The 10 Best “Hidden Gem” Colleges in the Midwest

3. 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.

2. 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.

1. 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.

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