UNC vs. Duke: Which School is Better?

May 3, 2024

unc vs duke

Red Sox or Yankees? Country or city? Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip? Duke University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? If you’re applying for college, the final pairing might be a question you’ve been pondering! Though these two schools are historically rivals, they share many similarities that make it difficult to determine which one is the “better” university.  It’s of course a silly idea: to compare Duke vs. UNC is ultimately an exercise in determining which comparable shades of excellence you prefer. And just like we all know – decidedly and irrefutably – that mayonnaise is better with hamburgers and Miracle Whip is best with salami, your choice of college will ultimately come down to context – a great fit for you might not be the best fit for someone else.

In this article, we’ll pit UNC vs. Duke to see how each school measures up in terms of location, history, academics, athletics, campus culture and more. Remember, though, everything is ultimately about your own personal needs and goals. Either of these schools would be a stellar choice!

Duke vs. UNC: Location & History

These two prestigious universities are located very close to one another in north-central North Carolina. Duke is nestled in Durham while UNC is just ten miles away in Chapel Hill. While both locales are reputed to be progressive, with exciting arts, entertainment and dining cultures, Durham is about four and a half times larger than Chapel Hill, giving the former a more lively, larger city aesthetic and the latter a charming, college-town feel. Location is definitely a factor to keep in mind as you choose your college, as many students end up spending more time on campus than they imagine and different locales offer varying opportunities in terms of extracurriculars, recreation, internships, and even job prospects after graduation.[i] Also, don’t think that you need to be a North Carolina native to apply to either Duke or UNC. Geographic diversity can actually help boost your application chances in some cases.

When it comes down to history, UNC vs. Duke is a tough competition – both schools have vibrant and long-standing pasts they can be proud of. In terms of age, UNC is the oldest public university in the United States, opening its doors to students in 1795. Over the past two hundred-plus years, UNC has been the site of tremendous historical achievement and movement: it is the only public university in the U.S. to have awarded degrees in the eighteenth century, it was an essential part of the U.S.’s WWII effort at home, and it was the site of crucial sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s (to name just a few examples!).

UNC vs. Duke: Which School is Better Academically? (Continued)

Historically, Duke was originally a religious institution, founded by Quakers and Methodists in Trinity, North Carolina in 1838 (the campus moved to Durham in 1892 and still retains an affiliation with the United Methodist Church). Notably, the Bassett Affair of 1903 (an important moment for both racial equality and academic freedom) occurred at Duke, its campus is the site of gorgeous Georgian and Gothic architecture from the early twentieth century, and in 2006, Duke University researchers mapped human chromosome 1 – the final chromosome to be sequenced in the Human Genome Project.[ii]

Finally, Duke boasts many notable alumni, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, NBA star Kyrie Irving, and former President Richard Nixon. Some of UNC’s most famous alumni, on the other hand, include actor Andy Griffith, basketball and soccer superstars Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm, and American novelist Thomas Wolfe. No matter whether you enter Duke or UNC, you’ll be joining a college with a rich historical legacy and plenty of famous former students!

UNC vs. Duke: Cost

A crucial difference in the battle between Duke vs. UNC is cost; while UNC is a public university (meaning it is funded by the state), Duke is private (meaning its funds come primarily from tuition, donations, and endowments). At first glance, Duke, with a yearly tuition of $66,172, seems to be quite a bit more expensive than UNC, with a yearly tuition of $8,998.[iii] However, out-of-state tuition for UNC students is $39,338, and federal loan recipients at UNC may only pay $13,263, while federal loan recipients at Duke need only pay $31,416 and around 50% of Duke students do receive some type of aid.[iv]

As such, while an education at UNC is ranked at a better value than Duke (see more on this below), your financial aid qualifications and home state can greatly affect the amount you’ll pay at each school. It’s critical to also remember that both UNC and Duke offer substantial scholarships for merit, and qualifying for one of these may make all the difference in the cost of your education.

Duke vs. UNC: Academics, Athletics, and Campus Culture

When it comes to academics, both Duke and UNC are excellent schools where you’ll get a top-notch education. If we pit Duke vs. UNC in terms of overall ranking, Duke currently wins at #7 in the U.S. while UNC is ranked at #22 (though it’s #4 for public schools!).  However, if you’re considering how much bang you’re getting for your buck, UNC is ranked at #14 best value, while Duke is ranked at #17. Additionally, depending on your intended major, one school might be ranked just as high (or even higher) than the other within specific programs. UNC’s business programs are ranked at #8 (with marketing and management at #7). Duke’s engineering school clocks in at #19. Both schools have stellar nursing programs (Duke is #1 and UNC is #4).

Though neither school is in the Ivy League, Duke is considered a “Little Ivy” and UNC is reputed to be a “Public Ivy” – meaning that both schools provide similar academic rigor, selectivity, and reputation as an Ivy League university. Additionally, Little Ivies are known for having notably large endowments and Public Ivies often have robust research facilities and opportunities for students.[v]  Also important in the UNC vs. Duke competition are student body size (Duke: around 6,640 undergraduates; UNC: 20,210 undergrads) and the student-to-faculty ratio, which at UNC is around 14:1 and at Duke is 6:1.

