10 Best Colleges That Are Slam Dunks for Sports Fans in Illinois

Want to study in Illinois, but still take time to enjoy your favorite sports? Learn more about the Illinois colleges that are slam dunks for sports fans.

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by Catherine Lafuente

Published August 11, 2022

Edited by Jared McMasters
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10 Best Colleges That Are Slam Dunks for Sports Fans in Illinois
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Illinois is known for its documented love of sports. This includes those played on the college and university level since many Illinois schools have strong athletic programs. If college athletics are an important factor for you when it comes to choosing a college, the following are the 10 best in the state.

The methodology used to select these 10 schools was a combination of the following factors:

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  1. The number of sports teams offered at each school
  2. The success of each school's football and men's basketball programs — the two most popular college sports — over the last 10 years
  3. Whether or not the school is Division I
  4. The strength of each school's athletics conference
  5. How far each campus is from Illinois pro sports teams like the Bears, Bulls, Cubs, and White Sox

Northwestern University

Northwestern University is one of the most prestigious universities — not just in the state but also in the country overall. For one, it has over 10 degree programs ranked in the top 10 in the country, with a competitive acceptance rate of only 9%.

In regard to sports, Northwestern is a Big Ten university — a feat for an institution with such distinguished academics — with especially popular men's college football and basketball teams. The Wildcats also have a high-profile women's lacrosse team.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Founded in 1867, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the largest public university libraries in the world. The Big Ten university is the best online college in the state for academics, with an acceptance rate of about 60%.

Home to 11 women's NCAA teams and 10 men's NCAA teams, the Fighting Illini are also known for their athletics, which are inclusive of people with disabilities. The men's college football and basketball teams are the most popular, followed by women's basketball and volleyball.

Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University plays in the Mid-American Conference of the NCAA. While it holds a 49% graduation rate, it's an affordable institution with good opportunities for students looking for economic mobility.

The Huskies are proud of their athletics, which include the perennially popular men's college football team. Men's and women's basketball are also favorites, along with the men's wrestling team. NIU also has top sports facilities and is a great college for intramural sports.

Illinois State University

Billing itself as a top public school, Illinois State University offers 77 bachelor's degrees and has a 70% graduation rate. With retention and graduation rates above the national average, this large institution maintains a relatively low student-to-professor ratio and fosters civic engagement.

The ISU Redbirds compete primarily in the Missouri Valley Conference of the NCAA and strive to become leaders in Midwestern sports. There are 19 different sports teams to choose from, with men's college football being especially celebrated at the school.

Eastern Illinois University

Eastern Illinois University prides itself on having professors teach the vast majority of classes, not teaching assistants. The affordable college with online learning options offers 67 bachelor's degrees and sends a notable number of grads into doctoral programs.

Many student-athletes at EIU also earn top academic honors while they compete in the Ohio Valley Conference of the NCAA. The Panthers have nine men's teams and 10 women's teams, with men's college football and basketball commanding the highest ticket prices.

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

When it comes to what Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is proud of academically, the university offers strong management and information technology programs. You can attend this school either on campus or online.

Men's college football rules here, followed by men's basketball, though there are a wide variety of sports teams for both men and women. The Salukis compete in Division 1 of the NCAA in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Western Illinois University

Previously deemed a teacher's college, Western Illinois University is a public university in the Quad Cities. Top majors by enrollment include law enforcement, agriculture, psychology, management, and biology. The school also boasts a low student-to-professor ratio in the classroom.

The popular men's college football team plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference via the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. Other athletes — called Leathernecks at this university — play in The Summit League in the NCAA.

Loyola University Chicago

The second private university on this list after Northwestern, Loyola University Chicago is a Jesuit institution. The liberal arts and research-oriented university accepts about two out of every three applicants and carries a student-faculty ratio of 14-to-1.

Men's basketball is arguably the most popular sport here in a bit of a departure for Illinois — the football team had a four-decade hiatus. Men's volleyball is also well-established at this school, where the Ramblers play in the Missouri Valley Conference of the NCAA.

University of Illinois at Chicago

The University of Illinois at Chicago is a public university with a heavy focus on research. The school boasts having one of the most diverse campuses in the country and offers nearly 100 bachelor's degrees. This school is one of the largest universities in the Chicago area.

Like Loyola, men's college basketball reigns supreme in this part of Illinois, followed by women's basketball. The Flames also play in the Missouri Valley Conference of the NCAA. You will not find a football team at this school, though there are a wide variety of other sports like soccer.

DePaul University

DePaul University, a private institution, is the largest Catholic university in the country. Social justice is an important commitment here, where service and teaching are priorities. DePaul also has many students taking part in Fulbright programs and the Peace Corps.

Like the other urban Illinois schools on this list, men's and women's college basketball sell the most tickets here, followed by men's and women's soccer. Again, there is no football team at this school. The Blue Demons play in the Big East Conference of the NCAA.

Frequently Asked Questions About Illinois Colleges

What are the best colleges in Illinois?

The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Loyola University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago are often considered the best colleges in Illinois.

However, when considering Illinois sports in addition to academic excellence, Northwestern University clinches the top spot, followed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northern Illinois University.

Location also factors into what makes Illinois schools great. To that end, the state is home to some of the best college towns, like Chicago, Champaign, and Evanston, to name just a few.

Cost, diversity, class sizes, student-to-teacher ratios, and faculty qualifications are also considered when determining which schools are at the top of the list.

What degree should I get if I want to work in sports?

While there is a wide variety of options for those who want to have a job in sports, getting your bachelor's degree in the field of your choice is paramount. This can be a terminal degree or a first step, depending on your profession of choice.

Majors to consider vary — kinesiology, sports medicine, exercise science, physical therapy, physiology, sports management, and more.

Many jobs in sports also require an advanced degree such as a master of science, master of arts, or master of business administration. Examples of these are sports managers, sports psychologists, and more.

Should I go to school in Illinois?

You should consider going to college in Illinois if you're already a resident of the state. This is because residents qualify for in-state tuition at public schools, making paying for a four-year college degree there more manageable than at private or out-of-state schools.

If cost isn't a factor, consider whether or not a specific Illinois college meets your needs for overall success. For example, if you want to play football at a Big Ten school, Northwestern University is one obvious choice.

If you get a scholarship to an Illinois university, that's another solid reason to attend college there. Climate, municipal infrastructure, diversity, and affordable housing are also factors to consider studying in Illinois.

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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