To identify the Best Colleges in Kentucky for 2017-2018 we averaged the latest results from the most respected college ranking systems with thousands of real student review scores from around the web to produce a unique College Consensus rating for each school. You won’t find a more comprehensive ranking of the top colleges and universities in Kentucky anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Kentucky
The best colleges and universities in Kentucky have played a big role in developing the commonwealth’s uncommon personality. Some of Kentucky’s highest-ranked liberal arts colleges, including Transylvania University 65 and Georgetown College 58 , stretch back to the earliest days of the United States and before; others, like Centre College 70 and Berea College 66 , were intended to break boundaries and build progressive leadership, setting Kentucky on a path to cultural and social influence. Kentucky’s deeply Christian roots show in a number of top colleges, including the Catholic Bellarmine University 60 , the Methodist Kentucky Wesleyan College 62 , and the nondenominational Asbury University 68 .
To meet the growing needs of Kentucky’s high school graduates, professional students, and working adults, Kentucky has developed an impressive system of public regional universities. Morehead State University 61 and Murray State University 60 began as a pair of normal schools, preparing teachers for the school system in the eastern and western portions of the state, while Western Kentucky University 58 began as a private teacher’s and industrial school before being taken over by the state. While all of these have grown beyond their initial missions, they have maintained an emphasis on practical education in the fields that Kentucky’s people need the most, earning reputations for excellence, value, and social improvement.
Here are the top colleges and universities of the Bluegrass State.
Founded in 1819 by the Kentucky General Assembly, Centre College was designed to be Kentucky’s elite liberal arts college, with a board made up of the commonwealth’s most influential leaders. Over its nearly two centuries, Centre has made a lasting impact on Kentucky (it was a Centre alumnus who set Abraham Lincoln on the path to study law), and alumni include senators and representatives, Supreme Court Justices, and other leaders in Kentucky and nationally. While small, Centre’s influence has stretched far, and today Centre College is ranked in the U.S. News & World Report top 50 national liberal arts college, and the Forbes top 100 national universities overall – impressive for a college of fewer than 1500 students in rural Kentucky.
Centre College’s curriculum is based on a traditional liberal arts model, with students working through a common foundation of core courses and going on to earn their degree in a specialized major. While Centre is still loosely associated with the Presbyterian Church USA, it is not considered a religious college; the classical humanities and sciences provide the basis for education. Centre has historically been Kentucky’s top institution for Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, Goldwater Scholars, and other top honors, and has the highest graduation rate of any Kentucky college. A 4-1-4 schedule offers student a short, one-credit specialized course between traditional semesters; “The Art of Walking,” which combines philosophy and hiking, has been one of Centre’s most famous courses. Innovation and tradition combine to make Centre College one of Kentucky’s best.
Founded as the Kentucky Holiness College in 1890, Asbury University comes from the rugged pioneer spirit that inspired the Methodist circuit riders (traveling evangelists who helped settle the frontier). Kentucky Holiness was renamed Asbury University in honor of the man called the “Father of American Methodism,” Francis Asbury, who spread the Wesleyan faith across Kentucky. While Asbury is proud of its Wesleyan-Holiness heritage, today Asbury University is a non-denominational Christian liberal arts college, ranked #15 in the U.S. News & World Report listing of the best regional institutions in the South for 2018.
Asbury University is a primarily undergraduate institution, with more than 1300 traditional undergraduates, and around 500 adult degree-completion and graduate students. The curriculum is based on a traditional liberal arts format, with students working through foundational course in the humanities and sciences and earning a bachelor’s degree in their chosen major, guided by the Wesleyan values of reason, experience, faith, and tradition. In the 21st century Asbury began offering master’s degrees in education that have become standards for Kentucky, and an adult education program has expanded the university’s reach well beyond traditional-aged students. Asbury University is looking to the future of Kentucky’s leadership and workforce, making it one of the state’s top universities.
Berea College, founded in 1855, was radical from the start. Its founder, abolitionist John Gregg Fee, opened Berea to all races and genders, making it the first coed, integrated college in the South. That spirit of resistance extended all the way to a Supreme Court case fighting segregation (back in 1908!), and the establishment of the Lincoln Institute (an all-black school) when the state forced it to segregate; Berea re-integrated as soon as the law allowed, in 1950. Today, Berea is ranked one of the top 10 undergraduate educators, and top 60 national liberal arts colleges, by U.S. News & World Report, and is rated by Washington Monthly as one of the best colleges in the nation for social mobility.