UNC vs. Duke: Which School is Better Academically? (Continued)

You may also be wondering about the demographics of each school, and with good reason. Studies have shown that campuses that promote diversity also foster social engagement, prevent student isolation, and see fewer instances of overt racism.[vi] These campuses also serve as launching pads for broader social justice: diversity in higher education can mean greater equity in wider contexts.[vii] The current racial and ethnic breakdown for admitted students at each school is as follows:


  • Caucasian / White: 65%
  • Asian American: 22%
  • Hispanic: 10%
  • African American: 10%
  • American Indian: 1%


  • Caucasian / White: 41%
  • Asian / Asian American: 13.9%
  • Hispanic: 7.67%
  • African American: 7.17%
  • American Indian: .0289%
  • Pacific Islander: .0624%

As you may already know, athletically, both schools are Division I in the NCAA and their basketball rivalry is legendary (in this particular instance of UNC vs. Duke, UNC wins with a current record of 145 – 117). At both schools, Greek Life has a strong presence, with around 37.2% of Duke undergraduates affiliated with sororities and fraternities and 20% of students from UNC affiliated with them.[viii]  There are also abundant extracurriculars at each university, from student newspapers like the Duke Chronicle or Daily Tar Heel to performance opportunities and intramural sports.

Duke vs. UNC: Acceptance Rate & Transfer Acceptance Rate

Both Duke and UNC have highly competitive admissions rates, though Duke is definitely the harder school to get into.

The UNC Chapel Hill acceptance rate is around 17%, with an early acceptance rate of around 21.9%. The average SAT scores are between 1350 and 1530, while the average ACT scores fall between 30 and 34. Recommendation letters, test scores, extracurriculars, GPA and class ranking are also crucial components in UNC’s admissions process.[ix] An important fact to consider is that a maximum of 18% of admitted students at UNC can be from out-of-state: the other 82% are comprised of North Carolina residents, and this certainly puts a spin on admissions ratios. In 2022, for instance, UNC had a 43% in-state acceptance rate but only an 8% out-of-state acceptance rate.

The Duke University acceptance rate is even lower, at only 6%.  For admitted Duke students, the average SAT scores fall between 1490 and 1570, while the average ACT scores are around 34 and 35. For Duke, recommendation letters, GPA, test scores, and class ranking are all important factors for admission. Additionally, though admissions interviews are not required at Duke, they can be an important feature in your potential acceptance to the school and are highly recommended.

UNC vs. Duke: Which School is Better Academically? (Continued)

Some college students discover that their first-choice school isn’t an ideal fit. Others initially get rejected from their top choice school and want to take a second chance at applying. For these students, it’s important to consider transfer rates. With the transfer acceptance rates for UNC vs. Duke, we can see a greater disparity. Both schools only offer a fall transfer option and require similar application materials, but the scoring requirements, GPA and admissions rates are quite different for UNC vs. Duke:


  • Transfer Acceptance Rates: 47%
  • Minimum GPA: 3.57 (higher GPAs will be needed for out-of-state students and those applying for more competitive programs)


  • Transfer Acceptance Rates: 4.5%
  • Minimum GPA: 3.7 (suggested 3.85 or above)

Duke vs. UNC: The Application

Sometimes “fit” comes down to “fate.” That is, sometimes the best school for you is the one you’re actually accepted to! So, if you simply can’t decide who wins in a Duke vs. UNC competition, the good news is that both Duke and UNC use the Common App, making it fairly simple for you to apply to both schools and try your luck at each (Duke also uses the Coalition App and the QuestBridge App)!

As you begin, here’s a quick rundown of some application dates for both UNC and Duke:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  • Early Action Deadline: October 15th
  • Application Deadline: January 15th
  • Application Fee: $85
  • ACT / SAT Scores Due Date: January 31st

Duke University

  • Early Decision Deadline: November 1st
  • Application Deadline: January 3rd
  • Application Fee: $85
  • ACT / SAT Scores Due Date: January 3rd

Good luck with your applications! Go Tar Heels! Go Blue Devils!


[i] Claybourn, Cole. “Urban, Suburban, and Rural Colleges: How to Choose,” U.S. News & World Report, 28 March 2023.  https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/how-to-choose-between-urban-suburban-and-rural-colleges

[ii] “Genetic Mapping of Human Chromosome 1 Completed, Offering Insights Into Human Health,” Duke Health, 17 May 2006. https://corporate.dukehealth.org/news/genetic-mapping-human-chromosome-1-completed-offering-insights-human-health

[iii]“University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tuition & Financial Aid,” U.S. News & World Report, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/university-of-north-carolina-at-chapel-hill-2974/paying

[iv] “Duke University Tuition, Cost, & Financial Aid,” U.S. News & World Report, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/duke-university-2920/paying

[v] Moll, Richard, The Public Ivy’s: A Guide to America’s Best Public Undergraduate Colleges and Universities. Viking Press, 1986.

[vi] Nave, Felecia M., Fred A. Bonner, Chance W. Lewis, Sherri Frizell, Ashley Parker, Michael McFrazier, and Petra A. Robinson, “African American Students’ Academic Achievement in STEM at HBCUs,” Advancing Educational Outcomes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. University Press of America, Inc., Lanham. p. 124.

[vii] Madhavi, Pardis. Social justice in, through, and beyond higher education. Inside Higher Ed. Times Higher Education. 24 March 2022.

[viii] Pachankar, Sana. “How Many Duke Students Belong to Greek Life or Selective Living Groups?” The Chronicle. 13 January, 2023. https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2023/01/duke-students-greek-life-fraternities-sororities-selective-living-groups-data