The 10 Best “Hidden Gem” Liberal Arts Colleges

Some students looking into college are aiming for only one thing; getting into the most prestigious possible school.

For some students, this strategy can work.

Others wish they never ended up attending the Ivy-League college they are now committed to for four “long” years of their lives.

The truth is, for some students, those high-ranked ivies are simply not good fits for them.

The absolute best schools for them are actually colleges that consistently change lives.

All of the schools in this article are among the very best schools in the world, but may not be as well-known as their larger counterparts for a number of reasons.

They may or may not get the same media attention (how many movies have you seen centered around Harvard?)…

They may not get the same praise from conventional college rankings lists.

Because of this, we have identified the absolute 10 of the very best “hidden gem” colleges in the country that consistently score for high levels of student happiness, career outcome, quality of overall learning environment, and more.

If you want more information on these schools, I strongly recommend one of the very best books on colleges called Colleges That Change Lives. Although we are not personally affiliated with this book or its author, all of the schools listed here are also profiled in that book.

To qualify as a “hidden gem” school for this particular list, the school cannot be placed inside the top 55 on the US News “Top Liberal Arts Colleges” list as of August 2019.

Without further ado, here are our picks, based on the opinion of College Gazette, for the best hidden gem liberal arts colleges in the US.

Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, FL)

Eckwriter, Binninger Theatre Eckerd College, CC BY-SA 3.0

Well-known for its idyllic setting on the shores of Florida’s beautiful St. Petersburg, Eckerd College is a school with deep connections to marine and environmental sciences.

Evidence of deep association with the environment include the Eckerd College Dolphin Project, known around the school as D.A.R.W.I.N., which is the longest running undergraduate dolphin research project in any college.

Because of the school’s commitment to oceanic sciences, more students from this school than any other have been named NOAA Hollings Scholars, a generous scholarship endowed by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Eckerd College upholds a unique standard other schools should aspire to have – an unrelenting commitment to a green campus. Many of the buildings are LEED certified, waste reduction initiatives are followed, bike sharing via their “Yellow Bike” program is offered, and solar panels are used to power some facilities.

If you desire to study internationally, this school is among the most impressive we have ever seen. Each year, over 300 international study-abroad opportunities are afforded to enrolled students.

St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN)

Daniel Edwins a.k.a. Webmoof, StOlaf College Campus, CC BY-SA 2.5

Like Eckerd, St. Olaf is picturesque in design, but in a completely different way – instead of beaches and water, St. Olaf’s beautiful landscape is one of a more mystical feeling, characterized by tall grass prairie, wetlands, and woods.

One of the hallmarks of St. Olaf is its impressive music program. Housing one of the premiere a cappella ensembles in any college throughout the world, the St. Olaf Choir has toured Europe, China, Korea, France, Scandinavia, Australia, and many other countries.

They have also performed at many iconic venues in the US, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.

Other music ensembles at St. Olaf are heralded – the St. Olaf Jazz Orchestra won a prestigious DownBeat magazine award in 2011, and the St. Olaf Orchestra has made appears on National Public Radio.

There is much to love in St. Olaf outside of the music program as well. In 2012, the school was rated number one for study-abroad programs by Open Doors. Indeed, approximately 2/3rds of all students study abroad at St. Olaf prior to graduation.

Regularly ranked as a top liberal arts college by many noted publications, including US News & World Report as well as Washington Monthly, the student learning outcome is impressive; 58% of students of the Class of 2012 were employed within a year of graduation.

So what were the other 42% doing? The great majority were in graduate school or commencing post-education volunteer work.

Allegheny College (Meadville, PA)

Public domain photo by Joshtys via Wikimedia Commons

A college over 200 years old, Allegheny’s rich history and unique people has fostered one of the most interesting colleges in the world.

The school is known for taking on bold topics in sponsored discussions with top academics, including a presentation in 2009 on the unusual topic of face transplants.

