To identify the Best Colleges in Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Wisconsin
The best colleges and universities in Wisconsin are the heritage of Wisconsin’s community-minded, ever-hopeful settlers, immigrants who came from nations like Ireland, Norway, and Germany to make their way in a forbidding frontier. These communities pulled together to establish a philosophy of cooperation and common good, embodied in the famous “Wisconsin Idea,” a dedication to higher education that drove America’s Dairyland to establish some of the best public universities in the Midwest – the world, even. The University of Wisconsin-Madison 72 and its many partners in the system are hubs of culture and learning, providing everything from the arts to professional studies.
Wisconsinites are also a deeply religious people, especially the Catholic and Lutheran Christians descended from the Irish, German, and Scandinavian settlers. Christian liberal arts colleges like Beloit College 68 and Lawrence University 70 provide a strong grounding in the classical humanities and sciences and work to develop strong, ethical leaders in areas ranging from the ministry to education, business, and healthcare. Whether ranked nationally or regionally, Wisconsin’s liberal arts colleges are a key piece of Wisconsin’s future.
Here are the top colleges and universities in the Badger State.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Wisconsin’s flagship public research university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was founded in the same year Wisconsin was admitted to the union, 1848, and as the oldest public institution in the state, UWM has a massive influence on culture and work. In 1866, the university was accepted into the land-grant program under the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established public universities that would teach the most current agricultural and scientific knowledge of the time, and UW has continued in that spirit. UWM is recognized as a Public Ivy (a public university with the quality of the Ivy League) and is a top-tier Carnegie Classification institution with the 6th highest research expenditures in the nation.
Ranked the #10 public university in the nation, the University of Wisconsin has a student body of well over 40,000, making it one of the largest public research institutions around, and its influence in the Midwest is massive. With its land-grant heritage, UW has been a leader in STEM fields, especially those rooted in agriculture and engineering, including bioengineering, food health and production, environmental studies, and human ecology. UW is also the state’s healthcare leader, with Wisconsin’s top-ranked teaching hospital and world-class nursing programs. The University of Wisconsin is also known for its community outreach and accessibility; not only is UWM regularly ranked as a best value, but it is also the nation’s top producer of Peace Corps volunteers. All of these distinctions make the University of Wisconsin the best-ranked university in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s oldest college, Beloit College dates back to 1846, two years before the University of Wisconsin, when the Wisconsin Territory was still frontier. Beloit was founded by Congregationalist settlers from New England – the Christian denomination responsible for many of the Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges of that region – and was designed to bring New England-style academic rigor to the Midwest. While it was founded on classical studies (the Greek and Roman canon), like many institutions of its time, today Beloit is a thoroughly modern liberal arts college known for its open and innovative curriculum. Beloit is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the 100 best national liberal arts colleges, and has long been recognized as one of the nation’s most innovative schools.
Beloit is also recognized as one of the best undergraduate educators in the US, and it applies its innovative spirit to its curriculum. Since the 1960s Beloit has been known for its interdisciplinary curriculum, with a strong emphasis on experiential learning, including fieldwork, independent research, and study abroad. As a small liberal arts college, a 12:1 student:faculty ratio gives students access to faculty research and knowledge, and nearly all of Beloit’s faculty (97%) hold the highest degree in their field. Beloit is dedicated to preparing students for leadership and collaboration, and every aspect of their curriculum and campus life reflects this commitment. Beloit is also known nationally for the Mindset List, a much-shared yearly catalogue of the cultural benchmarks of each entering freshman class.
