Best Colleges in Tennessee of 2022

Tennessee is home to dozens of colleges. Find out which are the best colleges in Tennessee when you're applying to school this fall.

Best Colleges in Tennessee of 2022
Li Yuanhe

There are many states in America that have excellent schools of higher learning, which can make it hard to decide where to apply to. The state you decide on can be dictated by a number of factors, such as its close proximity to where you live, the environment there that appeals to you, scholarship reasons, or simply because you want to go to a college that’s different than the one you live in. 

In this BrokeScholar study, we focused on determining the best colleges in Tennessee. In order to do this, we analyzed every four-year public and four-year private nonprofit college and university in Tennessee that offers bachelor’s degrees. The methodology for determining the best colleges in Tennessee is based on a combination of factors, including graduation rate, admission rate, number of bachelor’s degrees awarded, the ratio of bachelor’s degrees awarded to undergraduate population (to prevent big schools that give out large quantities of degrees from automatically ranking highest), in-state tuition costs, and out-of-state tuition costs. All data was sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for the academic year 2021-2022.

Read on to find out the best colleges in Tennessee of 2022.

Best Colleges in Tennessee

The top colleges in Tennessee combine strong academic records and academic programs, with high graduation rates, as well as selectivity with their admissions. There’s a great mix of private nonprofit schools and public schools that made the top of our list, which means prospective college students have plenty of options to choose from. Here’s a look at the 15 best colleges in Tennessee:

1. Vanderbilt University

Named for the wealthy, prestigious Vanderbilt family who made their enormous fortune in the heydays of the Gilded Age, namely railroads, Vanderbilt University is easily one of, if not the, best colleges in Nashville. Vanderbilt makes the top of our list of the best colleges in Tennessee thanks to strong scores across the board. Vanderbilt University’s admission rate was a mere 7% for the academic year 2021-2022, making it the most selective of all Tennessee colleges and universities in the study. At the same time, Vanderbilt University boasts the highest graduation rate at 93% for the same academic year in our study of the best colleges in Tennessee. 

The university awarded 1,712 bachelor’s degrees in 2022, well above the study’s overall average of 815 degrees awarded. In terms of the ratio of degrees awarded to undergraduate population, Vanderbilt’s is 24.3%, also besting the study’s overall average of 19%. Vanderbilt University’s only downside is its costly tuition, which at $56,966 for in-state and out-of-state, is the highest in the study. However, high tuitions usually come with the territory of a selective academic powerhouse like Vanderbilt.

2. The University of Tennessee Knoxville

The University of Tennessee Knoxville, also called UT Knoxville for short, is one of the top colleges in Tennessee, ranked No. 46 (with 1 being the best) by U.S. News in its Top Public Schools category. UT Knoxville has an excellent graduation rate of 93% for the 2021-2022 academic year, and a very low transfer-out rate of just 18%. UT Knoxville also offers a vast range of academic programs and majors for undergraduates to pursue, having conferred 5,187 bachelor’s degrees in 2022, the largest number of degrees in the study. Even with its large undergraduate population of 24,254, the ratio of degrees awarded to undergraduate population was a solid 21.4%, better than the study’s overall average of 19%. Critically important too is the affordable in-state tuition: It costs $13,244 for students who reside in the state, which is the 15th lowest tuition rate in the whole study. All these factors help make UT Knoxville rank as the No. 2 best college in Tennessee.

3. Middle Tennessee State University

Located in Murfreesboro, Middle Tennessee State University is more selective than most Tennessee colleges and universities, with an admission rate of 68% versus an overall average of 76% for all the schools analyzed in the study. Its graduation rate of 51% is pretty much on par with the study’s overall average of 52%.

Middle Tennessee State University has a wide range of academic programs for students to choose from. Some areas with strong rates of bachelor’s degrees awarded include Multi-/Interdisciplinary Studies, Other with 253 degrees awarded in the academic year 2021-2022; Psychology, General with 238 degrees awarded; Business Administration and Management, General with 237 degrees awarded; Biology/Biological Sciences, General with 161 degrees awarded; and Music Management with 134 degrees awarded. Another thing that makes Middle Tennessee State University one of the best colleges in Tennessee is its ranking of No. 72 in the country by U.S. News in its category Top Performers on Social Mobility, which measures the effectiveness of colleges that enroll and graduate large proportions of disadvantaged students. The university also has one of the cheapest in-state tuitions in the study, costing only $9,232.

