Is Studying in Chicago Worth It?

Chicago has top-ranking colleges, job opportunities, and a vibrant culture. But those winters? Find out if studying in Chicago is worth it to you.

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

Published August 9, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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Is Studying in Chicago Worth It?
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The Windy City has some of the best colleges in Illinois –– including top-ranked community colleges and online colleges. But should you study in Chicago?

Chicago appeals to many college students, thanks to its academic programs, job opportunities, and culture. But other factors make Chicago a less appealing place for college. Freezing winters, high tuition rates, and wealth inequality can make many prospective Chicago college students hesitate.

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Ready to start your journey?

Before applying to colleges in Chicago, make sure you understand the pros and cons of studying there. Then, you can make an informed decision about your educational future.

What Are the Pros of Studying in Chicago?

Excellent Academic Programs

The Chicagoland area is known for its excellent colleges. The area's top-ranked schools include the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University. Other well-known colleges in Chicago include Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, and Concordia University at Chicago.

Chicago also boasts a strong community college system with the City Colleges of Chicago. City residents pay a low $146 per credit tuition rate at community colleges in Chicago.

At the graduate level, the University of Chicago and Northwestern both rank in the top 20 nationally for their law schools and MBA programs.

Employment and Economic Opportunity

Chicago offers many employment and economic opportunities. As the third-largest city in the U.S., Chicago is home to major companies like Boeing, Motorola, and United Airlines. McDonald's even recently moved its headquarters to Chicago.

In 2019, Forbes estimated Chicago's gross metro product at over half a trillion dollars. The city's major industries include financial services, publishing, food processing, and engineering. Many of these industries require a college education.

Outside of the city, Illinois boasts 35 Fortune 500 companies, with strengths in agriculture and manufacturing. Students who attend college in Chicago can pursue a job in rural Illinois after graduation.

Low Cost of City Living for a Big City

As one of the largest cities in the country, prospective students might assume that Chicago has a high cost of living. But for an urban area of its size, many find the city to be surprisingly affordable.

According to a 2019 report from Move.org, Chicago's cost of living is cheaper than other big cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The report estimated the average monthly cost of living in Chicago at $2,500. However, many Chicagoans live on much less.

The city's neighborhoods and socioeconomic diversity make it possible for many to live in Chicago on a tight budget.

Diversity and Inclusion

Chicago is one of the most diverse cities in the country. The city is about one-third white, one-third Black, and one-third Hispanic or Latino, according to 2021 census estimates. Chicago's diversity shapes its neighborhoods and culture. It also shapes the student experience, thanks to campus diversity boosting learning outcomes.

In addition to racial diversity, Chicago has a strong LGBTQ+ community, offering a more welcoming environment for college students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Transportation

When it comes to public transportation, few cities match Chicago. The network of metro trains, a strong commuter rail system, and buses make it easy to get around Chicago — even without a car.

Many colleges in Chicago offer easy access to the public transportation system and student transportation pass discounts. The city's public transportation system can save college students a significant amount of money on transportation and commuting costs.

Lifestyle and Recreation

Whether you're interested in the dining scene, culture, sports, or outdoor activities, Chicago has a lot to offer. Students can visit world-class museums, watch professional sports teams, and enjoy a wide variety of cuisines in a single afternoon.

The city's 18.5-mile Lakefront Trail and beaches on Lake Michigan connect students with the outdoors. And the city also ranks high for its arts and shopping. The recreational activities, food scene, and culture help college students cultivate their interests outside of campus.

What Are the Cons of Studying in Chicago?

Extreme Weather Conditions

Chicago has a scenic lakefront. But for part of the year, the lake freezes and gives the city an Arctic feel. The city's extreme weather poses a particular challenge to students used to more temperate climates. What's more, Chicago colleges often refuse to cancel classes for blizzards, snow, or freezing temperatures.

Average high temperatures in Chicago fail to reach freezing in the month of January. Conversely, summer can be sweltering, with average high temperatures in the mid-80s. The city offers warming and cooling centers for residents in extreme weather.

Wealth Inequalities

Wealth inequality is a major problem in Chicago. In the city’s various neighborhoods, some areas are thriving while others struggle. According to the Urban Institute, households in the richest areas of Chicago have more than 200 times the wealth of households in the poorest areas.

A history of geographic segregation and racial discrimination means that people of color in Chicago have lower net worths and emergency savings. The Urban Displacement Project identifies areas of gentrification and displacement in Chicago, which disproportionately affect neighborhoods with a higher population of people of color.

