Colleges in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a mountain-lover’s paradise. Whether you’re looking for snow skiing, tubing, hiking, mountain biking, or just strolling the streets of one of America’s best mountain towns, Gatlinburg has it all.

If you’re headed to college and looking for a school in a place like Gatlinburg, you’re in luck. There aren’t any four-year colleges in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, but there are several within a short drive, including Western Carolina University, Maryville College, and the University of Tennessee—Knoxville.

Aerial shot of Gatlinburg, Tennessee at night.
Aerial shot of Gatlinburg, Tennessee at night.

Table of Contents

Colleges in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a tourist town in the mountains. Its permanent population as of the 2020 Census is only 3,577, but the city sees millions of visitors on a yearly basis. If you visit near Christmas or on a weekend in the fall, be prepared to be patient — the traffic jams in Sevier County rival those in place like Atlanta and Los Angeles.

If your dream has always been to go to college in a picturesque mountain town like Gatlinburg, there are several great schools close by that you should look at. The four-year school that is closest to Gatlinburg is Western Carolina, which is right across the border in North Carolina.

If you want more of a traditional college experience at a big school with Greek life and big-time football, but you still want easy access to Gatlinburg to get your mountain fix, the University of Tennessee—Knoxville is only about a half-hour down the road.

For more options of colleges in Gatlinburg, Tennessee or nearby, here’s our complete list.

#1: Western Carolina University

  • Location: Cullowhee, NC
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 19 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #227 in National Universities
  • Acceptance rate: 85%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,020-1,240
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 19-26
  • Graduation rate: 62%

Western Carolina University is located in Cullowhee, NC, in the Great Smoky Mountains near the Cherokee Indian reservation. This mid-sized university is less than 20 miles from Gatlinburg, though you’ll drive some windy, mountainous roads to make the trip.

If going to school in the mountains is your dream, Western Carolina is worth a look. Its picturesque campus offers easy access to hiking, fishing, snow skiing, four-wheeling, and mountain biking, in addition to the quick trip to Gatlinburg.

#2: Carson-Newman University

  • Location: Jefferson City, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 25 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #361 in National Universities
  • Acceptance rate: 80%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 980-1,143
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 19-26
  • Graduation rate: 55%
Carson-Newman University on a sunny morning.
Carson-Newman University on a sunny morning.

Carson-Newman is a Baptist-affiliated small college with a competitive D2 football team and a campus in Jefferson City, about a half-hour drive from Gatlinburg without traffic (good luck with that).

The first thing you should know about Carson-Newman is that it isn’t Baptist in name only. It’s a religious college. Think more Liberty University than Baylor. So, if required religion classes and dorm rules designed to keep sin at bay (think no alcohol or cohabitation) don’t sit well with you, you might want to look elsewhere.

If you’re seeking a Baptist university or you’re fine with attending one, Carson-Newman has a great location near the mountains, skiing, Knoxville, and the Tri-Cities. It also has a good regional reputation and a close-knit alumni base.

#3: Maryville College

  • Location: Maryville, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 26 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #172 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Acceptance rate: 70%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 930-1,120
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 19-27
  • Graduation rate: 51%

Maryville College is a tiny school with fewer than 1,000 students and is known as a reputable teachers’ college. It’s located at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains less than 30 miles from Gatlinburg. It’s also a short drive down Alcoa Highway from downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee campus.

If you want small classes, an intimate setting, and easy access to the mountains, Maryville College is worth consideration. Its downsides include a low graduation rate of only 51% and relatively unimpressive incoming student stats.

#4: University of Tennessee—Knoxville

  • Location: Knoxville, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 29 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #105 in National Universities
  • Acceptance rate: 68%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,170-1,330
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 25-31
  • Graduation rate: 72%
Aerial shot of UT-Knoxville on game day.
Aerial shot of UT-Knoxville on game day.

University of Tennessee—Knoxville is the flagship state school of Tennessee. It’s known more for SEC sports, tailgating, Greek life, and its top-ranked programs in business, engineering, and logistics than it is for being a mountain-lover’s paradise.

That said, the school is still less than 30 miles from Gatlinburg, and outdoorsy students regularly make the trek to the Smokies on weekends, particularly during ski season.

Academically, UTK is the highest-ranked and most reputable school on our list, and it carries by far the most name recognition nationwide. If it’s on your radar, we suggest you make sure your application is strong. While we still have UTK’s acceptance rate at 68%, the numbers coming out for 2024 suggest that it has plummeted to around 40% and even lower for out-of-state applicants.

#5: Tusculum University

  • Location: Greeneville, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 56 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #86 in Regional Universities South
  • Acceptance rate: 81%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 910-1,110
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 17-22
  • Graduation rate: 38%

Tusculum University is a small Presbyterian college in Greeneville, Tennessee. It has grown quite a bit in recent years, and its profile has increased regionally. However, most of its growth has been focused on its online programs. The on-campus student body is still small.

Tusculum is farther from Gatlinburg than the above-listed schools, but it’s still within an hour without traffic — again, a rarity where Gatlinburg is concerned.

This could be a good choice for a student who wants a small school with small class sizes and where everyone knows each other, particularly if you’re of the Presbyterian faith. Just be prepared not to see a lot of the same faces when you return for your upperclass years. The school has an abysmal graduation rate of only 38%.

#6: Tennessee Wesleyan University

  • Location: Athens, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 81 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #15 in Regional Colleges South
  • Acceptance rate: 61%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 930-1,170
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 18-24
  • Graduation rate: 48%

Tennessee Wesleyan University is a Methodist college in Athens, Tennessee, which is about halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga. It’s kind of a cool spot if you like the mountains because in addition to having Gatlinburg and the Smokies about an hour and a half to the north, you have all the mountains around Chattanooga — Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain — about an hour to the south.

Like many of the small schools on this list, TWU has a low graduation rate. Fewer than half the students who matriculate as freshmen make it across the stage within six years. It also has relatively low incoming student stats, so if you’re a high-achiever, you might be hard-pressed to find challenging, rigorous academics here.

#7: East Tennessee State University

  • Location: Johnson City, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 89 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #320 in National Universities
  • Acceptance rate: 85%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 980-1,190
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 19-26
  • Graduation rate: 52%
East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN.
East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN.

East Tennessee State University is located in Johnson City, part of Tennessee’s Tri-Cities region near the borders of Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a little under a two-hour drive to Gatlinburg from ETSU’s campus, but students also have plenty of mountains in nearby North Carolina to explore. Plus, Johnson City and the Tri-Cities are known as veritable outdoor paradises themselves.

ETSU has made huge academic strides this century but still has a low graduation rate, in large part because it admits many adult students who maintain full-time jobs and go to school at night. These students tend to graduate at much lower rates than full-time students right out of high school. The academic programs themselves at ETSU are known to be strong and have great reputations in the state.

#8: Lincoln Memorial University

  • Location: Harrogate, TN
  • Distance from Gatlinburg: 100 miles
  • U.S. News ranking: #269 in National Universities
  • Acceptance rate: 79%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 982-1,190
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 18-24
  • Graduation rate: 54%

Lincoln Memorial University might be rising faster than any other college or university in Tennessee (except arguably UTK). A couple of decades ago, it was an obscure, small school on the Kentucky border, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Today, it has a law school, a medical school (osteopathic medicine), and a veterinary school. Its undergrad programs are also rising in stature.

To get to Gatlinburg from Harrogate, the home of LMU, you’re looking at close to a two-hour drive.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top