The Top 10 “Hidden Gem” Universities That Don’t Break the Bank

Everyone knows acquiring a higher education comes at a premium. Almost every major university in the US has an associated high price tag.

However, many schools provide an education equal to high-level private institutions at less than half the cost.

Today, we highlight ten exceptional universities that are less than $20k per year in tuition for both in-state and out-of-state residents for full-time students! 

These schools have graduated CEOs, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and productive workforce members, just like any high-level private school.

We are also highlighting their “hidden gem” quality; while they may not know as known internationally, these schools are home to some of the nation’s best programs.

Here are College Gazette’s picks for ten outstanding hidden gem schools that don’t break the bank.

Kennesaw State University (Kennesaw, GA)

Thejerm, Kennesaw State Social Science Building, CC BY 3.0

The second-largest public university based in Georgia, Kennesaw State University is in the top 5% of higher education institutions nationwide for research spending. The Carnegie Classification rates it an “R2: Doctoral University – High Research Activity.”

According to US News, Kennesaw State University ranks in the top 20% of colleges, having been listed in the National Universities list.

An NCAA Division I School, Kennesaw State University is known for its active student life, with over 300 student groups registered on campus. They also have a well-known collegiate newspaper, previously a finalist for the Pacemaker award from the Associated College Press.

Alumni of Kennesaw State include Nick Ayers, former Chief of Staff to the Vice President, World Series champion baseball player Willie Harris, and Lauren Simmons, the youngest female stockbroker at the New York Stock Exchange.

University of Texas at Tyler (Tyler, TX)

A standout public Texas university, this university’s park-like campus is over 200 acres large in the city of Tyler, Texas. 

UT Tyler stands out in its commitment to improving its facilities for students. In 2019, UT Tyler created the Patriot Plaza, a large outdoor green space utilized for both events and student recreation.

UT Tyler will be getting a new, state-of-the-art medical school. UT Tyler’s recent merger with the University of Texas Health Science Center will see the first medical school opening in the East Texas region. 

Because of the significant funding for research UT Tyler and the Health Science Center conduct, the Carnegie Classification will possibly change their status to “R1” or “R2” doctoral research universities in the coming years.

One of the school’s most noted alumni is Craig Tiley, a tennis executive director of the widely watched Australian Open.

St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, MN)

Saint Cloud State University
Xylem22, SCSU Miller Center2013, CC BY-SA 3.0

St. Cloud State University is a prominent public research university; over 110,000+ people have called themselves alumni of this major midwest university. 

One reason St. Cloud State University is unique is because of its commitment to groundbreaking research. They have won contracts with the most prominent research companies, including NASA

St. Cloud State (SCS) has won acclaim for its commitment to diversity. In 2014, SCS won the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award from national publication INSIGHT into Diversity.

SCS is home to one of the leading higher education conferences in economics, the Winter Institute. Past speakers include some of the most storied economists in history: Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak.

Emporia State University (Emporia, KS)

Emporia State University
Ethan James Scherrer, Plumb Administration Building, CC BY-SA 3.0

Emporia State University is a remarkable hidden gem institution. Within the last decade, the Chronicle of Higher Education named Emporia State a “Great College to Work for.” Additionally, the Princeton Review named it among the “best of the midwest” schools.

Emporia State is home to a notable business school. Their School of Business, located on the main campus of Emporia State, is over 150 years old; it was created in 1868! The School of Business has a noted program in leadership and ethics, a center that focuses on entrepreneurial management that was named after its benefactor, the business magnate Fred Koch.

Emporia State has held considerable influence over public education in the United States. According to higher education researcher Arthur Levine, Emporia State University holds one of the very few Exemplary Model Teacher Education programs in the US.

Almost every building on campus is dedicated to someone important in the school’s history, showcasing its commitment to tradition and roots.

California State University, Northridge (Los Angeles, CA)

CSU Northridge
Spatms, Matadome, CC BY-SA 4.0

Traveling to the West Coast, we find CSU Northridge, an outstanding university with over 38,000 students! With over 350,000 alumni, CSU Northridge is among the most diverse schools worldwide.

CSUN is well known for its arts programs. With its proximity to Hollywood, CSU Northridge has one of the country’s top film programs. Their Department of Cinema and Television Arts produce alumni working everywhere in the entertainment industry. Additionally, with its strong network of connections to studios and production companies, CSUN’s film program is abundant with internship opportunities for their students.

