The Top 10 Most Influential Public Universities in the US

There are numerous public institutions in the US that have launched the trajectories of significant individuals and movements alike. We are talking about universities that have graduated CEOs, entrepreneurs, scientists, thought leaders, artists, executives, and world leaders.

However, new data suggests that 10 public universities can be classified as the “most influential” public universities in the entire country.

This data comes from a new group called Academic Influence. Using AI to create a “concentrated influence” score, Academic Influence has released a ranking based on all combined mentions of all people associated with a school, including alumni, faculty, and administrative staff.

For this article, we have picked the top 10 public universities from Academic Influence’s recent ranking. While some of these schools are household names in higher education, the results may surprise you. The link to the data source is at the end of this article.

Here are the 10 “most influential” public universities in the country.

10. University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)

University of Virginia
Bestbudbrian, Rotunda at University of Virginia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The University of Virginia’s influence is clear – its alumni have founded many of the world’s most important companies, including Reddit and news website CNET. Other influential alumni include poet Edgar Allen Poe, artist Georgia O’Keefe, actress Tina Fey, and eight Pulitzer Prize winners. 

Speaking of influential individuals, The original governing board of UVA was composed of three American presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. 

The University of Virginia’s tremendous impact on research cannot be overstated. Annually, UVA’s expenditure is well over $500 million, according to data tabulated by the government. For its tremendous commitment to research, UVA is among the very few universities classified as “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity.”

According to a study conducted by UVA’s own Darden School of Business, over 65,000 UVA alumni have founded companies employing over 2 million people with annual revenues of over $1.5 trillion. Needless to say, UVA has had a tremendous influence on America today economically, artistically, and politically.

9. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Urbana-Champaign, IL)

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Amphylite, UIUCcampus2007, CC BY-SA 4.0

If you enjoy using the internet via a web browser, you have UIUC to thank. Home to UIUC is the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which created Mosaic, a web browser that was the foundation for Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer. 

In Howard and Matthew Greene’s seminal 2001 text The Public Ivies: America’s Flagship Public Universities, UIUC was included in the list. When looking into the college’s influence, it is easy to see why. As of August 2020, UIUC’s alumni, faculty, and researchers have collectively won 27 Pulitzer Prizes, 30 Nobel Laureate designations, 2 Turing Awards winners, and even 1 Fields medalist, a mathematics award given only once every four years.

Illinois may just be the most influential public university in engineering, technology, and mathematics. The National Science Foundation noted, in 2018, that UIUC spent an unprecedented $625 million on research and development. For its commitment to research, UIUC is classified as an R1 institute by the Carnegie Foundation.

The Research Park at UIUC, opened in 2001, has been an influential center of entrepreneurial development. Tenants of the Research Park have included Yahoo, Capital One, and State Farm.

8. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Minneapolis & Saint Paul, MN)

University of Minnesota
Mulad, Pillsbury Hall, marked as public domain

Minnesota’s top 10 ranking makes complete sense when looking at the academic accomplishment of its students. Among its alumni, Minnesota has produced 127 Fulbright recipients, 25 Rhodes Scholars, 7 Marshall Scholars, and 20 Truman Scholars. Other alumni have won prestigious Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Carnegie fellowships.

Outside of academic accomplishment, the University of Minnesota has held a considerable influence in athletics. Over 120 Minnesota alumni have participated in the Olympics. Collectively, they have won numerous Silver and Gold medals.

The University of Minnesota has one of the highest expenditures for research in all of higher education. In 2018, Minnesota ranked 17th nationally when it spent nearly $1 billion on research funding. Minnesota’s efforts in spending have paved the foundation for incredible scientific innovation. Discoveries and inventions by faculty and alumni have included puffed rice, gore-tex, and pacemakers!

Bob Dylan graduated from the University of Minnesota, as did two US Presidents.

7. University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, WI)

University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madmaxmarchhare, View from bascom hall, CC BY 2.5

As a whole, the alumni at the University of Wisconsin are among the most impressive of any college in the country. Former students and faculty alike have been honored with Pulitzers, Nobels, and Olympic medals.

Innovation has been a staple of Madison’s history. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered both vitamin A and vitamin B. Speaking of nutrition, it was the faculty at Madison who conducted the seminal “Single-grain” experiment, a study conducted in 1907 that ultimately set the foundation for nutritional science for the next century.

As a research institution, Madison routinely spends over $1 billion in research expenditure. Madison typically ranks in the top 10 for money spent on research annually

Madison’s significant impact on entrepreneurship, business, and the economy is undeniable. As of November 2018, 14 Fortune 500 CEOs call themselves alumni of this influential public university, the most of any public or private university in the US. 

6. University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX)

University of Texas at Austin
Larry D. Moore, University of texas at austin main building, CC BY-SA 3.0

UT Austin is not only one of the most influential public universities in the country, it is actually the most influential college in the south. According to the publication Academic Influence, when scored for “concentrated influence,” UT Austin ranks ahead of prestigious southern private schools like Rice and Emory.

It is easy to see why UT is considered so influential: faculty, researchers, and alumni have won every conceivable award our country bestows, including Pulitzers, Olympic medals, Fields medals, and Turing awards. UT’s influence even extends into entertainment, with alumni having won the Primetime Emmy Award.

UT is a world-leader in several applied science fields, including computer science, energy, solar technology, and more. Facilities at UT that have produced groundbreaking research work include the Energy Institute and the McDonald Observatory, which houses the world’s third-largest telescope.

