Every year, hundreds of thousands of prospective freshmen apply to liberal arts colleges in lieu of applying to the mega-large universities so often believed to provide the “classic college experience.”
Why in the world are liberal arts colleges just so absolutely appealing?
Well, there are a few big reasons that stand out.
They are incredibly intimate in their scale. Liberal arts colleges are among the most selective of schools, and because of this, there is usually a greater sense of community among both the student body and the faculty.
Conversely, at a very large university with 45,000+ students, it can sometimes be difficult (though not impossible) to foster an environment in which the students really get to know the teachers outside of the classroom.
Additionally, liberal arts colleges tend to have very low graduate student populations. Schools like Oberlin, Shenandoah, Occidental, and more may have a small population of graduate students, but generally everyone there is between 18 – 22 years old and studying in the undergraduate programs.
What this means is the resources, scholarships, and opportunities are provided almost exclusively to undergraduate students. This is sometimes in contrast to the larger universities, who are very graduate student centric.
Liberal arts colleges also have the benefit of being small, rarely exceeding 2,500 total students. The smaller scale fosters, for some students, a more intimate sense of academic and social excellence.
What are the top liberal arts colleges in the country?
For this list, we looked at 8 of the most widely-read lists profiling the top liberal arts colleges in the college and aggregated them to make this list. You can see our methodology at the end of this article.
Here are 10 of the best liberal arts colleges in the US.
10. College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA)
One of the best liberal arts school in the country, Holy Cross is notably the oldest Catholic school in all of New England.
Upon entrance into the school, first-year students experience the Montserrat Program. In Montserrat, a seminar-style of discussion promotes an interdisciplinary approach to learning specifically designed for freshmen. Students choose which seminars to participate in based purely out of interest, not their major.
The school strives to balance the demands of academic and social life. As a result of its efforts, first-year students frequently rate their dorm life higher than students at other schools, making Holy Cross a remarkably “happy” institution.
Widely regarded among the most liberal, left-leaning of Catholic schools, Holy Cross, embracing libertarianism as well as social justice.
Notably, alumni of the school are known for their volunteer work; a high percentage of alumni participate in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
The campus itself is known for its remarkable beauty; a registered arboretum, the school has won awards for its landscape design. In 2010, the Princeton Review ranked it in the top 5 most beautiful colleges.
9. Carleton College (Northfield, MN)
Among the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country, Carleton’s acceptance rate is less than 1-in-4 who apply.
Carleton consistently ranks in the top 10 of major publications. As of this writing in early August 2019, Carleton is #5 on US News, #7 on Times Higher Education, and #8 on Niche.com.
So what makes Carleton widely regarded as a top-10 liberal arts colleges?
One major accomplishment is the quality of their students and alumni. Between 2000 and 2016, Carleton has produced over 300 alumni who have won the most prestigious fellowships, including Fulbrights, Goldwater Scholars, and even 2 Rhodes Scholars.
Additionally, Carleton is one of the leading PhD-producing schools, with an abnormally large percentage of undergraduates eventually seeking the terminal degree in their field.
Enrolling about 2,000 students, the feeling of the close is small, intimate, and studious. However, that doesn’t mean the school is without campus tradition; one of the most beloved traditions at the school is Rotblatt, a campus-wide softball game recognized by Sports Illustrated in 1997.
8. Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT)
Coming in at about a 16% acceptance rate, Middlebury is identified as one of the “most selective” liberal arts college in the country by the Carnegie Foundation.
Historically, Middlebury is the first American institution to grant a Bachelor’s degree to a black person. That person was Alexander Twilight, nearly 200 years ago in 1823.
One of the unique opportunities Middlebury presents for its students is the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, an establishment in Northern California where students study foreign languages, international policy, and more.
Middlebury’s campus spans 350 acres surrounded by Vermont’s Green Mountains and New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The picturesque scenery of Middlebury makes it among the most beautiful of small liberal arts colleges in the northeast.
One interesting ranking Middlebury has attained is top-10 status for “schools most beloved by their students.” This was measured by percentage of alumni who donated to Middlebury.
7. Washington & Lee (Lexington City, VA)
With an endowment of nearly $1.6 billiion, the school is among the richest liberal arts colleges, especially accounting for the fact the entire population of the school is less than 2300 students.
Washington & Lee consistently ranks in the top 10 for colleges in the country, including #1 in a recent ranking by Money Magazine.
Because there is only one subject that allows admission for graduate students, which is law, every class is taught by faculty at the school, rather than TA’s or other assistants. This allows for the highest level of both learning as well as 1-on-1 interaction with faculty at the college.
Washington & Lee has had an unusually profound influence on American politics for such a small school. Twenty-seven US senators, 67 US Representatives, 31 state governors, and other elected officials have come from Washington & Lee, according to the college’s Wikipedia page.