Several organizations are fighting back against the racial wage gap and wealth inequality in Chicago, including the Chicago Community Trust. College students can be part of the solution by being aware of Chicago's inequalities and joining efforts to support struggling communities.

Crime Rates

Crime rates are down in Chicago in 2022. However, the city still has an above-average crime rate. Before studying in Chicago, students should learn more about the city's crime rates. For example, violent crime in Chicago is often concentrated in a few areas. The Chicago Sun Times reported that nearly two-thirds of homicides took place in 15 community areas.

College students should follow safe practices and stay alert. Chicago colleges use on-campus security to help protect their students. For example, at the University of Chicago, there are security and transportation services that help keep students safe.

Expensive Tuition

The University of Chicago and Northwestern rank among the most expensive colleges in the country. With annual costs soaring over $75,000, sticker shock can leave prospective students reeling. However, there are more affordable colleges in Chicago –– and expensive schools often offer large financial aid packages.

In Chicago, undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges. And students can appeal for more financial aid to make college more affordable.

Taxes

College students should plan to pay a high sales tax on their Chicago purchases. The city's sales tax rate of 10.25% makes it one of the most expensive cities for sales tax. Students should also budget for the state's income tax –– which is nearly 5%.

Those taxes can take a big chunk out of your paycheck and budget, so make sure to plan ahead by researching tax filing for college students.

So, Is Studying in Chicago Worth It?

Should you study in Chicago? Choosing the right college can feel overwhelming. And even choosing a city to attend college can be tough.

The Windy City can be a great place to attend college and launch your career. Before applying to Chicagoland colleges, make sure you understand the benefits and drawbacks of heading to Chicago for college.

If you're an Illinois resident, consider the public colleges in Chicago, where you'll receive a major tuition discount. Out-of-state residents can still benefit from strong institutional financial aid at private colleges.

Before moving to Chicago for college, consider your career plans. Many college students build professional connections in the city where they attend school. Pursuing internships, attending networking events, and participating in job fairs can mean strong economic prospects in your college town. If you aren't sure about living in Chicago or the Midwest long term, consider other options.

If it's in your budget, visit Chicago to get a feel for the city before making college decisions. Imagine living in the city for college. Visit several campuses in the area. That will give you a better idea of whether studying in Chicago is worth it for you.

Frequently Asked Questions About Studying in Chicago

Is Chicago a good place to go to college?

Chicago is a great city for college. The Windy City has many top-ranking colleges, including the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In addition to standout colleges, Chicago has a relatively affordable cost of living for a large city and a strong local economy. College students benefit from the city's unique dining scene, active sports scene, and a rich culture. Chicago's diversity and its many neighborhoods mean that students can find the right part of town for their budget and interests.

In addition to all of this, Chicago has a good public transportation system, which means college students can save money by leaving their car at home.

What is the average cost of tuition in Chicago?

The tuition cost for colleges in Chicago varies greatly. Two colleges –– the University of Chicago and Northwestern University –– rank among the 10 most expensive colleges in the country. The sticker price at these schools runs over $75,000 a year. However, many students pay lower tuition rates, thanks to the strong financial aid options at these schools.

On the other hand, Chicago's community colleges cost just $146 per credit for city residents.

With such a wide range of costs, prospective students can seek out affordable colleges in Chicago, apply for institutional aid, and find schools that match their budget.

How much does it cost to live in Chicago?

The average monthly cost of living in Chicago is $2,500 per month, according to a 2019 report from Move.org. That number factors in the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, utilities, internet, gas, and food costs.

While Chicago's cost of living is higher than many non-urban areas, it ranks as an affordable large city. And Chicagoans can lower their costs by choosing affordable neighborhoods and taking public transportation instead of owning a car.

College students may discover that living off campus in Chicago can be more affordable than paying for on-campus Chicago student housing.

What is the cheapest university in Chicago?

One of the most affordable universities in Chicago is the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). A public institution and part of the state's public university system, UIC offers a major tuition discount for Illinois residents. That can make UIC more affordable than Chicago's private colleges.

However, while the private universities in Chicago report high tuition rates, many students pay much lower rates because of extensive institutional aid packages. Before choosing a Chicago university, make sure to compare financial aid packages to find the most affordable option.

Is Chicago safe for college students?

Yes, Chicago is a safe city. While Chicago has a reputation for its crime rate, most crime in the city takes place in a small number of communities, according to a 2022 analysis from the Chicago Sun Times.

College students can also take several steps to improve their safety in Chicago or any other city. When in public, make sure to stay alert and avoid dangerous situations. Know your options when it comes to campus safety and transportation programs. And consider sticking with a buddy to protect yourself.

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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