Students themselves have the opportunity to present their own topics of interest in ACRoSS, which stands for Allegheny College Research Seminar Series. Topics in 2018 include growing Meadville, the city Allegheny is based in, shared work programs, neoliberalism, and the Jewish community farming movement.

One of the most well-known personalities of the campus, professor Michael Maniates, is one of the foremost experts on material consumption in humans. Having worked on the famous Story of Stuff short movie, he was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “We really need to think of ways of making it possible for people to think about working less and getting by on less.”

Liberal, forward-thinking ideas like these are at the heart of Allegheny College, which has committed itself towards a new generation of students, faculty, and alumni impacting the world in unusual, unique, and powerful ways.

Austin College (Sherman, TX)

Urbanative, AdminAC, CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many excellent schools on this list, one of the great advantages Austin College provides for its students is an undergraduate-only education.

Why is this a unique benefit? All of the resources Austin College has are poured directly into the undergraduate curriculum, ensuring no sharing or competition of resources and attention with older graduate students.

This is a school known for having an intimate, liberal arts environment with less than a total of 1,500 students. The student-faculty ratio is a comfortable 12:1, assuring every student ample time with high-level professors who are among the best at what they do.

One unique attribute of Austin College is that every student has a personal faculty mentor they work with for all four years of college. This 1-on-1 guidance helps foster a close-knit relationship essential for advising a student through their own educational journey.

Cited by the Princeton Review as a Best Western College, Austin College recently created the IDEA Center under the leadership of Marjorie Hass, an impression 103,000 square foot facility hosting laboratories, lecture halls, and even the Adams Observatory holding the region’s largest telescope.

The newest president is Steven P. O’Day, a law school graduate who took his office about one year ago in August of 2017.

Reed College (Portland, OR)

Reed College is one of the most unusually fascinating institutions in the US.

The school emphasizes small, almost-entirely undergraduate classes where the teacher often acts as a moderator of discussion among the students, rather than as a traditional professor who simply lectures. Student to faculty ratio is a notable 9:1 size.

The school is the only in the country that has a nuclear reactor on campus operated primarily by undergraduate students (and a supervisor). Called the Reed Research Reactor, the unusual facility was built in 1968 and serves as a focal point in many of the Physics, Chemistry, and science classes.

What is interesting about the school is that they do not tell student’s their grades if they are a C or above. As a result, a number of Reed alumni never knew what their GPA was coming out of college.

Reed also has no fraternitities or sororities, and is not considered a “sports” kind of school. However, physical education is noted as a requirement for students to graduate.

The city of Portland, Oregon has long been regarded as one of the most uniquely liberal in the country, due in large part to the presence of Reed College, perhaps the most unique institute of higher learning in the world.

McDaniel College (Westminster, MD)

Alan Levine (cogdogblog@Flickr), Mcdanielcollege, CC BY 2.0

McDaniel’s mission starts with building a student’s education through The McDaniel Plan, an initiative designed to help students attain specialized knowledge of their major through directed studies, internships, and more.

With approximately 1,600 students in the entire college, this small liberal arts college is a true hidden gem in the landscape of academia.

Formerly known as Western Maryland College, McDaniel has one of the most flexible curriculums of any liberal arts college. Students at the school can even participate in self-designed majors to fully take advantage of all the ambitions they have for an undergraduate experience.

One particularly interesting facility the school has is the CEO – Center for Experience & Opportunity. This is where the classroom meets the real world for McDaniel’s 1600+ students, as this unique kind of career center assists students with internships, scholarship acquisition, and even study-abroad opportunities.

Speaking of study-abroad opportunities, the school has a dedicated satellite campus in Budapest, Hungary, where students of McDaniel can go study during their undergraduate tenure.

Knox College (Galesburg, IL)

Jimmy Thomas, Old Main Knox College, CC BY-SA 2.0

Knox implements an unusual academic system, what they call a “3-3” approach.

