Students pursing a higher education in Illinois can choose from a number of private and public institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics lists 259 schools in the state, and these may offer two-year, four-year or graduate degrees either on-campus or as online programs.
Illinois State University, with its campus in Normal, had the honor of being founded as the first public university in the state. However, the University of Illinois System is the state's largest network of higher education institutions. It includes distinct universities at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield plus regional campuses in Rockford, Peoria and Quad Cities. In total, nearly 90,000 students enroll in programs through the University of Illinois System.
For students interested in starting with vocational training or a two-year degree, the Illinois Community College System includes 49 colleges covering 39 districts. You can learn about our rankings for the top community colleges in Illinois, when you're done reading about the top universities in Illinois. Students completing an A.A. or A.S. degree at one of these institutions can transfer their credits to the more than 100 schools that participate in the Illinois Articulation Initiative. There are also specialized transfer degree programs available in the areas of engineering science, fine arts and teaching.
Read on to discover the best Illinois colleges and learn about financial aid resources, top industries, careers in the state and more.
Best 4-Year Colleges in Illinois
While community colleges specialize in two-year degrees and technical education, you'll need to go to a four-year school to earn a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree. The best Illinois colleges for these degrees include the following mix of accredited private and public institutions which ranked high on metrics such as affordability, accessibility and program prominence.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign not only has excellent on-campus programs but is also one of the best online colleges for Illinois. The university offers a significant number of distance education programs through its Illinois Online division, which is a good sign for those in favor of taking online courses or enrolling in online degree programs.
Founded in 1867, the flagship campus of the University of Illinois System is one of the original 37 land-grant institutions created as a result of legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln. It can boast of numerous Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni and faculty.
The 15 colleges and schools within the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enroll more than 51,000 students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Meanwhile, its online offerings lean heavily toward graduate degrees and certificate programs. However, there is an online bachelor's degree in earth, society and environmental sustainability.
Northwestern University is another of the top universities in Illinois. The school was envisioned by its founders in 1850 and opened its doors in 1855 on a campus near Evanston. Today, Northwestern continues to operate in Evanston and has added campuses in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
The thousands of full-time faculty at Northwestern University are part of what sets the school apart from other Illinois colleges. Among their ranks are Tony Award winners, Guggenheim Fellows and other others who have been recognized as being at the top of their field.
Not only is Northwestern University one of the best schools in Illinois, but it is nationally recognized as well. In particular, it is known for its research, and nearly $800 million in sponsored research is conducted annually at Northwestern. The university also home to a top-rated law school and business school.
Situated in the heart of Chicago, DePaul University promises its students an urban experience with global perspective. It is a leading Catholic institution as well as one of the best Illinois schools.
With more than 300 undergraduate majors and graduate programs, DePaul University offers something for just about everyone. Popular degree programs include those in business and communications. The school's location makes it ideal for those wanting to gain real-world experience alongside their classroom studies, and thousands of internship opportunities are located nearby. Students also benefit from small class sizes and a diverse campus, as well as online courses or online programs.
DePaul University was founded by members of Congregation of the Mission, also known as Vincentians, in 1875. As it has grown, the accredited university has continued in the tradition of its Catholic founders and their patron St. Vincent DePaul.
Affordable tuition, ample student support services and popular degree programs all help The University of Illinois at Chicago land of the list of top universities in Illinois. It is also Chicago's only public research institution.
UIC values diversity in both its student population and academic offerings. There are 15 colleges within the university that offer a range of degree programs. What's more, there are a number of online degrees and certificates to be earned, making this school a worthy choice for those interested in online degrees in Illinois. The school's extended campus for distance learners has programs in engineering and nursing among other fields.
Although officially formed in 1982, The University of Illinois at Chicago was created by merging schools that had roots dating back to 1859. While its primary location is Chicago, UIC also has five regional campuses for medicine, nursing and pharmacy students.
Calling itself an intellectual destination, the University of Chicago was founded by noted businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller in 1890. The school enrolls more than 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students and has a global network of 182,000 alumni.
Students can select from more than 90 majors and minors at UChicago. Research is an integral part of the university although the school offers a range of programs and has a notable law school as well as a divinity school. Regardless of the program, UChicago says it is committed to an open and free exchange of ideas as it teaches students how to think, rather than what to think.
The University of Chicago is located in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood near Lake Michigan, and its campus has 217 acres designated as a botanical garden.
