Standing Out as a Small College in Illinois
The best small colleges in Illinois featured here consist of public and private colleges, a testament to the world-class quality of higher education institutions in the Prairie State. Each of these small colleges has a unique history and continues to make significant contributions to diverse fields, from nursing and computer science to business administration and criminal justice.
The oldest of these small colleges—and the oldest in Illinois—is Mckendree University, established by pioneer Methodists in 1828. It’s also the oldest university in the United States associated with the United Methodist Church.
The second-oldest college in Illinois is Illinois College, established by the Yale Band in 1829. While McKendree University may have beaten it in terms of founding date, it’s the first college in Illinois to award a degree and the state’s first medical school.
Founded in 1837, Knox College uses a unique 3-3 academic calendar instead of the typical semester-based academic calendar. This setup enables students to focus on their studies—each term requires completion of only three courses. This also allows faculty members to provide more personalized professional attention to their students, and is one of the reasons why it’s one of the best small colleges in Illinois.
The #1 in our list of the best small colleges in Illinois, Illinois Institute of Technology, traces its roots to 1890 and has garnered several accolades in its 130-year history. Among its latest is the CAE-CD or National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education designation.
The bottom line: While Illinois is chock-full of private school institutions with outstanding academic programs, the small Illinois university and college options featured here are great choices for higher education! Excellent academic standards, credentialed faculty members, and exceptional student support services are among the reasons these small colleges are recognized for their great value.
Public Colleges vs. Private Colleges
But, it’s also important to distinguish between public and private colleges, a distinction that can make or break your academic career. Their differences will greatly impact your ability to earn your degree based on your desired timeline, thanks to factors like total cost of attendance, degree programs, student support services, and class size and diversity. Be sure to carefully consider the unique characteristics of each small college before making your choice.
Funding sources and their effect on tuition and fees.
With funding from the state government, public colleges are more affordable than private colleges. Government subsidies mean students aren’t paying for the actual cost of attendance. In contrast, private colleges don’t receive a single cent from the government and, instead, rely on tuition, fees, alum contributions, endowments, and other sources of revenue. The result: Higher tuition and other fees.
Fortunately, students in accredited public and private colleges can apply for financial aid! Federal and state financial assistance, institutional scholarships, and external grants are available.
Degree programs and research opportunities.
Public colleges are likely to have larger class sizes, more diverse student bodies, and a wider range of degree and certificate programs. Private colleges tend to have smaller class sizes and less diversity among their students, although there are always exceptions. There’s also more emphasis on liberal arts programs with a smattering of STEM and business administration programs.
Due to their limited funding, small private colleges may not offer as many research opportunities as small public colleges. But what they lack in resources can mean better collaborations between students and professors.
In terms of campus life, small public and private colleges feature a more tight-knit community with a fairly wide variety of on-campus activities and organizations.
Ultimately, your choice between a small public college and a private college will depend on your circumstances and preferences. With numerous world-class colleges and universities in Illinois, you will be spoiled for choice!
Great Reasons to Study in Illinois
So why choose the Prairie State for your higher education? First, you will find rich and diverse opportunities to appreciate Illinois’s history, arts and culture! Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan call Illinois home—in fact, it’s where the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the future Barack Obama Presidential Center are located.
Chicago, its largest city, boasts numerous galleries and museums, historical landmarks and attractions, and awe-inspiring architecture and sculptures. There are several fairs and festivals, too, such as the Abe Fest and Illinois State Fair, as well as sports teams to root for—the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox among them.
Did we mention that the cost of living in Illinois is well below the national average? Students will find the fairly reasonable costs of housing, utilities and groceries to be appealing. With the wide range of financial aid programs available in Illinois, pursuing a degree in one of its best small colleges becomes even more attractive!
The employment opportunities in Illinois are also excellent for students and graduates of small colleges. The state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity cites energy, transportation and distribution, and biotechnology and life sciences as among the state’s growth industries.
More than 30 Fortune 500 corporations in Illinois, such as Allstate and Boeing, contribute to its diverse economy. The most profitable industries include finance, insurance, and real estate. And you will be glad to know that Illinois’ minimum wage rate will be $15 in 2025, among the highest in the country!