The Best Colleges in Illinois

Continuing your education beyond high school doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Whether you’re looking for undergraduate studies or graduate programs, Illinois has many choices for 2-year, 4-year, and graduate schools.

We reviewed dozens of colleges in Illinois to identify the best of the best. We considered a number of features, such as university achievements, academic programs, faculty, athletics, student organizations, location, and price.

Top Pick
University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has graduated some of the top scholars in the world, including those who split the atom, measured the speed of light, and established the academic field of sociology.

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We chose the University of Chicago as the clear winner for the top college in Illinois because it receives high rankings across the board. Faculty and staff at the university have a long history of earning prestigious awards for their academic prowess. In turn, alumni do as well.

The 5 Top-Rated Colleges in Illinois

Editor's PicksBrandRating
Best OverallUniversity of Chicago 3.5
Runner UpNorthwestern University
3.5
Best ValueUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign3.5
Best Student LifeDePaul University3.5
Best AthleticsIllinois State University 3.5

*Ratings are from Niche.com at the time of publication and can change

Our Top Pick: University of Chicago

The University of Chicago holds its own when it comes to academic achievements. It houses 14 schools and colleges, such as The University of Chicago Law School, Divinity School, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Pritzker School of Medicine, and School of Social Service Administration. Within these schools and colleges, the university offers a multitude of academic degree programs, such as biology, social sciences, math, public administration, and social service.

Students have access to the country’s tenth largest research library, ensuring many more alumni go on to receive high academic awards. This university launches the latest in breakthrough discoveries, encouraging students to participate in undergraduate research projects. There is also the opportunity to study abroad and immerse yourself in foreign cultures.

The University of Chicago emphasizes engaging with the community, whether it’s the neighboring community or overseas. Global community programs, like study abroad, and local community service are available for all students. And with more than 450 student organizations, there are a myriad of ways to enhance your overall educational experience.

The university’s athletics department is part of, and ranks in the top of, the Division III league. Multiple National and Conference championships grace the resume of this college, as well as medals for Academic All-Americans, National Finalists, and Rhodes Scholars. Numerous individual awards and trophies have also been earned by many student-athletes. For the non-varsity athlete, the University of Chicago offers intramural sports, club sports, aquatics, personal trainers, camps, and clinics.

The annual cost for tuition and fees is roughly $59,300, and $25,500 after receiving financial aid.

University of Chicago Key Features:

  • Campus is located on 217 acres
  • Undergraduate population size is around 6,600 students
  • Varsity sports are in Division III
  • Largest number of Nobel laureates in university history
  • Alumni is comprised of Pulitzer Prize winners, Truman Scholars, and MacArthur Fellows

Our Runner Up Pick: Northwestern University

Runner Up
Northwestern University

Northwestern University is ranked high for its strong academic programs, and equally as strong athletics department.

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Our runner up choice, Northwestern University, has been ranked in the top 10 for best national university, business school, education school, and law school by U.S. News & World Report. It’s also a leading research university that has more than 50 research centers. Northwestern University has three campuses around the world, and takes an active role in study abroad and international partnerships.

This university has 12 schools and colleges, such as Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Communication, and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Within these 12 schools are more than 4,000 courses students can choose from. Education exists outside the classroom as well, and students can find themselves immersed in lectures, art exhibitions, performances, music, and film screenings.

A number of resources are available for students on campus, such as sports medicine, safe ride, health services, career advancement, counseling, and stress management. There are more than 400 student clubs and organizations to be involved with, including Greek life. Student-athletes compete in Division I varsity sports or take advantage of the fitness and recreation department, which offers yoga, fitness classes, aquatics, and intramural and club sports.

Northwestern University’s annual tuition and fees are around $56,700. For those who receive financial aid, the annual cost for tuition and fees is about $24,000.

Northwestern University Key Features:

  • Campus resides on 231 acres in suburbia
  • Total student enrollment for undergraduates is roughly 8,250
  • Division I varsity teams
  • Alumni include a mayor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and entertainers
  • Faculty includes Tony Award winners, Guggenheim Fellows, and honorary members of national societies

Best Value College: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Best Value
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has 15 different colleges and schools at an affordable price, making it a great value.

