Best Colleges in Illinois

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by Staff Writers

Published on August 19, 2021

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Illinois houses more than 150 colleges and universities, including some of the top schools in the country. The wealth of educational options has attracted a large number of students, adding to the state's high number of residents over the age of 25 with a bachelor's degree. From 2010-2017, educational attainment in the state has steadily increased, reaching more than 51% in 2017.

Illinois also boasts some of the best higher education completion rates in the country, including third-best rate of adult graduates at public and nonprofit schools and fourth-highest rate of full-time community college graduation.

We've highlighted some of the best colleges in Illinois according to academic quality, affordability, and flexibility. Read on to find the best fit for you.

Top 10 Colleges in Illinois

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#1 Northwestern University Evanston, IL
#2 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Champaign, IL
#3 University of Chicago Chicago, IL
#4 University of Illinois at Springfield Springfield, IL
#5 Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago, IL
#6 University of St Francis Joliet, IL
#7 Wheaton College Wheaton, IL
#8 University of Illinois at Chicago Chicago, IL
#9 Illinois Wesleyan University Bloomington, IL
#10 Lewis University Romeoville, IL
How We Rank Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you will make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering school rankings that are transparent, inclusive, and relevant for online students.

Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our Ranking Methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.

Why Study in Illinois?

The state has developed programs to increase faculty diversity in higher education, grow practical learning experiences, and grant funding to students who demonstrate financial need and major in high-demand fields.

When not studying at some of the best colleges in the country, Illinois learners find outdoor adventure at places like Shawnee National Forest. Students can also take advantage of the vibrant arts and culture scene in Chicago and other towns around the state, some of the nation's best food options, and festivals and events unique to the Land of Lincoln.

Despite an unemployment rate higher than the national average (7.7% compared to 6.2%), Illinois holds the country's fifth-highest GDP. The unemployment numbers largely result from a decline in the state's prominent hospitality industry, a sector looking to rebound after COVID-19. Illinois is home to several thriving industries, including advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, energy, and agribusiness.

While studying at the many universities and colleges in Illinois, students enjoy a cost of living lower than the national average. Students will also benefit from programs that aim to improve educational opportunities in Illinois. The state has developed programs to increase faculty diversity in higher education, grow practical learning experiences, and grant funding to students who demonstrate financial need and major in high-demand fields.

Top Degree Programs in Illinois

Best Online Master's in Psychology Programs Best Online Master's in Counseling Programs Best Online Master's in Computer Science Programs

Illinois Employment Outlook

The employment outlook in Illinois appears strong in spite of a higher than average unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state's annual mean salary of $55,130 is higher than the national mean wage for all occupations ($53,490). The state employs a growing and active workforce of nearly six million people.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security projects strong growth across multiple sectors between 2016 and 2026, including healthcare, educational services, and business and professional services. Illinois graduates who hold a bachelor's degree will be competitive for many roles in these growing industries.

Popular Career Paths in Illinois

Political Science Business Administration Healthcare Administration Public Policy History Sports Medicine Education Biotechnology Mechanical Engineering

Best Accredited Colleges in Illinois

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Best Colleges in Illinois

  1. Northwestern University

    Evanston, IL



    As one of the finest institutions of higher education in the country, Northwestern University tops our list of the best colleges in Illinois. The university serves roughly 21,000 students through bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs in nearly every field of study. In addition, many of Northwestern's graduate and executive education programs -- including several offered at the School of Management -- are available entirely online.

    More than 90% of undergraduate students at the university ranked within the top 10% of their high school classes. Northwestern faculty boast Nobel Prizes, Tony Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, and MacArthur "Genius Grants."

    First-year applicants to the university must submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and at least one academic letter of recommendation. Programs may also require interviews, auditions, or additional tests. To enter a graduate program, you typically must hold a bachelor's degree and take an entrance exam like the GRE.

  2. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    Champaign, IL



    Since its founding in 1867, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has worked to provide transformative learning experiences that allow its students to change society for the better. For example, 29 alumni hold the Pulitzer Prize for achievement in journalism or literature, and research conducted by students and faculty at the university has contributed to breakthroughs in fields like special education, information technology, and molecular biology.

    Each year, more than 47,000 Illinois students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields like aerospace engineering, quantitative economics, linguistics, and operations management. The university also hosts fully online programs, including tracks in business administration, crop sciences, and health communication.

    To apply to the university as an undergraduate student, you must possess a high school diploma or GED certificate. You must also submit scores from the ACT or SAT. During the admissions process, you can apply to a variety of institutional scholarships, including merit- and need-based programs that cover all tuition and fees.

  3. University of Chicago

    Chicago, IL



    The University of Chicago works to prepare future leaders in business, academia, and public service. Undergraduate students at the university can choose from more than 52 majors and 41 minors in fields like astrophysics, human rights, public policy, and statistics. Five graduate divisions and six professional schools provide advanced training in subjects such as molecular engineering, medicine, and the law.

    While you must hold a high school diploma or GED certificate to apply to an undergraduate program at UChicago, the university does provide a test-optional admission path for prospective students who do not believe that ACT or SAT scores adequately reflect their academic ability or potential. In lieu of these exams, applicants must submit two teacher recommendations; applicants are also encouraged to also share supplemental materials, like an art or research project.

    The university guarantees free tuition for all accepted students who come from families making less than $125,000 per year. Students from families earning less than $60,000 per year receive free tuition, fees, and room and board.

  4. University of Illinois at Springfield

    Springfield, IL



    Out of its total enrollment of roughly 5,000 students, the University of Illinois Springfield serves approximately 1,000 online learners every year. More than 50 fully online programs -- taught by the same faculty who lead on-campus courses -- give working professionals the flexibility to explore subjects like business administration, computer science, healthcare informatics, and teacher education. Regardless of where they live, distance learners at UIS also pay significantly less in tuition than traditional out-of-state students.

    Additional programs of study available at the university's 746-acre campus in Springfield include business intelligence, human development counseling, and public health. UIS also boasts an undergraduate honors program, 21 graduate programs, and integrated internship experiences that give students the chance to apply their learning to practical challenges.

    To seek a bachelor's degree at UIS, you must hold a high school diploma or the equivalent and submit ACT or SAT scores. Applicants must also share a personal statement outlining their personal background, academic interests, and professional aspirations.

  5. Illinois Institute of Technology

    Chicago, IL



    Students at the Illinois Institute of Technology develop the skills and knowledge they need to begin careers in fields related to engineering, science, design, and applied technology. Alongside traditional undergraduate and graduate programs, students at the institute can also pursue an accelerated course of study and earn both a bachelor's and master's degree in just five years. Distance education programs also allow students to earn fully online degrees in chemical engineering, intellectual property, and health physics.

    Through its Elevate program, IIT connects students with experiential learning opportunities like internships, research assistantships, community service, and study abroad trips. Students who participate in Elevate may also apply for a $5,000 annual scholarship.

    Undergraduate admission requires a high school diploma or GED certificate. Applicants must also submit ACT or SAT scores and a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor. Graduate application requirements vary by program, but most require a bachelor's degree, letters of recommendation, and results from an entrance exam.

  6. University of St Francis

    Joliet, IL



    A Catholic university, the University of St. Francis embodies the Franciscan values of faith, wisdom, and justice. The school offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in areas like biology, data visualization, forensics, and small business finance. To help students who need to balance their education with other personal and professional obligations, USF also makes more than 120 of its classes available online.

    The university's academic resource center serves the needs of on-campus and online learners. Staff at the center provide tutoring, exam preparation assistance, and enrollment advice. They also lead skill development workshops and help students better manage their time or understand their unique learning styles.

    All incoming first-year students must possess a high school diploma with at least a 2.5 GPA. In addition, undergraduate applicants must hold an ACT score of at least 20 or an SAT score of at least 1020. Prospective students who do not meet these academic requirements may qualify for provisional admission on the basis of professional experience, community service, and/or other extenuating circumstances.

  7. Wheaton College

    Wheaton, IL



    Wheaton College offers a liberal arts education through a Christian lens. In addition to programs in theological studies and ministry, the college prepares students for careers in fields like business, computer science, engineering, and nursing. Online and accelerated master's programs in church leadership, higher education, and disaster response give students the freedom to earn an advanced degree on their own terms.

    Regardless of their major, students at Wheaton can supplement their classroom learning through research and experiential learning opportunities at one of the college's many centers. For example, the Center for Urban Engagement hosts activities and events related to creating sustainable communities, while the Marion Wade Center sponsors programming related to Christian literature.

    While undergraduate applicants must hold a high school diploma and take specific courses in English, math, and science, the college does not require prospective students to submit results from the ACT or SAT. To transfer credits from another college or university, you must hold at least a 2.0 GPA in those courses.

  8. University of Illinois at Chicago

    Chicago, IL



    With more than 80 bachelor's programs, the University of Illinois at Chicago helps students chart a path into a variety of careers and academic pursuits. The university also boasts a student-to-teacher ratio of 19-to-1, meaning learners benefit from the personalized attention of expert faculty and the opportunity to develop close relationships with their classmates.

    Undergraduate students at UIC can major in subjects like health information management, civil engineering, economics, and public administration. Learners can also choose from 100+ master's tracks and 60+ doctoral programs in business, education, social work, and urban planning. Students may choose to earn a degree online or supplement classroom instruction with a "stackable" online certificate.

    UIC strives to create affordable educational experiences for its students. For example, the university's Aim High scholarship program provides $10,000 in annual aid to Illinois high school valedictorians. UIC also waives tuition for qualifying children of military veterans and low-income senior citizens.

  9. Illinois Wesleyan University

    Bloomington, IL



    Thanks in large part to a suite of services and extensive personal attention from faculty and staff, 93% of students who begin an undergraduate program at Illinois Wesleyan return after their first year. In addition, more than 90% of students who earn a bachelor's degree from the university do so within four years.

    Illinois Wesleyan offers more than 80 majors in graphic design, accounting and finance, literature, and data science. The university also emphasizes the importance of experiential learning, with more than 70% of the student body participating in at least one internship. Additionally, more than half of learners join a study abroad trip. Online programs are not currently available at the school.

    Admission to the university requires a high school diploma or GED certificate. Applicants must also submit results from the ACT or SAT, though Illinois Wesleyan does not set a minimum score for these exams. Certain art programs may also require an interview, audition, or portfolio of work.

  10. Lewis University

    Romeoville, IL



    Located in the suburbs of Chicago, Lewis University educates roughly 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. While it is a Roman Catholic institution, the university welcomes learners from all backgrounds and faiths. International students at Lewis represent about 50 countries from around the world, and students of color make up more than 30% of the total student body.

    Undergraduate programs at the university introduce students to subjects like aviation administration, dental health, human resources management, and the philosophy of law. Graduate students can deepen their learning in fields such as computer science, organizational leadership, and clinical mental health counseling. More than 20 fully online programs serve the needs of students who cannot commute to campus.

    To apply, you must submit high school transcripts and ACT or SAT scores. About 97% of incoming first-year students at Lewis receive some sort of financial aid, including institutional scholarships. For example, the St. John Baptist DeLaSalle Scholarship covers four years of tuition for students with exceptional academic ability.

Best Community Colleges in Illinois is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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