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.

10. Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, FL)

Eckerd College – Photo by Eckwriter via Wikimedia Commons

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.


9. St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN)

St. Olaf – photo by Webmoof via Wikimedia Commons

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.

478 COMMENTS

  1. I am a 1962 graduate of St. Olaf College as are two of my daughters. St. Olaf provided me with an excellent academic education in preparation for graduate school and good jobs. Excellent faculty and many opportunities…mine was with the St. Olaf Orchestra….and friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

    • Me too, but a decade later. I was a music major and bass section leader my senior year in the St. Olaf Choir. A formative and life changing experience so sing with that group and go on four tours.

    • Good to see you here, Mary. As a fellow orchestra member I’ve been impressed by the recent awards of that musical group.

    • Possibly because St John’s is not “liberal arts” like the ones listed are. St John’s is a wonderful excellent college, but with one basic major and not a variety of “liberal arts” majors. Just a guess.

  2. So happy and proud that you included Lawrence on your list. I’m working on the planning team for our 40th reunion next June, and we’re all just as passionate about the impact Lawrence has had on our lives as we were in the summer of 1980. Thanks for shining some welcome light on LU!

  3. My son attends Lawrence University and absolutely loves it. I’m so glad ot was #1 on the list a great college in a fantastic city. They also peovide a lot od sports. The stud9are a name not a number. I was skeptical when we firat visited LU but the ref carpet waa layed out for us and my son knew before we left out visit this was his college. Great school. I cant rave enough.

  4. North Park University (Chicago, Illinois) is another hidden gem. At one time, the majority of students came from Covenant Churches. The Covenant was founded by Swedes, and at one time the majority of on campus students were Swedish. There is a great deal of diversity today. When North Park College began adding graduate programs they eventually changed to the title of University. In that there is also North Park Seminary on the same campus, there remains a strong Christian influence.

  5. University of Puget sound in Tacoma is a hidden gem. My husband and I are Austin College alums(6th on the list) & my daughter goes to UPS (very similar to AC but in a prettier setting)

  6. Well deserved praise for Lawrence University! Graduated in 1987 and am grateful each day for all I learned in and out of class. LU’s “light more light!” -Goethe…is what we need more of today. If Lawrence is a good fit for your future college student and they’d like to attend…do all you can to calmly support their decision!

  7. I’m a proud ‘72 graduate of Eckerd College, then Florida Presbyterian College. It is a beautiful campus on Boca Ciega Bay with wonderfully diverse programs. It deserves to be on this list, for sure.
    My niece is at Lees McRae College in Banner Elk, NC. I thought it might make this list.

  8. Eckerd was the most amazing experience. I traveled abroad to London my sophomore year, Morocco my junior year and Bond University in Goldcoast Australia my senior year. I have lifetime friends from Eckerd that are more like family. So proud that Eckerd consistently makes top Liberal Arts school lists.

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