The Top 10 Public Universities On the Rise

For many students, the best choice in a college is to attend a high-quality public university.

Sure, we know many of the most famous public universities, schools like Indiana, Virginia, Michigan, UCLA, and more. 

However, a number of public universities in the US are rising significantly, making dramatic, positive changes to their curricula, facilities, faculty, and more. 

We have observed a number of schools making significant strides to their education, and have compiled a list of 10 public universities that are on the rise.

What makes a school “on the rise?”

One, the school cannot be placed in the top-150 of the US News national universities list as of this year, 2019.

Secondly, the school has to have made measurable strides over the past 20 years in its programs, student/alumni accomplishments, faculty accolades, research programs/expenditure, and other similar metrics.

Here are 10 amazing public universities on the rise.

New Mexico State University (Las Cruces, NM)

New Mexico State University
Zereshk, NMSU Zuhl 2008, CC BY 3.0

Starting this list is New Mexico State University, one of the two flagship universities of New Mexico.

New Mexico State University (NMSU) was recently ranked by the Brookings Institution as the #2 school nationwide for social mobility. This index demonstrates a strong mission of NMSU: to help students of all economic backgrounds succeed tremendously through college and beyond. 

In recent years, NMSU’s research efforts have increased significantly. Total yearly expenditure for research has been approximately $150m. 

In 2010, the NMSU Physical Sciences Laboratory partnered with Reaction Engines Limited, a UK-based aerospace engineering company. With this contract, both NMSU and Reaction Engines Limited have worked on developing spacecraft vehicles. 

With its strong ties to space, the school also has a research partnership with NASA. In fact, it is the only school to have a platinum contract (the highest level) with NASA’s Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program.

However, what makes NMSU special is not just its extensive funding into space-related programs. 

NMSU is one of the best schools nationwide for championing diversity. A recent study done by the University of Southern California found that NMSU was a top-25 institution for increasing the number of Latino recipients of STEM degrees.

University of Memphis (Memphis, TN)

Public domain photo by BenSherman via Wikimedia Commons

Few schools in the south have grown as much as the University of Memphis over the last 15 years. 

Recently, U of M created one of the largest health-dedicated facilities in the country, the 200,000 square foot Community Health Building. This facility houses the prestigious Loewenberg College of Nursing, Memphis Speech and Hearing Center, and more.

Many other facilities and unique partnerships are present at the University of Memphis, including the FedEx Institute of Technology, an organization researching innovative technologies for use at the University of Memphis and beyond.

Interestingly, the University of Memphis has a popular student newspaper called The Daily Helmsman. Publishing 5,500 copies a day with 30 paid staff members, The Daily Helmsman has won accolades for its journalism from Columbia University as well as the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. Past writers of this paper have found employment in The New York Times as well as Rolling Stone Magazine.

Lamar University (Beaumont, TX)

Lamar University
Shellyvitanza, Setzercenter, CC BY-SA 4.0

Like one other school later on this list, Lamar was recently noted as a top 20 “rising star” institution in the country by Firetail, a UK-based consulting firm. 

When looking at what makes Lamar a unique, special school, it is easy to see why it is on the rise. In 2015, Lamar scored in the top-75 in three of its specialty graduate programs, including Education, Nursing, and Justice., an online news source and research website, ranked 11 of Lamar’s programs in the top 35 nationwide

Outside of these rankings, a number of new, state-of-the-art campus facilities have been created or renovated in the last 15 years. These include the Setzer Student Center, a $28m facility opened just last year, as well as substantial expansions to their residence halls in 2013. 

One of Lamar’s most noted programs is its engineering school. Lamar’s College of Engineering recently ranked 11th in ROI for graduating students. 

Utah State University (Logan, UT)

Utah State University
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, Utah State has been among the most accomplished public universities nationwide. Alumni of Utah State include 7 Rhodes Scholars, 1 Nobel Prize winner, 34 Goldwater Scholarship recipients, and a MacArthur “Genius” fellow.

In the 90s, Utah State saw a significant surge in growth, with an endowment increasing from $7m in the early 90s to $80m by 2000. As of this writing in 2019, the endowment stands at over $370 million.

Utah State has risen to become a highly-respected research university, earning the “very high research activity” R2 designation from the Carnegie Classification.

Between 2005-2016, Utah State saw a significant rise in stature under the presidency of Stan Albrecht. During his presidency, the school successfully acquired partnerships with international institutions, including four universities in China, as well as raised record amounts for developing the school’s academic programs and facilities.

Utah State is home to a number of highly rated programs, including the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, a program characterized by experiential learning.

Some unique offerings at this business school include The Center for Entrepreneurship, a program helping students foster business-building skills through internships and classes, as well as The Small Enterprise Education and Development Program, an initiative designed to encourage USU students to foster business growth in international communities. 

University of North Texas (Denton, TX)

Historically, the University of North Texas has been home to several of the country’s leading programs. Perhaps its most well-known department is the School of Music, home to a leading college-level jazz band that has won multiple Grammy awards for its outstanding playing. 

In recent years, not only has the UNT music program continued to elevate, the university as a whole has steadily risen to become a top public university in the country. 

In 2019, a number of other UNT programs were ranked in the top 100 nationwide by US News and, including Public Affairs, Information Technology, Political Science, and over a dozen more majors.

In 2016, the Carnegie Classification rated University of North Texas as an R1 university, which is the highest possible award based on research activity. Less than 2% of all higher education institutions in the country have achieved this prestigious designation.

