Situated in the Great Lakes region in the US, the state of Illinois is said to act as the heart and pulse of the US, as its demographics represent a microcosm of the nation.
Proclaiming itself the true “Land of Lincoln”, Illinois was a prominent site of 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 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 University of Chicago is in fact one of the nation’s (and the world’s) most prestigious universities – ranked 10th in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017.
Top universities in Illinois
Three universities in Illinois are in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017 – the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The University of Chicago is the highest ranked among universities in Illinois and 10th in the world. A private research university, the school has a current undergraduate enrollment of around 5,860 students and has played a prominent role in a range of academic disciplines, including economics, sociology, law, literary criticism, physics, religion and political science. It features among the world’s best for 30 of the 42 subjects covered in the QS World University Rankings: by Subject 2016, including seven top-10 positions.
Established in 1890 and located on 211 acres south of downtown Chicago, the University of Chicago combines Collegiate Gothic, neo-gothic and modern architecture. Expansion plans in recent years have brought about a 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.
Ranked 26th in the world, Northwestern University is a multidisciplinary, private research institution, with a current undergraduate student population of just over 8,300. Northwestern University appears within the global top 200 in an impressive 33 subjects covered by the QS World University Rankings by Subject, including top 20 rankings for material sciences, economics, communication and media studies, 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 66th in the world, the school was established in 1867, making it the second oldest public university in Illionois. 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 43,600 students (32,579 undergraduates) a choice of over 150 programs of study.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is ranked among the world’s top 300 universities for 35 subjects covered by the QS World University Rankings by Subject, including 19 rankings among the world’s top 50, with its best position in civil and structural engineering (joint 12th).
Other universities in Illinois
As well as its Urbana-Champaign campus, the University of Illinois also has branches in Chicago and Springfield – the University of Illinois at Chicago (joint 187th in the world) and University of Illinois at Springfield (unranked). Other notable universities in Illinois include the Illinois Institute of Technology (ranked 401-410* in the world), which has a notably high proportion of international students, and Loyola University Chicago (701+).
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 reflect Chicago’s status as a thriving economic hub, where as many as 14 Fortune Global 500 companies are located, including Boeing and Kraft Foods.
At street level, Chicago’s population of 9.5 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 prompts comparisons 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).
Facts about Illinois
- 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 37 companies in the 2016 Fortune 500 list.
- Chicago’s O’Hare airport is the fourth-busiest in the world by passenger numbers
- 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 US presidential candidate 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.
*For information about ranking categories, and answers to other frequently asked questions, click here.
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This article was originally published in July 2014. It was updated in November 2016.