To identify the Best Colleges in Illinois 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 Illinois anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Illinois
The state of Illinois illustrates the concept of the American melting pot, forged over the last 200 years into a diverse, culturally complex vision of the past and future – European-American, African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Hispanic-American, all drawn to the opportunity the Great Plains and Great Lakes afforded. And the best colleges and universities in Illinois follow the same pattern, bringing together people from across Illinois, the US, and the world to earn their credentials, expand their minds, and build a society for the future.
From the major public research University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 70 , an innovative institution at the forefront of social science, computing, and engineering, to the majestic University of Chicago 80 , one of the world’s most elite and influential private research institutions, Illinois has every level of higher education covered in kind. Together, these institutions have graduated many of the state’s leaders, from government and business to the arts, while the small liberal arts colleges and regional public universities have built reputations on student support, service, and commitment to the good of Illinois’ citizens. For prospective Illinois college students, there is a wealth of opportunity, and the support they need – whether traditional-aged young people, or working adults and career-changing professionals – to make their own mark on Illinois history.
These are the top colleges and universities for the Prairie State.
University of Chicago
Founded in 1856, the University of Chicago only narrowly came through the Civil War period, with support endangered due to its slave-owning founder. It was not until the university was reconstituted by the American Baptist Education Society as a coed, independent institution that the University of Chicago began its ascension. The oil baron John D. Rockefeller gave the crucial donations that started the university’s amazing endowment, which is now over $7 billion, making U of C one of the wealthiest colleges in the nation. Today the University of Chicago is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the #3 university in the nation, and has been the institutional home of nearly 100 Nobel Prize winners, 50 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellows, and countless other national and international awardees.
U of C is a major, internationally-renowned private research university, and its admissions standards are highly selective. Undergraduate studies are highly rigorous, while graduate students take part in some of the most expansive, cutting-edge research opportunities in the world. Chicago faculty and students have made world-changing insights into everything from oncology (discovering a link between cancer and genetics) to economics. The Booth School of Business, the School of Law, the Pritzker School of Medicine, and the Divinity School are all considered leaders in their field, while numerous laboratories, research centers, libraries, and the University of Chicago Press all contribute to worldwide knowledge. The University of Chicago is not just the best college in Illinois – it’s among the best colleges anywhere in history.
Named for the Northwest Territory, the region that had included Illinois before statehood, Northwestern University was founded in 1851, when Illinois was still a developing frontier. Northwestern was the first university chartered in the state, intended to act as a regional institution offering educational opportunity to the people of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and other surrounding states. Located in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, Northwestern has grown into one of the nation’s premier private research universities, with a nearly $10 billion endowment and an incredibly selective admission rate – just 9% of applicants are accepted. Northwestern is U.S. News & World Report’s #12 national university.
While Northwestern’s heritage is in the traditional liberal arts, there is no prescribed basic curriculum, with each program determining their own path for majors. That allows the schools to determine what their students need most, and develop a course sequence that better prepares graduates for the specific requirements of their field. Built on a quarter system (like the University of Chicago), Northwestern’s schedule uses intensive 10-week courses in four semesters, giving undergraduates a deep dive into each subject. Graduates students have access to top-tier research faculty, facilities, and projects, including engineering, education, journalism and communications, and other professional fields. Meanwhile, the Kellogg School of Management, the Feinberg School of Medicine, and the School of Law are internationally renowned and recognized among the best in their disciplines.
Wheaton College (IL)
Wheaton College is a small, non-denominational Christian institution in the quaint Chicago suburb of Wheaton. Founded by bold, radical abolitionists, Wheaton was a safe harbor on the Underground Railroad and the first college in Illinois to graduate an African-American student. That tradition of diversity and progressivism has continued until today, with Wheaton acclaimed not only for academic rigor, but community engagement. Wheaton has been named the top-scoring Christian liberal arts college in America by the Princeton Review, and ranked among the best national liberal arts colleges according to U.S. News & World Report, especially for retention and graduation rates.
In addition to its overall rankings, U.S. News placed Wheaton in the top 10 nationally for undergraduate teaching, reflecting the college’s commitment to the mission it began more than a century and a half ago. Wheaton infuses its Christ-centered perspective into all of its programs, dedicating their curriculum to educating ethical and moral leaders in every area from business and government to education and health. Wheaton is also committed to keeping its education financially accessible, and has been recognized by Forbes, Kiplinger’s, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges as a best value. From top-tier liberal arts education to community impact, Wheaton College easily earns its reputation as a top Illinois college.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Founded in 1867, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the flagship of the University of Illinois system and one of the foremost public research institutions in the Midwest. As a land-grant institution, UI was founded to bring together the traditional bedrock of western liberal arts with what was then the newest innovations in science, agriculture, and mechanics (the precursor to modern engineering). Its original name, the Illinois Industrial University, reflected its contemporary spirit. Today, UI is ranked the #11 national public university, and in the top 50 out of all universities, by U.S. News & World Report.
UI has been at the forefront of research in science, social science, and the humanities since its birth. Illinois pioneered disability studies and accessibility, originally to give disabled WWII veterans the same GI Bill opportunities as their counterparts, and also established the first research center for special education for disabled children. Meanwhile, UI helped set standards for computer science and engineering, and is the site of the largest academic supercomputer in the nation. UI engineering – including civil, agricultural, and materials engineering – is ranked in the top 10 nationally, while UI’s library and information science program – aided by the second-largest university library (after Harvard) – is ranked #1. Whatever the field, University of Illinois graduates can be confident they have received their education from one of Illinois’ best universities.