As a Catholic institution, Loyola University provides a Jesuit education that stresses knowledge, curiosity, global perspectives and care for the whole person. For 150 years, it has served students in downtown Chicago, but the university also has health programs in the suburbs, a campus in Rome and online degrees.
More than 17,000 students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs at Loyola University. They benefit from small classes thanks to the school's 14:1 student-faculty ratio, and 98 percent are pursuing further education or have a job within three months of their graduation.
Loyola University has more than 80 majors for its undergraduate students and more than 140 programs for graduate students. Its executive MBA is highly ranked, as are its online bachelor's degree completion programs.
With more than 50 programs available online, the University of Illinois at Springfield is one of the top Illinois schools for distance learners. Its online options include degrees and certificates at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in fields such as psychology, communication and computer science.
Students who would rather take traditional classes can do so at the university campus near Lake Springfield. In total, more than 4,500 students are enrolled at UIS. Popular undergraduate majors include computer science, business administration and accountancy while graduate degrees cover fields such as management information systems and public administration.
UIS was founded as Sangamon State University in 1969 and became part of the University of Illinois in 1995. Among its honors, the UIS Computer Science Department has been named a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyberdefense Education by the government.
Illinois State University is a popular institution for future teachers, with elementary education and teaching being among its most sought after degrees. However, its strong graduation rate and wide range of services make it an appealing option for students studying other fields as well.
There are six colleges and dozens of degree programs within Illinois State University. The vast majority of classes are taught by professors rather than graduate or teaching assistants. Plus, nearly all those professors hold the highest degree possible in their field.
Advisors at ISU are specially trained to work with first year students and help them navigate college life. The university points with pride to its retention rate of more than 80 percent which it says is among the highest in the country.
The University of St. Francis says it has a mission to create a community of learners. As part of that mission, the school wants to help students prepare to continuously strive for excellence while contributing to the world.
When it was founded in 1920, the University of St. Francis was intended to teach members of the Congregation of the Third Order of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate. Since then, it has expanded to become a comprehensive, coeducational institution open to all. However, it continues to embrace Franciscan values and its Catholic heritage.
USF enrolls more than 3,700 undergraduate and graduate students in its four academic colleges. Dozens of scholarships are available, and the school says 100 percent of incoming freshmen receive financial assistance. The University of St. Francis has top-ranked online degrees in fields such as accounting and social work.
Founded under the direction of the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese and named for Chicago philanthropist Frank Lewis, this accredited school can trace its roots back to 1932. Lewis University has transformed from humble beginnings to become one of the best schools in Illinois.
Lewis offers more than 110 undergraduate and graduate degree programs through its five colleges and schools. There are more than 100 clubs and organizations available to students, and its more than 20 athletic teams participate in the NCAA Division II. Nearly all students receive financial aid to make the university more accessible and affordable.
While Lewis University is sponsored by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order, it welcomes students of all faith traditions for degrees from bachelor's to doctoral degrees to online degrees. Its online programs include an accelerated bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a Master of Business Administration.
Enrolling more than 14,500 students annually, Southern Illinois University ranks in the top 5 percent nationally for its research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation. It is home to nearly two dozen research centers and institutes including the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Advanced Energy Institute.
However, even students who aren't interested in research will find plenty of education opportunities here. SIU has more than 200 undergraduate degrees and at least 110 master's, doctoral and professional programs. The university has both a School of Law and a School of Medicine.
For distance learners, there are more than two dozen online degrees available. These include fully online bachelor's degrees in fields such as journalism, health care management and electrical engineering technology.
Located 10 minutes from downtown Chicago, Concordia University is a Lutheran institution that puts an emphasis on faith and service. Its affordability and comprehensive degree programs also help make it one of the best universities in Illinois.
CUC has more than 170 undergraduate and graduate programs available, including a robust catalog of online and accelerated degrees. Some programs, such as the associate degree in organizational management, have 5-week courses and can be completed in as little as 16 months. Other examples of online programs at CUC include a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and a master's degree in leadership studies.
With its tuition guarantee, CUC promises not to increase tuition as students work toward a degree so long as there is no change to their academic agenda.
Founded in 1895, Eastern Illinois University is first in the state and in the top 5 percent of the nation for preparing students who go on to earn doctoral degrees, according to the National Science Foundation. However, even those who don't plan to pursue their education to that level will benefit from the school's state-of-the-art facilities and quality instructors.