Essentially there are three 10 week semesters each year, and in those 10-week semesters, students take three courses.

To promote a greater bond and tutorship between faculty and student, the faculty are only allowed to teach two courses in each of these semesters. This allows for greater 1-on-1 learning experiences.

Knox is widely known as one of the best liberal arts colleges for funding student research. Annually, Knox funds more than a quarter-million dollars to students for research work.

One amazing effect of this funding is the school’s awarding $2,000 experience grants, money that is available to all juniors and seniors at the school for experiential study & research. Students can use this towards community service, internships, study-abroad, or even equipment to fund the experience.

Recent projects included students who explored green chemistry, dancing classes for at-risk youth, and an internship with the United Nations.

Knox College is a selective institution, with only half of its applicants being admitted. Over 15,000 Knox alumni are now working with some of the prestigious companies worldwide.

Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA)

Gregg M. Erickson, The Evergreen State College, CC BY 3.0

Evergreen State College is one of the most unique colleges in the entire world.

At most colleges, students will take multiple courses per semester, a normal tradition that has been held for centuries.

However, Evergreen’s approach is entirely unconventional and effective – students study just one course each semester, and have multiple classes only affiliated with that course. This allows for intensive, deeply focused study on a single subject of a student’s interest, rather than spreading attention out over other courses.

Additionally, unlike just about every other school, there are no majors in the undergraduate program.

Some may balk at this revolutionary idea, but considering that approximately 80% of students change their majors at least once before graduating, perhaps more colleges should follow in Evergreen State’s path of allowing students to explore different passions at the undergraduate level, rather than having them choose a specialty.

Cited as one of the most liberal public colleges in the US, Evergreen State does not issue grades; rather, faculty give students oral narratives telling them about their classroom performance.

Bard College (Annandale-On-Hudson, NY)

Public domain photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Bard is not simply one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country; rather, it is one of the most important cultural institutions in America.

Arts are at the heart of Bard College, exemplified by the school’s own arts festivals. One such festival, Bard SummerScape, is an impressive 7-week event featuring an assortment of music, dance, theatre, art, film, and other genres.

Additionally, the school hosts some of New York’s most important cultural attractions, including the CSS Hessel Museum of Contemporary Art as well as the incredibly impressive Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, an architectural spectacle designed by the great Frank Gehry.

Set within scenic New York a few hours from Manhattan, the school has been under the Presidency of Leon Botstein for over 40 years. During Botstein’s tenure, the student body has increased 400%. Additionally, over 40 centers, affiliated institutes (Such as Bard College at Simon’s Rock), and programs have been created since Botstein became President.

Lawrence University (Appleton, WI)

A school whose students consistently rave about its excellence, Lawrence is one of the most diverse, unique colleges shaping the futures of its undergraduates.

Unbelievably high student learning and employment outcomes are abundant at Lawrence. In just six months of graduation, an astounding 99% of students at Lawrence are employed, in graduate school, or in a fellowship/service opportunity.

We do not know of any other liberal arts college in the midwest that can boast such extraordinary numbers. Some companies that Lawrence’s graduates are placed six months upon graduation into include Apple, Google, and LinkedIn, among many others.

Lawrence is well-known for its conservatory of music, one of the oldest collegiate music institutions in the country. 25% of the students at Lawrence study at the conservatory, and of those in the conservatory, many choose to dual major with an academic program. For the student interested in both music and academics, Lawrence offers surefire excellence.

An appealing aspect of Lawrence is its small student to faculty ratio – for every 9 students, there is a faculty member. This small environment allows for 1-on-1 attention for every student at the school.

Often regarded as one of the most rigorous colleges in the country, students from over 50 countries are represented at Lawrence, making it one of the most diverse liberal arts campuses in the country.

Here you have it, our take on the 10 best hidden gem liberal arts colleges in the US. Any schools you would like to have seen in here? Share with us below in the comments.