The 10 Best “Hidden Gem” Colleges in the Midwest

When it comes to colleges in the Midwest, you’re familiar with the major state schools: Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, University of Kansas… the list goes on.

But what about lesser-known schools? The ones that might not have the top-ranking football team or the largest student population?

The Midwest is home to a number of notable colleges that might typically fly under the radar. But oftentimes, that’s what makes these colleges so special — they’re true hidden gems.

In the spirit of sharing some of these hidden gems with the rest of the country, we rank 10 of the best hidden gem colleges in the Midwest.

St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota)

Saint Cloud State University
Xylem22, SCSU Miller Center, CC BY-SA 3.0

This public institution, located about an hour northwest of Minneapolis, landed No. 30 on the U.S. News and World Report list of top public schools in the Midwest in 2020.

Although it might not be as well known as the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud State University (SCSU) is the fourth-largest public university in Minnesota with more than 14,000 students.

Additionally, the school has nearly 110,000 alumni around the world. Some notable names include John Stumpf, former chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo; Leo Kottke, Grammy-nominated acoustic guitarist; and Richard Dean Anderson, a producer and actor known for his lead on the TV series, “MacGyver.”

The school gives students plenty of opportunities to explore various programs, activities, and organizations. For one, it has more than 200 undergraduate programs. It also has more than 200 student clubs and organizations as well as sports, including ice hockey, wrestling, and basketball.

SCSU emphasizes the importance of applied learning, offering students a number of research, study abroad, and internship opportunities.

Wright State University (Fairborn, Ohio)

This public research institution is located in Fairborn, Ohio, a town of approximately 32,000 people. 

Wright State University was initially established in the 1960s as a branch of Miami University and Ohio State University. It was named in honor of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who lived in nearby Dayton. Several years later, the school became its own entity. Today, it has more than 13,000 students. 

Although Wright State offers 292 degree programs, a few of its schools have recently been nationally recognized. For starters, its nursing school was named one of the top-ranking by Nursing Schools Almanac. Additionally, The Princeton Review named its business school one of the best in the country.

And here’s a fun fact about Wright State: It has an underground tunnel system, one of the most extensive pedestrian tunnel systems at a college. It runs two miles and links up 20 of the 22 academic buildings on campus.

Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion, Indiana)

Indiana Wesleyan University
manutdglory, Iwupac, public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

This private Christian university is located in Marion, Indiana, a town of less than 30,000 located about an hour and a half outside of Indianapolis. The school itself has nearly 14,000 students. It’s the largest private college in Indiana.

Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU) has claimed several titles from the U.S. News and World Report. It was ranked No. 25 for Midwest universities and No. 14 for best undergraduate teaching.

It’s worth noting there are about 3,000 students on campus, while more than 10,000 are national or global students who study online or attend classes at its centers in Indiana, Kentucky, or Ohio. The school offers many online, adult, and graduate programs for working adults.

IWU also offers degrees focused on Christianity. These include children’s ministries, sports ministries, worship arts, biblical literature, and intercultural studies, to name a few.

Fort Hays State University (Hays, Kansas)

Fort Hays State University
Sesamehoneytart, Fort Hays State University Sheridan Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

Fort Hays State University (FHSU) is a public university located in Hays, Kansas, the largest city in Northwest Kansas with a population of 20,000. It’s mostly known as a college town, the home of FHSU. On its 200-acre campus, you’ll find about 4,500 students. (Like IWU, FHSU also has a robust online program with more than 7,000 virtual students.)

According to the U.S. News and World Report, some of the school’s most popular majors are business, management, marketing, education, and psychology. After graduation, 96 percent of students land jobs or enter grad school.

Here’s a fun fact: Nola Ochs graduated from FHSU and became the world’s oldest college graduate in 2007. She was 95. 

University of Dayton (Dayton, Ohio)

University of Dayton
Nheyob, Chapel of the Immaculate Conception (University of Dayton), CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of Dayton (UD) is a private Catholic research university located in Dayton, Ohio. It’s home to more than 11,000 students.

In addition to ranking No. 6 on our list of best hidden gem colleges in the Midwest, UD has also landed in some solid rankings from the U.S. News & World Report. It’s No. 132 on the list of overall top national universities, and it ranks No. 58 in best value schools. 

UD’s school of College of Arts and Sciences is the largest department at the school. Under it, you’ll find a human rights studies program, which was actually one of the first to be established in the country back in 1998.

At UD, you’ll also find the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives as well as the Center for Tissue Regeneration and Engineering at Dayton (TREND), which specifically researches tissue regeneration. The university prides itself on research. In 2019, it performed $166 million in research, landing it No. 9 on the list of the top private research universities without a medical school.

Outside the classroom, the majority of students live on campus — approximately 90 percent. This makes it one of the most residential campuses in the U.S. There are resident halls for first-year students, apartments, and even student neighborhoods for upperclassmen.

