Best Colleges in Illinois

Planning on attending college in Illinois? Illinois is home to some of the best public and private colleges in the country. See which schools top our list.

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by Marisa Upson

Updated August 5, 2022

Edited by Amelia Buckley
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Illinois is home to some of the top-ranked schools in the nation. A few of the best private colleges in Illinois include the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. UChicago boasts a very high graduation rate, with 91% of students earning their bachelor's in four years.

One of the best public colleges in Illinois is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I), the only land-grant university in the state. As an R1 research university, U of I tackles global challenges in fields like social and behavioral sciences, humanities, and physical sciences.

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The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that average tuition rates in Illinois are slightly higher than the national average, but Illinois State University has a policy that allows nonresident students to qualify for in-state tuition rates. Additionally, graduates start repaying their student loan debt 25% faster than the national average.

According to NCES, Illinois is home to more than 150 degree-granting institutions.

Top Degree Programs in Illinois

Illinois Employment Outlook

The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) reports that many of the state's high-wage, high-demand occupations are found in healthcare, education, software development, and management. In May 2022, industries that saw the most growth included leisure and hospitality, construction, and education and health services.

Many positions in these fields require a bachelor's or master's degree. Some professionals, including registered nurses, computer user support specialists, and paralegals, may need an associate degree.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average wage for all Illinois workers in May 2021 was $59,650 per year. The following represent some of the most in-demand positions in the state. The annual salary and job outlook are based on state data.

5 Illinois Jobs in Demand

Registered Nurses

As of May 2021, Illinois employs over 129,200 registered nurses. From 2020-2030, the Projections Managing Partnership (PMP) projects an average of 7,870 annual job openings for these nurses in the state. Registered nurses record patients' information, such as symptoms and medical history, and take their vital signs. They may also give patients medications.

Accountants and Auditors

The PMP projects about 5,470 yearly openings, on average, for accountants and auditors in Illinois from 2020-2030. These professionals assess companies' and individuals' financial records and make suggestions to increase income and reduce costs. They also prepare taxes and other financial documents. Many specialize in particular fields.

Elementary School Teachers

Elementary school teachers in Illinois are expected to see an average of 4,050 job openings every year from 2020-2030. These teachers typically work with children up to the fifth or sixth grade. They usually teach several subjects, plan lessons, and grade assignments. Public school teachers must possess a bachelor's degree and a state-issued license.

Market Research Analysts

According to the BLS, Illinois employed about 34,410 market research analysts and marketing specialists in May 2021, making it one of the top five states for employment levels. These analysts study market conditions, forecasting sales trends, and consumer buying habits. They use software and statistical techniques to evaluate data and present research results to their employers.

Software Developers

Software developers experience high demand across the country. The PMP projects about 6,260 average annual openings in Illinois from 2020-2030. Software developers may create computer or mobile applications. Others specialize in creating the operating systems that support these apps. Two of the top-paying industries for these professionals include software publishing and manufacturing.

Popular Career Paths in Illinois

Featured Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Best Accredited Colleges in Illinois

Rankings compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team

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How We Rank Schools

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

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.

#1

University of Chicago

School Information
Location Chicago, Illinois
Admission Rate 6%
Graduation Rate 95%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 0% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $61,179
Graduate | Varies

Not only does the University of Chicago top the list of best Illinois schools, but it is also one of the most prestigious schools in the United States. Located on Chicago's South Side, the state's top institution was founded in 1890.

The University of Chicago is home to over 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students, tackling coursework from 53 majors and seven graduate-level professional schools.

First-year applicants must submit an online application with essays, official transcripts, and two teacher evaluations. This institution is currently test-optional.

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#2

Northwestern University

School Information
Location Evanston, Illinois
Admission Rate 9%
Graduation Rate 94%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 2% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $60,276
Graduate | Varies

Established in 1851, Northwestern University is a private research institution based in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern's more than 21,000 students enjoy a 6-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio and have access to stand-out business, law, music, and journalism programs.

