Published on August 19, 2021 · Updated on May 6, 2022
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In addition to the quality academic programs they offer, the best colleges in Tennessee attract students due to the widespread cultural and career opportunities found in the state. In 2019, Tennessee was home to more than 228,000 students enrolled in higher education, including public colleges, private universities, and two-year community colleges.
The guide below features the best colleges in Tennessee based on quality, affordability, and campus experience. You can also learn more about the state's economic and employment outlook, and what recreational activities Tennessee has to offer.
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Why Study in Tennessee?
Tennessee features a rich culture, especially in the metro areas of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville.
Tennessee is home to high-quality public and private institutions, including Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Graduates have a good chance of finding work opportunities in the state, as Tennessee's economy continues to expand. U.S. News & World Report ranked Tennessee in the top 15 in terms of economic growth and in the top 10 most affordable states.
Tennessee features a rich culture, especially in the metro areas of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. The state hosts professional sports teams like the Tennessee Titans (football), Memphis Grizzlies (basketball), and Nashville Predators (hockey).
Nashville, also known as Music City, is home to many historical music venues such as the Grand Ole Opry. Memphis also has a deeply musical past, with iconic recording studios such as Sun Studio attracting music buffs and tourists.
The state's moderate climate also serves as a draw for students, professionals, and families. Its winter temperatures rarely dip below 30 degrees, while summers are long and warm.
Likely as a result of this friendly weather, Tennessee residents love to get outdoors, and the Great Smoky Mountains region in the eastern part of the state offers hiking, biking, and kayaking. The state's cities emphasize green spaces, allowing residents to enjoy the outdoors close to where they live.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state's average annual salary was $45,650 in 2019. Along with a relatively low cost of living, workers in Tennessee can find numerous employment opportunities that provide strong salaries and career growth potential.
Tennessee's top industries for employment include education, agriculture, automotive production, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing. These industries need college-educated professionals to drive innovation and take on management and leadership roles.
A globally renowned center of research and learning, Vanderbilt University takes the top spot on our ranking of the best colleges in Tennessee. Each year, nearly 5,000 students earn their bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree at the university. These graduates go on to join a network of alumni that includes governors, members of Congress, Nobel Prize winners, business leaders, and professional athletes.
At Vanderbilt, students explore topics such as applied clinical informatics, educational leadership and policy, mechanical engineering, and public health. In addition to the programs available at the university's campus in downtown Nashville, both the Peabody School of Education and the School of Engineering offer fully online degrees.
Applying to Vanderbilt as a first-year student requires a high school diploma or GED, ACT or SAT scores, and at least two letters of recommendation. In addition to their undergraduate transcripts, graduate applicants usually must also submit results from an exam like the GRE or GMAT. Admission to the university is need-blind, and Vanderbilt meets 100% of each student's demonstrated financial need.
Sewanee provides a high-quality education in an intimate learning environment, with a student-to-faculty ratio of just 11-to-1, an average class size of only 15, and undergraduate student body of 1,700. While a small school in terms of enrollment, the university sits on a 13,000-acre campus, providing extensive research and recreational opportunities for both students and faculty.
Undergraduate students at Sewanee can choose from 37 majors and 43 minors, including archaeology, computer science, environmental arts and humanities, and philosophy. Regardless of their area of study, all students receive a comprehensive liberal arts education, learning to think critically, write clearly, and conduct research through multiple lines of inquiry.
First-year applicants must hold a high school diploma or GED and two letters of recommendation. As a test-optional institution, Sewanee allows students to choose whether to submit ACT or SAT scores. Starting in 2020, the university will meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of all incoming students.
A Christian institution, Milligan College serves roughly 1,300 students from 35 states and more than 30 countries around the world. In addition to programs in divinity and historical theology, the college offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields such as allied health science, cybersecurity, graphic design, and management information systems. Milligan does not currently host any online programs.
Milligan is committed to affordability. Roughly 98% of students receive some form of financial aid, allowing them to graduate with about $3,300 less loan debt than the national average. On top of state and federal financial aid, incoming freshmen receive automatic consideration for a variety of merit-based scholarships and grants. Students with at least a 3.5 high school GPA and a 20 ACT score typically qualify for awards ranging from $8,000 to $16,000 annually.