The Princeton Review ranked the David Nazarian School of Business among the best business schools in the nation. One of the largest business schools in the country, it is named after Iranian businessman and benefactor David Nazarian.

University of Central Arkansas (Conway, AR)

University of Central Arkansas
Ronny Willhite, OldMain, CC BY-SA 4.0

With over 12,000 students at any given time, the University of Central Arkansas is over 110 years old and among the oldest schools in the entire state of Arkansas. 

UCA is home to many outstanding programs. One of these programs is in the performing arts; UCA participates annually in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. 

UCA regularly brings in high-profile guests to their university through their Public Appearances division. These guests have included celebrities Loretta Lynn, Seth Meyers, and Gavin DeGraw. 

Historically, the University of Central Arkansas has been a top producer of teachers for Arkansas, as it was founded as a “Normal” School in the early 20th-century. 

Southern Utah University (Cedar City, UT)

Southern Utah University
Cory Maylett, Southern Utah University 1, CC BY-SA 3.0

More than 10,000 students attend Southern Utah University, a robust hidden gem public university based in Cedar City.

Internationally, SUU is well known for its commitment to sports and recreation. Former SUU president Gerald R. Sherratt, taking inspiration from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, created the Utah Summer Games. Nearly 37 years later, Southern Utah University brings in over 10,000(!) athletes worldwide to compete in the school’s internationally renowned Utah Summer Games.

Outside of sports, Southern Utah University is an accomplished university. Every year, SUU hosts The Shakespeare Festival, a performing arts extravaganza bringing over 150,000 ticketed audience members.

As a university, SUU is only one of 27 schools nationwide to receive a prestigious designation from the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLA). 

University of Wyoming (Laramie, WY)

University of Wyoming
Sesamehoneytart, American Heritage Center, CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of Wyoming places a considerable amount of funding into research. Due to the significant research activity at the University of Wyoming, the Carnegie Classification has given it the prestigious “R2: Doctoral Universities – High Research Activity” designation.

In recent years, the University of Wyoming has received several other prestigious rankings. The Washington Monthly, in August 2020, ranked the University of Wyoming among the top 100 schools throughout the country.

The University of Wyoming places a significant commitment to history. Historical institutions on campus include the American Heritage Center, among the largest non-governmental archives in the US. Another historical institution, the University of Wyoming Geological Museum, is home to rare fossils and minerals with a special focus on Wyoming history. 

US News has ranked the University of Wyoming in the top-100 nationwide for a number of specialty programs. They include Pharmacy, Earth Sciences, Economics, and Speech-Language Pathology.

University of West Florida (Pensacola, FL)

University of West Florida
Thomas Baxter, PIMG0125, CC BY 3.0

An outstanding hidden gem university, the University of West Florida is home to approximately 12,000 students. Throughout its history, the University of West Florida has claimed over 90,000 as alumni and has awarded over 100,000 total degrees.

The University of West Florida has an outstanding history when it comes to outer space exploration. More than any other Florida school, the University of West Florida has produced six NASA astronauts, including John Phillips, an awardee of the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

Outdoor life is central to the UWF experience. The university owns parts of Pensacola Beach as well as numerous biking trails. Students at the university gain considerable access to coastal recreational life rarely available at most universities.

Rankings for the University of West Florida include the #1 best RN to BSM program in Florida and a top-15 designation for best online MBA programs.

Queens College (New York, NY)

Located in Queens, one of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Queens College is a remarkable university in the CUNY system. 

Queens College’s dedication to the performing arts is outstanding. In addition to their Aaron Copland School of Music, a top music school in the country, Queens is home to the Kupferberg Center for the Arts. The Kupferberg Center houses an auditorium, theatre, and concert hall. Notable presenters at the Kupferberg Center have included Cesar Millan, Trevor Noah, and David Bowie.

Academic programs are top tier at Queens. Among their most prominent research divisions is their Neuroscience Research Center. Within the last 15 years, over 800 faculty members in this division have published over 800 peer-reviewed publications.

Queens College has been ranked nationally in several publications. One such ranking is “Best ROI schools” from Business Insider in a list published in 2020. Another ranking is from the Princeton Review, which cited Queens College among the best “Green Campuses” in the US.

Alumni of Queens include some of the most distinguished people in every field. They include comedian Jerry Seinfeld, musician Paul Simon, film director Jon Favreau, and former US Representative Gary Ackerman.