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The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a long history of educating brilliant minds; alumni have received 24 Nobel Prizes over the years. There are also more than 20 Pulitzer Prize winners adorning the university’s alumni and faculty list. U.S. News & World Report ranked this school in the top five for multiple categories, such as the graduate program for information sciences, the undergraduate accounting program, and the study of condensed matter physics.

The academics department provides students with 16 colleges and instructional units to choose from, with more than 150 undergraduate degree programs. Some of the schools include the College of Applied Health Sciences, Grainger College of Engineering, the School of Information Sciences, the College of Media, and Gies College of Business. Students can take advantage of international studies as well, which include study abroad and a variety of degrees and courses geared toward global issues.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign features extensive research centers and programs, encouraging undergraduate research work. In addition to many research centers, this university houses the second-largest fine art museum in Illinois. The campus also has four theaters, four cultural centers, and thousands of art pieces and artifacts.

Alumni do not just include academic scholars. Alumni have also been Olympians, Paralympians, and professional athletes. Student-athletes compete in Division I varsity sports, wheelchair and adapted sports, and campus recreation, such as intramural sports and fitness classes. Non-sport activities include hundreds of programs in different organizations, such as cultural, educational, and community outreach.

Annual tuition and fees are around $16,200 for Illinois residents, and $33,350 for those coming from out-of-state.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Key Features:

  • Campus takes up 1,783 acres in the city
  • Undergraduate enrollment is about 34,000 students
  • Division I varsity sports
  • More than 1,600 student organizations
  • Popular Greek life

Best Student Life: DePaul University

Best Student Life
DePaul University

DePaul University extends education beyond the classroom, with a wide range of opportunities and activities for students to participate in.

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If you’re searching for a great college that has an excellent student life on campus, look no further than DePaul University as the best college for student life in Illinois. DePaul University students have the option to share housing with students from other schools at a place called The University Center. DePaul students live on common floors, but share the building with other local universities.

This university offers more than 350 student clubs and organizations, including 29 fraternities and sororities. Students will find a variety of activities that span across community service, student government, recreational sports, outdoor activities, and art and culture. There is also a museum with over 3,000 works on campus. For the athlete, DePaul University has 13 men and women varsity sports teams in the Division I league. Student-athletes have access to sports medicine, sports performance, and academic advising.

But though life outside of class can get busy, DePaul offers more than 130 undergraduate majors, and more than 175 graduate programs. If you’re so inclined, DePaul offers students the chance to earn both an undergraduate and graduate degree via a combined course load. Popular subjects to study are business, communication, management, journalism, and performing arts. Other educational programs include study abroad, honors, and online learning. This university provides numerous research opportunities with faculty in all academic degree programs.

Tuition and fees for a year are approximately $41,200. For students receiving financial aid, tuition and fees are roughly $30,500.

DePaul University Key Features:

  • Undergraduate population size is around 14,500 students
  • Five campuses, two of which are in downtown Chicago
  • More than 350 student clubs and organizations
  • Greek life
  • Division I varsity sports

Best Athletics: Illinois State University

Best Athletics
Illinois State University

Illinois State University student-athletes have won numerous championships, league titles, and All-American honors.

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Illinois State University wins our choice for best college athletics in Illinois. An impressive, long-standing history of athletic achievement blankets the university. From All-American honors to Olympic status, students at Illinois State take their sports seriously and go for the gold. This university has won nine National Championships and hundreds of league titles. It offers 17 men and women varsity sports teams.

For the non-varsity student-athlete, Illinois State has club sports, intramural sports, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. And for the outdoor buff, the Adventure program gives students the chance to venture into climbing, hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding, and even yoga. But if you’re looking for even more than that, this college has more than 400 student organizations that range from political to cultural to educational, and everything in between.