Berea College maintains its tradition of inclusion and accessibility in many ways, including an extensive scholarship program that ensures that all students receive a full tuition scholarship, as well as mandatory work study programs to pay any other expenses and give students a sense of responsibility and ownership. Only students who qualify for financial aid are admitted, including 75% from the Appalachian region, and international students who come from a distressed area are given special consideration. Berea is highly selective, but those accepted have access to one of the strongest faculties in the region, as well as a program that has not only been named a best value, but one of the best in the nation for helping students raise their social class and become valued service leaders.
Kentucky’s oldest college, Transylvania University was founded in 1780, well before Kentucky even existed; at the time the region was the Transylvania Colony;meaning “Across the Woods,” it was the first settlement beyond the Allegheny Mountains. The territory was disputed between North Carolina and Virginia, but it was the Virginia Assembly (under governor Thomas Jefferson) that chartered the school as a seminary. From a log cabin to a historic campus in Lexington, KY, Transylvania grew quickly as Kentucky became a state and the population boomed; soon a medical school, law school, and divinity school had been added to the traditional liberal arts college. Today Transylvania is ranked as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, as well as a top 10 value, by U.S. News & World Report.
While Transylvania was once Kentucky’s main comprehensive university, today it stands as a traditional liberal arts college, with a reputation for academic rigor and intensive undergraduate research. Transylvania’s curriculum is rooted in the classical humanities and sciences, with critical thinking, communication, and adaptable skills central to education in all disciplines. The university’s pre-professional programs are especially successful; 100% of pre-law graduates are accepted into law school, and 90% of pre-med students. Overall, a 95% job or graduate school placement rate for graduates is an indication of Transylvania’s quality, much owed to an 11:1 student:faculty ratio that offers students the best possible support and mentorship. Transylvania University defines the very best liberal arts education Kentucky has to offer.
Kentucky Wesleyan College
Founded in 1858 by the Methodist Episcopal Church (now part of the United Methodist Church), Kentucky Wesleyan College was first intended to train clergy for the church, but as the college expanded, traditional liberal arts degrees and business programs were added. The college became coed after moving to Winchester, KY in 1890, then continued to grow, moving to its current location in Owensboro, a larger city offering more opportunity to growth. Today, Kentucky Wesleyan is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 10 regional institutions in the South, with a strong reputation for academic excellence and value.
Kentucky Wesleyan is a small school, with fewer than 1000 traditional-aged undergraduates, but a wide variety of opportunities are available, including more than 30 majors and a dozen pre-professional programs With its roots in the Methodist Church, and a commitment to the classical liberal arts, Kentucky Wesleyan’s education is built on a dedication to support, integrity, and Christian values. A low 12:1 student:faculty ratio – 9:1 for pre-professional programs – gives KWC students a high level of support. In recent years, Kentucky Wesleyan has added highly ranked, fully online programs in a number of disciplines, including business, criminal justice, and graphic design; these have earned KWC a new level of national recognition and a growing reputation as an online educator, making Kentucky Wesleyan College a force in the future of Kentucky’s higher education system.
Morehead State University
Morehead State University began its life in 1887 as the private Morehead Normal School, a teacher training school based on the French “normal” model, which was considered the standard of the era; student teachers learned experientially, on the job in a real classroom, for two years. As standards changed, Morehead was taken over by the state and became a teacher’s college offering full 4-year education degrees. Slowly, programs in the liberal arts and professional studies were added, moving Morehead State Teacher’s College to Morehead State University, a comprehensive regional university. Today, Morehead State is ranked one of the top 25 regional public universities in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
Morehead State offers more than 200 degree programs, from 2-year associate’s degrees to master’s programs, as well as one doctoral degree in Education. Among MSU’s distinctions is a rare bachelor’s program in space science, one of only 5 in the nation; its partnership with NASA includes a Space Science Center and a major space tracking system. In the 21st century Morehead State has become known for its excellent online programs; it was the first university in Kentucky to offer a fully online MBA, and more than two dozen fully online degree programs have made MSU one of Kentucky’s biggest online educators. With an eye to the commonwealth’s future, Morehead State University is one of Kentucky’s more important universities.
