Situated in the Great Lakes region in the US is the state of Illinois, said to act as the heart and pulse of the US, due to its demographics that represent a microcosm of the nation.
Proclaiming to be the true “Land of Lincoln”, Illinois has a distinct and varied history, thanks to its prominence as a site of major 19th and 20th century immigration, which saw all manner of settlers make their homes here. Among these immigrants was Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, and Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Since some of Illinois’ settlers proved controversial figures (Smith himself was met with persecution and lynched in 1844), the history of the state is as colorful as it gets.
The official capital of Illinois is Springfield, but Chicago steals the glory. Advantageously located on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago is within commuting distance for a massive 75% of the state’s population.
Chicago is the third largest city in the US and has become a key financial hub of the nation, thanks to strong agriculture, manufacturing, energy and service industries. With a rich and at times notorious history of music, crime, immigration and innovation, the sound and spirit of old Chicago lives on in today’s sprawling, tech-savvy metropolis.
Although Illinois is the ‘most average state’ according to an Associated Press analysis of US Census Data, universities in Illinois are a long way from average. The state’s own University of Chicago is in fact one of the nation’s (and the world’s) most prestigious universities – ranked ninth in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®.
Top universities in Illinois
Three universities in Illinois are in the top 100 of the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings® – the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The University of Chicago is so prestigious that many students simply refer to the school as ‘Chicago’. The highest ranked of all universities in Illinois and 9th in the world, this reverence is much deserved. A private research university, the school has a current undergraduate enrollment of over 5,100 students and has historically played a role in furthering a number of academic disciplines, including economics, sociology, law, literary criticism, physics, religion and political science. Of its current programs, 18 are within the top 50 worldwide, with economics, English language and literature, history and law within the top 10.
Established in 1890 and located on 211 acres south of downtown Chicago, the University of Chicago is a mix of Collegiate Gothic, neo-gothic and modern architecture. A recent two-billion dollar expansion plan has bought about number of new, state-of-the-art buildings, including a hospital, an athletics center and a science building. The University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library is also partially operated by robots.
Currently ranked 29th in the world, Northwestern University is a multidisciplinary, private research institution, with a current undergraduate student population of almost 8,500. Northwestern University appears within the global top 200 in an impressive 26 out of 30 subjects covered by the 2014 QS World University Rankings: by Subject, including top-20 rankings for mechanical engineering, material sciences, economics and chemistry.
The school’s main campus is located just half an hour’s drive north of the city center, in the suburban town of Evanston, along the banks of Lake Michigan. Northwestern University also has a satellite campus within the city, in the neighborhood of Streeterville, and this is where the law school, medical school and affiliated hospitals are located.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a public, research-intensive, land-grant university and the flagship institution in the University of Illinois system. Ranked 56th in the world, the school was established in 1867, making it the second oldest public university in the state. The school’s campus library system owns the second largest university library in the nation (the fifth-largest overall). A multidisciplinary institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers its 44,520 students (32,281 undergraduates) a choice of over 150 programs of study.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign appears within the world’s top 200 universities for 28 subjects covered by the QS World University Rankings by Subject, including 15 rankings among the world’s top 50. For civil and structural engineering, it’s ranked second in the world, behind only the world’s highest-ranked university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Other universities in Illinois
As well as its Urbana-Champaign campus, the University of Illinois also has institutes in Chicago, aptly named the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC, 192nd in the world), and Springfield – the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS, unranked). Other universities in Illinois deserving of a mention are the Illinois Institute of Technology (ranked 441-450 in the world) and Loyola University Chicago (601-650).
Top student cities in Illinois
The playground of the notorious gangster Al Capone and the starting point for many blues and jazz musicians, the city of Chicago boasts a history and cultural atmosphere richer than most.
If it’s a decent skyline you’re after then look no further. Chicago sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, offering stunning views over the water from the heights of the city’s many sleek architectural feats. These skyscrapers make it known that Chicago is a thriving economic hub, where as many as 12 Fortune Global 500 companies are located, including Boeing and Kraft Foods.
At street level, Chicago’s population of over 12 million can be found enjoying blues, jazz and rock bands hosted in the many gritty nightclubs and bars across the city. While Chicago’s comedy scene is booming, musical heritage remains one of the city’s biggest draws; the explosion of blues and jazz in the 20th century allows for comparisons to be made with the throbbing city of New Orleans in Louisiana. Chicago’s major influence in the music world is reflected in the fact that the term “jazz” was actually coined in the city in 1914 by musicians Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. The Green Mill Jazz Club is also the longest continuously running jazz club in the whole of the US.
Other cultural attractions in Chicago include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo (the nation’s oldest public zoo and one of just three major free zoos remaining in the US), Willis Tower (or Sears Tower as it’s still known to locals) and the Shedd Aquarium.
Although Chicago steals its limelight, the city of Springfield is the official capital of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln practiced law here from 1837 onwards and, inevitably, the town is full of so-called ‘Lincolniana’ to explore. Visitors can take a look at his restored home, law offices and various other period buildings and artifacts, as well as his tomb and the new Presidential Library and Museum.
Although Springfield has a population of just 117,000, the city can offer a great live music scene, as well as theater, opera and comedy all over town.
Other towns and cities worth exploring in Illinois include Aurora, Rockford, Joliet, Morton (“pumpkin capital of the world”), Naperville, Peoria, Cairo, Cahokia, and Kaskaskia (the state’s first capital).
Illinois: Fast facts
- The capital city is Springfield and the largest city is Chicago.
- Illinois is located in the Midwest region of the US, sharing borders with Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan (across Lake Michigan).
- Approximately 80% of Illinois is farmland.
- Major agricultural products include soybeans, pumpkin, corn, hogs, ethanol, peaches, cheese and wheat.
- Illinois has 33 companies in the 2014 Fortune 500 list.
- Chicago’s O’Hare airport is the third-busiest in the world by passenger numbers, behind Atlanta and Beijing.
- Illinois generates more nuclear power than any other state.
- Illinois was the first state to ratify the 13th amendment of the constitution in 1865 to abolish slavery.
- Barack Obama started his political career in Illinois, and, when he became president in 2008, he gave his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.
- Famous people from Illinois include politician Hilary Clinton, actors Bill Murray and Mr. T, writer Ernest Hemingway, animator and producer Walt Disney and comedian Richard Pryor.
- Films featuring Chicago include The Blues Brothers (1980), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Home Alone (1990).
- Chicago’s Nabisco factory is the largest bakery in the world at 1,800,000 square feet.
Still choosing a state? Browse more options with our state guides >