A Closer Look at Southeast Universities: Quantity and Quality

Photo courtesy of: https://www.kiplinger.com/

One of the convincing markers of success for a startup ecosystem is the presence of strong academic institutions. Universities, especially those with top engineering programs, tend to attract both talent and resources that foster successful startups. One year ago, if I had been asked the question, “What do you know about schools in the Southeast?” I would’ve responded with “Football and warm weather.” That was, embarrassingly, the extent of my knowledge about schools below the Mason Dixon. However, in my defense, a year ago I had just graduated from the University of Michigan after living and growing up in Michigan almost all my life. My excursions south consisted of either family trips to Florida amusement parks or college lacrosse trips to ACC athletic fields. I am quick to admit that my understanding of universities in the South was much less than robust. But, fortunately, things change. 
 
As of late last week, I have been a resident of Nashville, Tennessee for a full year. In addition, my work with a local startup has given me the opportunity to travel all around the area meeting a multitude of individuals, many of whom attended school in the Southeast. They’ve shared their stories and experiences and even given me the opportunity to visit their schools. I can confidently say that this region of the country is filled with amazing people and incredible universities, some of which you’ve probably never heard of.
 
Whether you’re looking to start an education in a high demand area like programming or product design or you’re wanting to further your business education, you can find top tier programs for both in the Southeast. The region is home to 17 top rated undergraduate engineering programs and 21 top rated MBA Schools. According to the U.S. News and World Report, in 2018, the Southeast (defined as North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida) was home to 15 universities ranking in the top 100 Best National Universities and 14 universities in the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges.

Below is a list of Southeastern universities that have caught my attention since moving down to Nashville. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, so please take no offense if certain schools are left out. This is merely a showcase of some of the great universities and colleges this amazing region has to offer. 
 
 North Carolina
 The Ones You Know:

  • UNC-Chapel Hill: The #5 Public University in the US is also home to the top-rated Kenan-Flager Business school. The university, with credit to its Innovate Carolina program, is well known for producing alumni who make an impact in the Research Triangle’s startup ecosystem.
  • Duke: Ranked 20th in the nation overall, Duke also has a top 20 undergraduate engineering program. One of the many ways Duke supports its student entrepreneurs is a unique year-long program, called the Duke Startup Challenge.
  • Wake Forest: One of the nation’s most respected private schools (#27 nationally), Wake Forest, is known for its academic excellence. In addition, it’s Center for Entrepreneurship offers an Entrepreneurship Minor as well as a multitude of co-curricular programs.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • NC State — Raleigh: NC State’s Centennial Campus in downtown Raleigh has the look and feel of a national tech hub. NC State has created a pipeline into the Research Triangle’s startup scene through its Entrepreneurship Initiative and Tech Incubator.
  • Davidson: Alumni Jay Hurt, pledged $5 million dollars to build The Hurt Hub@Davidson, a 23,000-square-foot renovated cotton mill. It aims to connect entrepreneurs, companies, community partners, and Davidson College in a world-class collaborative space.

South Carolina
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of South Carolina — Columbia: The University of South Carolina’s students have access to Columbia, South Carolina’s startup community through its USC/Columbia Tech Incubator.
  • Clemson: This Greenville, SC university has a multitude of resources available through their Spiro Institute. This includes a venture accelerator, a pitch smackdown, a hackathon and the Tiger Angel Network. It also has a strong talent pool nearby at both the BMW and Michelin headquarters.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Wofford College: With only 1600 undergraduate students, Wofford is one of the smallest schools on this list. The small South Carolina college has a unique Launch program designed to support its student entrepreneurs during their time on campus.

Virginia
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of Virginia: Located in Charlottesville, Virginia, this school was ranked the #3 Public School in the country. Students at UVA have the opportunity to get involved with the business school’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation by attending events, earning grants, becoming fellows and much more.
  • James Madison University: Located in northern Virginia, this school of around 20,000 has a top-rated undergraduate engineering program. In addition, in 2018 JMU was ranked the #3 most innovative school according to US News & World Report.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Washington and Lee: With an undergraduate enrollment of just under 2,000 this school might be small in numbers but not in what it offers students. The #7 Liberal Arts College has it’s very own Center for Entrepreneurship that hosts a 2-day entrepreneurship summit every year. Last year over 120 alumni and 250 students registered for the event.
  • William and Mary: This Williamsburg, Virginia school ranks 32nd on the list of National Universities. Its business school provides two centers for its students, the Center for Operations Management, Process Engineering, and Technological Expertise (COMPETE) and the Entrepreneurship Center.

Georgia
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of Georgia: The University of Georgia, ranked the 54th best national university, is another one of the larger state schools on this list. UGA has a nationally recognized college for Agriculture and Environmental Studies. Combine the fact that agriculture is Georgia’s top industry with the growing demand for agtech expertise and UGA seems to be on to something.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Georgia Tech: Right now Georgia Tech might just be the hottest school in the Southeast. Not only does Georgia Tech have a top 5 undergraduate engineering program, it is also has a campus building in Atlanta Tech Village. Students here have access to one of the hot-beds of American Innovation. Georgia Tech VentureLab has produced over 300 startups.
  • Spelman College: According to the 2016 #ProjectDiane Report, Spelman College is among the top 10 schools that produce Black women founders of technology companies. In addition, 25% of students graduate with a degree in a STEM discipline. Spelman is one of the local colleges contributing to Atlanta’s growing tech scene.