A private, Catholic liberal arts college, Bellarmine University was founded in 1950 by the Archdiocese of Louisville. Despite its name – honoring Saint Robert Bellarmine, the 17th century theologian who led the Roman Inquisition trials against Bruno and Galileo – Bellarmine has been known throughout its history for its progressive and inclusive spirit, accepting students of all faiths and races, and supporting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Beginning in the 1990s, Bellarmine began a campaign to become Kentucky’s premier private research university, akin to Duke or Stanford, and the university’s profile has steadily risen in the 21st century. Today Bellarmine is ranked in the top 15 regional universities in the South, and is gaining in national recognition.
As part of its intensive effort to grow and develop, Bellarmine has added dozens of new programs since the turn of the century, offering more than 50 undergraduate majors, while building its professional programs into some of the state’s best. The Lansing School of Nursing & Health Sciences, the Rubel School of Business, and the Thornton School of Education are all recognized as top programs, with numerous graduate degrees, including master’s and doctorates. Bellarmine is also becoming known for its study abroad programs, with more than a third of students taking part in more than 150 programs in 60 nations. As Bellarmine’s star rises, Kentucky students can expect to see Bellarmine University dominating at a national level.
Murray State University
Founded in 1922, Murray State University was created by the commonwealth General Assembly as the normal school for the western part of the state (its counterpart, Morehead State University, took over a private normal school in the east). Both were founded to close a concerning gap in qualified schoolteachers that began to appear as Kentucky’s population grew, and both quickly expanded to meet demand. The normal school model was already coming to a close, so within a few years Murray State had grown into a 4-year college, and began offering more liberal arts and pre-professional programs. Today, Murray State is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top regional institution for the South (#32 as of 2018), and #11 among public universities.
Murray State has a student body of well over 10,000, though the school has historically been a primarily commuter campus; just over 2000 students actually live on campus as conventional residential undergraduates. With associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees programs – well over 100 in all – Murray State is able to meet most of the needs of the Kentucky’s western residents, but the university is also growing beyond the usual bounds of a regional college, including more than 1000 international students. With its roots in a normal school, Murray State is one of Kentucky’s best universities for aspiring teachers, while its fine arts programs (particularly music) are also highly respected. Murray State’s profile is growing, and Kentucky’s students will be all the richer for it as time goes by.
Georgetown College, as it stands today, was founded in 1829 in Georgetown, KY, but education in that location dates back to 1787, to the Royal Springs Academy, a local school founded by Elijah Craig (a noted Baptist evangelist, educator, and entrepreneur who invented – or at least first successfully marketed – bourbon whiskey). That school struggled and finally closed in 1829, leaving behind a place for the Kentucky Baptist Education Society to open a college. While the Kentucky Baptist Convention controlled the college for the majority of its history, in 2005 Georgetown renegotiated their relationship, gaining more independence from the convention while keeping its historical affiliation. Today, Georgetown College ranks in the top tier of national liberal arts colleges, and is widely admired throughout Kentucky for its educational excellence.
Georgetown is noted as one of the most rigorous colleges in Kentucky, with some of the most accomplished students; it is the only college in the state to be twice honored as a top producer of Fulbright Scholars. With a curriculum rooted in the traditional liberal arts, Georgetown offers a wide variety of undergraduate majors and minors, but takes pride in preparing students for life with the adaptable skills of the humanities and sciences – critical thinking, research, and communication. In recent years, Georgetown has been ranked as the best private college in Kentucky for online graduate education degree programs. With a history that dates back to the earliest days of Kentucky, and a vision for the future, Georgetown College is a top Kentucky institution.
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY
Western Kentucky University charts its beginnings back to 1876, to a private normal and business school in Glasgow, KY. That school moved to Bowling Green, KY, and when the commonwealth decided to establish a new public normal school, it bought out the private college and established the Western Kentucky State Normal School, which was built on the campus of a former women’s college. Through merger with two other Bowling Green colleges, and steady growth in student body and programs, Western Kentucky reached university status, all the while building a reputation throughout the region for support, outreach, and quality. Today, WKU ranks as a top Southern regional institution, according to U.S. News & World Report.
As a regional public university, Western Kentucky is responsible for providing the best educational opportunities possible to the people of Kentucky, and it does so with all the 21st century has to offer. WKU is known for excellent undergraduate and graduate education, including exceptional and unusual programs such as the second bachelor’s program in popular culture ever offered in the US, and the largest Folklore master’s program. WKU is also a national leader in online education, offering more than 30 fully online master’s degrees, more than a dozen bachelor’s, and numerous certificates and associate’s degrees. For their outreach to Kentucky’s young people and working adults, WKU has been named one of the top colleges in the nation for social mobility.