4. Union University

Union University is in the small city of Jackson and offers everything from one-year certificates to associate degrees to bachelor’s degrees to doctor’s degrees in research and professional practice. Its admissions rate is competitive, with 53% of applicants being granted admission in the academic year 2021-2022. Union University’s graduation rate is also better-than-average, at 66%, making it higher than the 52% average for the whole study. Though it has an undergraduate population on the smaller side (2,096), it still awarded 495 bachelor's degrees in 2022, making for an excellent ratio of degrees to undergraduate population of 23.6%, better than the study’s overall average of 19%. However, because it is one of the schools in Tennessee that's private nonprofit, its tuition rates are on the higher side: $35,510 for both in-state and out-of-state students. Still, all of Union University’s pros outweigh its minimal cons, making it the No. 4 best college in Tennessee. 

5. Rhodes College

Rhodes College is easily one of the best colleges in Memphis, boasting the second-best graduation rate in the study at 82%, only 11% behind No. 1 Vanderbilt University and way better than the 52% average for the study overall. Rhodes College’s admission rate is also selective, with only 57% of applicants being admitted compared to the 76% average for the study overall. Student retention is high at Rhodes College, with only 16% transferring out. And with its small undergraduate population of 1,840, Rhodes College handed out 428 bachelor’s degrees in the 2021-2022 academic year. Another reason why Rhodes College is one of the best colleges in Tennessee is its ranking No. 54 in National Liberal Arts Colleges by U.S. News, not to mention No. 4 in the Best Colleges for Veterans category.

6. The University of the South

The University of the South, sometimes called Sewanee University of the South, makes our list of the best colleges in Tennessee thanks to a number of key factors. The university’s graduation rate of 80% is excellent, far higher than the 52% average for the whole study, and third highest behind only the graduation rates of No. 1 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Rhodes College. 

With an admission rate of 60%, it’s also more competitive than the average admission rate of all Tennessee colleges and universities in the study. As a private nonprofit school in a rural setting, the University of the South still managed to confer 386 bachelor’s degrees in the 2021-2022 academic year, against an undergraduate population of 1,716, for a ratio of degrees to students of 22.5%, which is better than average. Unfortunately, Sewanee didn’t rank higher on our list of the best colleges in Tennessee due in part to its tuition costs, which are on the higher side: $49,418 for both in-state and out-of-state students.

7. Tennessee Wesleyan University

Located in the town of Athens, Tennessee Wesleyan University has plenty going for it as one of the best colleges in Tennessee. As a small private nonprofit university, its undergraduate population is only 990, but the school conferred an impressive 283 bachelor’s degrees in the academic year 2021-2022. The equates to a ratio of degrees awarded to undergraduate students of 28.6%, one of the highest in the study and much better than the 19% average for the study overall. Another reason that makes it one of the top colleges in Tennessee is its more selective rate of admissions, with 60% being admitted as compared to 76% for the study overall. And to add to its placement among one of the Tennessee colleges and universities is its ranking by U.S. News as No. 17 in terms of Top Performers on Social Mobility, No. 19 in its best Regional Colleges South category, and No, 23 in its Best Value Schools category.

8. King University

At home in the small city of Bristol, King University ranks No. 8 in our study of the best colleges in Tennessee. U.S. News ranks King University highly, ranking in No. 7 in its Best Value Schools category and No. 15 in Top Performers on Social Mobility. King University is more selective on average than most Tennessee colleges and universities, with an admission rate of 66% versus 76% for the average of the study overall. With its small undergraduate population of 1,435, King University awarded an impressive 529 bachelor’s degrees in the academic year 2021-2022. That works out to a ratio of degrees awarded to the undergraduate population of 36.9%, the second-best ratio in the study and far superior to the 19% average for the study overall. 