Nearly 7,500 students are enrolled at EIU. Among its notable programs is a master's degree in sustainability which makes use of the university's Center for Clean Energy Research and Education. For undergraduate students, there are majors in popular fields such as biological science, business administration and elementary education.
Those seeking an online college may want to look into the EIU School of Extended Learning. It offers flexible degree options designed for adult learners.
You'll find more than 140 areas of study at Olivet Nazarene University, another of the top universities in Illinois. These include degrees in business, engineering and theology and Christian ministry. Graduate and continuing education programs are offered on-campus or online and cover fields such as education, nursing and professional development.
ONU was founded in 1907 as a service of the Church of the Nazarene. However, it enrolls more than 5,000 students representing 50 religious denominations. As a premier Christian institution, ONU believes higher education should have a higher purpose, and faith is intertwined in the education experience here.
The campus of Olivet Nazarene University is located in Bourbonnais and conveniently located near diverse entertainment options, from the Kankakee State Park to the Kankakee Speedway.
For the technologically-minded student, the Illinois Institute of Technology may be the right fit. Among the top schools in Illinois, perhaps none is as focused on a technology-infused education as Illinois Tech.
The Chicago school's history runs back to 1893 when the Armour Institute opened. That school focused on the fields of chemistry, engineering, architecture and library science. In 1940, it merged with Lewis Institute to create the current Illinois Institute of Technology. It now enrolls approximately 6,500 students in its 11 colleges and institutes and offers online programs in fields such as business, engineering and information technology.
Illinois Tech has strong retention rates for freshman and placement rates for graduates. As a Chicago-based school, the Illinois Institute of Technology has long-standing partnerships with two-year city colleges that allow students to seamlessly move from an associate degree to a bachelor's degree program.
Most Popular Degree Programs in Illinois
While the best online colleges in Illinois offer a number of degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, a few fields of study stand out. Here's a look at some of the most popular degree programs in the state, some of which you may find may be offered as online degree programs.
Costs, Financial Aid and Scholarships in Illinois
There are many factors that go into selecting a school, not the least of which is its tuition rate. The cost of attending the top colleges in Illinois can depend on factors such as whether the school is public or private and whether you're a resident of the state. Below are the average published 2017-2018 tuition rates for Illinois colleges and universities, per the National Center for Education Statistics.
- Public 2-Year Schools (in-state): $3,891
- Public 2-Year Schools (out-of-state): $10,989
- Public 4-Year Schools (in-state): $13,971
- Public 4-Year Schools (out-of-state): $28,618
- Private 4-Year Schools: $32,491
Students earning on-campus or online degrees in Illinois typically have access to a number of state-administered financial aid programs. These can be applied for using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Students can also apply for private scholarships and grant programs. Our guide on How to Pay for College has additional details about how to cover tuition costs.
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Careers in Illinois
Selecting the right online program or degree may be easier if students know which jobs are most likely to be hiring when they graduate. Students can also take a career quiz to narrow their choices. While considering your options, keep the following in mind:
- A 2019 report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimates the state will need 19,000 new nurses over the next decade.
- The tech job market is expanding rapidly in Illinois thanks to innovations in 5G, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
- The Robert Graham Center estimates Illinois will need 12 percent more primary care physicians from 2010-2030.
