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    Top Affordable Colleges in Illinois

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Updated: June 14th, 2024
    Top Affordable Colleges in Illinois

    Looking for affordable schools in Illinois? You’re in luck. Illinois offers many budget-friendly college choices for students, including in-state tuition at public institutions, private colleges with generous merit scholarships, and excellent pathways for starting at community colleges and transferring to four-year universities.

    Our selection covers options for both in-state and out-of-state students, as well as those from diverse economic or academic backgrounds.

    It’s worth noting that the affordability of a school can vary for each student. Your financial and academic circumstances will dictate the amount of financial assistance you receive. Since each school has its own method of calculation, it’s a good idea to apply to multiple institutions and identify those that align with your academic and financial situation.

    For in-state students


    UIUC offers some of the best public education in the state, along with a heavy tuition discount for in-state students. Additionally, they offer need-based aid to Illinois residents who may be otherwise ineligible for federal aid. They also automatically consider applicants for a wide variety of need and merit based scholarships.

    Illinois State University

    In addition to automatic in-state tuition discounts, ISU offers automatic merit-based scholarships for students who meet certain GPA requirements on their high school transcript. Students with a 3.0 GPA and above will gain $1,000-$5,000 per year in scholarships, and may be eligible to apply for the Jesse W. Fell Scholarship, worth $48,000.

    For merit aid

    Saint Xavier

    All students applying to Saint Xavier are automatically considered for a Freshman Merit Scholarship worth up to $22,000 per year. This is in addition to a long list of other scholarships, some of which students must apply for separately. Especially if your GPA/test scores fall above the typical admitted scores at Saint Xavier, there is a good chance you’ll get a very affordable aid package at the school.

    Illinois Wesleyan College

    With a wide variety of scholarships available for first-year students, Illinois Wesleyan is a great option for students looking to earn merit-based aid. In fact, according to the College Scorecard, the average student at Illinois Wesleyan ends up paying less than half of sticker price, as of 2023.

    For need-based aid

    University of Chicago

    U Chicago is very hard to get into, but if you do manage to get in, they have some of the strongest need-based aid in the state. In fact, as of 2024, if your family makes less than $125,000 per year, they will qualify for free tuition. And if they make less than $60,000, tuition, fees, and standard room and meals will also be covered. Students who qualify financially for these programs in their first year will not be reevaluated, so they will continue to benefit for the rest of their time at the school.

    Northwestern University

    Northwestern is another selective school with strong financial aid. They have pledged to meet full financial need, which means that they will cover 100% of the difference between cost of attendance and the ability of a student’s family to pay. If you have strong financial need and gain admission to Northwestern, you will likely receive a very strong aid package.

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • There are three main pathways to find affordable college in Illinois. One is through merit scholarships if you have a remarkable academic record. Another is through need-based aid if your financial situation warrants it. And another is through applying to public colleges as an in-state student
    • We listed two good examples of in-state schools, but there are many other great public institutions in Illinois to consider, such as University of Illinois at Chicago
    • You’ll often find the best merit aid at schools where your GPA or test scores are in the higher percentile of admitted students

    Frequently asked questions about affordable college in Illinois

    How can I establish residency in Illinois?

    This requirement may vary school-by-school, but generally the standard is that a student lives in-state for at least 366 days prior to the start of classes. They must also show intent to stay in the state indefinitely.

    What if my FAFSA does not show financial need?

    If you need financial support to pay for college but your FAFSA does not reflect this financial need, you have a couple options. If you are an in-state Illinois student, you can try applying to public schools. If you gain admission, you will automatically receive a steep tuition discount that could make the school affordable even without financial aid. 

    Additionally, if you have a strong academic background, you can try applying to private schools with strong merit-based aid. Oftentimes, you’ll get the best merit aid at schools that are not overly selective, but have strong merit scholarships.

    Another option is to apply to competitive schools and, after gaining admission, send them a financial aid appeal letter to explain why your financial situation is not captured by your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. They may adjust your aid offer and grant you admission.

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