Hidden Gem Colleges in the Plains Region | 2024 Rankings

America’s heartland (or, the Plains region as we call it) is vast, fertile, and filled with various industries. Additionally, it’s home to a bunch of amazing colleges. These colleges are standouts for a reason, and, while they may not be household names, they’re definitely worth a look when you want to further your education. These schools in the mid-west deserve more attention than they receive, so we wanted to highlight them. 

To qualify as a Hidden Gem, a school must meet the following requirements:

  • Receive fewer than 5,000 applications per year
  • Have fewer than 7,000 undergraduate students
  • Offer 5 or more unique majors
  • Have a 10% acceptance rate or higher

Each of the schools below has outstanding programs and opportunities for their students. The following states are included in the Plains region: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Here are the 2024 Hidden Gem Colleges in the Plains


Luther College, which has a first year retention rate of 81%, got its start as a Lutheran seminary by Norwegian immigrants. The upper campus is on the National Register of Historic Places which is a list of buildings and structures that are considered of historical significance. In the lower part of the school, students can see the Upper Iowa River flowing through.
Location Decorah, IA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,610
Simpson College was originally known as the Indianola Male and Female Seminary when established in 1860. Athletes are known as The Storm and, wearing Red and Gold, are cheered on by their mascot Thunder the Elephant. Accounting and Business Administration and Management are the two most popular majors.
Location Indianola, IA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,151
Students at Dordt University wear black, white, and gold to cheer on the Defenders teams. The school has off-campus opportunities around the world for their students, offers a master’s degree, and does not charge applicants fees. 100% of those attending Dordt also receive institutional grant aid.
Location Sioux Center, IA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,861


Benedictine College’s core values are built into the four “pillars” of the school which are known as Catholic, Benedictine, Liberal Arts, and Residential. The college’s motto is “Forward. Always Forward.” Its campus is located along the bends of the Missouri River. The most popular majors at the school are Registered Nursing, Theology, and Accounting.
Location Atchison, KS
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,362
Gus the Gorilla cheers on the athletes of Pittsburg State University where a wide variety of sports are available including track, basketball, football, and volleyball. Their motto is “By doing, learn” and the most popular majors are Registered Nursing and Construction Management. 100% of students attending Pitt State receive grant aid and 69% receive institutional grant aid.
Location Pittsburg, KS
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 5,858
96% of students who apply to Emporia State University are accepted; 30.6% of those students will go on to attend the college in the fall. ESU’s motto is “Changing Lives for the Common Good.” The most popular major is Elementary Education and Teaching followed by Business Administration and Management and Registered Nursing.
Location Emporia, KS
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 5,324


Partnered with Saint John’s University for men, the College of Saint Benedict is exclusively for women. The school got its start in 1913 with only six students. Today, resources are shared between the two campuses, a partnership that began in 1955. They have an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio, 89% first year retention rate, and 74% four-year graduation rate.
Location Saint Joseph, MN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,443
Although they offer 75 majors, popular majors at Gustavus Adolphus College include Psychology, Biology, Business, Registered Nursing, and Political Science and Government. The school does not charge students for applications. Gus the Lion is the mascot for the school’s sports teams - the Golden Gusties. Black and gold are the official school colors.
Location St. Peter, MN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,072
Saint John’s University is a men’s school, and the brother college of St. Benedict - an all women’s school. Their partnership began in 1955 and the two joined 1961. Over 90% of faculty possess a doctorate or terminal degree. Business Administration and Management, Accounting, and Economics are popular majors at SJU.
Location Collegeville, MN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,645


