In the 1950s, North Carolina had established a high-tech hub with its now-venerated "Research Triangle," focused on the research efforts of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Duke University. Today the state also supports an extensive local community college system as well as smaller private schools. This guide provides an overview of some of North Carolina's best colleges, including school rankings and comparison tools, information on tuition and financial aid, and a look at the state's major geographical regions. Read on to find out more.

North Carolina College Leaderboard: Rankings

The identification of the “best college” won't be the same from person to person, but it's true that many students value some key criteria, such as tuition, the availability of financial aid, and student-to-faculty ratio. Taking into account those factors and others, we've compiled the following ranking of North Carolina colleges to determine which come out on top.

Rankings Methodology Minimum Qualifications
  • Located in North Carolina
  • Public or private not-for-profit
  • Institutionally accredited
  • At least 10 total programs
Ranking Metrics
  • Median annual alumni earnings 10 years after entering the college
  • In-state tuition and fees for undergraduates
  • Student/teacher ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate
  • % of students receiving institutional financial aid (first-time, full-time undergrads)
  • Average amount of institutional aid awarded per student (first-time, full-time undergrads)
  • Availability of placement services upon completion
  • Availability of academic/career counseling services
  • Availability of employment services
  • 3-year student cohort loan default rate
Data Sources

Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS): National Center for Education Statistics

Latest 'Final Release' data available as of Fall 2016 College Scorecard: U.S. Department of Education

2-Year Programs

McDowell Technical Community College View School Profile $ 27% 99.77 $26,000 8:1 9% N/A 0 61 Yes Yes
Rockingham Community College View School Profile $ 15% 99.65 $26,300 11:1 21% N/A 0 49 Yes Yes
Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College View School Profile $ 18% 98.88 $27,400 18:1 9% N/A 3 109 Yes Yes
Pitt Community College View School Profile $ 13% 98.47 $26,000 17:1 11% N/A 12 116 Yes Yes
Durham Technical Community College View School Profile $ 12% 98.16 $29,200 18:1 3% N/A 1 91 Yes No
Randolph Community College View School Profile $ 15% 98.05 $26,700 13:1 11% N/A 0 66 Yes Yes
Surry Community College View School Profile $ 24% 97.96 $26,800 17:1 11% N/A 7 91 Yes No
Alamance Community College View School Profile $ 11% 97.8 $26,500 15:1 16% N/A 1 85 Yes No
Craven Community College View School Profile $ 12% 97.17 $29,100 14:1 5% N/A 8 53 No Yes
Guilford Technical Community College View School Profile $ 10% 96.99 $28,800 20:1 5% N/A 13 115 Yes Yes
Vance-Granville Community College View School Profile $ 28% 96.64 $24,900 16:1 18% N/A 1 62 Yes No
Piedmont Community College View School Profile $ 29% 96.34 $23,700 10:1 13% N/A 1 109 Yes Yes
Southwestern Community College View School Profile $ 32% 96.29 $23,400 15:1 15% N/A 7 69 Yes No
Catawba Valley Community College View School Profile $ 21% 95.83 $26,700 11:1 5% N/A 0 81 Yes No
