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Published: May 16, 2022 8 min read
University Michigan Ann Arbor Campus
Marvin Shaouni for Money

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The Midwest dominates when it comes to big research universities. Topping the list, the University of Michigan has been ranked the top-spending public research university by the National Science Foundation since 2010. Just beneath it at the number two spot, Northwestern University entices students with its stellar academics and beautiful campus overlooking Lake Michigan.

Tuition fees, average financial aid, student and parent borrowing, and loan repayment rates all come into play in Money’s 2022 Best College rankings. But beyond affordability, we also take into account graduation rates and average earnings after college to build a list of schools that are solid educational and financial decisions. (You can read the full breakdown of how we ranked the 2022 Best Colleges here.)

UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that more than eight in 10 freshmen at four-year colleges attend a college that's within 500 miles of their home. In other words: chances are good that if you grew up in the Midwest, you’ll attend a college that's there, too.

Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 colleges in the region. See the full Best Colleges in the Midwest here.

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1. University of Michigan

E. Bronson / Michigan Photography
  • Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Estimated price with average grant: $18,800
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Early career earnings: $75,840

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor offers a great deal on tuition for in-state students (Michiganders pay just over $15,000 per fall/winter term as freshmen and sophomores), an award-winning faculty that prides itself on teaching, and even an alumni association with a club charter on the moon. Sports permeate campus life, but for non-athletes, there are countless clubs and opportunities for civic engagement.

2. Northwestern University

Courtesy of Northwestern University
  • Location: Evanston, Illinois
  • Estimated price with average grant: $29,900
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Early career earnings: $80,030

Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois is divided between the creative arts and journalism students on its south end and the engineering and pre-professional schools to the north. Northwestern has the resources and size of a Big Ten school, but fosters a feeling of community among its diverse student body. Social life centers on the active Greek scene, as well as the attractions of downtown Chicago, a quick L ride away.

3. University of Notre Dame

Barbara Johnston / University of Notre Dame
  • Location: Notre Dame, Indiana
  • Estimated price with average grant: $31,700
  • Graduation rate: 97%
  • Early career earnings: $88,960

Notre Dame is highly selective, reporting that almost 90% of its students were in the top 10% of their high school classes. And while the university may be best known for its humanities and business programs, it's also strong in the sciences, with an especially grueling pre-med track. Sports are a big part of the university's social life, but nearby South Bend also has plenty of museums, shops and restaurants.

4. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Courtesy of The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Location: Champaign, Illinois
  • Estimated price with average grant: $14,300
  • Graduation rate: 84%
  • Early career earnings: $71,540

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been recognized for its high research spending, and it offers more than 150 majors, including bioengineering, community health, media and cinema studies, and special education. Students have access to the country's second largest university library system (after Harvard), and the university has also garnered notice in recent years for its many international students, especially from Asia.

5. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Courtesy of The University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Location: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Estimated price with average grant: $ 14,800
  • Graduation rate: 87%
  • Early career earnings: $65,210

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers its 48,000 students an eclectic arts scene, grade-A athletics, a charming college town on Lake Mendota and a strong Greek community. The school’s great academics include a truly mind-boggling array of choices: students have more than 9,000 courses and 230 majors and certificates to pick from, with notably prestigious business and engineering programs.

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6. Washington University in St. Louis

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  • Location: St. Louis, Missouri
  • Estimated price with average grant: $ 28,800
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Early career earnings: $82,730

Academics are rigorous at this private research university, and competition is fierce, especially among students in the popular engineering, social sciences and business programs. But WashU also has a thriving social scene, with praiseworthy campus amenities, including the food, dorms and the Loop — an area within walking distance of campus offering restaurants, a movie theater and shopping, plus nightlife.

7. St. Olaf College

Courtesy of St. Olaf College
  • Location: Northfield, Minnesota
  • Estimated price with average grant: $29,400
  • Graduation rate: 86%
  • Early career earnings: $60,240

Founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants, St. Olaf College is particularly well-known for its music department, but the liberal arts school offers a broad range of majors (biology, economics, psychology and chemistry have been popular recently). Every student must complete the general education core, and even in (very) cold winters, students find plenty of ways to keep busy indoors with clubs, performing arts groups and service organizations.

8. Iowa State University

Courtesy of Iowa State University
  • Location: Ames, Iowa
  • Estimated price with average grant: $17,000
  • Graduation rate: 74%
  • Early career earnings: $57,350

Iowa State University has an excellent agricultural college, but its math and science departments are among the best at any state university. It’s also a leader in virtual reality, with a research center that it says is "aimed broadly at enhancing the productivity and creativity of people.” Some of its 35,000 students come from around the world to study, though more than half of undergrads are Iowan.

9. University of Chicago

Courtesy of The University of Chicago
  • Location: Chicago
  • Estimated price with average grant: $38,600
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Early career earnings: $76,730

UChicago has a reputation for academic intensity, with all undergraduates taking a rigorous liberal arts core curriculum where A's are hard to come by. The student body is intellectual and prides itself on being so: Many credit the school with teaching them to think critically. Nearby Downtown Chicago is an important part of university life, providing job, internship and volunteer opportunities, plus athletic and cultural activities.

10. Saint Johns University

Courtesy of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University
  • Location: Collegeville, Minnesota
  • Estimated price with average grant: $29,700
  • Graduation rate: 75%
  • Early career earnings: $68,720

Saint Johns University is a Catholic school for men that partners with a nearby women's school, College of Saint Benedict. Popular options among the school's 37 majors and 40 minors include global business leadership, biology and accounting. Cheering on the Division III football team is a highlight of the college experience, and a campus surrounded by forests and lakes inspires the student body to value outdoor recreation.

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