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FAQ: What is a flagship university?

Postit What is a flagship universityThere is no official definition of what is a flagship university. In general, when people talk about flagship universities, they are referring to the most prominent public university of their state. It is usually the first public university that was established in the state and receives the most state support. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the “best” public university in the state although many assume so.

Flagship University Definition

This is the most common list of flagship universities (download the list at the end of the post).

AL-The University of Alabama
AK-University of Alaska Fairbanks
AZ-University of Arizona
AR-University of Arkansas
CA-University of California-Berkeley
CO-University of Colorado Boulder
CT-University of Connecticut
DE-University of Delaware
FL-University of Florida
GA-University of Georgia
HI-University of Hawaii at Manoa
ID-University of Idaho
IL-University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
IN-Indiana University-Bloomington
IA-University of Iowa
KS-University of Kansas
KY-University of Kentucky
LA-Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
ME-University of Maine
MD-University of Maryland-College Park
MA-University of Massachusetts-Amherst
MI-University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
MN-University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
MS-University of Mississippi
MO-University of Missouri-Columbia
MT-The University of Montana
NE-University of Nebraska-Lincoln
NV-University of Nevada-Reno
NH-University of New Hampshire-Main Campus
NJ-Rutgers University-New Brunswick
NM-University of New Mexico-Main Campus
NY-University at Buffalo
NC-University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
ND-University of North Dakota
OH-Ohio State University-Main Campus
OK-University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus
OR-University of Oregon
PA-Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
RI-University of Rhode Island
SC-University of South Carolina-Columbia
SD-University of South Dakota
TN-The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
TX-The University of Texas at Austin
UT-University of Utah
VT-University of Vermont
VA-University of Virginia-Main Campus
WA-University of Washington-Seattle Campus
WV-West Virginia University
WI-University of Wisconsin-Madison
WY-University of Wyoming

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You can see plenty of lists comparing flagship universities without any attempt to reference how the schools were selected. It’s kinda like everyone just assumes you know. Gary Olson at The Chronicle of Higher Education offers the following definition:

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While the criteria used to determine flagship status will vary from state to state, typically a state’s flagship is its land-grant institution. It is likely to be the university with the highest research profile and the most doctoral programs. It may house the state’s medical school, law school, or both. And it may be the largest and best endowed university in the state. Membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities may be yet another factor, and NCAA Division I athletics is a must.

The claim that the only “must” in the definition is NCAA Division 1 athletics may be more revealing about the value of flagship status than intended.

Depending on the definition, the flagship doesn’t have to be just one university. In Texas, both the University of Texas and Texas A&M are consider flagship universities and there is a push to elevate more universities to “flagship” status. However, generally the term “flagship” is meant to designate one and most lists will include only one flagship university per state. In Texas, that’s the University of Texas.

While there generally isn’t any official designation, there has been at least one case of official “undesignation.” The Idaho State Board of Education removed the word “flagship” as part of the University of Idaho’s mission because members felt it was unfair to other state universities.

Comparing Flagship Universities

I created my own list of flagship universities. I included all of the institutions that traditionally make the list but added eight more. The ones that I added ranked higher than the traditional flagship in the US News Best College Rankings and the Washington Monthly National University rankings. It just seemed to me, based on these factors they are worth including if for no other reason to see how they compare to the traditional flagship.

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Based on this list, I went back and ranked the schools using some of the characteristics mentioned by Gary Olson. Surprise, surprise, all but one are D1 schools with the University of Alaska Fairbanks being the exception.


In terms of size, all but 13 are the largest universities in their state. They range in size from 7,404 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to 61,170 at Ohio State. Six of the institutions are over 50,000 students while 13 are less than 20,000. I suppose size was meant as an indicator of popularity in the state.


I think the endowment factor is interesting. Which is it, total endowment or endowment per student? UNC Chapel Hill ranks 8th in total endowment among all of the schools but 3rd in endowment per student. Only 3 universities have endowments per student over $100,000 while 15 had less than $20,000.

Association of American Universities

It’s a good thing that membership in the Association of American Universities is just a possible factor for flagship designation and not a must since only 26 schools on the list are members. The thing to keep in mind about AAU membership is that its focus is on research. They’ve manage to come up with very specific criteria for evaluating research efforts for membership but are pretty wishy washy as far as undergraduate education is concerned.

The Committee assesses the institution’s undergraduate programs to determine that the institution is meeting its commitment to undergraduate education. Recognizing that differing institutional missions among research universities dictate different ways of providing undergraduate education, the committee will be flexible in this assessment. A number of measures have been suggested, including some that focus on input and others that look primarily at output variables. These are at this time imperfect, but may provide some guidance to the committee in making its judgments on this topic.

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I can’t help but imagine some meeting where someone points out they better say something about the importance of undergraduate education otherwise undergraduates may choose to go elsewhere and no longer subsidize the research priorities of the schools. But I’m sure I’m wrong.


Depending on your state, you could spend anywhere from $19,960 (University of Wyoming) to $38,066 (University of California Berkeley) to attend your flagship university. Only one had a total cost less than $20,000 while 18 had more than $30,000 in total cost. Out-of-state students can often expect to pay as much as attending a private college for the privilege of attending. Tuition for out-of-state students ranges from a low of $26,220 to $67,058. A total of 49 cost more than $40,000 a year with 17 over $50,000.



The costs will start adding up before you ever get your first tuition bill. Application fees range from a low of $20 to a high of $85. Only six schools had fees less than $40 compared to 42 that charged $50 or more. Nine schools had application fees of $75 or more.


While I’m not a fan of rankings in general, I looked up the rankings for US News Best College Rankings and the Washington Monthly National Rankings. The Washington Monthly rankings use a methodology focused on the public purpose state-supported universities are supposed to serve. The US News Best College Rankings is pretty much a version of a popularity contest. I strongly suggest you take a look at the methodologies of two rankings so you have some idea of the differences.

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Highly ranked schools such as University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, Ohio, and Penn State all drop significantly in rankings under the Washington Monthly criteria. And schools including University of Illinois, University of Washington, Rutgers, University of Arizona, and University of Wyoming do much better under the Washington Monthly rankings than their US News rankings. Given that there are schools such as Iowa, Michigan, Berkeley, and UNC Chapel Hill that have similar ranks on both lists, it’s worth considering what the differences mean.

State Flagship Listing

College spreadsheet listing all state flagship universities

FAQ: What is a flagship university?

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