Forsyth Technical Community College View School Profile $ 14% 95.76 $25,700 13:1 N/A N/A 11 154 Yes No
Cape Fear Community College View School Profile $ 14% 95.75 $26,500 13:1 9% N/A 1 100 Yes Yes
Wayne Community College View School Profile $ 18% 95.6 $26,500 11:1 5% N/A 8 69 Yes No
Blue Ridge Community College View School Profile $ 17% 95.58 $23,800 12:1 10% N/A 4 119 Yes No
Wilkes Community College View School Profile $ 32% 95.51 $24,300 11:1 17% N/A 1 71 Yes No
Central Piedmont Community College View School Profile $ 12% 95.08 $28,100 19:1 3% N/A 4 149 Yes No
Lenoir Community College View School Profile $ 12% 94.84 $23,600 10:1 13% N/A 8 93 Yes No
Southeastern Community College View School Profile $ 10% 94.67 $24,400 14:1 28% N/A 0 62 Yes Yes
Western Piedmont Community College View School Profile $ 24% 94.64 $25,900 11:1 10% N/A 3 65 No No
Montgomery Community College View School Profile $ 33% 94.52 $23,600 8:1 19% N/A 4 50 No No
Coastal Carolina Community College View School Profile $ 25% 94.4 $27,300 14:1 3% N/A 3 57 Yes No
South Piedmont Community College View School Profile $ 35% 94.31 $20,700 15:1 7% N/A 3 73 Yes No
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College View School Profile $ 35% 94.28 $24,000 11:1 2% N/A 0 83 Yes Yes
Davidson County Community College View School Profile $ 26% 94.18 $24,400 20:1 7% N/A 4 98 Yes No
Gaston College View School Profile $ 24% 94.15 $25,700 20:1 1% N/A 2 98 Yes Yes
College of the Albemarle View School Profile $ 19% 94.13 $23,100 13:1 7% N/A 1 51 Yes No
Haywood Community College View School Profile $ 20% 94.09 $22,600 6:1 9% N/A 7 73 Yes No
Wake Technical Community College View School Profile $ 16% 94.02 $31,300 18:1 2% N/A 11 130 Yes Yes
Sandhills Community College View School Profile $ 11% 93.71 $23,000 16:1 18% N/A 1 66 Yes Yes
Stanly Community College View School Profile $ 25% 93.62 $25,900 15:1 15% N/A 12 53 Yes Yes
Bladen Community College View School Profile $ 12% 93.02 $23,700 12:1 2% N/A 7 40 Yes No
Fayetteville Technical Community College View School Profile $ 7% 92.94 $27,700 20:1 1% N/A 17 143 Yes Yes
Carteret Community College View School Profile $ 16% 92.91 $23,200 8:1 8% N/A 1 56 Yes No
Central Carolina Community College View School Profile $ 20% 92.68 $24,400 16:1 7% N/A 3 88 No Yes
Carolinas College of Health Sciences View School Profile $$ 50% 92.41 $47,300 7:1 N/A 17% 1 8 Yes Yes
Pamlico Community College View School Profile $ 67% 92.3 $22,000 9:1 11% N/A 13 39 Yes Yes
Johnston Community College View School Profile $ 29% 92.15 $25,800 16:1 4% N/A 0 60 Yes Yes
Nash Community College View School Profile $ 7% 91.85 $25,700 25:1 16% N/A 0 74 Yes No
Wilson Community College View School Profile $ 24% 91.69 $23,000 15:1 8% N/A 5 47 No No
Mitchell Community College View School Profile $ 19% 91.57 $26,200 21:1 9% N/A 14 61 Yes No
Beaufort County Community College View School Profile $ 18% 91.11 $23,900 13:1 5% N/A 4 58 Yes Yes
Cleveland Community College View School Profile $ 23% 90.78 $23,100 10:1 1% N/A 4 77 No Yes
James Sprunt Community College View School Profile $ 14% 90.56 $23,100 14:1 3% N/A 0 39 Yes Yes
Martin Community College View School Profile $ 8% 89.89 $21,800 14:1 N/A N/A 0 59 No No
Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute View School Profile $ 20% 89.73 $24,500 18:1 1% N/A 0 61 Yes No
Halifax Community College View School Profile $ 26% 89.61 $21,500 11:1 5% N/A 0 44 Yes No