This university is named in honor of Harry S. Truman, who was a Missouri native. Popular majors include Business Administration and Management, Kinesiology and Exercise Science, and Biology. Athletes are known as Bulldogs and their mascots are Spike and Simone. 91.5% of students at Truman State study at the undergraduate level.
Location Kirksville, MO
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 3,960
Rockhurst University students learn under the traditional Ignatian philosophy regarding academics, leadership, and service. With a heavy focus on values and ethics, students who graduate actually get a transcript for grades as well as their community service. The school motto, “Sapientia Aedificavit Sibi Domum”, means “Wisdom has built herself a home.”
Location Kansas City, MO
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 3,405
Maryville University of Saint Louis offers over 90 degree programs and features six colleges and schools. Many students study Registered Nursing, Psychology, and Cyber/Electronic Operations and Warfare. The campus is located just east of the state capital and over 69% of first year students come from Missouri.
Location St. Louis, MO
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 9,959


Nebraska Wesleyan University, or NWU, is a private university associated with United Methodists. They have more than 115 undergraduate majors, minors, and pre-professional programs available to students. Competing in the American Rivers Conference, the over 500 athletes are known as the Prairie Wolves and wear black and gold.
Location Lincoln, NE
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,688
The College of Saint Mary is the only Catholic university for women in the Great Plains region. The institution offers a cozy 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and has a 71% first year retention rate. Student athletes at the College of Saint Mary are known as the Flames and they compete in the Great Plains Athletic Conference as members of the NAIA. Some of the more popular majors at the institution include Registered Nursing and Rehabilitation Science.
Location Omaha, NE
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 857
A very small school, Hastings College has an acceptance rate just above 71%, offers all students who attend institutional grant aid, and has a 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Over half of the student population calls Nebraska home, but many also come from Colorado to attend. Hastings College’s motto is Pro Rege which is Latin for “For the King.”
Location Hastings, NE
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 936


Although the University of Mary calls North Dakota its home, campuses can be found all over the world, including in Rome, Italy and Arequipa, Peru. They accept 81% of applicants, have a 14:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and an 80% first year retention rate. Its campus is located next to the Missouri River.
Location Bismark, ND
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 3,652
A space-grant college, Minot State University, also known as MiSU, is found just south of the Canadian border. 91% are undergraduates and 9% graduate students. Many undergraduates are majoring in Social Work, Registered Nursing, and Business Administration and Management. 91% of students receive grant aid.
Location Minot, ND
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 2,777
Valley City State University has more women on campus than men (58% of undergraduate students are women). The campus sits on 55 acres and is bordered by a forest to the south and the Sheyenne River to the north. The school is even listed as a Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places.
Location Valley City, ND
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 1,658


At “Augie,” 87.8% of students are working towards their bachelor’s degree. Students attending AU will follow “The Augustana Plan” for their core curriculum which aims to help with ethics, problem-solving, creativity, communication, and more. Students will go on to study Registered Nursing, Biology, Business Administration and Management, and other majors. 100% of students receive grant aid.
Location Sioux Falls, SD
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,086
Known more commonly as SD Mines, this school’s ambitious motto is “Advancing the frontier of innovation.” The alumni are equally ambitious, going onto careers in politics, law, business, military, and academics. The most popular major at SD Mines is Mechanical Engineering, followed by Civil Engineering and Computer and Information Sciences.
Location Rapid City, SD
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 2,492
A majority of those attending Northern State University are women (61%). Originally founded in 1901 as the Northern Normal and Industrial School, the college was 16 years in the making. It would get its current moniker in 1989. 78.1% of students who apply to NSU are accepted and 91% of students receive grant aid to help them afford tuition.
Location Aberdeen, SD
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 3,344

Why Are the Plains a Great Place to Go to School?

When you think of the plains, you likely conjure images of wheat, corn, and buffalo, but the area has so much to offer students! These states are home to some of the most unique natural parks in the country, for example! And the cities have plenty to do with zoos, museums, one-of-a-kind events, botanical gardens, and more. And if you like to see the seasons change, here you’ll get all four.

Interested in any of these Plains region Hidden Gem colleges? Check out College Raptor’s free match tool to see if they’re a good fit for you!


Colleges are ranked based on a combination of factors, including graduation rates, campus diversity, endowment per student, and other data as reported via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the most recently available enrollment year. Some colleges may have been excluded from rankings based on certain criteria, including specialization and classification. Learn about our full methodology.

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