The 10 Best College Towns in Illinois

Interested in Illinois colleges? Learn more about the 10 best Illinois college towns, from downstate Illinois to the Chicagoland area.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published August 9, 2022

Edited by Jared McMasters
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The 10 Best College Towns in Illinois
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Downtown Chicago is a great place to study, but it doesn't really offer a college-town feel. Some of the best colleges in Illinois are outside of the state's biggest city. From waving prairie grass to thriving craft breweries, Illinois college towns have a lot to offer.

Thanks to its relatively low cost of living, Illinois is more than just a good state for college students to attend school –– it's also a great place to live. If you're choosing a college in Illinois, consider the 10 college towns listed below, which rank among the best places to live in Illinois.

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10 Best College Towns in Illinois

What happens when you combine some of the best colleges in Illinois with popular places to live in the state? You'll find Illinois' best college towns. Our list includes towns within walking distance of a college campus. And we left off large cities like Chicago, focusing instead on places that have a more traditional college-town feel.

Bloomington

Population: 78,283 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Illinois State University; Illinois Wesleyan University

The Bloomington-Normal metro area boasts several colleges and a central location in the state. About halfway between Chicago and St. Louis on I-55, Bloomington boasts a low unemployment rate (3.6% as of June 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and many job opportunities for college graduates — the town is home to the headquarters for State Farm Insurance.

History-lovers can visit the McLean County Museum of History in downtown Bloomington, while the Constitution Trail gives outdoorsy students access to 45 miles of multi-use trails. Its small-town feel makes Bloomington one of the best Illinois college towns.

Champaign

Population: 89,114 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Parkland College; University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

With over 50,000 students, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign gives the city of Champaign a run for its money in terms of size. This college town offers many of the benefits of a larger city in a laid-back, downstate Illinois setting.

Located near the midway point between Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, Champaign boasts a lively art scene, breweries, fall festivals, and sports. Movie-lovers can also attend Ebertfest, held in downtown Champaign and created by U of I alumnus Roger Ebert.

Charleston

Population: 17,347 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Eastern Illinois University

Charleston offers an authentic small-town feel to Eastern Illinois University and its 7,500 students. In charming downtown Charleston, undergrads can grab a bite or browse in local shops. And because students make up such a large portion of the population, many businesses in the area cater directly to college students.

Additionally, Charleston is routinely ranked as one of the safest college towns in the U.S. by SafeWise, making it one of the best college towns in Illinois.

DeKalb

Population: 40,486 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Northern Illinois University

Home to Northern Illinois University — the second-largest college in the state — DeKalb features a downtown area filled with eclectic architecture. Additionally, its proximity to Chicago makes it a great place for college students who want to live in a college town but still have easy access to the hustle and bustle of a big city.

Within walking distance of campus, college students can access live entertainment, restaurants, and the historic Egyptian Theater. And just south of town, students can check out Whiskey Acres to see how corn is turned into whiskey.

Evanston

Population: 77,517 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Northwestern University

Connected to Chicago by the Lake Michigan shoreline and the L transit system, Evanston provides a small-town feel with access to everything Chicago has to offer. Located along the lake, Northwestern University stands out for its academic reputation and Big Ten sports.

Students can visit the bars and restaurants in Evanston or hop on the Purple Line to check out Chicago's nightlife scene. However, despite its proximity to Chicago, Evanston's tree-lined streets, large deer population, and beaches make it seem worlds away from the big city.

Macomb

Population: 15,052 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Western Illinois University

The rural town of Macomb ranks among the best Illinois college towns. Macomb's Western Illinois University stretches across 1,000 acres and includes a farm and a golf course.

In the nearby downtown square, students can grab a coffee or visit a boutique. The weekly farmer's market showcases the region's produce. And WIU students benefit from fare-free transit that connects the campus to the broader Macomb community.