Prospective students can apply through the Common Application and must include official transcripts, a teacher recommendation, and a school counselor recommendation. Northwestern is currently test-optional through the 2022-2023 academic year.

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#3

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

School Information
Location Champaign, Illinois
Admission Rate 59%
Graduation Rate 85%
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 39% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad, in state | $12,474
Undergrad, out of state | $30,446
Graduate, in state | Varies
Graduate, out of state | Varies

Established in 1867, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the state's flagship public institution and ranks among the best colleges in Illinois. Home to more than 56,000 undergraduate and graduate students, some of the school's most popular majors include topics like engineering, business, marketing, and psychology.

Successful first-year undergraduate applicants typically complete rigorous college-prep coursework in high school. In addition to high school coursework, U of I evaluates personal experiences, extracurricular activities, and ACT/SAT scores.

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#4

Wheaton College

School Information
Location Wheaton, Illinois
Admission Rate 85%
Graduation Rate 89%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 5% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Credit
Undergrad | $725
Graduate | $754-$1,230

Founded in 1860, Wheaton College is a Christian liberal arts institution with nearly 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. This private college offers more than 40 undergraduate degrees, with popular academic options including business, education, and social sciences. While Wheaton carries a private school price tag, most undergraduate students receive scholarships.

Prospective students can apply online and should include essays, academic transcripts, and recommendation letters in their applications. This institution is currently test-optional, and applicants must verify their Christian faith through an interview or recommendation letter from a Christian mentor.

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#5

Principia College

School Information
Location Elsah, Illinois
Admission Rate 91%
Graduation Rate 80%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 0% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $45,000

Based outside St. Louis and established in 1912, Principia College is a private liberal arts school with under 400 undergraduate students. Some of the school's most popular majors include education, studio art, and business. While Principia does not officially affiliate with any church, the school promotes the beliefs and practices of Christian Science.

Prospective first-year students can apply online and must include high school transcripts. Principia encourages prospective students to include academic, character, and Christian Science references. Principia is currently a test-optional school.

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#6

Illinois Institute of Technology

School Information
Location Chicago, Illinois
Admission Rate 60%
Graduation Rate 70%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 16% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $48,670
Graduate | $29,628

Established in 1890, the Illinois Institute of Technology is a private Chicago-based research institution. Illinois Tech has an enrollment of over 6,500 students and confers various bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Like other stand-out institutes of technology, popular majors include topics such as engineering, computer science, and architecture.

Illinois Tech reviews applicants holistically and considers academic performance, extracurricular activities, community participation, and career goals. Successful candidates have multiple years of English, math, and science experience in high school.

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#7

Illinois Wesleyan University

School Information
Location Bloomington, Illinois
Admission Rate 61%
Graduation Rate 77%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 0% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $53,610

Founded in 1850, the Bloomington-based Illinois Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts school that serves about 1,600 undergraduate students. Illinois Wesleyan offers 37 majors with an average class size of 17. This liberal arts school also has a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and popular majors include nursing, accounting, and business.

Interested students can apply online or through the Common Application. Students include official transcripts, personal essays, and teacher recommendations alongside a completed application. Those opting out of standardized test scores must complete an admission interview.

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#8

University of Illinois at Chicago

School Information
Location Chicago, Illinois
Admission Rate 73%
Graduation Rate 61%
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 24% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Semester
Undergrad, in state | $5,200
Undergrad, out of state | $12,120
Graduate, in state | $4,055
Graduate, out of state | $8,452

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) stands out as one of the best public institutions in the state and currently serves over 34,000 students. Additionally, UIC is a more affordable option than other schools and offers a deep catalog of undergraduate and graduate academic programs. Some of the school's most popular majors include nursing, biology, and finance.

Prospective degree-seekers can apply through the Common Application and should include official high school transcripts. In addition to academic performance, UIC considers personal essays, extracurricular activities, and choices of major when evaluating candidates.

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#9

Lake Forest College

School Information
Location Lake Forest, Illinois
Admission Rate 55%
Graduation Rate 77%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission

Avg. Cost per Semester
Undergrad | $26,000

Based in suburban Chicago, Lake Forest College is a small, private liberal arts college that serves over 1,600 students. Lake Forest offers 32 academic majors and has a 12-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. 