4-Year Programs

Duke University View School Profile $$$$ 95% 99.81 $76,700 7:1 44% 11% 0 161 Yes No
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill View School Profile $$ 89% 99.64 $50,400 13:1 45% 28% 9 148 Yes No
North Carolina State University at Raleigh View School Profile $$ 71% 98.03 $47,500 16:1 50% 52% 34 194 Yes No
Wake Forest University View School Profile $$$$ 87% 97.92 $61,000 11:1 40% 34% 1 73 Yes No
Queens University of Charlotte View School Profile $$$$ 52% 97.87 $38,600 10:1 98% 78% 4 49 Yes No
Davidson College View School Profile $$$$ 92% 97.57 $58,500 10:1 60% 22% 0 27 No No
Meredith College View School Profile $$$$ 59% 97.08 $38,400 12:1 99% 61% 0 56 Yes Yes
Methodist University View School Profile $$$$ 39% 96.82 $39,600 12:1 98% 56% 1 50 Yes Yes
East Carolina University View School Profile $ 58% 96.76 $39,200 18:1 50% 77% 49 166 Yes No
Elon University View School Profile $$$$ 83% 96.75 $44,500 12:1 53% 54% 0 70 Yes No
Salem College View School Profile $$$$ 63% 96.67 $33,200 11:1 98% 60% 2 39 Yes Yes
Montreat College View School Profile $$$ 42% 96.62 $40,800 12:1 99% 46% 4 26 No Yes
Barton College View School Profile $$$ 48% 96.51 $36,500 11:1 99% 38% 0 35 Yes No
University of North Carolina at Charlotte View School Profile $ 53% 96.38 $41,700 19:1 34% 64% 13 131 Yes No
University of Mount Olive View School Profile $$ 44% 96.34 $39,200 13:1 97% 47% 2 33 Yes Yes
Campbell University View School Profile $$$$ 51% 96.27 $42,900 16:1 87% 68% 3 101 Yes Yes
Guilford College View School Profile $$$$ 57% 96.03 $38,500 14:1 100% 62% 0 36 Yes No
Lenoir-Rhyne University View School Profile $$$$ 49% 95.9 $36,900 12:1 98% 66% 2 47 Yes No
University of North Carolina Wilmington View School Profile $ 69% 95.73 $38,700 17:1 43% 59% 6 87 Yes No
Pfeiffer University View School Profile $$$$ 41% 95.55 $37,500 12:1 82% 47% 5 54 Yes No
Mars Hill University View School Profile $$$$ 46% 95.54 $32,800 11:1 99% 62% 0 32 Yes Yes
Catawba College View School Profile $$$$ 50% 95.42 $36,600 13:1 99% 36% 0 45 Yes No
Appalachian State University View School Profile $ 66% 95.22 $36,600 16:1 39% 63% 9 133 Yes Yes
University of North Carolina at Greensboro View School Profile $ 54% 95.09 $37,000 17:1 49% 61% 16 126 Yes No
Gardner-Webb University View School Profile $$$$ 45% 95.08 $36,800 13:1 96% 67% 29 68 Yes No
University of North Carolina at Asheville View School Profile $ 55% 94.97 $36,000 14:1 57% 73% 0 36 Yes No
Wingate University View School Profile $$$ 45% 94.41 $37,000 15:1 97% 75% 0 41 No No
Greensboro College View School Profile $$$$ 35% 94.4 $35,100 12:1 100% 73% 0 53 Yes Yes
North Carolina Central University View School Profile $ 43% 94.28 $31,600 15:1 81% 43% 13 77 Yes Yes
Western Carolina University View School Profile $ 48% 94.21 $35,100 16:1 67% 43% 16 98 Yes Yes
High Point University View School Profile $$$$ 61% 94.14 $37,500 15:1 72% 80% 0 51 Yes No
Winston-Salem State University View School Profile $ 40% 94.03 $33,300 14:1 67% 60% 7 54 No No
Belmont Abbey College View School Profile $$ 43% 93.94 $39,200 16:1 99% 69% 0 17 Yes Yes
North Carolina A & T State University View School Profile $ 43% 93.41 $33,600 18:1 59% 57% 6 97 Yes No
Elizabeth City State University View School Profile $ 43% 93.18 $30,100 14:1 59% 49% 0 40 Yes No
Johnson C Smith University View School Profile $$ 42% 93.18 $31,300 11:1 56% 42% 0 29 Yes No
Warren Wilson College View School Profile $$$$ 57% 92.82 $25,500 10:1 91% 72% 0 21 Yes Yes
Piedmont International University View School Profile $$ 32% 92.62 $30,700 9:1 84% 46% 4 10 Yes No
Lees-McRae College View School Profile $$$ 34% 92.39 $34,400 15:1 100% 62% 1 23 Yes No
William Peace University View School Profile $$$ 31% 92.33 $35,900 13:1 97% 63% 0 17 Yes No
University of North Carolina at Pembroke View School Profile $ 34% 92.33 $33,400 15:1 40% 73% 4 63 Yes No
Brevard College View School Profile $$$$ 32% 92.21 $31,100 11:1 100% 43% 0 20 No Yes
Bennett College View School Profile $$ 37% 92.16 $29,400 9:1 76% 92% 0 17 Yes No
St Andrews University View School Profile $$$ 35% 91.98 $35,800 15:1 94% 57% 1 18 Yes No
North Carolina Wesleyan College View School Profile $$$$ 24% 91.72 $35,900 13:1 89% 53% 0 24 Yes No
Chowan University View School Profile $$$ 24% 91.69 $35,400 16:1 100% 60% 0 29 No No
Fayetteville State University View School Profile $ 31% 90.98 $31,100 18:1 69% 50% 8 48 Yes Yes
Saint Augustine’s University View School Profile $$ 35% 90.04 $28,200 12:1 24% 74% 0 31 Yes No
Shaw University View School Profile $$ 26% 89.03 $27,400 15:1 58% 59% 0 27 Yes Yes
Livingstone College View School Profile $$ 23% 88.37 $26,100 17:1 63% 64% 0 26 Yes Yes

North Carolina College Search & Compare Tool

After doing an initial round of research to select potential schools, students may find it helpful to compare those schools side-by-side. The search tool below allows users to select certain criteria and then get apples-to-apples results about how they stack up against each other.

