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Top Public Universities in the US: Michigan or UC Berkeley?

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated May 21, 2021 Updated May 21, 2021

Many of the top universities in the US are private. Examples of top private universities include MITHarvard, Stanford, YaleCaltech and Princeton  

However, public universities are often a cheaper option, and there are some very strong public universities to choose from. Two of the highest-ranked public universities are the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

At fourth and 18th respectively in the QS World University Rankings: USA 2021, UC Berkeley and Michigan have very little to separate them. However, there are some key differences to distinguish them, in terms of location, subject specialisations and key strengths.  

Here’s a summary of how these two top public universities in the US compare: 

 
 

Michigan 

UC Berkeley 

QS World University Rankings 2021: USA 

 

  • Ranked 18th in the USA in 2021 

  • 10th for research 

  • Joint 38th for learning experience  

  • 51-100 for diversity and internationalisation 

  • 13th for employability 

  • Ranked fourth in the USA 

  • Third for research 

  • Joint 38th for learning experience 

  • Joint 13th for diversity and internationalisation 

  • Eighth for employability 

 

Subject strengths* 

  • Ranked 29th in the world for arts & humanities 

  • 33rd for engineering & technology 

  • 26th for life sciences & medicine 

  • Joint 34th for natural sciences 

  • 22nd for social sciences & management 

  • Ranked joint fourth in the world for arts & humanities 

  • Seventh for engineering & technology 

  • Joint 20th for life sciences & medicine 

  • Eighth for natural sciences 

  • Seventh for social sciences & management 

Location 

Ann Arbor, a relatively small city in the south of Michigan. 

Berkeley, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, which has a very similar population to Ann Arbor. 

Student community 

Approx. 48,090 students enrolled (as of 2019

31,266 undergraduates; 16,824 graduate and professional students 

6,984 international students (15% of total) 

Approx. 42,347 students enrolled (as of 2020

30,799 undergraduates; 11,548 graduate and professional students 

6,662 international students (16% of total) 

Tuition fees 

For 2020-21, annual undergraduate tuition fees for non-Michigan residents are $52,263 

For 2017-2018, undergraduate tuition fees for international students are $44,008 per year 

*Based on the broad subject areas in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021. 

QS World University Rankings: USA 2021 

In the QS World University Rankings: USA 2021, Michigan and UC Berkeley both perform well. UC Berkley is the higher ranked of the two, in fourth place. Not far behind is Michigan in 18th. 

The universities both earn high scores across each of the indicators, but each clearly has its own strengths.  

Both universities earn top 10 places for the quality of their research output, with UC Berkeley ranking third and Michigan placing in 10th. UC Berkeley also places eighth in the USA for employability. Michigan narrowly misses out of the top 10, ranking 13th for the indicator.  

Berkeley also comes out ahead in the measure of diversity and internationalisation (joint 13th in the USA, while Michigan is 51-100). However, both universities tie on learning experience in joint 38th place. 

Subject strengths 

Another factor worth considering when comparing these two top public universities in the US is their performance in the latest QS World University Rankings by Subject.  

In the 2021 edition, both institutions perform well, with UC Berkeley appearing in the top 20 for all the five broad subject areas (achieving its best ranking for arts and humanities, at fourth in the world).  

Meanwhile, Michigan appears in the global top 40 for all five areas, achieving its highest score for social sciences and management (22nd).   

The table below shows how Michigan and UC Berkeley directly compare for all 46 disciplines covered in the 2021 subject rankings: 

Michigan and UC Berkeley in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021 

 
 

Michigan 

UC Berkeley 

Accounting & finance 

26th 

8th 

Agriculture & forestry 

-- 

9th 

Anatomy & physiology 

=18th 

-- 

Anthropology 

11th  

4th 

Architecture 

=31st  

7th 

Art & design 

101-105 

47th 

Biological sciences 

=29th 

6th 

Business & management 

27th  

13th 

Chemistry 

26th 

5th 

Classics & ancient history 

48th 

13th 

Communication & media studies 

20th 

10th 

Computer science 

46th 

5th 

Dentistry 

2nd 

-- 

Development studies 

-- 

7th 

Earth & marine sciences 

46th 

7th 

Economics 

19th 

5th 

Education 

17th 

8th 

Engineering (chemical) 

36th 

4th 

Engineering (civil) 

=35th 

4th 

Engineering (electrical) 

=25th 

3rd 

Engineering (mechanical) 

