several of the programs at Western Michigan are frequently listed among the very best in the country. Perhaps the most noted program at Western Michigan is its aviation curriculum, widely considered a top-5 program nationwide. With over 30 aircraft vehicles available for their students, Western Michigan provides hands-on, experiential training to future pilots and technicians.

Interestingly, Western Michigan has one of the most prestigious jazz performance programs in the country. In 2018, two students placed in the top 10 nationally in a Downbeat Music Awards competition, the most comprehensive competition in the country for collegiate jazz musicians.

Fine Arts are integral to the Western Michigan experience; an impressive 1,400 performances each year in music, theatre, and dance are staged at this university.

Although the student life at Western Michigan is quite active, what makes Western Michigan special is the learning outcomes for all of its students. An impressive 91% find employment, military service, or full-time volunteering within three months of graduation; 85% of these say they find their work satisfying. 

Western Michigan also has a significant alumni body with 250,000 graduates impacting dozens of fields. 

Community-building is at the heart of the Western Michigan experience. To this end, Western Michigan is home to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, a unique annual event attracting over 3,000 registrants. 

Additionally, Western Michigan also hosts the annual International Festival, a popular event attracting thousands of participants where attendees immerse themselves in international food, fashion, and culture.

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