To identify the Best Colleges in Tennessee 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 Tennessee anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Tennessee
The best colleges and universities in Tennessee embrace Tennessee’s past while driving Tennessee’s future. The state is home to one of the prestigious Southern Ivies, Vanderbilt University 71 , a world-class private research university that stands alongside any of the world’s top institutions; it is also home to one of the nation’s most elite liberal arts colleges in Sewanee-The University of the South 73 . Schools like these turn their long heritage of excellence into fuel for the next generation of leaders in science, government, education, and culture. Tennessee’s public research and regional institutions bring the most current knowledge and expertise to the people, preparing a workforce for the changes the 21st century has brought to the South.
Tennessee’s religious roots also means a wealth of strong Christian liberal arts colleges and universities. While they come from a variety of denominations – from Methodist and Baptist to the Church of God and the Disciples of Christ – and some emphasize their faith more loudly than others, all of Tennessee’s Christian colleges are known for their commitment to service and good for their communities, from urban to rural, Mississippi Delta to Appalachia. People drive education, and education for the people is driving Tennessee straight into the future.
Here are the top colleges and universities of the Volunteer State.
Sewanee-The University of the South
One of the South’s most prestigious institution, Sewanee: The University of the South was founded in 1857 by the Episcopal Church. As reflected by the official name, “The University of the South,” the goal was to create a fully Southern university in character and heritage – one uninfluenced by the dominant Ivy League and liberal arts colleges of New England. The Civil War disrupted the building of the campus, and Sewanee was not able to officially open until 1868. Over the 20th and 21st century, Sewanee has transcended its associations with the Confederacy, and focused instead on building the future of the South as a liberal arts college preparing new generations of leadership for the New South. Sewanee is ranked one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 50 national liberal arts colleges, and a Princeton Review top 100 national university.
While Sewanee historically consisted of both undergraduate and graduate schools, including medical, nursing, and dentistry schools, in the late 1900s Sewanee phased out its graduate and professional programs to focus on undergraduate education, along with the School of Theology, the official seminary of the Episcopal Church in the US. From its 13,000 acre campus – called “The Domain” officially, but referred to by locals and students simply as “the Mountain” – Sewanee puts a strong emphasis on the traditional liberal arts, and on undergraduate research, with students working side-by-side with faculty on significant studies with real-world results. Its long heritage as one of the South’s intellectual hubs makes Sewanee one of Tennessee’s best universities.
Founded in 1848, Rhodes College has been through many phases in its long history, but remains one of Tennessee’s foremost institutions. Originally the Masonic University of Tennessee, by 1855 the university was turned over to the Presbyterian Church and renamed Southwestern Presbyterian University. Finally named for its former president, Peyton Rhodes, Rhodes College embarked on a long campaign to raise its reputation and standing, earning national recognition as one of the preeminent liberal arts colleges in the South. Today, U.S. News & World Report ranks Rhodes the #51 national liberal arts college, and the college has been acclaimed by the Princeton Review and Forbes, as well as being named a College that Changes Lives.
Rhodes College is primarily a traditional undergraduate liberal arts college, with a small student body of just over 2000, a 10:1 student:faculty ratio, and a decorated faculty. With its location in Memphis, one of the South’s major metropolitan areas, students have access to extensive internship, research, and community service opportunities, and the college is particularly known for its deep engagement with Memphis life – 80% of students participate in community service, and 70% complete internships. The student body is highly diverse, coming from nearly every state and more than 40 foreign nations, and the student body is nearly a third minority. Rhodes’ reputation has been steadily rising for 30 years, and shows no signs of stopping, making Rhodes College a top choice for Tennessee college students.
Often named one of the Southern Ivies – that elite collection of private research universities that rival the Ivy League, including Duke, Emory, and Rice among them – Vanderbilt University is one of the premier institutions in the South. Vanderbilt was founded in 1873 on a $1 million donation from Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Gilded Age railroad baron, who intended to help set the South on the right path after the Civil War. Originally associated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, Vanderbilt became independent in 1914. The university was central to the Southern Renaissance and Modernist literature in the early 20th century, establishing a lasting reputation for excellence in the humanities, fine arts, and letters.
Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 20 national universities, Vanderbilt has long been an academic, intellectual, and research capital of Tennessee, and of the South. The School of Medicine and School of Nursing, along with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, represent the heart of Tennessee’s healthcare system, including the state’s only Level I Trauma Center and one of the nation’s top teaching hospitals. From the School of Engineering to the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt’s professional programs and schools are crucial to Tennessee’s industry and government. Vanderbilt’s student body, more than half of which is made up of minority and international students, represents some of the best, most promising students the South has to offer, keeping Vanderbilt’s status as one of Tennessee’s top universities strong for generations to come.
Johnson City, TN
Milligan College began as the Buffalo Male and Female Institute in 1866, a rural school founded by the Disciples of Christ Church to bring basic education to a remote region without public schools. In 1881, the school was expanded to a college, and it quickly grew a strong local reputation for its outreach to the people of Tennessee’s Appalachian Mountains, from community engagement to educating young people from the region to be professional leaders, as well as ministers in the Christian Church. Today, Milligan is widely ranked as Tennessee’s top small liberal arts college, ranking in the top 25 regional universities according to U.S. News & World Report.
Milligan’s curriculum is rooted in the traditional liberal arts, with all students working through a common core of interdisciplinary courses with an emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and life-long learning. With its roots in the Disciples of Christ Church, Milligan is also committed to faith, infusing all of its programs with Christian belief and working to fulfil its mission of educating future leaders of the church, from ministry to professional careers to family and community. More than 100 majors, minors, and certificates give students a wide range of opportunity, and the Emmanuel Christian Seminary offers comprehensive ministry and religion programs from bachelor’s to doctorate, on-campus and online. Milligan College is a clear choice for Tennessee students who want a religious education from one of Tennessee’s best colleges.
The University of Tennessee-Martin
The University of Tennessee at Martin was not always a public regional university. The first institution at Martin, the Hall-Moody Institute, was a small, private primary and secondary school that offered one year of college study. From its founding in 1900, the school struggled to establish its relevance, eventually growing into a teacher’s college before merging with Union University, a Baptist college in Jackson, TN. The state of Tennessee, seeing its opportunity, bought the campus in 1927 and established the University of Tennessee Junior College, which grew into a university with the influx of post-WWII, GI Bill students, then even more with the Baby Boom wave. Today, UT Martin is ranked as one of the top 50 regional colleges in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
For a long time, UT Martin was the only public university in western Tennessee, and that enormous responsibility meant Martin had to build top-tier programs in nearly every field – and it did. From academic to professional, Martin offers more than 100 undergraduate majors and a full slate of graduate degrees, providing opportunity for students throughout the region. UT Martin’s nursing school is one of the South’s best, while its MBA program has educated many of Tennessee’s industry leaders. Martin is also the home of the UT system’s online programs, making it central to adult and continuing education, and cementing UT Martin’s status as one of Tennessee’s most important universities.
Nearly a century old, Lee University has been an inspiring success story over its history. Originally founded as a small Church of God Bible Training School in 1918, Lee was founded with the humble mission of teaching future ministers and church lay leaders about the Bible, but its growth over the 20th century saw Lee develop into a bible college, then a small liberal arts college. By the 21st century, Lee had grown into a comprehensive liberal arts university, and in recent years the college has earned national attention as a top-tier regional institution by the Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.
Lee University has been acclaimed as a top undergraduate educator, with an exemplary First-Year Experience and a strong foundational program of liberal arts, humanities, and sciences for all students. Lee’s philosophy of education is rooted in Church of God values and Christian faith, with an ultimate goal of producing Christ-centered leaders in professional careers and the church. While the college has traditionally been known for undergraduate education, since growing into a university Lee has put new emphasis on graduate degree programs designed for their use in the Church, including music, education, and ministry, as well as an acclaimed MBA program. With growing adult and online programs, Lee University looks ready to stand as one of Tennessee’s top universities well into the future.