Lawrence University was founded a year before Wisconsin’s statehood, though it would take two more years to actually admit students. Two Methodist evangelists, with the contribution of a Boston businessman and the Methodist Church, established Lawrence to bring classical education to the frontier, and that heritage of bold, fearless pioneership lives on. Lawrence was, notably, the second coeducational college founded in the US, and the merger with the Milwaukee-Downer College for Women confirmed the university’s commitment to women’s education. In fact, while the institution is known as Lawrence College, its official documents keep the heritage of Downer alive with the name “Lawrence and Downer Colleges. Lawrence University is ranked as one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
Lawrence maintains the traditions of the liberal arts college, focusing exclusively on undergraduate education in a highly cooperative, highly residential campus atmosphere. Like the best traditional liberal arts colleges, Lawrence puts a priority on community, with all students working through a common core of courses to create a sense of unity and common knowledge. The curriculum begins with the Freshman Studies course, a highly interdisciplinary course of great books and arts focused on critical thinking and writing. From there, Lawrence is known for its open curriculum, with nearly all students engaging in independent study and research. Lawrence is particularly known for the Conservatory of Music, founded in 1874; almost a quarter of all students are associated with the Conservatory, whether as music majors, minors, or part of the college’s many choirs, ensembles, and bands.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was founded in 1894 as the Stevens Point Normal School, which trained teachers for the Wisconsin school system under the normal method – two years of experiential learning as a teacher in a model classroom. Unlike other normal schools, however, Stevens Point also offered programs in domestic science (what was later called home economics) and conservation. These other offerings set the stage for Stevens Point to emerge as an important factor in business education, natural resources, and environmental science for the state, enlarging its capacity to serve students in the future. Today UWSP is ranked as one of the Midwest’s top regional colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
Stevens Point’s heritage as a normal school has made it one of Wisconsin’s leading institutions for teacher education, and the university offers master’s degrees in education. But Stevens Point is primarily an undergraduate educator, with more than 120-degree programs. Since it originally offered conservation degrees as well, UWSP’s College of Natural Resources is one of the oldest and most respected in the US, making the most of Wisconsin’s vast natural areas – and the nearby Schmeekle Reserve – to perform transformative research and study in sustainability, energy, and conservation. With broad outreach to nontraditional students, underrepresented and underprivileged students, and first-generation students, UW-Stevens point is one of Wisconsin’s best, and most important, colleges.
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Like UW-Stevens Point, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire began as a normal school, opening its doors in 1916 to provide much-needed teacher training in western Wisconsin. The original Eau Claire Normal School was notable for its innovative laboratory school, which included a hidden observation area for students and faculty to observe classes. Like other normal schools, Eau Claire gradually developed into a teacher’s college as the normal method gave way to 4-year bachelor’s degrees for teachers. Today, UW-Eau Claire is a highly productive regional college, offering a full slate of options for Wisconsin students, and has been ranked in the top 40 Midwestern colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
As a regional university, UW-Eau Claire is strongly committed to meeting the needs of Wisconsin residents, particularly working adults and other nontraditional students. Its top programs, then, are focused on practical areas of study, including (of course) teacher education, business, and nursing. The comprehensive School of Nursing and Health Sciences, in particular, is distinguished by a 99% job placement rate for graduates, while the College of Education and Human Sciences is widely regarded as one of the region’s best. Online programs and outreach to the community – including the nationally-ranked UW Online MBA Consortium – help UW-Eau Claire meet its students where they are, making it one of Wisconsin’s top colleges.
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Founded in 1909, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse was originally a normal school, intended to prepare teachers for the school system in what was then the state’s fastest-growing city, a center for lumber and brewing. Over time, UW-La Crosse grew into a comprehensive state university, focusing particularly on the needs of students in an urban manufacturing center, and the 21st century has seen La Crosse developing into one of the most important professional and career education institutions in the state. UW-La Crosse is ranked as one of the top 5 public regional universities in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report, reflecting its reputation for excellence and relevance.
Like other regional universities, UW-La Crosse puts a priority on the needs of working adults and the professional workforce, providing many opportunities for career professionals to expand their credentials or change careers. Those opportunities include master’s programs in business, nursing, and education, as well as online degree programs (including the Online MBA Consortium). For undergraduate students, UWLC provides pre-professional programs alongside their traditional academic degrees, while programs like the Undergraduate Research and Creativity division provides access to experiential learning and development. As Wisconsin’s workforce expands and grows, UW-La Crosse shows why it’s one of the top colleges in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Lutheran College
Wisconsin, of course, is Lutheran country, thanks to the large numbers of German and Scandinavian settlers who populated the area when it was just a rugged frontier territory, and the Wisconsin Lutheran College is one of the state’s foremost religious colleges. WLC is a young college, founded in just 1973, but with the backing of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (the state’s largest Protestant denomination), Wisconsin Lutheran has strong resources and a growing reputation for quality and student support. Wisconsin Lutheran is currently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 20 regional colleges in the Midwest, and its status is on the rise.
