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

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

Many of the top universities in the USA are private. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, Princeton…the list goes on. Public universities are often a cheaper option though, and there are some very strong public universities to choose from. Two of the highest-ranked are the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

At joint 21st and 27th respectively in the QS World University Rankings® 2018, Michigan and UC Berkeley have very little to separate them. However, there are some key differences to distinguish them, in terms of location, subject specializations and key strengths. Here’s a summary of how these two top public universities in the US compare.



UC Berkeley

QS World University Rankings® 2018

Ranked joint 21st in the world

Rated 19th in the world by academics and 58th by employers

126th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

78th for faculty/student ratio

279th for percentage of international students; 204th for percentage of international faculty

Ranked 27th in the world

Rated third in the world by academics and ninth by employers

13th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

358th for faculty/student ratio

267th for percentage of international students; 85th for percentage of international faculty

Subject strengths*

Ranked 33rd in the world for arts & humanities

49th for engineering & technology

31st for life sciences & medicine

58th for natural sciences

33rd for social sciences & management

Ranked fourth in the world for arts & humanities

Eighth for engineering & technology

14th for life sciences & medicine

Seventh for natural sciences

Seventh for social sciences & management


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. 44,700 students enrolled (as of Fall 2016)

28,983 undergraduates; 15,735 graduate and professional students

6,764 international students (15% of total)

Approx. 40,170 students enrolled (as of Fall 2016)

29,310 undergraduates; 10,863 graduate and professional students

6,654 international students (16.5% of total)

Tuition fees

For 2017-2018, annual undergraduate tuition fees for non-Michigan residents are $56,763.

For 2017-2018, undergraduate tuition fees for international students are $42,802 per year.

*Based on the broad subject areas in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017.

 UC Berkeley

QS World University Rankings® 2018

In the QS World University Rankings 2018, Michigan and UC Berkeley are just six places apart – Michigan is joint 21st, while UC Berkeley is 27th. Both have very strong global reputations, but the Berkeley brand is particularly strong. UC Berkeley is ranked third in QS’s huge global survey of academics and ninth in the survey of graduate employers, while Michigan is rated 19th and 58th respectively.

Berkeley also comes out ahead in the measure of research citations per faculty (13th in the world, while Michigan is 126th), suggesting its research is having a wider impact. But Michigan is significantly ahead on faculty-student ratio (78th, while Berkeley is 358th) – an indicator which is intended to give an idea of how much contact time students may be able to expect from academic staff members.

Finally, in terms of international diversity of staff and students, Berkeley receives a much stronger score for the percentage of international faculty members (it ranks within the top 100, whereas Michigan is 204th). However, both universities receive similar scores for their percentage of international students, suggesting they’ve been less successful in attracting students from outside the US.

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 2017 edition, both institutions perform well, with UC Berkeley appearing in the top 15 for all the five broad subject areas (achieving its best ranking for arts and humanities, at fourth in the world), while Michigan fares less well. Despite this, it nonetheless appears in the global top 60 for all five areas, achieving its highest score for life sciences & medicine (31st).  The table below shows how Michigan and UC Berkeley directly compare for all 46 disciplines covered in the 2017 subject rankings:

Michigan and UC Berkeley in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017



UC Berkeley

Accounting & finance



Agriculture & forestry



Anatomy & physiology












Art & design



Biological sciences



Business & management






Communication & media studies



Computer science






Development studies



Earth & marine sciences









Engineering (chemical)



Engineering (civil)



Engineering (electrical)



Engineering (mechanical)



English language & literature



Environmental sciences















Materials science









Modern languages






Performing arts









Physics & astronomy



Politics & international studies






Social policy & administration






Sports-related subjects






Theology, divinity & religious studies




University of Michigan

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 watersports 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 44,700 students, while Berkeley has around 40,170. At both, undergraduates constitute the largest segment of the student community – almost 65% at Michigan and 73% at Berkeley.

Sather Gate 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 enrollments. To give an idea of the figures, Berkeley’s undergraduate fees for 2017-2018 are $16,486.50 per year for students from within California, and $43,168.50 for students from outside the state (including international students). Graduate tuition fees vary depending on the program, and also differentiate between state residents and everyone else.

At Michigan, tuition fees are broken down into two parts: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer. The latest estimates add up to a total of $18,003 per year for in-state undergraduates, $56,763 for out-of-state undergraduates, $27,822 for in-state graduate students, and $55,777 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 $24,090-33,400 (in-state) - with variation depending on whether students are staying with relatives, on campus or in private accommodation. No figures are directly available for out-of-state residents, but students can use the university’s net price calculator to get an idea of their costs.