Some of top academic programs at King University include Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse, which awarded 118 bachelor’s degrees in 2022; Business Administration and Management, General, which awarded 112 bachelor’s degrees; Psychology, General, which awarded 44 bachelor’s degrees; Health/Health Care Administration/Management, which awarded 39 bachelor’s degrees; and Social Work, which awarded 35 bachelor's degrees.

9. Tennessee Technological University

Located in Cookeville, Tennessee Technology University (or Tennessee Tech) makes our list of the best colleges in Tennessee thanks to a combination of its strong academic record and affordability. In the academic year 2021-2022, it awarded 1,904 bachelor’s degrees, the sixth largest number of degrees awarded in the study. With an undergraduate population of 8,778, the ratio of bachelor’s degrees awarded to undergraduate students is 21.7%, beating the study’s overall average. Though its admission rate is higher than the average admission rate for all Tennessee colleges and universities in the study, Tennessee Tech’s affordability is big selling point. With an in-state tuition costing only $9,802, Tennessee Tech’s in-state tuition is the fifth lowest in the whole study. U.S. News also ranked it as the No. 140 Top Public School in the whole country, which only further adds to its placement as the No. 9 best college in Tennessee. 

10. Milligan University

Milligan University is a small private nonprofit university, with just 941 undergraduate students. As one of the top colleges in Tennessee, Milligan University touts a graduation rate of 65%, beating the average of 52% for the whole study. Its admission rate is also more selective, with an admission rate of 60% against an average of 76% for the study as a whole. Milligan University also earns great marks from U.S. News, where it ranks No. 2 (out of 138 southern universities) in its Best Value Schools category, as well as ranking No. 10 (out of 138) in its best Regional Universities South category. 

11. Bethel University

Bethel University ranks No. 11 in our study of the best colleges in Tennessee, sporting a selective admissions rate of 50%, much more selective than the 76% average for all the Tennessee colleges and universities analyzed in our study. With an in-state and out-of-state tuition cost of $17,482, Bethel University has one of the more affordable tuition rates of the four-year private nonprofit schools analyzed in the study. Some of the strong areas of academic fields of study at Bethel University include Organizational Leadership, which awarded 188 bachelor’s degrees in the academic year 2021-2022; Criminal Justice/Safety Studies, which awarded 112 bachelor’s degrees; and Crisis/Emergency/Disaster Management, which awarded 36 bachelor’s degrees. Like many other of the best colleges in Tennessee, Bethel University was ranked highly by U.S. News, coming in at No. 22 in its Top Performers on Social Mobility.

12. East Tennessee State University

Located in Johnson City, East Tennessee State University benefits from a wide variety of academic programs, combined with affordability. Its in-state tuition is only $9,438 and its out-of-state tuition is only $12,740 for the academic year 2021-2020, both ranking among the cheapest tuition rates in our study of the best colleges in Tennessee. According to U.S. News, East Tennessee State University ranks No. 147 in its Top Public Schools category out of 1,870 public schools.

In the academic year 2021-2022, East Tennessee State University conferred 2,613 bachelor’s degrees. With an undergraduate population of 10,705, that equates to a ratio of degrees to undergraduates of 24.4%, which is far better than the 19% average for the study as a whole. This university is also one of the top colleges in Tennessee thanks to its many master’s programs, with 684 master’s degrees being awarded in the 2021-2022 academic year.

13. Cumberland University

Founded in 1842, Cumberland University is located in the town of Lebanon. Cumberland University is a private four-year university and is more selective than most Tennessee schools. Cumberland’s admission rate was 58% for the academic year 2021-2022, compared to the 76% average for all the Tennessee colleges and universities analyzed in the study. According to U.S. News college rankings, Cumberland University ranks well for being among the best schools in the South and in its Top Performers on Social Mobility category. With 271 bachelor’s degrees awarded in the 2021-2022 academic year, the programs that stand out the most include: Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse, which awarded 39 bachelor’s degrees; Business Administration and Management, General, which awarded 30 bachelor’s degrees; Exercise Science and Kinesiology, which awarded 25 bachelor's degrees; Accounting, which awarded 17 bachelor's degrees; and Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement Administration, which awarded 16 bachelor’s degrees.