12th 

6th 

English language & literature 

=29th 

4th 

Environmental sciences 

=23rd 

9th 

Geography 

-- 

4th 

Geology 

51-100 

7th 

Geophysics 

=48th 

7th 

History 

12th 

8th 

Hospitality and leisure management  

51-100 

-- 

Law 

30th 

9th 

Library and information management 

17th 

=8th 

Linguistics 

52nd 

8th 

Materials science 

=34th 

8th 

Mathematics 

20th  

6th 

Medicine 

22nd  

-- 

Modern languages 

=31st 

4th 

Nursing 

17th 

-- 

Performing arts 

29th 

=24th 

Pharmacy 

=23rd 

-- 

Philosophy 

50th 

17th 

Physics & astronomy 

=34th  

6th 

Politics & international studies 

28th 

=10th 

Psychology 

8th 

5th 

Social policy & administration 

20th 

7th 

Sociology 

17th 

4th 

Sports-related subjects 

=17th 

-- 

Statistics 

15th 

7th 

Theology, divinity & religious studies 

51-100 

18th 

Location & student community 

Michigan and Berkeley may be difficult to choose between in terms of academic quality, but they certainly offer very different experiences when it comes to location.  

Over on the west coast in California, Berkeley is part of the San Francisco Bay Area, close enough to provide views of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. A relatively small city, Berkeley boasts a healthy cultural scene, an even healthier appetite for good food, and a strong history of liberal politics. It’s only 13 miles (21km) away from San Francisco, making it ideally located for day trips. 

Over towards the eastern side of the US, the University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor, another relatively small city where the university plays a prominent role in sports and cultural events. There’s a reasonable range of arts, music and nightlife venues, as well as water sports on the river and plenty of nearby parks and nature reserves for more outdoorsy students to explore. 

The University of Michigan has the larger student population, with more than 48,000 students, while Berkeley has around 42,350. At both, undergraduates constitute the largest segment of the student community – almost 65% at Michigan and 72% at Berkeley. 

Tuition fees and living costs 

The tuition fees charged at both Michigan and Berkeley vary depending on several factors, including study level, subject and (most importantly) whether you come from within the state or not. This last distinction has the biggest impact. At US public universities, tuition fees are much lower for resident (in-state) students. 

To find out exactly what fees you could face, check the university website for the most recent fees information, broken down by course, semester and class enrolments.  

To give an idea of the figures, Berkeley’s undergraduate fees for 2019-2020 are $14,254 per year for students from within California, and $44,008 for students from outside the state (including international students). Graduate tuition fees vary depending on the program, and differentiate between state residents and everyone else. 

In Michigan, tuition fees are broken down into two parts: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. The latest estimates add up to a total of $15,945 per year for in-state undergraduates, $52,263 for out-of-state undergraduates, $24,772 for in-state graduate students, and $49,548 for out-of-state graduates. 

For an idea of overall costs – including tuition fees, accommodation, food, transport, health insurance and other expenses – Berkeley advises undergraduate students should budget around $39,550(in-state) and $69,304 out of state. Students can use the university’s net price calculator to get a better idea of their costs. 

Michigan’s total estimated undergraduate budgets for the same items add up to $31,484-$33,484 (in-state) and $67,802-$71,464 (out-of-state) – making this the more expensive option of the two. However, most students do not actually pay this much, especially those from within the US who qualify for various need-based financial aid schemes.  

Financial support 

Higher education in the US is never cheap, but it also doesn’t usually end up costing as much as advertised, as many students qualify for financial aid.  

US Michigan offers free tuition for students whose family income is below US$65,000, and a quarter of in-state undergraduates pay no tuition due to financial aid. 

About 50% of non-resident undergraduate students at Michigan and two-thirds of all undergraduates at Berkeley receive some form of financial aid. This includes scholarships, grants, subsidized loans and work-study aid (a federally subsidized scheme which helps students earn money through part-time work). 

However, most financial support schemes are open only to students from within the US. For international students, alternative sources of support may be available via international agencies such as the Aga Khan Foundation or Fulbright Program for Foreign Students.  

Graduate students may also be able to find part-time work within the university, as teaching or research assistants. Finding financial aid which you’re eligible for is likely to require some research, but get started by checking our list of scholarships to study in the US

Which of the US’s top public universities would you choose? Share your opinion in the comments below, and find out more about studying in the US with our complete guide

This article was originally published in June 2017 . It was last updated in May 2021

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Written by

The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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