This institution has seven academic colleges, including the College of Applied Science and Technology, College of Education, College of Business, and Mennonite College of Nursing. Within each school is an array of degree programs. Popular subjects include business, marketing, education, and management. Illinois State also offers pre-professional pathways, study abroad, an honors program, and interdisciplinary programs – the latter giving students the opportunity to study across two or more academic disciplines.

The annual cost for tuition and fees is about $14,500 for Illinois residents. Students coming from out-of-state can expect tuition costs to be around $26,000. Seventy-eight percent of Illinois State students receive some form of financial aid.

Illinois State University Key Features:

  • Campus resides on an urban 1,111 acres
  • Student population for undergraduates is about 18,100
  • More than 400 student clubs and organizations
  • Division I varsity sports
  • First public university in Illinois

Who Should Attend College in Illinois

Why choose Illinois for attending college? Aside from the state having some of the best schools in the nation, it also has all four seasons, great iconic food, National and state parks, events, and an active outdoor lifestyle. With ballooning, amusement parks, boating, hiking, fishing, camping, kayaking, and much more, there is plenty for a college student to do in Illinois.

You’ll also find concerts, museums, cruises, and a hopping nightlife in downtown Chicago. It might be famous for its pizza – and what college student doesn’t like pizza? – but Chicago also has the Chicago-style hot dog, and the Italian beef sandwich. Popular eateries for college students in Chicago include Devil Dawgs, Flat Top Grill, The Growling Rabbit, and Chilango Mexican Street Food.

If you’re moving to a college town, then you won’t want to miss Life At College: 5 Keys To Finding Your Perfect College Town Apartment.

Top Pick
University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has graduated some of the top scholars in the world, including those who split the atom, measured the speed of light, and established the academic field of sociology.

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Important Features to Consider

A college or university should have a few important features. Here’s what to consider when selecting a college or university to attend:

  • Schools, colleges, and degree programs. Whether or not you know what major you want to study, it’s important to take a look at what schools and colleges universities have available. Check out what degree programs are being offered through each school or college. Be thorough in your search for programs, as this could help peak your interest in areas of study you might not have thought of otherwise.
  • Size and location. A college or university can be anywhere from tiny to huge – whether we’re talking student population, acreage, or facilities. The size of a school may or may not impact what the college has to offer its students in terms of education, activities, or campus life. The location of the college may also impact what the school has to offer. Life is different if you’re in the city, suburbs, or rural farmland. Size and location will greatly depend on what you’re looking – and not looking – for with your college experience.
  • Extracurricular academic programs. Most colleges and universities give students a chance to extend their education beyond the classroom. Programs like study abroad, living learning communities, honor societies, and educational organizations can greatly enhance your overall college education, better preparing you for life after graduation.
  • Student clubs and organizations. You have to have some fun at college, too. Don’t forget to look at the student clubs and organizations a college or university has available. Joining in on campus activities is a great way to meet other students with common interests.
  • Student fitness, athletics, and recreation. All of that time in class and in your room studying means a lot of time sitting down. Whether or not you’re an athlete looking for a sports team, consider what a college or university has to offer regarding being active and keeping in shape. Colleges may have fitness centers, a pool, tennis courts, gymnasium, or outdoor fields.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many colleges are in Illinois?

There are 208 colleges and universities in Illinois, according to the Illinois Bureau of Higher Education. Forty-eight of those are community colleges, awarding 2-year degrees, and 108 colleges offer graduate degrees.

What are the cheapest colleges in Illinois?

The cheapest 4-year college in Illinois is Chicago State University. Annual tuition and fees equal roughly $8,600. Chicago State University offers 56 degree programs, more than 46 student organizations, and athletic programs with a Division I league.

The cheapest 2-year community college in Illinois is Morton College. Annual tuition and fees are about $3,000. Morton College offers 17 degree programs, with topics such as math, science, business, communications, and health.

What is the oldest college in Illinois?

McKendree University is the oldest college in Illinois, founded in 1828. It was originally Lebanon Seminary, with just 72 students. It’s also the oldest college in the nation that still has ties to the United Methodist Church. McKendree University offers more than 50 degree programs for undergraduates, and nine graduate degree programs.