College Outreach Programs in North Carolina

Getting into college is one major hurdle for prospective students, and figuring how to pay for it is another. North Carolina offers several college preparation and planning programs, including ones that help high school students get a head start on college; assist disadvantaged students with getting into college; and give a second chance to students who have been denied admission. Following is a look at a few of the state's programs.

Career and College Promise

This program gives students a head start on working toward a college degree or professional credential by taking free college courses during their high school years. When they graduate, they will already be several college credits closer to a four-year degree, allowing them to save money on tuition. Students can also take courses that apply toward vocational training or credentials, such as a diploma or certificate.

Project Uplift

This annual program invites high school seniors to spend two days on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. Students are selected from ethnic and racial minority groups, as well as from rural and financial disadvantaged situations. The program is designed to assist those who may face additional difficulties pursuing a college education, as well as to foster diversity among the student body at UNC. Students are introduced to college life from both social and academic perspectives.

College Redirection

College Redirection targets students previously denied admission into college and allows them to be recruited by North Carolina colleges and universities that still have openings available. Students may put their name in a pool, and other North Carolina colleges and universities may then offer them a slot. The program runs during the summer, after the initial round of admissions has ended but some schools still have openings they want to fill with qualified applicants.

Cost Analysis of Attending North Carolina Colleges

The cost of higher education in North Carolina depends on several factors, most notably tuition and financial aid. Few students are lucky enough to land a full scholarship, or to have substantial financial resources at their disposal. Instead, most will rely on financial aid and will likely place heavy emphasis on tuition costs when deciding which school to attend. The next three charts aim to provide average tuition rates and financial aid data, so that students can put a school's cost of attendance into perspective.

* Institutional aid represents grant and scholarship funds directly awarded by a postsecondary institution.

* Financial aid data represents 4-year public and private nonprofit schools only.

Most Affordable North Carolina Colleges

Tuition rates never tell the whole story. Financial aid awards, especially grants and scholarships, can substantially offset a school's tuition. Here we list the six most affordable colleges and universities in North Carolina based on their net price, which is the cost of attendance less any financial aid awards.

North Carolina College Net Price vs. National average

Average Annual Net Price
NORTH CAROLINA $17,339
$18,073

Source: College Scorecard
Note: Rankings/data represent 4-year public and private nonprofit schools only.

North Carolina Colleges Highest Alumni Earnings

For most students, what they can expect to earn after graduating is an important factor when deciding whether a particular school is a worthy investment. Below is a ranking of North Carolina's top six schools with the highest paid alumni 10 years after enrollment.

North Carolina Alumni Salaries vs. National Average

Annual Median Earnings
10 Years After Entering College
NORTH CAROLINA $37,187
$42,759

Source: College Scorecard
Note: Rankings/data represent 4-year public and private nonprofit schools only.

Colleges in North Carolina With Least Alumni Debt

While determining earning potential is important, another key metric is the average student debt from a particular school. The following ranking lists the six best schools in North Carolina for graduates with the least amount of student loan debt.

North Carolina College Grad Debt Vs. National Average

Median Federal Student Loan Debt After Graduation
NORTH CAROLINA $24,829
$23,145

Source: College Scorecard
Note: Rankings/data represent 4-year public and private nonprofit schools only.

North Carolina Cost of Living: College Expenses Beyond Tuition

To get the most complete picture on the cost of attending colleges in North Carolina, students must consider the cost of living in a particular area. Low tuition rates help, but they may not offset the overall expenses associated with daily life. As a whole, students can expect the cost of living in North Carolina to be about 5 percent less than the national average, with housing offering a decided break at 15 percent less, but each metro area will be slightly different. Check out the chart below to get a better idea of where a particular area of the state stands in terms of cost of living.

area composite index housing groceries utilities transportation health care misc.
Statewide Average 95% 86% 100% 100% 96% 101% 99%
Charlotte 95% 83% 99% 102% 96% 103% 101%
Durham 89% 71% 97% 88% 103% 102% 94%
Raleigh 91% 71% 106% 98% 90% 102% 100%
Wilmington 106% 107% 107% 110% 98% 102% 107%
Winston-Salem 93% 67% 97% 111% 99% 105% 106%

Source: The Council for Community and Economic Research

College Accreditation in North Carolina

When evaluating North Carolina colleges to create a shortlist of possibilities, students should pay special attention to accreditation. Accreditation is verification by an independent entity that a particular school or program meets certain educational standards. Employers typically prefer graduates from accredited institutions, and students may be unable to transfer course credits from unaccredited schools. Financial aid options are also limited for students at unaccredited schools; they are ineligible for federal funding.