To apply to Milligan as a first-year student, you will need to submit your high school transcripts and results from the ACT or SAT. Students with low entrance exam scores must also submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor. Finally, students must demonstrate a Christian commitment, usually through a recommendation from a church leader.
Of the more than 200 full-time faculty who teach at Rhodes College, 98% hold the highest possible degrees in their fields. With an average class size of only 14, students at the college enjoy unparalleled access to expert instruction and personal attention.
Alongside master's programs in urban education and accounting, Rhodes offers more than 50 undergraduate majors in fields such as anthropology, economics and international studies, modern languages and literature, and theater. The college also encourages students to supplement their classroom learning with practical experiences. As a result, roughly 70% of the student body completes at least one internship, and 75% participate in a study abroad or regional exchange program.
First-year applicants must submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and letters of recommendation from both a teacher and guidance counselor. Rhodes is a selective institution, with almost half of all admitted students ranking within the top 10% of their high school class.
Tennessee Tech equips its students with the knowledge and skills needed for technologically driven careers. Programs of study available at the university include agricultural engineering technology, business intelligence and analytics, information assurance, and civil and environmental engineering. Online master's and doctoral programs give students the flexibility to develop new professional skills on their own schedule and from the comfort of their own home.
Undergraduate students with strong academic achievement can apply to enter the Tennessee Tech honors program. Honors students participate in smaller seminar classes, work alongside faculty on research and creative projects, take advantage of selective experiential learning opportunities, and receive specialized advising services. Certain scholarships are also available exclusively to honors students.
Traditional undergraduate applicants typically must possess a high school diploma with at least a 3.0 GPA to earn admission. Prospective students with a GPA between 2.5 and 3.0 must also hold a composite ACT score of 17 or higher.
Bryan College is a Christian college located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The college enrolls just under 1,500 students in both undergraduate and graduate programs that cover subjects such as business administration, integrated marketing communication, exercise and health science, and psychology. Nine degree programs at the college are specifically designed to meet the unique needs of working adults and feature fully online coursework.
All undergraduate students at Bryan must take a series of foundational courses. This core curriculum helps students engage with different perspectives and cultures, better understand the arts and the natural world, and strengthen their Christian worldview. The college also encourages students to take advantage of study abroad programs and on-campus research activities.
Applying to an undergraduate program requires a high school diploma, entrance exam scores, and a personal essay. Students with a 2.5 GPA or higher must score at least 18 on the ACT, while students with a GPA between 2.0 and 2.4 must receive a composite score of 20 or higher. While all staff and faculty at Bryan must sign a statement of belief, the college does not impose a similar requirement on students.
Founded in 1794, UT Knoxville is the flagship institution of the University of Tennessee System. The university enrolls close to 30,000 students each year and offers more than 900 undergraduate and graduate programs of study. Through the Vols Online distance education platform, students can earn fully online bachelor's and master's degrees in disciplines such as nursing, social work, civil engineering, and educational psychology.
UT Knoxville also serves as a leader in global education. The college hosts more than 300 study abroad programs, giving students the option to conduct field research alongside faculty members, study at a foreign university, or participate in an overseas internship. Depending on the program they choose, students can receive up to $4,000 to help finance their international studies.
To apply to the university, you must submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and an essay. Though not required, the college encourages candidates to send in letters of recommendation. All prospective students who apply by December 15 receive automatic consideration for institutional scholarships.
Middle Tennessee State University strives to provide affordable access to high-quality education, awarding roughly $20M each year in scholarships. The Trustee Scholarship, for example, provides up to $5,000 in annual aid to students with at least a 3.5 GPA and 30 ACT score. The DREAM Scholarship offers $2,000 to veterans, first-generation college students, and other applicants that contribute to the diversity of the student body.
The university offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in areas of study such as aeronautical science, criminal justice administration, engineering technology, and special education. Fourteen programs and more than 650 courses are available online, giving students the freedom to learn on their own schedule and at their own pace.
Undergraduate applicants must hold a high school diploma and take either the ACT or SAT. To qualify for guaranteed admission, prospective students must maintain a 3.0 high school GPA or receive a composite score of 22 or higher on the ACT (or 1100 or higher on the SAT).
The University of Tennessee at Martin offers a comprehensive set of student support services, including academic advising, staff and peer tutoring, research and writing assistance, alumni mentoring, and mental health and career counseling. As a result, the university boasts one of the highest graduation rates of any state university in Tennessee.