How much is college in Illinois?

The cost of college varies from institution to institution. According to the Illinois Bureau of Higher Education, public 4-year universities for undergraduates have tuition and fees averaging $14,000 per year. Community colleges average $147 per credit hour for tuition and fees. Graduate level tuition and fees in Illinois averages $12,800 per year.

Other Colleges in Illinois We Reviewed

Top Pick
University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has graduated some of the top scholars in the world, including those who split the atom, measured the speed of light, and established the academic field of sociology.

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We looked at 20 other colleges in Illinois. Even though they didn’t make our 5 best colleges in Illinois list, they’re the best of the rest and are still great options for furthering your education. The information you need for each one is included with the listing.

Picturesque Colleges in Illinois

Augustana College

Augustana College

Augustana College has more than 50 academic degree programs to choose from. Popular areas of study are biology, business, psychology, and communication.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 2,500 undergraduate students on a campus size of 115 acres
  • Greek life

Cost: $43,600 for annual tuition and fees, $24,750 after financial aid

Illinois Wesleyan University

Illinois Wesleyan University

Illinois Wesleyan University encourages holistic learning environments since campus is an arboretum with thousands of trees that are of numerous different species.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • More than 160 organizations, including Greek life
  • 1,700 undergraduate students on an 82-acre campus

Cost: $50,000 for annual tuition and fees, $27,000 after financial aid

Loyola University Chicago

Loyola University Chicago

Loyola University Chicago has 14 schools and colleges, and more than 250 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. The university also gives students the chance to study abroad and participate in undergraduate research.

Key Features:

  • Division I sports league
  • 12,000 undergraduate students on a 105-acre campus
  • Top subjects include biology, nursing, psychology, and advertising

Cost: $45,500 for annual tuition and fees, $33,000 after financial aid

Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University offers more than 140 degree programs for undergraduate and graduates. Campus life is active with Greek organizations and varsity sports.

Key Features:

  • Division I sports league
  • 12,800 undergraduate students on an 800-acre campus
  • More than 200 student clubs and organizations

Cost: $14,600 for annual tuition and fees for in-state

Small Colleges in Illinois

Illinois College

Illinois College

Illinois College was the first college in Illinois, and currently offers 45 degree programs. Popular areas of study include marketing, psychology, business, and biomedical sciences.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 1,000 undergraduate students on a rural 65-acre campus
  • More than 8 student organizations

Cost: $33,750 for annual tuition and fees, $16,500 after financial aid

Monmouth College

Monmouth College

Monmouth College is a small school that offers 35 degree programs. Favorite subjects include business, fitness, communication, and psychology.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 900 undergraduate students on a campus of 112 acres
  • Numerous activities and events are available on campus

Cost: $39,000 for annual tuition and fees, $17,200 after financial aid

Principia College

Principia College

Principia College is a small school that averages 11 students per class. It offers 25 majors in subjects such as education, fine arts, business, and communication.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 450 undergraduate students
  • Campus size is 2,600 acres in a rural setting

Cost: $30,200 for annual tuition and fees

University of St. Francis

University of St. Francis

The University of St. Francis has 50 undergraduate ad 18 graduate degree programs. Common areas of study include health professions, business, homeland security, and public administration.

Key Features:

  • 1,600 undergraduate students on a small suburban campus
  • Financial aid available to everyone
  • Numerous clubs, organizations, and societies, including Greek life

Cost: $34,000 for annual tuition and fees, $18,600 after financial aid

College in Illinois Under $15K

Eastern Illinois University

Eastern Illinois University

Eastern Illinois University offers 50 undergraduate degree programs that include areas of study like education, business, health, and science. Students have the opportunity to take part in online learning.

Key Features:

  • Division I sports league
  • 6,000 undergraduate students on a 320-acre campus
  • More than 200 student clubs and organizations, including Greek life

Cost: $12,000 for annual tuition and fees for in-state, $14,300 for out-of-state

Moody Bible Institute

Moody Bible Institute

Mood Bible Institute is a private Christian college where popular majors are biblical studies, missionary studies, and pastoral counseling.