In recent years, UNT has made a pledge towards sustainability. In 2005, it created the first PhD in Environmental Ethics worldwide. Six years later, UNT erected The Life Science Complex, a facility achieving LEED Gold status. Further commitment to sustainability came in 2017 when the school began incorporating renewable energy.

University of North Texas is a rising institution among the best public universities nationwide.

Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS)

In 2010, the Kansas State University laid the foundation for what is known as the 2025 Visionary Plan. The goal of the 2025 Visionary Plan is simple and straightforward: to become one of the nation’s top-50 public research universities by 2025.

Kansas State is well on its way towards achieving this status, if it has not already done so. 

Six years into its historical plan in 2016, K-State was given the prestigious  R1 designation from the Carnegie Classification for “very high” research activity.  Less than 2% of all higher education institutions have achieved this milestone, making K-State just one of 115 universities – public or private – in the nation with this accolade.

Recent rankings showcase the school’s tremendous rise in stature. recently ranked K-state in the top-100 schools nationwide for Agricultural Sciences, Education, and Engineering. 

Through all of its recent accolades, rankings, and accomplishments, students and faculty use one word to describe the atmosphere at Kansas State University – family. Students who rate the school and their experience consistently say that the school’s environment feels like a large, close, and tightly-knit family.

Boise State University (Boise, ID)

Boise State University
Iamneven, MainCampusBSU2018, CC BY-SA 4.0

Just three years ago, Boise State was named one of just 20 “Rising Star” higher education institutions by a top UK-based consulting firm. 

Boise State has demonstrated a significant commitment to growth. Between 2003 and 2016, the school achieved numerous milestones, including a 29% growth in the school’s student body, a 373% increase in the number of donors, and over $300m+ spent on campus facilities. 

In May 2017, a new College of Fine Arts was constructed. In 2020, a state-of-the-art materials research building will be completed with funding by local Boise company Micron.

What makes Boise State special is not just the unprecedented expansion and growth; it is the quality of the people. Boise State’s students and faculty place significant emphasis on partnering with the local Idaho community. 

Efforts to this end include engineering capstone projects designed to benefit the Boise community, over 20 student clubs and activities partnering with people and organizations outside of Boise State, and more.

Kent State University (Kent, OH)

Kent State University
Pacificboyksu, KSULibrary09NEW, CC BY 3.0

Both faculty and students at Kent State are among the midwest’s most impressive in any institution. 

An amazing 16 faculty members at Kent State have won the Pulitzer Prize, perhaps America’s most prestigious journalism & arts award. 

Students at the school are routine winners of academia’s top honors, including Fulbright and Goldwater scholarships.

In 2018, Kent State embarked on a $1bn master plan to transform both the appearance as well as the life of their school. Over the course of the next decade, Kent State will create a new College of Business building, renovations to campus facilities, and fostering even stronger connections with the city of Kent.

The end result will be an enhanced, dynamic campus lifestyle for the school’s students, staff, researchers, and local community.

The National Council for Home Safety and Security named Kent State one of the 25 safest campuses in the country in 2018. Considering there are thousands of schools nationwide, this is a rare honor for a school to have. 

Montana State University (Bozeman, MT)

Montana State University
Tim Evanson, Looking NW at Chemistry and Biochemistry Building – Montana State University – 2013-07-09, CC BY-SA 2.0

If I told you about a school that is a top-10 producers of Goldwater Scholarships, one of academia’s most prestigious awards for America’s top students, you would probably think I am talking about an Ivy League university.

In fact, I am talking about Montana State University, a rising public university which has additionally produced a substantial number of Rhodes and Truman scholars.

Throughout its history, Montana State has been belovedly called the “University of the Yellowstone” for very extensive research on the Yellowstone ecosystem. It is possible that no other school has undertaken as much formal scholarly research on Yellowstone as Montana State.

So what makes Montana State University on the rise?

Since their current president Waded Cruzado took her position less than a decade ago, enrollment has increased by nearly 25%! For a school as large as Montana State, that equates to thousands of new students in a brief time.

In 2019, Montana State University expended a record amount on research with nearly $140m spent, giving it a “very high research activity” designation on the Carnegie Classification.

Additionally, Montana State has built a number of facilities in the last decade, including an impressive 40,000 square foot facility dedicated to Animal Biosciences.

University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL)

Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

University of Central Florida’s brief 51-year history is characterized by extreme growth, influential research as a space-grant university, and rapidly increasing enrollments. Today, the University of Central Florida is the #1 school nationwide in terms of the total number of on-campus students enrolled.

When looking at the history of the University of Central Florida, it is easy to see why it is a public university currently – and historically – on the rise.

In the early 90s, the school hired John Hitt for the job of the university presidency. During his legendary 26-year tenure at the school, the University of Central Florida evolved into a premiere research university. 

Some of the university’s most significant accomplishments during this time period include substantially increasing admissions standards, creating the UCF College of Medicine, building a premiere football stadium, and more.

The University of Central Florida is particularly accomplished for its research into space. Through the affiliated Florida Space Institute, UCF will become Florida’s first university to lead a mission into outer space.

Faculty and alumni are among the most accomplished of any school nationwide. They include NASA astronauts, Pulitzer winners, a former prime minister of Libya, and dozens of professional athletes. 

After just 51 years in existence, with historical and recent accomplishments demonstrating the school’s multi-decade commitment towards growth, UCF has risen to become one of the nation’s top public universities.