Founded in 1889, Belmont University began as the Belmont College for Young Women, a small school built in the unlikely location of the Belmont Mansion; while the mansion had been one of the most impressive antebellum homes in the South, it was crumbling, but the college’s founders were inspired by the bell tower that they made the centerpiece of the campus. While the college came under control of the Tennessee Baptist Convention during financial hardships in 1951 – prompting its transition into a coeducational, 4-year college – Belmont became independent again in 2007, after a power struggle over the convention’s leadership in the school. Today, Belmont is a non-denominational Christian university ranked the #5 regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
Belmont has long been recognized as one of the most innovative institutions in the nation, and as its reputation has grown, so has its selectivity. While Belmont retains its Christian heritage and is proud of its Baptist roots, the university has also been recognized as one of the most progressive Christian colleges, including sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, for instance, and cultivating a reputation for diversity and inclusiveness. With around 8000 students, Belmont is the second-largest private university in Tennessee (after Vanderbilt), and with more than 75 majors, 25 master’s degrees, and 4 doctorates, it is one of the most comprehensive. A low student:faculty ratio keeps Belmont in the liberal arts college tradition, but its commitment to the future of work, knowledge, and research keeps Belmont one of Tennessee’s best universities.
Freed-Hardeman University has been many institutions in its long history, but it has consistently been dedicated to providing opportunity for the people of rural central Tennessee. In its first iteration, the Henderson Male Institute, was founded by members of the Churches of Christ in 1869, and that college went through numerous changes before closing in 1907 under the name Georgie Robertson Christian College. The National Teacher’s Normal and Business College took over the empty campus in 1908, providing teacher’s education and business programs; it was renamed Freed-Hardeman College ten years later to honor its founders, and continued building to university status by 1990.
Freed-Hardeman retains its historic affiliation with the Churches of Christ – in fact, members of the Board of Trustees must be members of the church – and the university’s curriculum is steeped in Christian values and faith. The university provides undergraduate, graduate, and professional education rooted in the Bible and Christian doctrine with the goal of preparing leaders trained to use their skills and abilities for the glory of God. Freed-Hardeman was initially a teacher’s and business school, and those remain its strongest programs, with the largest number of students concentrated in the business school. Freed-Hardeman is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top 40 regional institution for the South, and stands as one of the best universities in Tennessee.
The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
The roots of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga go back to Chattanooga University, a private Methodist college founded in 1886. However, that college merged with Grant Memorial University (now Tennessee Wesleyan College) to become the Chattanooga branch of the university; over the first half of the 20th century, the school was known as the University of Chattanooga, and as Chattanooga City College, before it was taken into the University of Tennessee system to establish its current form. Today, UT Chattanooga is ranked one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 regional universities, and is known as a central part of Tennessee’s higher education landscape.
UT Chattanooga is a premier urban research university, with highly-regarded programs in business – the College of Business has been nationally ranked by both Bloomberg Businessweek and the Princeton Review. UTC’s nursing programs supply nursing professionals to Chattanooga’s wide complex of hospitals and care facilities, while Chattanooga’s latter-day reputation as a startup and entrepreneurial hub has put UTC’s College of Engineering & Computer Science on the map. From adult education to professional preparation, UT Chattanooga is in tune with Tennessee’s needs for the future of work and leadership.
Tennessee Wesleyan University
Founded in 1857 as the Athens Female College, Tennessee Wesleyan University went through several name changes, including the Grant Memorial College, renamed in honor of Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to win support from Northern donors. While Grant Memorial took over Chattanooga University in 1889, the tables were turned when Grant Memorial became a branch campus of the newly-strengthened University of Chattanooga. Going independent in 1925, the school became a junior college, then a full 4-year college, finally reaching university status in 2016. Tennessee Wesleyan University is ranked #15 among Southern regional universities by U.S. News & World Report.
With just over 1000 students and a 12:1 student:faculty ratio, Tennessee Wesleyan University is a firm, traditional liberal arts institution, providing strong student support and individualized attention. TWU offers more than 30 undergraduate majors, and two fully online master’s degrees (the MBA, and the MS in Curriculum Leadership). The college has built on its heritage well, remaining student-focused throughout its growth, and preparing students for the modern world of work. Tennessee Wesleyan is also well known for its outreach to the community, earning the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll recognition and gaining ranking as a best value for its combination of affordability and quality. All of these qualities make Tennessee Wesleyan a clear choice for one of Tennessee’s best new universities.