There are many universities and colleges in the United States with names such as "... State University".

The word state has many distinct meanings, but pertinent to this question are:

  1. government, ministry, administration, executive, regime, powers-that-be: The state does not collect enough revenue to cover its expenditure.
  2. One of the more or less internally autonomous territorial and political units composing a federation under a sovereign government: the 48 contiguous states of the Union.

(from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/state)

Thus, it is possible to take the name to mean "university belonging to one of the 50 states", eg Arizona as opposed to Alabama. It is also possible to take it to mean "university owned and operated by the state", as in, not privately funded.

The distinction is a bit pointless in English because of homophony, however other languages have different non-interchangeable words for state in the sense of "administrative subdivision of a federal government" (Russian, for example, calls the US states штат -"штатный университет"?-, with obvious etymology, and even Russia's own states get a different term, область, meaning roughly "region") and in the sense of "government-operated" (again, in Russian a state university in this sense would be государственный университет - eg Moscow State University, Московский государственный университет).

So in which sense are American state universities, "state universities"? Especially when translating, into languages such as Russian above, which meaning is more appropriate for selecting word choice?

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    Vote to close as General Reference: Merriam-Webster, and Wikipedia. Sep 16, 2012 at 19:39
  • And off-topic. The question depends on being able to read Russian, which isn't helped with the italic version of г (looks like a backwards s) and в (looks like e).
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 16, 2012 at 19:52

1 Answer 1


No, it doesn't mean any of these, exactly. This is a word that is used in a Proper Name.

And proper names use words in whatever sense they please. Take, for instance, the Junior in The Leland Stanford Junior University.

In the United States there are both public and private universities. Public univerities are almost always funded at the State level, so that there is generally a public University of StateName in every state. The University of Michigan, where I taught, is one such.

However, there is almost always more than one public university in every state. There is an entire hierarchy -- different in each state -- of public colleges and universities, of all sorts -- large and small, technical and general, local and statewide, graduate and undergraduate, research and teaching, etc.

In most states, this consists of another public university -- besides the flagship University of StateName -- which is called StateName State University. Often these started later, as specifically Agricultural and Mechanical schools (that's what the A&M in Texas A&M University stands for), and simply grew. Quite often there is still another tier, like Western Michigan State University, or Eastern Michigan State University.

Normally University of StateName is the largest, richest, and most prestigious public university in the state. This varies, however; The Ohio State University is much larger and more prestigious than The University of Ohio. And the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are about even (though both would deny this, for opposite reasons).

So state in the names of various state universities refers specifically only to one independent political subdivision of the United States. And the state is the ultimate authority for education in the USA -- in fact, 50 ultimate authorities, all different. This fact explains quite a lot about America.

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    "This fact explains quite a lot about America." Yep. In the absence of evidence to the contrary is is (almost) safe to assume that Foo State is a little less prestigious and historically specialized in more pedestrian subjects: State is likely to have a School of Agriculture and probably had a large civil engineering program in the past; The University of Foo is less likely to have an Ag school but probably includes a law school and may have a medical school. And so on and so forth. Sep 17, 2012 at 1:18
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    It should be noted, however, that not all states have a "StateName State University." Maryland, for example, has no Maryland State University. Sep 17, 2012 at 1:37
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    It's not always the case that the "University of _____" came first. Texas A&M predates that school in Austin by 7 years.
    – Dan
    Sep 17, 2012 at 2:25
  • Right. The point is precisely that every state is different. Really different. Also that there is no national curriculum in the USA. Every state (sometimes every county or city or school) is different. And there is no national certification of post-secondary education, so every college and university -- public or private -- is very different from every other one. Sep 17, 2012 at 3:24
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas -- Maryland does have Frostburg State University, Morgan State University, and (iirc) a few others, none nearly as prestigious as University of Maryland (Go Terrapins! You heard me.) Nov 27, 2012 at 9:41

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