University of Nebraska Omaha (Omaha, Nebraska)

University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) is a public research university with about 12,500 undergraduate students.

UNO is recognized as a metropolitan university. That means it operates based on traditional higher education values (teaching, service, and research) and pushes to provide leadership and engagement within the larger community.

This connection between the school and the community helps students gain new experiences and land successful careers after graduation. For instance, more than 700 of UNO’s classes engage with the community. That means these classes include a service-learning, practicum, internship, or student-teaching component that allows students to grow outside the classroom.

It’s also worth noting that students find plenty of opportunities post-graduation. In fact, 80 percent of UNO’s alumni stay in the Omaha area. The city is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, including Berkshire Hathaway, Mutual of Omaha, Peter Kiewit, and Union Pacific.

University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (La Crosse, Wisconsin)

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
OehlerLaura, Morris Hall, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, CC BY-SA 3.0

This public university was founded back in 1909 and currently has more than 10,000 students. As its name implies, the school is located in La Crosse, Wisconsin, along the Mississippi River and on the border of Minnesota.

The University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (UW–La Crosse) boasts several strong rankings from the U.S. News and World Report. It landed the No. 3 spot for top public schools in the Midwest (falling only behind Truman State University and the University of Northern Iowa). It also ranks No. 28 on the list of regional Midwest universities and No. 47 in best value schools.

UW–La Crosse has 90 undergraduate programs. Noteworthy programs include microbiology and exercise and sport science. The school also has the state’s only nationally accredited recreation and therapeutic recreation degrees. Its College of Business Administration is internationally accredited. Finally, UW–La Crosse is only one of two Midwest colleges to have an archeology major.

Eastern Michigan University (Ypsilanti, Michigan)

Eastern Michigan University
Andrew Jameson, EMUHDYpsilantiMIA, CC BY-SA 3.0

You probably haven’t heard of Ypsilanti, Michigan. But that’s why it’s a hidden gem. It’s truly a college town. The town and the school have approximately the same population: 21,000.

Eastern Michigan University (EMU) is a public research university founded in 1849. The college was established to educate teachers, and its education program still stands strong today. In fact, EMU is one of the largest producers of educators in the U.S. Additionally, its Department of Special Education is one of the oldest programs of its kind. It was founded in 1923.

EMU also offers students a unique scholarship called 4WARD Graduation Scholarship. If you qualify, you pay tuition for the first two years, then the second two are free. The perks? A locked-in tuition rate, on-campus living community, and a locked-in housing rate for all four years. The goal is to help students maintain financial stability while pursuing their education.

Illinois State University (Normal, Illinois)

Illinois State University
Willjay, Milner Library, CC BY-SA 3.0

Founded in 1857, Illinois State University (ISU) is one of the oldest public colleges in Illinois. It’s located in Normal, Illinois, which sits about two hours outside of Chicago. The school ranks No. 98 on the U.S. News and World Report’s list of top public universities in the country.

Like EMU, ISU is well-known for its teaching program. It was founded as a school to train teachers, and today it’s one of the top 10 largest producers of teachers in the country, according to the Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

In addition to its education program, the school has five other colleges, including the College of Applied Science and Technology, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, College of Fine Arts, and Mennonite College of Nursing.

The school also offers ample opportunities to study abroad and engage with the community. In fact, it’s one of only 50 schools in the country to be named a Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Leadership Institution.

ISU  has a lot of pride and spirit. It has one of the largest student spirit organizations (Red Alert), with more than 4,100 members. Go Redbirds!

And here’s another fun fact: ISU is home to Gamma Phi Circus, the oldest collegiate circus in the U.S It’s actually only one of two in the country.

Minnesota State University, Mankato (Mankato, Minnesota)

Minnesota State University, Mankato
Ken Wolter /

Have you heard of Mankato? It probably doesn’t top your list of travel destinations, but it’s home to Minnesota State University, Mankato, a public university with more than 14,000 students. It’s about an hour and a half from the Twin Cities.

In addition to landing our No. 1 spot for top hidden gem school, Minnesota State University, Mankato, also ranks No. 18 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top public schools in the Midwest.

Like other colleges on this list, it started as a teacher’s school. Now, it offers more than 130 undergraduate programs, including an aviation program — the only nationally accredited of its kind in the country — which partners with Delta and Sun Country Airlines to set students up with job opportunities post-graduation.

The university also has a rich student life. There are more than 200 academic student groups, intramural sports, leadership and religious organizations, honorary and professional societies, and other special interest groups. Students can also join Greek life or student government. Minnesota State University, Mankato, also has the second-oldest LGBT resource center in the country, founded in 1977.

Of recent graduates, 93 percent are employed. The school has more than 120,000 around the world. Notable alumni include professional sports players, authors, politicians, record producers, and actors.