Naperville

Population: 149,104 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Benedictine University; North Central College

As North Central College (NCC) boasts on its website, Naperville has been named one of the best places to live in the Midwest by Money magazine and one of the safest college towns in Illinois by Safewise. Located in Naperville's historic district, NCC offers easy access to downtown.

Naperville is the most populous city on this list. It is home to several large businesses, including Nalco Water, where college students can pursue internship opportunities and employment after graduation. And with its own beach, forests, and bike trails, Naperville offers many escapes from work and school.

Normal

Population: 53,594 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Illinois State University; Illinois Wesleyan University

Students at Illinois State University (ISU) benefit from their central location in Uptown Normal. Located near the city's business district, ISU students can easily walk to shops and restaurants.

Normal also offers an Amtrak station, so students can hop a train to visit Chicago or St. Louis. Nearby Bloomington gives students even more options for jobs, outdoor activities, and nightlife.

Peoria

Population: 111,666 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: Bradley University; Illinois Central College

Want to know one of the reasons why Peoria ranks as a top college town? It has an entire shopping area called Campustown that caters to students! With restaurants, shops, and other local businesses, Campustown makes it easy for college students to grab necessities and unwind.

Peoria's historic neighborhoods and walkability also make it a good fit for college students. The town is also home to the headquarters of Caterpillar, Inc., offering internship and job opportunities.

Urbana

Population: 38,681 (U.S. Census Bureau estimate, July 2021)
Colleges: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Champaign-Urbana sometimes feels like three cities in one: Champaign, Urbana, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. However, each region of the metro area offers its own personality.

Urbana houses apple orchards, breweries, a bouldering gym, and an aquatic center. The city's parks connect residents to nature, while the nearby walking prairie offers uncultivated beauty. Additionally, the on-campus Ice Arena offers year-round winter fun for college students.

Frequently Asked Questions About Illinois College Towns

What is considered a college town?

Typically, college towns are smaller towns and cities that feature a college or university. A college town offers a mix of small-town aesthetics with a campus community. In some college towns, the campus population exceeds the population in the town.

And some college towns have more than one college. Illinois college towns offer natural beauty, lively restaurant scenes, and craft breweries. And a college town doesn't need to be hours from the nearest city — some are in the suburbs. Check out our list of the best college towns in New York for more examples.

Is Illinois a good place to go to college?

Many students find that Illinois is a great place to go to college. The state's largest city, Chicago, boasts the largest student population. With dozens of neighborhoods and many colleges and universities, Chicago offers an urban feel for students.

The state's college towns provide another option. Students can stroll through prairie lands, visit boutiques, and attend fall harvest festivals in the state's many college towns. International students considering college in the state can check out our international students' guide to studying in Illinois.

What are the best colleges in Illinois?

Several Illinois colleges rank high in terms of academics and reputation. The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are all among the best colleges in Illinois. The University of Illinois Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, and Illinois State University also rank high.

Students thinking about studying in Illinois can also consider schools outside of the Chicagoland area, including colleges in Springfield and colleges in Naperville. The state's many public colleges offer a relatively affordable path to a bachelor's degree for Illinois residents.

How many colleges are there in Illinois?

According to College Navigator, Illinois had a total of 149 nonprofit postsecondary institutions in 2022. This included 97 four-year colleges, 53 two-year colleges, and a handful of vocational schools. Only California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, and Ohio have more nonprofit colleges than Illinois.

The state's major colleges include the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which serves as the flagship campus of the state's public college system. Notable private colleges include the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Illinois also has an extensive network of community colleges.

What are the biggest college towns in Illinois?

Major college towns in Illinois include Champaign (home to the state's flagship public university) and Normal (home to Illinois State University). Other college towns include Naperville, Peoria, and DeKalb.

Students interested in a smaller college town can consider Macomb or Charleston, which report populations of under 18,000. And those who want a college-town feel with easy access to a major city can consider Evanston. Located just north of Chicago, Evanston offers sweeping lake views and ample public transportation.

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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