More than 100 undergraduate and graduate programs allow students the opportunity to explore diverse topics such as animal science, broadcasting, health and human performance, and natural resources management. The university also offers fully online degrees and dual enrollment programs for high school students.
Undergraduate admission requires a high school diploma and ACT or SAT scores. Applicants with at least a 2.7 GPA must receive a composite ACT score of at least 21, while those with a 3.0 GPA or higher need an ACT score of 19 or higher. Prospective students with a GED should contact the university's admissions office directly for more information on academic requirements.
Ranked as one of the top Christian schools in the nation, Lipscomb University trains students for diverse careers in engineering, public service, the health sciences, and theology. Along with more than 200 undergraduate majors and minors, the university offers 24 master's degrees and three doctorates, many of which can be earned entirely online.
Through the university's competency-based education model, Lipscomb students can receive credit for their prior learning and professional experience. Undergraduate students, for example, may earn up to 30 credits by completing a one-day assessment. Students can obtain additional credit for prior learning by taking subject-specific exams, submitting a portfolio of work, or sharing documentation of formal military or professional training. Students can also easily transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions.
You must possess a high school diploma or GED to pursue a bachelor's degree at Lipscomb, but the university does not require undergraduate applicants to take the ACT or SAT. Graduate applicants must hold a bachelor's degree and share either a writing sample or GRE scores. They must also submit two letters of recommendation.
Founded in 1823, Union University offers a Christ-centered liberal arts education to roughly 3,000 students every year. Bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs at the university provide both foundational and advanced instruction in subjects such as apologetics, cell and molecular biology, photojournalism, and political theory. Through online and hybrid programs, students also can watch lectures, engage with their classmates, and complete assignments on their own terms.
Fifteen university centers give students the opportunity to participate in faculty-led research and build upon their classroom learning. Union's Center for Racial Reconciliation, for example, focuses on faith-based strategies for bridging racial and ethnic divides, while the Center for Population Health and Rural Medicine allows students to develop practical experience in health literacy, disease prevention, and lifestyle modification.
Along with their high school transcripts, first-year applicants must submit scores from either the ACT, SAT, or CLT. Each year, Union awards roughly $22M in financial aid to its students, with approximately $6M going to incoming freshmen.
While many students choose to attend Johnson University to prepare for careers in Christian ministries, the university also awards undergraduate and graduate degrees in disciplines such as audio production, global community health, nonprofit administration, and organizational psychology. Students can also earn more than 25 certificates and degrees, including a Ph.D. in leadership studies, entirely online.
Both online and in-person learners enjoy access to a host of career services. Career counselors can, for instance, help students choose a major, identify internships and service-learning opportunities, and connect with JU alumni working in their chosen field. Through group workshops and individual appointments, students can also receive feedback on their resumes and cover letters or prepare for upcoming interviews. The university also hosts a job board exclusively for positions at churches and faith-based organizations.
Undergraduate applicants must submit high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and two references. Prospective students must also sign a personal statement of faith.
Since 1901, Trevecca Nazarene University has been dedicated to serving both the spiritual and intellectual needs of its students. All of the university's undergraduate and graduate programs integrate faith with liberal arts education, allowing students to deepen their relationship with Christ while they explore areas of study such as cybersecurity and digital forensics, game design and development, creative writing, and clinical mental health counseling.
Twenty degrees at Trevecca are available online in an asynchronous format, meaning students can complete their coursework at whatever time best fits their schedule. Online students take one class at a time and advance through their program alongside a cohort of fellow distance learners, helping to replicate the structure and support of on-campus programs.
Undergraduate applicants must submit high school transcripts and ACT or SAT scores. While Trevecca awards several scholarships to incoming students on the basis of academic achievement, leadership potential, and diversity, these funds are not available to students applying to online programs.
A Christian university located just outside of Nashville, Belmont University hosts undergraduate and graduate programs in fields such as business systems and analytics, church leadership and administration, fashion merchandising, and social entrepreneurship. Students over the age of 24, along with veterans and current members of the military, can also enroll in bachelor's degree completion programs in accounting, nursing, and social work.
Almost 75% of all Belmont students complete at least one internship during their time at the university, putting their learning into practice and growing their professional networks. As a result, 84% of graduates report finding a job within six months of earning their degree. An additional 10% enroll in graduate school or enlist in volunteer or military service.