UT is a prominent researcher for the Navy. In fact, much of the Navy’s sonar equipment was produced through UT Austin researchers and alumni.

5. University of Washington (Seattle, WA)

The University of Washington has produced thousands of alumni who have produced influential work at major technology companies, some of which are just a few miles from UW. Major Seattle-based companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing have deep, longstanding connections to the University of Washington. 

One of the oldest universities on the west coast, the University of Washington today ranks fifth nationally for research expenditure, having spent an unprecedented $1.41 billion on R&D in 2018. For its research and innovation efforts, the University of Washington is classified as an “R1” Doctoral Research University, a designation given to less than 2% of all universities in the country.

Washington is an influential leader in sustainability. In 2006, Washington partnered with the Green Up program, an initiative ensuring all of Seattle’s campus electricity comes from a renewable source. UW’s environmental ethics practices have not gone unnoticed, with the Sustainable Endowments Institute calling Washington one of the top 15 schools in the country for their commitment to sustainability.

Both Washington Monthly and ARWU, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, list the University of Washington as a top 20 school nationally.

4. University of California, San Diego (San Diego, CA)

University of California San Diego
Ben Lunsford, Geisel-Library, CC BY-SA 3.0

UCSD has long been associated with our country’s greatest minds. Indeed, faculty and alumni have collectively won an unprecedented eight MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships, three Pulitzer Prizes, eight National Medals of Science, and hundreds of other accolades. Additionally, over 100 faculty members at UCSD have been elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

However, the prestigious award winners of UCSD are not the only ones to positively influence the world. Some of their alumni who have made a tremendous global impact include Nick Woodman, creator of the GoPro camera, Mike Judge, Emmy award winner, and Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland As baseball team.

One facility at UCSD producing groundbreaking research is the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind. Through grants and sponsorships, Kavli has made essential advancements in cognitive sciences and understanding of the human brain.

Perhaps what is most impressive about UCSD is its relatively short lifespan as a university compared to its remarkable influence as a research institution. Having already transformed technology and life sciences in just 61 years of existence, UCSD is likely to remain at the forefront of innovation for decades to come.

3. University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)

Neeta Lind, Powell Library, UCLA, CC BY 2.0

Ranked in 2021 as the top public university in the country by US News, UCLA may very well be the most desirable college in the country. Evidence for this happened in the fall of 2016 when the school received an unprecedented 119,000 applications for admission, the most of any college in the country

UCLA’s influence spans science, the arts, music, technology, politics, and even athletics, with over 250 Olympic medals awarded to alumni and coaches at UCLA. UCLA alumni have also been leaders in civil rights; one alum, Ralph Bunche, won a Nobel Prize in 1950 for negotiating a truce in Israel. UCLA has acknowledged his seminal accomplishments in the form of a dedicated building on campus.

UCLA has been perhaps the most influential school worldwide when it comes to film. Alumni of UCLA include actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers featured in countless Hollywood feature films. Some of these names include Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Tim Robbins. Star Wars composer John Williams also attended UCLA.

People associated with UCLA have won 105 Academy Awards, 50 Grammy awards, 12 MacArthur fellowships, 78 Guggenheims, and 278 Emmy awards.

2. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, MI)

University of Michigan
AndrewHorne, University of Michigan Dental School, CC BY-SA 3.0

The University of Michigan’s influence globally is undeniable. With its annual research and development expenditure of over $1.6 billion, Michigan is the 2nd most productive college in the country for research, ranking it higher than every Ivy League university in this category.

Michigan’s influence on advancing science and healthcare is unprecedented. Many necessary scientific instruments, including the EKG and the gastroscope, were created by people at the University of Michigan. Additionally, Michigan’s Medical School spends over $400m on healthcare research.

Advances in digital technology have long been part of the Michigan tradition. In the 1960s, UM created, alongside two other public universities, the Merit network, one of the first computer networks. The Merit Network technology paved the foundation for advances in computer science and telecommunications throughout the next several decades.

Socially, Michigan may very well be the most influential university in the entire world. The University of Michigan, alongside its parent town of Ann Arbor, have long been leaders in social awareness and cultural liberalism. Michigan students led famous protests of the Vietnam War. Additionally, Michigan has made incredible strides in favor of creating a diverse student body.

Alumni include 53 MacArthur “Genius” Fellows, 26 Nobel Prize winners, 6 Turing Award winners, and even a President of the United States.

1. University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)

UC Berkeley
Louis H. G., Memorial Glade, CC BY-SA 4.0

The most influential public university in the country, UC Berkeley, has produced an unparalleled 110 Nobel Laureates, 103 MacArthur “Genius” Awards, 30 Pulitzer Prize winners, 25 Turing Awards, and 19 Oscars. UC Berkeley has also graduated hundreds of Fulbright and Marshall Scholars.

Situated right outside of Silicon Valley, Berkeley alumni have founded or co-founded many of the world’s most valuable companies, including Apple, Intel, eBay, Tesla, the Gap, and Activision, among thousands of others. 

Although it has been influential in business and academics, UC Berkeley has long been influential in student activism. The Free Speech Movement is a product of UC Berkeley, and its legacy on political dialogue continues to this day.

Several facilities at UC Berkeley have produced significant innovations that have changed the world. These include the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute as well as the Space Sciences Laboratory. Through the Space Sciences Laboratory, UC Berkeley has collaborated with NASA, making significant contributions to astronomy.

UC Berkeley is among the most decorated colleges for athletics, with over 200 Olympic medals awarded to alumni. 

Data analysis from Academic Influence: