Southern Colleges Ranked: Best Colleges & Universities

List Rules
Updated for 2020

A ranking of top Southern schools comparable to the Ivies, Little Ivies and other elite schools based on fewer variables/more transparency than US News or Forbes. This list considers schools in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas,Tennessee and Kentucky. Rice University is listed here as it's usually considered with Southern schools despite being in Texas.  

The official Ivy League comprises eight universities, none in the South, and there are  three traditional Little Ivy colleges. However, the term "Ivy" has expanded to mean a larger (but still small) number of schools offering prestige, academic rigor, and tremendous educational opportunity.  You'll see references to other groups of schools often labeled Ivies such as two athletic leagues, the UAA and the NESCAC (largely synonymous with the Little Ivies) that were deliberately organized around academic excellence.  Experts have also labeled schools Public Ivies, Hidden Ivies, or Southern Ivies.

Factors considered in score: freshman retention, graduation rate, % of classes with fewer than 20 students, % of classes with more than 50 students, and % of alumni donations.

While no system is perfect nor is exact ranking viewed as truly important by most college experts, these metrics are considered strong indicators of student happiness, the happiness of graduates with their experience, the seriousness your student's classmates will take his or her education, and the school's dedication to providing personal attention to your student.

 A sample score: Fauxville State University: Freshmen Retention: 75%, Graduation Rate: 50%, Classes 20 & under: 33%, Classes 50 & over: 24%, freshmen in the top 10% of their graduating class 20%, and alumni giving: 10%.

 Fauxville State’s score would be 75 + 50 + 33 – 24 + 20 + 10 = 164.

A perfect score would be 500. This national list includes schools that scored 300 or above. Only about 8% of four-year colleges score that high. For greater depth, this regional list has been expanded to schools scoring 250 and above.  

Differences from US News include: Exclusion of consideration of peer opinion on reputation, acceptance rate, and standardized test scores.

Differences from Forbes include: exclusion of student satisfaction with instructors & reporting of average alumni salaries. Those factors are based on small or self-selecting data pools, and likely the main reason why Forbes rankings are volatile and less useful than U.S. News. {Examples: Westminster College was #38 in 2008 and #126 in 2009. Bates was #45 in 2008 and #113 in 2009. Union College (NY) was #99 in 2008 and #26 in 2009.) Stanford's president pointed out there is no way a college's quality can change that significantly in one year, so such rankings are a sign of bad journalism, not a bad school.

Flaws with this system: Data came from multiple sources and, like US News, may not always reflect statistics from the same calendar year. I'm not an expert statistician nor an expert on college experience quality, just a researcher/hobbyist.

For the best evaluation, my understanding is experts consider the National Survey of Student Engagement the most valuable analysis of undergraduate colleges.

This list may not be complete. If you feel a school has been omitted or a listing is incorrect, I will be happy to recheck. Thanks for reading!



  • Score: 389.6, in Lexington, VA (this is a liberal arts college instead of a research university), a Greene's Guide "Hidden Ivy"

  • Duke University
    Photo: uploaded by AdmiralCrunch

    Score: 384.3, in Durham, North Carolina,  often called a Southern Ivy or Magnolia League (see Wikipedia for an explanation of the brainy school athletic league that never actually materialized) and a Greene's Guide "Hidden Ivy"

  • Rice University
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Score: 371.1, Houston, Texas, Considered Southern Ivy/Magnolia League and is a Greene's Guide Hidden Ivy

  • Davidson College
    Photo: mystuart / Flickr

    Score: 370.8, in Davidson, North Carolina, Davidson is a nationally-renowned liberal arts college and is listed as a "Hidden Ivy" by Greene's Guide