Required undergraduate application materials include high school transcripts, ACT or SAT scores, and a letter of recommendation from a guidance counselor or teacher. About 60% of all incoming freshmen receive some kind of academic merit scholarship, typically ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 per year.
As a Christian learning community, King University combines rigorous academics with an exploration of faith. In addition to graduate programs in business, education, and nursing, the university offers many unique areas of undergraduate study, including health informatics, forensic science, and security and intelligence studies. The college offers 17 programs online, including an associate of arts for students who want to begin working toward a bachelor's without choosing a major.
The core curriculum at King requires all undergraduate students to complete a cross-cultural experience. To earn this credit, students must engage in at least 30 hours of direct contact with a culture markedly different from their own, then reflect on their presuppositions and lessons learned. Many students meet this requirement through study abroad experiences, mission trips, or local community service.
Applying to King as a first-year student requires a high school diploma. Prospective students may choose whether to submit ACT or SAT scores.
Affiliated with the Church of Christ, FHU offers online and on-campus degrees in areas such as child and family studies, pastoral care and counseling, instructional leadership, and healthcare management. The university also recently launched several 4+1 programs that allow students to earn both a bachelor's and master's degree in education in just five years.
Through the FHU Engaged Learning Initiative, undergraduate students at the university enhance their academic experience and apply their classroom instruction to real-world challenges. Students may conduct academic research, develop creative projects, or participate in community service activities both at home and abroad. FHU offers competitive grants to fund these student projects.
First-year applicants must boast at least a 2.25 high school GPA. They must also receive a score of at least 19 on the ACT or 980 on the SAT. Prospective students who do not meet these academic requirements may apply for provisional admission by submitting at least two letters of recommendation from teachers or counselors.
Accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Williamson College offers a personalized and flexible liberal arts experience. Students at the college can pursue associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees in fields such as business administration, ministry leadership, and theological studies. They then can further customize their learning through minors in accounting, nonprofit management, and worship studies.
Students take just one class at a time for a period of five weeks, allowing them to focus more intently on the subject at hand. In addition, classes meet just one evening a week, making it easier for students to balance their learning with outside obligations. Currently, WC does not offer online or hybrid programs.
Applying to the college as an undergraduate requires a high school diploma, ACT or SAT scores, and a personal essay. Generally, prospective students must maintain a 2.0 high school GPA to qualify for admission. They must also receive a score of at least 18 on the ACT or 890 on the SAT.
Student enrollment at Cumberland University has increased by 50% over the past three years, making it one of the fastest-growing liberal arts universities in Tennessee. In addition to more than 100 programs of study available at the university's campus in Lebanon, CU offers fully online bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration, education, sports management, and nursing.
An assortment of generous scholarship programs allow students to attend CU regardless of their financial situation. The university's Trustee Scholarship, for example, covers the full tuition cost for students who graduate within the top 5% of their high school class and receive a score of 30 or higher on the ACT. Cumberland Promise Scholarships provide up to $13,000 per year to transfer students who earned an associate degree with at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA. Dozens of additional endowed scholarships provide aid on the basis of need, academic achievement, leadership potential, and program of study.
Undergraduate applicants typically must hold a 3.0 high school GPA and an ACT score of at least 21, though provisional admission is available to prospective students who do not meet these requirements.
Maryville College, an institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, has provided a rigorous liberal arts education to Tennessee residents for more than 200 years. The college exclusively serves undergraduate students, offering majors such as American Sign Language studies, biopharmaceutical sciences, health and wellness promotion, and outdoor studies and tourism.
To ensure students' professional success, all learners at Maryville must complete a series of career development activities. In their first year, students take an interest and skills assessment and attend a career fair. During year two, students work with a dedicated advisor to shape a personal career development plan. In year three, students participate in an internship, research, or service project to hone new skills. Finally, all undergraduates must complete a reflective and forward-looking capstone project in their senior year.
To qualify for admission at Maryville, you must possess a high school diploma and take the ACT or SAT. Academic, leadership, and talent-based scholarships offered to first-year students range from $15,000 per year up to the full cost of tuition.
Founded in 1897 in honor of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial University educates roughly 5,000 students each year in the Cumberland Gap region of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. The average class size at the university is just 14, giving students the opportunity to build close relationships with both classmates and instructors.
