Best Colleges in Tennessee

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Danika Miller
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Danika Miller is a senior writer at BestColleges and Accredited Schools Online. Her writing has also appeared in Grad School Hub, Best Value Schools, Affordable Colleges Online, and Her Campus. Her financial expertise has been featured in The Simple ...
Updated on June 11, 2024
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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.

Top 10 Colleges in Tennessee

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#1 Vanderbilt University Nashville, TN
#2 Sewanee-The University of the South Sewanee, TN
#3 Milligan College Johnson City, TN
#4 Rhodes College Memphis, TN
#5 Tennessee Technological University Cookeville, TN
#6 Bryan College-Dayton Dayton, TN
#7 The University of Tennessee-Knoxville Knoxville, TN
#8 Middle Tennessee State University Murfreesboro, TN
#9 The University of Tennessee-Martin Martin, TN
#10 Lipscomb University Nashville, TN

How We Rank Schools

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

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.

Why Study in Tennessee?

Tennessee features a rich culture, especially in the metro areas of Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville.

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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.

Top Degree Programs in Tennessee

Tennessee Employment Outlook

According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state had a total employment of more than 3.12 million in 2019. The department projects more than 4 million job openings over the next decade

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.

Popular Career Paths in Tennessee

Best Accredited Colleges in Tennessee

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Best Colleges in Tennessee

  1. Vanderbilt University

    Nashville, TN



    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.

  2. Sewanee-The University of the South

    Sewanee, TN



    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.

  3. Milligan College

    Johnson City, TN



    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.

  4. Rhodes College

    Memphis, TN



    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.

  5. Tennessee Technological University

    Cookeville, TN



    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.

  6. Bryan College-Dayton

    Dayton, TN



    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.

  7. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

    Knoxville, TN



    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.

  8. Middle Tennessee State University

    Murfreesboro, TN



    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).

  9. The University of Tennessee-Martin

    Martin, TN



    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.

  10. Lipscomb University

    Nashville, TN



    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.