Schools can be accredited at both the institutional and program level. Most North Carolina schools seek general accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. At the program level, other organizations accredit specific programs in areas such as engineering, chemistry, nursing and law. Here are a few examples:

Major College Cities in North Carolina

Charlotte

Recent college graduates will find a welcoming atmosphere in Charlotte, which ranks second nationally for the best areas for job-seeking grads. Forbes Magazine also listed Charlotte as a top 20 city for businesses and careers. Students can choose from the extensive academic options offered by a large public university, the more intimate environment of a private college, or the practicality and convenience of community college.

College Name School Type Annual Net Price Annual Median Earnings
10 Years After College

Only includes former students who received federal financial aid.

CharlotteUniversity of North Carolina at Charlotte Public $12,268 $41,700
As the fourth-largest school in the University of North Carolina system, UNC Charlotte serves approximately 27,000 students and is one of the state's fastest-growing schools. The Charlotte campus opened as a college center in 1946 for returning veterans, and has expanded today to offer some 90 bachelor's degree programs and over 100 graduate programs in a wide variety of fields, such as applied mathematics, real estate and kinesiology.
CharlotteCentral Piedmont Community College Public $11,296 $28,100
With a 50-year history, CPCC has six campuses within Mecklenburg County and offers more than 100 programs, including diplomas, degrees and certificate options in areas such as electrical engineering, medical assisting, accounting, dental hygiene and welding technology. No matter their areas of study, all students learn the 'Core 4' which consist of the basic competencies of critical thinking, personal growth, communication and responsibility.
CharlotteQueens University of Charlotte Private not-for-profit $23,166 $38,600
Opened in 1857, the Presbyterian-affiliated Queens now has a student population of about 2,200. Undergraduates can choose from among 40 majors, and graduate students have 10 programs available. The small student body enjoys a student-to-faculty ratio of just 10:1, with the average class size consisting of only 14 students.

Raleigh

The state's capital might also be thought of as its intellectual capital, with a population that is trained and educated in various fields from art to technology. Raleigh and its next-door neighbor Durham serve as an anchor for the three North Carolina colleges that comprise the respected Research Triangle; the area also is home to several other private and community colleges.

College Name School Type Annual Net Price Annual Median Earnings
10 Years After College

Only includes former students who received federal financial aid.

RaleighNorth Carolina State University at Raleigh Public $13,164 $47,500
NC State is one of North Carolina's premier research institutions, with strong programs in engineering, agriculture, and education among its many offerings. With a student population of over 34,000, NC State makes a notable impact on North Carolina's economy, especially in the science and technology sectors.
RaleighWake Technical Community College Public $8,991 $31,300
WTCC is the largest community college in North Carolina, providing academic and professional instruction to over 70,000 students. WTCC is spread over five campuses and two training centers, offering Raleigh-area residents more than 200 diplomas, degrees and certificates. Some of these programs include web and graphic design, materials engineering, applied biotechnology, computer programming and hospitality management.
RaleighWilliam Peace University Private not-for-profit $18,396 $35,900
Founded in 1857, students at this institution enjoy personal attention with a student-faculty ratio of 13:1. William Peace University has the real-world numbers to back up its quality education, with a 97 percent job or graduate school placement rate. Students also garner plenty of volunteer experience with over 7,000 hours of community service logged from students.

Source: College Scorecard

North Carolina College Resources

Students preparing for college can benefit from the insight of those who already know the ropes. To make the process a little smoother, we've prepared a list of resources that prospective students can turn to for more information about North Carolina colleges.

College Foundation of North Carolina

The Foundation's website serves as a general resource for North Carolina students who are preparing for college, offering advice in areas such as high school planning and financial aid.

eLearningNC

This is a clearinghouse of information about accessing and using North Carolina's out-of-classroom electronic learning options, primarily through online classes. E-learning is supported at multiple education levels, including college and professional learning.

NC Community Colleges

The website for the state's community college system provides students with career resources, distance learning options and curriculum information.

NC4Vets - Education

NC4Vets is a comprehensive resource for the state's military veterans, explaining benefits and programs available to veterans wishing to go to college in North Carolina.

North Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities

NCICU represents the 36 private colleges and universities in North Carolina. Students interested in a private college education can get information about finding a college, accessing student programs, and paying for school.

University of North Carolina - A System of Higher Learning

Students interested in attending the University of North Carolina at one of its 17 campuses can find a multitude of information concerning scholarships, choosing a degree and admission requirements.

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer