The 10 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in California

California boasts more than one-hundred 4-year colleges and universities. Of these, approximately 20 schools qualify under the label of “liberal arts college.” With so many schools to choose from, it can be challenging to know where to begin the California college search. 

This list of the best liberal arts colleges in California is designed to help students and families looking for a top-notch liberal arts education in “The Golden State.” 

Liberal arts colleges offer a unique student experience and an outstanding education. They are usually smaller than public universities and focus on helping students grow into well-rounded thinkers rather than simply training them for a specific career. Because most liberal arts schools are primarily undergraduate, students don’t have to worry about significant resources poured into the graduate students.

Each of the 10 liberal arts colleges reviewed in this article ranks in the US News National Liberal Arts Colleges list; each school’s ranking is based on where they rank on the US News list. 

Without further ado, here are the 10 best liberal arts colleges in California. 

10. Westmont College (Santa Barbara, CA)

We’ll begin our review with Westmont College in sunny Santa Barbara, CA. Westmont is a non-denominational Christian liberal arts college with a mission to create thoughtful scholars and faithful leaders.  

Westmont offers 30 liberal arts majors, with business and marketing being two of the most popular. In addition to on-campus programs, Westmont also provides various semester-long off-campus programs in several diverse locations, including Israel, Costa Rica, and Washington DC.

Tradition is an integral part of the Westmont College experience. Each year, the student body gathers for “Spring Sing,” a night of comedic musical skits written and performed by Westmont students. These types of campus activities make Westmont an excellent choice for students looking for a close-knit community in addition to a top-tier liberal arts education.  

9. Whittier College (Whittier, CA)

Whittier College
Geographer, Whittier college, CC BY 1.0

Next on the list is Whittier College, a private liberal arts college of approximately 1,700 students in Southern California. Ranked among the top 100 liberal arts colleges nationwide by Washington Monthly, Whittier is an ideal choice for a student seeking a tightly-knit, primarily undergraduate experience with not only rigorous academics, but also incredible and consistent sunny weather.

Students at Whittier can choose from one of 30 department majors, or they can build their very own major through the Whittier Scholars program. This Scholars program sets Whittier apart from other liberal arts colleges by providing students engagement in hands-on learning experiences, helping each students discover their passions with guidance from the faculty mentors.  

For a small liberal arts college, Whittier manages to have a diverse student body. Although most students at Whitter are from California, students in 2017 came from 27 states and 14 different countries.

8. Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA)

Thomas Aquinas College
photo by Alex Begin via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

The following school on this list, Thomas Aquinas College, is a remarkable institution with a unique twist: there are no majors or minors at Thomas Aquinas! 

You heard that right: Thomas Aquinas eschews traditional notions of college majors and minors in favor of the “Great Books” approach, an educational method where textbooks are replaced by classic works literature. The philosophy behind this is simple: Thomas Aquinas wants to educate students with primary source material from the greatest minds instead of secondary source summaries.

Because of Thomas Aquinas’ Great Books approach, classes frequently comprise of ongoing conversations around Homer, Plato, and Aristotle’s original writings. Perhaps the most unique liberal arts college in California, Thomas Aquinas’s singular dedication to shaping the free-thinking mind makes it an exciting choice for the advanced collegiate student.

7. Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA)

Occidental College
Geographer, Johnson Student Center and Freeman College Union, CC BY 1.0

Number 7 on the list is Occidental College, a campus tucked in the hills of Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock community. Occidental is a modern campus, complete with state-of-the-art facilities, preserved historic buildings, and an unbeatable setting in one of the world’s busiest metropolitan areas.

One of Occidental’s flagship initiatives is the Kahne United Nations Program. In this program, students move for a semester to New York City to participate in prestigious internships at United Nations agencies and other related NGOs. For students interested in unique diplomacy opportunities, this specific program represents an opportunity unrivaled by most other liberal arts colleges in the country.

Occidental’s alumni are among the most impressive of any liberal arts college. They include Pulitzer, Nobel, Academy Award, BAFTA, and Emmy Award recipients. Additionally, US President Barack Obama attended Occidental College in 1979.

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