While Wisconsin Lutheran offers master’s degrees in education, it is primarily a traditional liberal arts college, with a student body of around 1200, mostly residential undergraduates. With an 11:1 student:faculty ratio, and a largely traditional-aged student population, Wisconsin Lutheran provides all the amenities associated with the liberal arts college format. In recent years, though, WLC has expanded its outreach with online programs and bachelor’s degree completion programs for working adults in its home city of Milwaukee and across Wisconsin. Wisconsin Lutheran’s deep evangelical Christian identity focuses on developing Christian leaders in the professional world, and helping students grow both intellectually and spiritually.
Mount Mary University
Founded in 1913, Mount Mary University actually dates back farther, to the St. Mary’s Institute, a Catholic girl’s school founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1872. Establishing a college curriculum in 1913, Mount Mary moved to Milwaukee in 1929 at the request of the Archbishop of Milwaukee; its original location, the small, rural city of Prairie du Chien, WI, did not present as much opportunity for attracting students as the the state’s largest city. Wisconsin’s first Catholic school for women, Mount Mary remains women-only for their undergraduate programs, but accepts men into the graduate degrees. Mount Mary is ranked in the top 100 Midwestern colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
As a small liberal arts college, Mount Mary is home to around 1400 students, with more than 30 undergraduate majors and 9 master’s degrees, and a large proportion of graduate students for a small liberal arts college. Classes tend to be small, in the liberal arts tradition, and the student:faculty ratio is only 10:1; all classes are taught by faculty members, the majority of whom have the highest degree in their field. Just as significantly, Mount Mary’s location and long association with the city of Milwaukee gives student ample opportunity for internships, student employment, and careers after graduation. All of Mount Mary University’s advantages make it one of the best colleges in Wisconsin.
Saint Norbert College
Named for St. Norbert, a medieval bishop who founded the Canons Regular of Premontre, St. Norbert College is the only Premonstratensian college in the world. Founded in 1898 to educate young men to the priesthood, St. Norbert College began with only one student, but by the mid-20th century the seminary had expanded into a college, offering programs in commerce and growing more traditional liberal arts academic programs. Today, St. Norbert has grown into a significant liberal arts college, ranking among the Princeton Review’s best regional colleges in the Midwest, and the top national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News & World Report. St. Norbert has also earned the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Service classification.
St. Norbert College is deeply immersed in the Norbertine tradition, a culture of radical hospitality in which students and faculty work together to develop community. From one seminarian training for the clergy in 1898, to more than 2200 men and women (most of whom live on-campus), St. Norbert is one of the foremost Catholic colleges in the Midwest. Students can choose from more than 40 undergraduate majors and 3 master’s degrees, with a 13:1 student:faculty ratio giving students a high level of access to their professors for research and mentorship. St. Norbert’s success rate for graduates is more than 90%, either finding jobs or entering graduate school within 9 months, demonstrating St. Norbert’s status as a top college for Wisconsin.
Part of the renowned Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Marquette University is one of the largest, most prestigious Catholic institutions in the world. Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1881, Marquette is a comprehensive private research university, beginning with the acquisition of a local medical school in 1907. Growing throughout the 20th century, Marquette earned a reputation not only for academic excellence, but for a central, influential presence in Milwaukee, eventually becoming Wisconsin’s largest Catholic university. U.S. News & World Report ranks Marquette University among the top national universities, while Forbes and the Princeton Review recognized Marquette as one of the best research institutions in the Midwest.
With its connections to Milwaukee’s business and government sectors, Marquette’s College of Business Administration, and the Graduate School of Management are recognized among the best business schools not only in the Midwest, but the US. The College of Nursing and College of Health Sciences are also highly ranked nationally, making Marquette a center of healthcare for Wisconsin, while the College of Engineering’s bioengineering program is a national leader in the field. With the low student:faculty ratio of a liberal arts college, and the resources of a major research university, Marquette provides the highest level of student support and a job market reputation that makes Marquette University one of the most impressive universities in the US.