Key Features:

  • Division II sports league
  • 2,200 undergraduate students
  • More than 40 student organizations

Cost: $13,300 for annual tuition and fees

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale gives students the chance to live and learn among other students, faculty, and staff that have similar interests. This program enables students to become more engaged with their education.

Key Features:

  • Division I sports league
  • 9,550 undergraduate students on a rural 1,136-acre campus
  • Study abroad and undergraduate research programs

Cost: $14,900 for annual tuition and fees for in-state

University of Illinois at Chicago

University of Illinois at Chicago

The University of Illinois at Chicago is Chicago’s only public research university, and has more than 15 colleges and schools. Topics of study include health, architecture, design, dentistry, and medicine.

Key Features:

Division I sports league, 20,800 undergraduate students on a 240-acre campus, More than 200 student clubs and organizations, including Greek life

Cost: $14,800 for annual tuition and fees for in-state, $27700 for out-of-state

University of Illinois at Springfield

University of Illinois at Springfield

The University of Illinois at Springfield offers 25 undergraduate and 20 graduate degree programs. Common major subjects are computer science, psychology, communication, and accounting.

Key Features:

Division II sports league, 2,800 undergraduate students on 746 acres in the city, More than 80 student organizations

Cost: $11,800 for annual tuition and fees, $21,300 for out-of-state

Colleges in Illinois Between $20K and $45K

Bradley University

Bradley University

Bradley University offers students more than 140 degree programs across five colleges, including business, engineering, and communication. Academic programs are available for those who want to enhance their education.

Key Features:

  • Division I sports league
  • 4,600 undergraduate students on 85 acres in the city
  • More than 250 student clubs and organizations, including Greek life

Cost: $34,600 for annual tuition and fees, $24,800 after financial aid

Millikin University

Millikin University

Millikin University boasts a rate of 99 percent when it comes to students getting employment or continuing their education right after graduation.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 2,000 undergraduate students
  • Campus is set in the city on 75 acres

Cost: $37,100 for annual tuition and fees, $20,400 after financial aid

North Park University

North Park University

North Park University is a Christian college that has multiple schools, such as seminary, arts and sciences, music, art, and theater, and nursing and health sciences . The most popular majors are nursing, biology, exercise science, and business.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 2,000 undergraduate students
  • Numerous organizations, activities, and events for students to participate in

Cost: $29,900 for annual tuition and fees, $19,700 after financial aid

Wheaton College

Wheaton College

Wheaton College is a Christian college that focuses on adding faith and spiritual beliefs into the college experience. It offers 40 undergraduate degrees and 18 graduate degrees.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 2,400 undergraduate students on an 80-acre campus
  • Numerous student clubs and organizations

Cost: $37,700 for annual tuition and fees, $28,000 after financial aid

Colleges in Illinois Over $45K

Illinois Institute of Technology

Illinois Institute of Technology

Illinois Institute of Technology is a research university that focuses on technology. It has eight schools and colleges offering degrees in engineering, business, human sciences, and architecture.

Key Features:

  • 3,000 undergraduate students on a 120-acre campus
  • More than 100 student clubs and organizations
  • Division III sports league

Cost: $49,300 for annual tuition and fees, $23,000 after financial aid

Knox College

Knox College

Knox College has relatively small classes and offers numerous academic degree programs. Sports are very popular on this campus.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 1,300 undergraduate students on an 82-acre campus in the city
  • Popular subjects include economics, biology, psychology, and creative writing

Cost: $48,200 for annual tuition and fees, $23,000 after financial aid

Lake Forest College

Lake Forest College

Lake Forest college was ranked in top 20 for happiest students by the Princeton Review. This college offers 32 majors and more than 200 study abroad programs.

Key Features:

  • Division III sports league
  • 1,500 undergraduate students on a campus that is 107 acres
  • More than 70 student clubs and activities

Cost: $48,400 for annual tuition and fees, $24,600 after financial aid

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