LMU offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields such as athletic training, conservation biology, and media communications. To better serve students in the more remote corners of Appalachia, the university maintains seven satellite campus locations throughout the tri-state area. In addition, the college offers several programs entirely online, including a master of business administration and a bachelor of science in nursing designed specifically for current registered nurses.
To qualify for regular admission, undergraduate applicants must possess at least a 3.2 high school GPA, along with an ACT score of at least 19 or an SAT score of at least 1010. Prospective students who do not meet these requirements may apply for conditional admission through the university's Cornerstone Program.
A Christ-centered institution and member of the Appalachian College Association, Lee University receives high marks for affordability and services for veterans and their families. Programs of study available at the university include music business, higher education administration, and biblical and theological studies. Online programs also give working professionals the flexibility to pursue degrees in business administration and criminal justice.
As a Yellow Ribbon Program participant, Lee makes additional financial aid funding available to current and former military personnel. Active duty service members, veterans, and certain qualifying first responders also receive a 34% tuition discount when enrolling in undergraduate non-ministry degree programs at the university.
To apply to Lee as a first-year student, you must possess a high school diploma or GED with a 2.0 GPA or higher. Applicants must also earn a score of at least 17 on the ACT or at least 900 on the SAT. Finally, prospective online students need at least three years of life experience beyond high school.
In 1871, a Catholic teaching order known as the De La Salle Christian Brothers founded Christian Brothers University. Despite the university's religious affiliation, roughly 34 different faiths are represented its student body, and CBU does not require students to participate in religious observances.
Nearly 1,900 students attend CBU, pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in fields such as the arts, business, engineering, and nursing. The university also offers two interdisciplinary bachelor's programs, allowing students to customize a course of study to better align with their unique interests and aspirations. Regardless of their major, CBU encourages students to participate in one of 200 internship programs across the Memphis area. These project-based and closely supervised internships typically offer pay in addition to academic credit.
Along with their high school or GED transcripts, all prospective undergraduate students must submit results from either the ACT or SAT. All admitted students then receive automatic consideration for scholarships on the basis of their GPA and standardized test scores.
Owned and operated by the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Welch College offers more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs in areas such as biology education, general international business, recreation leadership, and sports management. The college also hosts three fully online associate programs and an online bachelor's in general Christian ministry.
Welch emphasizes both spiritual and academic development, encouraging students to take advantage of daily chapel services, private devotion opportunities, special conferences, and student organization events. All students must also meet a service requirement, such as visiting a nursing home, teaching a Sunday school class, or participating in an international missions trip.
Applying to Welch requires a high school diploma or GED, ACT or SAT scores, two personal references, and one pastoral reference. Although the college does not set minimum academic requirements for applicants, incoming students with low standardized test scores may need to enroll in remedial courses. Online applicants must be at least 23 years old.
Established by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Southern Adventist University works to equip students with the skills needed to find professional success and pursue lives of service. From an original class of just 23 students, the university has grown to serve more than 3,000 learners each year through in-person, online, and hybrid programs.
Southern offers associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees in areas such as business administration, computer science, Christian counseling, and social work. Students can also personalize their studies through minors in long-term care administration, embedded computer systems, and global community development.
To apply as a first-year student, you must submit high school transcripts and ACT or SAT scores. Southern generally requires applicants to hold a minimum 2.5 high school GPA, along with a composite ACT score of at least 18 or an SAT score of at least 960. Home-schooled students must additionally submit a personal statement outlining the substance and value of their homeschool experience.
Combining a liberal arts education with strong service learning opportunities, Tennessee Wesleyan University prepares students for diverse careers in business, healthcare, and education. More than 30 undergraduate and graduate programs allow the roughly 1,100 learners at the university to explore subjects such as behavioral science, dental hygiene, elementary education, and engineering science.
TWU also offers four fully online degrees. Working adults with some prior college-level learning may quickly complete a bachelor's in management or criminal justice leadership online, while registered nurses can earn an online bachelor's in nursing in as little as two years. Students may also choose to pursue a master's in business administration entirely at a distance.
Undergraduate applicants must possess at least a 2.25 high school GPA and an ACT score of at least 18 (or an SAT score of at least 950). To apply to a degree completion program, you typically must be at least 23 years old with a minimum of three years of professional experience.
BestColleges.com 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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