A small, private research institution in Peoria, IL, Bradley University began its history in 1897 as Bradley Polytechnic Institute. Based on the polytechnic model, which emphasized hands-on, experiential learning in the sciences and engineering, Bradley started with a Horological School (the first watch-making school in the US) and expanded over time into a full undergraduate college, incorporating traditional liberal arts programs alongside their career, technical, and professional programs. Today Bradley is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the #6 regional institution in the Midwest, as well as a best value for their combination of excellence and return on investment.
Bradley is well known and respected in the region for its spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. In fact, Bradley was the first university to establish a dedicated entrepreneurship school, the Turner School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a leading-edge center ranked by the Princeton Review and Forbes as one of the best programs of its kind in the nation. Students benefit from a low student:faculty ratio, which means access to many of the resources of a larger research university, but with the ample student support of a small liberal arts institution. The Bradley name is trusted throughout the Midwest, and Bradley graduates trust their education to take them wherever they want to go – the hallmark of a top university.
A small, private liberal arts college in Galesburg, IL (a town named for the college’s founder, George Washington Gale), Knox College was founded in 1837 by a group of Congregationalist and Presbyterian abolitionists. From its founding Knox was known for progressivism, insisting on a financially accessible education for people of all backgrounds and races, and taking a stand for the educational rights of women. Today, Knox is still renowned for excellence and service, ranked in the top 100 national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and the Princeton Review; significantly, Knox has also been named one of the Colleges That Changes Lives for their outreach and commitment to diversity.
Knox College’s mission is rooted in the open, welcoming values of the Midwest; their values even explicitly include “nice,” meaning generosity, kindness, and tolerance. While based in the traditional liberal arts, Knox put a priority on incorporating the most current knowledge and research into building an interdisciplinary, experiential learning environment focused on personal and community growth. With a 12:1 student to faculty ratio, students get excellent support and mentorship, and an emphasis on service means a majority of students take their work and learning out into the community; Knox has been named in Washington Monthly’s community service rankings for five years straight. Knox knows what it means to be one of the best colleges in Illinois – dedication to the people and needs of Illinois.
Eastern Illinois University
Founded in 1895 as a normal school (the 19th century’s most innovative method of teacher education), Eastern Illinois University is a small, public regional institution dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Illinois’ eastern edge – Abraham Lincoln’s homeland. Like other normal schools, EIU changed as the normal school model progressed to the teacher’s college, and eventually EIU reached the status of a regional university, offering educational opportunity for around 7500 students, including traditional college-aged students and working adults. Eastern Illinois has been named ranked Illinois’ best regional university by U.S. News & World Report.
With a 14:1 student to faculty ratio, students at EIU get the kind of close, personalized attention usually associated with a small liberal arts college, but they also have access to the resources and affordable tuition rates of a public university – two big reasons for EIU’s high rankings and recognition as a value. EIU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as certificates, with particularly strong programs in teacher education (owing, of course, to its history as a teacher’s college). More EIU graduates go on to PhD degrees than any other Illinois college, and alumni satisfaction is an impressive 99% a decade after graduation, demonstrating why EIU is a top Illinois college.
University of St Francis
A small, private Catholic university in Joliet, IL (the state’s 2nd-largest city after Chicago), the University of St. Francis is a highly respected institution dedicated to the values of St. Francis. Founded in 1920, USF was originally intended just to educate the younger members of the Congregation of the Third Order of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, but within a few years the school had opened up as a junior college for women outside the order. Over time, the University of St. Francis has grown in size and esteem, ranking in the top tier of U.S. News & World Report’s national rankings, as well as one of the best regional institutions for the Midwest.
As a Franciscan institution, USF is committed to Catholic faith and values, and religion is a significant part of life at the university, including services, prayer, and other activities. The university’s student body is half Catholic, and ethnically St. Francis is highly diverse, with considerable Hispanic and African-American populations. USF is best known for their nursing program, which is ranked among the best in the region, and USF’s outreach to non-traditional students has grown the population of online and off-campus students to nearly twice the number of traditional on-campus students. The University of Saint Francis is meeting needs and doing good throughout Illinois.
Augustana College (not to be confused with Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD), is a small Lutheran liberal arts college. With a growing population of Swedish immigrants in the region around Chicago, in 1860 the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod decided there was a need for an institution that could prepare ministers for the denomination, and also encourage Swedish-American culture and identity. After moving to Rock Island in 1875, Augustana grew into one of the foremost liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, ranked at the top by U.S. News, the Princeton Review, and Money magazine, not only for excellence, but as a value.
Augustana College is both an archetypal liberal arts college – with a 12:1 student:faculty ratio, extensive student support, and a close-knit community – and a vision for 21st century higher education, preparing students for success in their careers. Each Augustana student receives $2000 from the college to study abroad, do research, or take on an internship, a significant aid that gives students valuable experience and a leg up on their competition in the job market. Research, mentoring, and and collaborative, experiential learning are central to Augustana’s curriculum, and graduates know the Augustana name will take them places.
Trinity Christian College
Founded in 1956, Trinity Christian College came about through the intention of a group of Chicago business leaders to establish a Christian college in the Reformed tradition, a denomination not represented at the time. Trinity was built on a former golf course and rapidly expanded from a junior college in the Palos Heights suburb of Chicago into a highly respected small liberal arts college. Trinity has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a top-tier regional institution for the Midwest, and has become well-known throughout the region for its excellence and outreach.
Trinity’s curriculum is still rooted in the traditional liberal arts, from philosophy and religion to math and science, but in the 21st century the college has made outreach a crucial part of its strategy. Today Trinity’s adult programs (started in 1998) are well-received and successful, guiding non-traditional students through a supportive cohort program. Traditional undergraduate majors and pre-professional programs include highly in-demand areas like business, criminal justice, and nursing, as well as pre-med, pre-law, and allied health sciences. Trinity is looking to the future and earning its status as one of Illinois’ best colleges.