Michigan’s total estimated undergraduate budgets for the same items add up to $35,833-55,058 (in-state) and $74,593-83,013 (out-of-state) – making this the more expensive option of the two. However, the majority of students do not actually pay this much, especially those from within the US who qualify for various need-based financial aid schemes. Speaking of which…

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. 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.

Devan S, John C & 38 others saved this
Written by Laura Bridgestock
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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The indicators for faculty student ratio in this ranking are not reflecting reality. For example, U Michigan has student faculty ratio of 14:1. Its indicator for this is scored at 94.3. UC Berkeley has a student faculty ratio of 18:1 and yet its indicator is scored at 28.9. Princeton has a student faculty ratio of 6:1, its indicator is only scored at 70.3. With 20% weight, this will have big impact on the ranking order. If UC Berkeley's indicator was scored at merely 50, it would have a total overall score of 89.2, which would give it the ranking at 16, slightly behind Yale and ahead of Columbia. To be ahead of U MIchigan, Berkeley's student faculty ratio needs to be scored just at 45, which should be justified given its F/S ratio at 18 and Michigan's S/F ratio at 14:1 with an indicator at 94.3. I truly believe Berkeley is a global top 10 university as evidenced by other ranking systems.

Thanks for the nice piece.

Both schools are outstanding. Michigan has a better undergraduate business school with brand new state of the art facilities. Berkeley better at science and engineering than Michigan. Both have world class liberal arts education. No question that Berkeley physical setting is better but Ann Arbor is a better college town as Berkely is rougher. I studied at michigan and did some post grad at Berkeley. Found them to be similar in many ways. If you like one, you will like the other. I would that that both are suited for the aggressive learner that takes charge of their own learning. While both schools have a stunning level of learning resources and support, you must always seek it out yourself. There is zero coddling and little proactive support. A great training ground for the real world. But overwhelming for more passive types. I went to ivy league MBA after Munich and was surprised to see that there were as many grads from Mich, Berkeley (and uva) as there were from Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Graduate schools know the quality of this education and the toughness necessary to succeed at these elite public schools.

Berkeley alum (SociologhPublic policy):

Well stated. I have a great deal of respect for Michigan (and UVA, the original public ivies). It has been my experience that graduate student instructors from Michigan are exceptionally bright and are tough but fair graders.

i am fayma nury..from Bangladesh..i would like to study in university of US Berkeley..But i don't know how can it possible?i don't know any ways to study in this university and also don't know how can i cpmmunicate??plz help me.

Hi Fayma,

To study at UC Berkeley the first thing you'll need to do is find out whether you meet the entry requirements. These requirements vary depending on the program you wish to study, so to find out, simply search for the program you're interested in on the UC Berkeley website - http://www.berkeley.edu/academics/dept/a.shtml.

If the grades required aren't listed along with the program information, search for an admissions department email address and email them for more information. If you provide them with some information about your own circumstances, they may be able to help you further. For more information on contacting universities, this article may help - https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/admissions-advice/university-application-queries-who-how-when-what-ask.

Don't worry if you discover that UC Berkeley is out of your grasp however, because there are plenty of other respective universities in California alone, not to mention the whole of the US! There may also be universities which better suit your subject and interests and have lower entry requirements.

To discover great universities in your field, have a look at our most recent subject rankings here - https://www.topuniversities.com/subject-rankings - just click on your subject and specify your country of study. After that you'll have to search for the entry requirements for each shool, just as you did for UC Berkeley.

Hope this helps!

Good luck,


thank you very much.this information was very useful. i am a Ghanaian high school graduate. i would like to pursue an undergraduate degree in international business or accounting at BC Berkley University.i would like to know the opportunities available to me, the necessary application procedures and the financial support i may get as i do not want financial constraints to prevent me from continuing my education

It will be great if there is a comparison between UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles and a comparison between Australian National and U of Melbourne.

Thanks for the suggestions! We do in fact have a comparison of Australian National and Melbourne, here: https://www.topuniversities.com/where-to-study/oceania/australia/australian-national-university-or-university-melbourne

It's currently based on last year's rankings results, but most of the information there is still relevant. You can also compare any set of universities using the World University Rankings: https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/world-university-rankings/2013

Just select the universities you're interested in, and then click on the 'Compare' button. (You need to be logged in to the site to access this function.)

Hope this helps!