Illinois is the fifth most populous state in the U.S. and, for two centuries, it has been at the forefront of America’s evolution. Whether a leader in the age of agriculture, a hub for industrialization, or a thriving cluster of major metropolitan areas, the Land of Lincoln is often seen as an epicenter of American life. Certainly, its university system bears out this impression.
Since its admission into the Union in 1818, Illinois has emerged as a leader in higher education. Its 60 public institutions and 86 non-profit private schools provide residents and visitors with an impressive spectrum of options. The first of these options would emerge in 1828 with the establishment of the private McKendree University. It would be another 30 years before the founding of the state’s first public institution, Illinois State Normal University. The school eventually dropped the “Normal”—which historically signified a teacher’s college—from its name. But it does maintain one cherished tradition, annually staging what is now the longest-running collegiate circus in the U.S.
By 1890, the city of Chicago was a flourishing urban center, drawing new residents from throughout the nation and immigrants from throughout the world. The time was right for the founding of the University of Chicago, a private university begun by the American Baptist Education Society. Today, the University of Chicago is ranked #5 overall among American colleges by U.S. News & World Report. The venerated university is distinguished by a student roster where graduates outnumber undergraduates two to one. It is also home to the University of Chicago Press, which is the largest publisher of academic texts in the U.S.
Another private school of tremendous reputation and historical import is Wheaton College, a small four year institution located in the Chicago suburb from which the school takes its name. The U.S. News & World Report ranks Wheaton as the 56th best liberal arts school in the nation but Wheaton is remarkable beyond its educational rigor (which includes one of the world’s top music conservatory programs). Indeed, the school which was founded on the eve of the American Civil War would famously become the first stop on the Underground Railroad by which fugitive slaves emerged to Northern freedom. Appropriately, Wheaton would also grant a degree to the state’s very first African American graduate.
Beyond that, educational options abound in Illinois. The College of DuPage is the single largest community college campus in the U.S. outside of California; the University of Illinois, Chicago is host to the single biggest medical school in the country; and the highly selective Northwestern University enjoys one of the largest endowments in the nation at just under $10 billion.
- See who ranks as the best college and university in Illinois today.
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Select Illinois College & University Profiles
» American InterContinental University
» Benedictine University
» DeVry University
» Lewis University
» Loyola University Chicago
» Northwestern University
» Rasmussen College
» University of Illinois Springfield