In addition to popular majors like business and communications, Lake Forest offers over 200 study-abroad options throughout 70 countries. Students can also take advantage of the school's numerous connections in Chicagoland for internship opportunities.

Prospective students can apply online and must include high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores. Additionally, Lake Forest strongly encourages admission interviews.

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#10

University of St. Francis

School Information
Location Joliet, Illinois
Admission Rate 46%
Graduation Rate 62%
Instituation Type Private
Accreditation Yes Higher Learning Commission
Percent Online Enrollment 63% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.

Avg. Cost per Academic Year
Undergrad | $36,000

Avg. Cost per Credit
Graduate | $544-$798

The University of Saint Francis is a private Catholic institution with a 100-year history. This Joliet-based school serves more than 3,300 students and offers a sizable roster of academic options such as accounting, computer science, and nursing.

Successful candidates traditionally have a college-prep educational background and must hold a minimum 2.5 cumulative GPA. Applicants can apply online and must include official high school transcripts. The University of Saint Francis is currently test-optional, but prospective students can use test scores to supplement their application.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Colleges in Illinois

How many colleges are in Illinois?

According to NCES, there are 155 degree-granting institutions in Illinois. These include 48 community colleges, 12 public universities, 78 nonprofit private schools, and eight for-profit colleges. Within these many higher-education institutions, students can find numerous academic programs. Students should consider the difference between nonprofit and for-profit colleges when researching options.

The University of Illinois system consists of three universities, enrolling about 94,750 students. The system includes universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, students can find 16 colleges, which offer 86 bachelor's, 111 master's, and 66 doctoral degree programs.

What is the #1 college in Illinois?

The University of Chicago ranks as one of the top private colleges in Illinois. According to NCES, this nonprofit, private university is home to over 17,800 students. It also offers a student-to-faculty ratio of 5-to-1. The estimated tuition and fees for undergraduate students in the 2021 academic year came to $62,241.

One of the top public colleges is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. U of I enrolls over 52,000 students and offers more than 150 undergraduate and 100 graduate programs. In-state undergraduates paid an estimated $15,442 for tuition and fees in 2021-2022. Tuition for nonresidents rose to $32,892.

How much does it cost to go to college in Illinois?

According to NCES, the average cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year institutions in Illinois was $14,455 during the 2019-2020 academic year. Out-of-state students paid about $29,515. Room and board added on an additional $11,351.

Tuition and fees for private universities cost, on average, $35,570. The average in-state tuition and fees at two-year public institutions was $4,035, and nonresidents paid $11,450.

Additional costs include books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. Across the nation, the average cost of college in tuition and fees in 2020-2021 was $19,020.

What is the cheapest college in Illinois?

Prospective students find the lowest tuition rates in Illinois at community colleges. For example, the tuition and fees for Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield cost about $3,612 for in-district students in 2021-2022. In-state and out-of-state students paid $6,840 and $10,068, respectively. Books and supplies averaged out to about $912.

Students can earn an associate degree at community colleges or fulfill their general education requirements before transferring to a four-year institution. Chicago State University also offers some of the lowest tuition rates. Undergraduate tuition costs in 2022 include $319 per credit and $2,034 in fees for full-time students.

Learn about the online colleges with some of the lowest out-of-state tuition.

Who qualifies for free college in Illinois?

U of I offers the Illinois Commitment program. This program covers the tuition and fees for qualifying in-state students for up to four years. Prospective students must be under 24 and enrolled in a full-time bachelor's degree program, with family assets and earnings under certain guidelines.

Northeastern Illinois University offers the NEIU For You scholarship. This covers the cost of tuition for qualifying first-year, full-time students. Students can also find other sources to help pay for college, such as federal grants and on-campus employment. For example, UIC's 2020 undergraduate tuition and fees for in-state students added up to $14,098. After considering financial aid, the net price averaged out to $10,725.

Feature Image: Duane Walker / Moment / Getty Images

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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