14. The University of Tennessee at Martin

The University of Tennessee at Martin ranks as the No. 14 best college in Tennessee in our study due to a combination of strong academics and affordability. Out of all the Tennessee colleges and universities analyzed in our study, the University of Tennessee at Martin had an in-state tuition that is the seventh cheapest, $9,912. Its out-of-state tuition of $15,952 is also very affordable compared to the majority of Tennessee colleges and universities in general. 

Undergraduate students tend to stay and complete their studies at the University of Tennessee at Martin, with a transfer-out rate of only 23%, better than the overall average of 28% for the study. And the university’s graduation rate is slightly better than the study’s overall average, 54% versus 52%, respectively. According to U.S. News, the University of Tennessee at Martin ranks No. 14 in its Best Colleges for Veterans category, an impressive No. 15 in its Top Public Schools category, and No. 31 in its best Regional Universities South category. All of these factors combine to make the University of Tennessee at Martin one of the best colleges in Tennessee.

15. Lipscomb University

Lipscomb University ranks among the best colleges in Nashville, sporting a graduation rate of 69%, besting the 52% average for all Tennessee colleges and universities in the study. Its admission rate is more selective than the study’s average overall. As a small private nonprofit university, Lipscomb University has an undergraduate population of 2,997. For the academic year 2021-2022, Lipscomb University awarded 692 bachelor’s degrees, which works out to a ratio of degrees awarded to the undergraduate population of 23.1%, much better than the average for the study as a whole. Lipscomb University has a lot going for it, but what keeps it from ranking higher in our study of the best colleges in Tennessee is the higher-than-average tuition costs: In-state and out-of-state tuition for the academic year 2021-2022 was $35,752.

Table of the Best Colleges in Tennessee

Below is a table detailing the top 15 best colleges in Tennessee. All figures reflect the academic year 2021-2022, sourced from the NCES.

Rank

College/University

In-state tuition

Out-of-state tuition

Bachelor's Degrees Awarded

Bachelor's Degrees Awarded to Undergraduate Ratio

Graduation Rate

Admission Rate

1

Vanderbilt University

$56,966

$56,966

1,712

24.3%

93%

7%

2

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville

$13,244

$31,664

5,187

21.4%

71%

75%

3

Middle Tennessee State University

$9,232

$28,264

3,916

20.4%

51%

68%

4

Union University

$35,510

$35,510

495

23.6%

66%

53%

5

Rhodes College

$50,910

$50,910

428

23.3%

82%

57%

6

The University of the South

$49,418

$49,418

386

22.5%

80%

60%

7

Tennessee Wesleyan University

$26,590

$26,590

283

28.6%

48%

60%

8

King University

$32,838

$32,838

529

36.9%

50%

66%

9

Tennessee Technological University

$9,802

$19,834

1,904

21.7%

57%

79%

10

Milligan University

$36,140

$36,140

181

19.2%

65%

60%

11

Bethel University

$17,482

$17,482

478

13.8%

35%

50%

12

East Tennessee State University

$9,438

$12,740

2,613

24.4%

50%

87%

13

Cumberland University

$25,412

$25,412

271

11.3%

54%

58%

14

The University of Tennessee-Martin

$9,912

$15,952

1,057

16.5%

54%

75%

15

Lipscomb University

$35,752

$35,752

692

23.1%

69%

74%

The Bottom Line on the Best Colleges in Tennessee

These 15 best colleges in Tennessee offer combinations of affordability, strong academic records, solid graduation rates, competitive admission rates, and high proportions of bachelor’s degrees awarded per academic year. Of course, some Tennessee colleges and universities that made this top-15 list are more expensive than others. Vanderbilt University stands out the most in this regard, but it also offers one of the best academic experiences in all of Tennessee and is frequently ranked among the best colleges in the country. 

Tuition costs are something that every prospective college student and parents have to balance with academics. It’s essential to research the number and variety of degrees that these colleges have to offer to make sure it’s the right fit for what you want to study. Since money is such a crucial part of attending college, be sure to check out the student discounts offered by BrokeScholar to help reduce the cost of purchases you might make when attending one of these schools in Tennessee. What’s more, take time to investigate the vast library of scholarships compiled on BrokeScholar that can help you save even more money.