Tennessee
 The Ones You Know:

  • Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt, #14 on the list of Top National Universities, is an academic standout. The university also provides its students with a unique entrepreneurial experience. The Wondr’y provides speaker series, workshops, makerspaces and more. It also provides a unique opportunity for students to collaborate with corporate entities in Nashville, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
  • University of Tennessee: The University of Tennessee has a top-rated undergraduate engineering program. Students at UT also have the opportunity to be a part of an exciting entrepreneurial scene in Knoxville, TN.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Sewanee: The University of the South is another small liberal arts college on this list. Sewanee offers its students a co-curricular program that supports students for summer programs at the nation’s leading business schools. The Babson Center for Global Commerce also offers resources and experiences for students pursuing business focus.

Mississippi
 The Ones You Know:

  • The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss): Two hours north of Jackson, Mississippi, Ole Miss offers its roughly 23,000 students the opportunity to major OR minor in entrepreneurship. It also hosts an entrepreneurship speaker series to help educate its student body.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Mississippi State: The lesser known Mississippi state school offers a program called Venture Catalyst takes students through a 4 stage process that includes funding, training and mentoring.

Florida
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of Florida: UF prides itself on being a top-ranked national university with a prestigious undergraduate engineering program. UF’s 2018 Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium is one example of UF’s commitment to progress it’s student entrepreneurs.
  • University of Miami: Ranked 46th on the top National Universities list, the University of Miami has plenty to offer. Recently, The University of Miami and the Cambridge Innovation Center in Miami (CIC Miami) have partnered to build the area’s first shared wet lab space for early-stage biomedical startups. (CIC)

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • University of Central Florida: UCF is located in Orlando, Florida and is home to roughly 55,000 undergraduate students. The large school offers a multitude of degree options for its students. One unique offering is UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, the number one video game program in North America.

Kentucky
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of Kentucky: The University of Kentucky offers a unique semester-long program called Entrepreneur Bootcamp. The boot camp covers everything from idea conception to pitching.
  • University of Louisville: UofL has a well recognized undergraduate engineering program. The school also offers a nationally ranked Entrepreneurship MBA. Admissions are competitive as the program only admits 30 students per cohort.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Berea: A truly one-of-a-kind school, Berea does not charge its students tuition. The liberal arts college also offers an Entrepreneurship for the Public Good program that allows students an opportunity to work on entrepreneurial leadership in rural communities.
  • Centre College: Centre College is a top 50 National Liberal Arts College in Danville, Kentucky, about 35 miles south of Lexington. It offers over 50 Major options or you can even create your own major with the consultation of your advisor.

Alabama
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of Alabama: Roll Tide! ‘Bama is certainly known for its football but it also deserves to be recognized for its academic initiatives. ‘Bama has a top-rated undergraduate engineering program. In addition, the Alabama Entrepreneur Institute will soon be located in the new Edge Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in partnership with the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and the City of Tuscaloosa.

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham): Out of all the cities in the Southeast that I have visited Birmingham, Alabama might be the most surprising. The city has the resources and motivation to become a hotspot for innovation. A lot of that momentum can be attributed to the talented students at UAB.

West Virginia
 The Ones You Know:

  • University of West Virginia: Located in Morgantown, West Virginia, this state school offers nearly 200 bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional programs within 15 colleges

The Ones You Might Not Know (But Should):

  • Marshall University: The lesser know Marshall University, has around 10,000 undergraduates. MU recently added a BBA in Entrepreneurship as well as an Entrepreneurship Minor.

As you can see the Southeast region has no shortage of universities/colleges. There are plenty of big schools and small schools but this region is more than just numbers. These schools are producing top tech talent, the next business leaders and everything in between. As a high school student, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of only considering the schools you hear about on the news or the ones right down the street. My advice to any budding entrepreneur or individual hoping to pursue a career at a startup would be to keep an open mind while applying to colleges. Take the time to really look into what different schools have to offer and how their expertise and resources align with what you want to accomplish. I hope this list gives a glimpse into the amazing universities and colleges in the region. The Southeast has a lot more to offer than football and sunshine. Although as a native northerner, those are some pretty enticing perks as well.

For some final thought, I’ll leave you with some notable alums from schools here in the Southeast: 
 
 — Micky Arison: Carnival, Owner of Miami Heat
 University of Miami
 — Dave Ramsey: Radio Show Host
 University of Tennessee
 — Erin Andrews: Sports Caster
 University of Florida
 — Melinda Gates: Co-Founder of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
 Duke University
 — Michael Oher: Football Player, Inspiration for Blind Side
 University of Mississippi
 — Sarah Blakely: Founder of Spanx
 Florida State
 — Tim Cook: CEO of Apple
 Auburn University
 — Jimmy Wales: Founder Wikipedia
 Auburn University
 — Oprah Winfrey: OWN
 Tennessee State University
 — Charles Barkley:
 Auburn University