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.

6. Pitzer College (Claremont, CA)

Pitzer College
Laurielosh, Pitzer college, CC BY-SA 4.0

Next on the list is Pitzer College in Claremont, a unique liberal arts college priding itself on equipping students to enter the world as socially responsible global citizens. To this end, Pitzer students and faculty are known for community involvement, with the student body volunteering for, collectively, 100,000 service hours each year.   

Pitzer is well-known as one of the “Claremont” schools, a consortium of five liberal arts colleges among the world’s highest-ranked schools. Unsurprisingly, every single Claremont College is on this list of California liberal arts colleges.

So what makes Pitzer stand out from other top-tier colleges? Turning to student reviews posted throughout the internet, we can see Pitzer’s environment is both supportive and diverse all at once. Additionally, Pitzer students benefit from all the Claremont Colleges’ collective resources, collaborating with peers and utilizing facilities at all five schools.

Tradition is integral to the Pitzer experience, with events like the Kohoutek Music and Arts Festival, which began in 1974, bringing all Pitzer and Claremont Consortium community members together in celebration each year. This student-run music festival has grown over the years and now includes street performers, vendors, and even a farmers market.  

5. Soka University of America (Aliso Viejo, CA)

Soka University of America
Beyond My Ken, Soka University Founders Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

Few schools in America have risen as quickly in status as Soka University of America. Only in existence for 20 years, considered extremely young in the timeline of colleges and universities, Soka has already acquired an endowment of over $1 billion dollars and a top-30 ranking nationwide in the liberal arts colleges category by US News. 

What makes the Soka experience profound and unique for their students? For one, Soka is a university instilling global values and experiences into its students. To this end, all Soka students are required to participate in a study-abroad program to graduate. This semester-abroad experience occurs in the junior year at no extra cost to the student above normally-paid tuition. Destinations available for study-abroad opportunities include China, France, Japan, and Spain.

A holistic, global education does not end at the Soka study-abroad experience. One unique initiative, The Soka Fulbright Advising Program, is yet another way Soka is committed to educating global citizens. In 2020, two Soka students were awarded prestigious Fulbright scholarships for overseas study.  

4. Scripps College (Claremont, CA)

Scripps College
Lure Photography, Scripps College for Women-9, CC BY-SA 3.0

The all-female school in the Claremont Consortium, Scripps College offers a unique experience for women seeking an incredible liberal arts education. In fact, Scripps is among the top-ranked residential women’s liberal arts colleges in the nation by a number of publications. Though the entire student body at Scripps is female, demographics showcase exceptional diversity, with more than 40% of students being POC and 5% of students traveling internationally to attend Scripps. 

Speaking of diversity, Scripps is home to the IDEA Initiative, a program tackling diversity and inclusion issues head-on. Tuesday Noon, an IDEA Initiative program, is a weekly hour-long thought-provoking presentation given by faculty and visiting scholars. These events are widely attended by students and are also open to the greater community.  

As a Claremont College Consortium member, students from Scripps attend community events and take classes at other Claremont college campuses. This offers a wide variety of opportunities for the students at Scripps.  

3. Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA)

Harvey Mudd College
photo by bovineOne via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Every school in the Claremont Consortium has its own personality, with Harvey Mudd’s best described as the “tinkerer.” Harvey Mudd prides itself on growing students to be thinkers, creators, and makers. To this end, Harvey Mudd is constructing a new, state-of-the-art building, the McGregor Computer Science Center, a 36,000 square-foot construction complete with classrooms and advanced facilities for the growing Computer Science department. 

Harvey Mudd’s philosophy as a college is to extend students learning capacities well past the classroom. To this end, students at Harvey Mudd participate in the “Clinic Program,” an outstanding program for Harvey Mudd juniors and seniors. The Clinic program allows “Mudders,” as Harvey Mudd students are called, to channel their drive and intelligence into real-world situations and projects. Projects are technology-based with deep integration in computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics, and related disciplines. 

It’s not all work at Harvey Mudd; Mudders are known for being quirky, fun, and, just like students at Pitzer and Scripps, engaged in social and community events put on by all colleges within the Claremont Consortium.  

2. Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA)

Claremont McKenna College
Sdkb, Claremont Mckenna College campus, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another college in the Claremont Consortium, Claremont McKenna is located on a tucked away, tree-lined campus 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Practicing “need-blind” admission, Claremont McKenna attracts a highly diverse, highly accomplished student body.  

One of Claremont McKenna’s most exciting initiatives is their Center for Global Education. As a college committed to developing global leaders, the CMU Center for Global Education offers hundreds of opportunities to engage in diverse study opportunities. One of the Center’s signature programs, known simply as “The Washington Program,” allows students to step into our nation’s capital for a semester while engaging in independent study, learning at institutions like the Pentagon and the National Library.  

Another initiative through the Center for Global Education, “The Silicon Valley Program,” prepares students for both technology and entrepreneurship through real word Silicon Valley learning experiences. Silicon Valley Program students are provided with the opportunity to meet corporate executives at top tech companies and work side-by-side with silicon valley employees during co-op-style internships.  

1. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

Pomona College
Nostalgicwisdom, The west side of Marston Quad at Pomona College, CC BY-SA 3.0

Pomona is widely regarded as not only the best liberal arts college in California, but among the very best colleges in the entire world.  Pomona boasts a very close-knit campus community where the lines between living and learning are often blurred. True to this statement, 94% of students live on campus all four years, and the majority of professors also live less than 5 miles from school.

The final member of the Claremont Consortium on this list, Pomona students can choose from more than 250 clubs and more than 2000 classes at any of the five schools at Pomona. There is certainly no shortage of opportunity for the driven student.

So what makes Pomona such an incredible school? It is the most selective of all the Claremont Colleges, with an acceptance rate of just 7.4%. Additionally, students selected for admission to Pomona are at the top of their class, with median SAT scores of 1470!  Additionally, campus and population diversity is an integral part of the Pomona community, with students hailing from over 50 countries and nearly every US state. 

True to its rich liberal arts college heritage, Pomona’s average class size is 15 students, providing an intimate, 1-on-1 environment for pupils and teachers alike. In these small classes, Pomona’s students participate in deep conversations about liberal arts, technology, philosophy, and every possible academic subject a curious individual could ever imagine.