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Aerial view of the library at The University of Chicago
Kozloff, Robert / The University of Chicago

On urban lakefronts and in legendary college towns, Midwest schools rival the best in the country on athletics, academics and atmosphere.

Of the six Midwest universities that earned 5-star marks in Money’s 2023-2024 Best Colleges ratings, four hail from the Big Ten, including three public behemoths and the only private school in the conference, Northwestern.

The Wildcats’ frenemies on the opposite side of the Chicago Loop, the Maroons, also made the list, as did the only school in the country where you can study in a library under a 134-foot mural of Jesus signaling a touchdown.

Money evaluates colleges based on the value they offer for your money, using a methodology that weighs over two dozen data points on earnings, cost, graduation rates, peer quality, debt loads and more.

If you’re from the Midwest and leaning toward sticking around — or if heartland is just calling your name — here’s a breakdown of the 5-star colleges in the region, in alphabetical order:

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Northwestern University

Courtesy of Northwestern University
  • Location: Evanston, Illinois
  • Estimated price with average grant: $32,200
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Early career earnings: $85,800

At Northwestern, students apply their high-school overachiever work ethic to busy extracurricular and academic schedules, and the school’s quarter system keeps them jumping from exam to exam. But they also make time for social life revolving around Greek organizations. Northwestern’s students tend to do well on the job market after leaving school. Full profile.

University of Chicago

Courtesy of The University of Chicago
  • Location: Chicago
  • Estimated price with average grant: $36,200
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Early career earnings: $78,400

The student body at UChicago is intellectual and prides itself on being so: Many credit the school with teaching them to think critically. Students must complete a rigorous liberal arts core curriculum, where A's are much harder to come by than at other schools. The city is a playground for students and an important part of university life, providing job, internship and volunteer opportunities to students, as well as athletic and cultural activities. Full profile.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Courtesy of The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Location: Champaign, Illinois
  • Estimated price with average grant: $15,300
  • Graduation rate: 86%
  • Early career earnings: $77,400

The University of Illinois is recognized for its high research spending, and its experts have recently made headlines for studying everything from genetically engineered crops to prebiotics. Students have access to the country's second largest university library system. (Only Harvard's is larger.) The state system’s flagship campus also scores highly on Money’s measures of affordability. Full profile.

University of Michigan

Courtesy of The University of Michigan
  • Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Estimated price with average grant: $20,600
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Early career earnings: $79,600

A perennial top performer in Money’s college rankings, Michigan shines in each of the three areas our team evaluates — affordability, quality and student outcomes. The university’s Division I athletics are also first-rate, and during home football games in the fall, hordes of student fans pack into “The Big House,” the largest stadium in the Western Hemisphere, to cheer their team on. Full profile.

University of Notre Dame

Courtesy of University of Notre Dame
  • Location: Notre Dame, Indiana
  • Estimated price with average grant: $32,700
  • Graduation rate: 96%
  • Early career earnings: $93,200

Although Notre Dame is a Catholic school and requires students to take at least two theology courses, it welcomes students of all faiths. The university may be best known for its humanities and business programs, but it's also strong in the sciences. About 96% of students finish within six years, meaning Notre Dame has one of the highest graduation rates in Money's ratings. The football team, the Fighting Irish, is a big part of the university's social life, especially because there are no sororities or fraternities at Notre Dame. Full profile.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Courtesy of The University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Location: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Estimated price with average grant: $14,500
  • Graduation rate: 87%
  • Early career earnings: $70,600

The university’s 34,000 undergraduates have more than 9,000 courses and 242 majors and certificates to pick from, and business and engineering programs are notably prestigious. Money estimates the price of a degree from UW-Madison comes in at just over $102,00 — a cool $30,000 cheaper than the median cost of all the schools on our list. Full profile.

Notes: Prices for public universities reflect in-state tuition charges. Graduation rate measures degree completion within six years for both transfer students and first-time students. Early career earnings are the median earnings for both graduates and non-completers, 10 years after they first enrolled. Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Peterson’s, Money/Witlytic calculations.

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