|Career Title||Projected Job Growth||Total Employment||Annual Salary|
|Software Developers and Software Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers||28.4%||54,700||$103,760|
|Occupational Therapy Aides||28.3%||2,410||$30,540|
|Operations Research Analysts||28%||4,520||$100,010|
|Orthotists and Prosthetists||26.9%||380||$81,820|
|Home Health and Personal Care Aides||24.7%||89,040||$26,450|
|Hearing Aid Specialists||23%||300||$41,830|
|Information Security Analysts||22.9%||4,120||$102,780|
|Fast Food and Counter Workers||22.2%||158,350||$23,410|
|Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists||22.1%||33,670||$64,910|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants||20.6%||2,240||$63,700|
|Computer and Information Research Scientists||20.5%||430||$118,970|
|Medical Appliance Technicians||20.2%||690||$52,020|
|Physical Therapist Assistants||19.9%||3,980||$59,130|
|Veterinary Technologists and Technicians||19.7%||4,000||$37,130|
|Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians||19.3%||560||$25,340|
|Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers||18.6%||2,490||$28,480|
|Physical Therapist Aides||18%||1,230||$29,290|
|Computer Numerically Controlled Tool Programmers||17.8%||1,210||$55,800|
- University of Illinois System
- Illinois Community College System Foundation
- Illinois Community College Board
- Illinois Board of Higher Education
- Illinois Student Assistance Commission
To get our list of the best colleges, we ranked four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. In order to be included in the ranking, schools had to report data for each of the following data points, and each school was then scored on a 100-point scale:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018-19
- The average amount of aid awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduate students, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of full-time first-time undergraduates awarded any financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2017-18
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2016-17
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered on campus, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2018
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2018
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018-19
- Dual credit
- Credit for life experience
- Advanced Placement credit
- Programs of study that can be completed entirely on weekends or in the evening
- Remedial services
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Guaranteed tuition plan
- Tuition payment plan
- Any other alternative tuition plan
Note: Tuition prices are based on data for the 2018-19 academic year reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. The actual cost of tuition may vary.
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed April 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=GA&ic=1
- Enrollment, University of Illinois System, Accessed April 2020, https://www.uillinois.edu/data/enrollment
- About the University, The University of Chicago, Accessed April 2020, https://www.uchicago.edu/about/
- Loyola at a Glance, Loyola University Chicago, Accessed April 2020, https://www.luc.edu/features/stories/loyolaataglance/
- Quick Facts, University of Illinois-Springfield, Accessed April 2020, https://www.uis.edu/about/facts/
- Greatness Happens Here, Southern Illinois University, Accessed April 2020, https://siu.edu/about-siu/
- Accelerated Degree Programs, Concordia University Chicago, Accessed April 2020, https://www.cuchicago.edu/academics/undergraduate-academics/accelerated-degree-programs/
- EIU at a Glance, Eastern Illinois University, Accessed April 2020, https://www.eiu.edu/about/glance.php
- About Olivet Online, Olivet Nazarene University, Accessed April 2020, https://online.olivet.edu/about-olivet-online
- About, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Accessed April 2020,, http://illinois.edu/about/index.html
- Academics, Illinois State University, Accessed April 2020,, https://illinoisstate.edu/academics/
- Lewis at a Glance, Lewis University, Accessed April 2020,, https://www.lewisu.edu/welcome/facts.htm#
- Northwestern, at a Glance, Northwestern University, Accessed April 2020,, http://www.northwestern.edu/about/facts.html
- USF Facts and Figures, University of St. Francis, Accessed April 2020,, https://www.stfrancis.edu/about/usf-facts-figures/
- Mission and History, University of St. Francis, Accessed April 2020,, https://www.stfrancis.edu/about/mission-history/
- History & Timeline, DePaul University, Accessed April 2020, https://www.depaul.edu/about/history-and-timeline/Pages/default.aspx
- About, DePaul University, Accessed April 2020,, https://www.depaul.edu/about/Pages/default.aspx
- Quick Facts, Illinois Institute of Technology, Accessed April 2020, https://web.iit.edu/about/quick-facts
- About, The University of Illinois at Chicago, Accessed April 2020, https://www.uic.edu/about
- Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution and state or jurisdiction: 2016-17 and 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed April 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_330.20.asp?current=yes
- Illinois Faces Impending Nurse Shortage, Ted Cox, March 21, 2019, One Illinois, Accessed April 2020, https://www.oneillinois.com/stories/2019/3/21/illinois-faces-impending-nurse-shortage
- Hey grads: Chicago's tech job market is sizzling. Here's how 3 workers landed spots in cybersecurity, software developing and IT, Ally Marotti, May 22, 2019, Chicago Tribune, Accessed May 2020, https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-viz-chicago-popular-tech-jobs-20190405-story.html
- Illinois: Projecting Primary Care Physician Workforce, Robert Graham Center, Accessed April 2020, https://www.graham-center.org/content/dam/rgc/documents/maps-data-tools/state-collections/workforce-projections/Illinois.pdf
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2017-18, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- Illinois and Federal Financial Aid Programs, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Accessed April 2020, https://www.isac.org/students/during-college/types-of-financial-aid/illinois-and-federal-financial-aid-programs.html
- Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of Wintergreen Orchard House, a division of Carnegie Communications. Copyright © 2020 by Wintergreen Orchard House. All rights reserved.