The class of 2020 had an acceptance rate of less than 25%.
6. Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA)
A private women’s liberal arts colleges located just 20 minutes from Boston, Wellesley is among the most distinct schools in the country.
One of the Seven Sisters Colleges, a consortium of schools that are historically for women, alumnae of the program include Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, and Nora Ephron, the director of When Harry Met Sally.
One of the unique advantages Wellesley offers it students is cross-registration opportunity with other top schools in New England. These include MIT, Babson, Olin, and Brandeis.
Wellesley is home to one of the largest gender science institutions in the country, known as Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). The focus of the WCW is scholarship and publication in education, economic security, and mental health, among other subjects.
For such a small school of less than 2500 total students, there are 180 on-campus organizations for students to participate in.
With less than 20% accepted for the incoming 2018 class, Wellesley is frequently ranked in the top 10 of all liberal arts colleges in the US, and in the top 30-50 of all colleges in the country.
5. Bowdoin College (Bowdoin, ME)
With an acceptance rate of approximately 1 in 10 applicants (class of 2022), Bowdoin College is widely regarded as one of the elite colleges in the US. In fact, this year Bowdoin is ranked #5 liberal arts college by US News and World Report.
Known for its rich, centuries-old history of producing prominent alumni, including the 14th president of the United States Franklin Pierce, Bowdoin is an academic experience unparalleled by any other major institution of higher education.
Dubbed by many publications as a “Hidden Ivy,” Bowdoin stands out from many of the large Ivy League institutions is its intense focus on supporting nature.
Indeed, the largest student group on campus is known as the “Outing Club,” a club embracing kayaking, canoeing, camping, and other nature-based activities to encourage student bonding and compassion for nature.
Bowdoin is on a massively northern trajectory – in just October, the school announced its endowment had reached a generous $1.6 billion dollars, among the highest endowments of any liberal arts college in the United States.
4. Claremont Colleges (Claremont, CA)
Technically, this is more than one college, however as they exist in a consortium, it feels okay to rank them all together.
All of the Claremont Colleges are typically rated among the best in the country. They include Pomona, Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Pitzer.
Pomona, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, and Harvey Mudd all have acceptance rates of less than 15%. Scripps is closer to 30%. Pomona is the most selective of all US based liberal arts colleges.
So why are these schools so selective? Quite simply, they represent some of the most elite institutions in the country.
Pomona is widely regarded as a “New England style college” but in Southern California, making it highly desirable for the academically-oriented undergraduate desiring live in a coastal paradise.
Pitzer is the school most frequently associated with social sciences as well as media studies.
Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and Claremont McKenna students combine to form an athletic team; one of their biggest rivals is the athletic team combining students from Pomona and Pitzer.
Moreso than many east coast liberal arts colleges, the Claremont Colleges are characterized by varying levels of conservative political leanings.
3. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
With an acceptance rate of just 13.8% for the Class of 2021, Amherst College’s appeal does not lie only in its admissions exclusivity; for all qualified financial aid recipients of the school, the school adheres to an attractive no-loan policy. That means that qualified candidates do not have to pay tuition at the school.
The school’s academic offerings are impressive; although less than 2,000 students are enrolled in the school, more than 800 courses are offered in a uniquely open curriculum (a curriculum that has very few required classes).
Ambitious students are at the heart of Amherst College – more than 1/3rd of all enrolled students ultimately take on a dual major.
What we like about Amherst College is its collaboration with other elite institutions. As a member of the Five Colleges Consortium, Amherst offers its students the opportunity to take classes at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and even neighboring UMass Amherst.
The alumni at Amherst have won Nobel, MacArthur, Pulitzer, Academy, Tony, and Grammy awards.
2. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
One of the most intellectual and selective institutions in the world, Swarthmore accepts only 9.5% of all applicants (2018 admissions cycle); its entire student population is only about 1600 students.
Although the school is small, students and alumni have earned an unusually large number of accolades. They include 11 MacArthur Fellows, 5 Nobel Prize winners, 27 Truman Scholars, and an impressive 30 Rhodes Scholars, perhaps the most prestigious academic fellowship in the world.
Frequently known as a “Little Ivy,” Swarthmore ranked in the top 10 of every list we aggregated to create this particular ranking, including those of Niche and US News.
Alumni of the school are among the most recognizable and important people of the 20th and 21st centuries. They include the 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, former CalTech president and Nobel winner David Baltimore, and Dean Baker, one of the first economists who identified the 2008 bubble.
Within 5 years of graduation, over 3/4ths of alumni enter a graduate program after Swarthmore.
1. Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
Are you interested in Learning to Play Chess? How about Ski Patrol?
In Williams’ unique 4-1-4 curriculum, the students take two traditional four-course semesters as well as a three-week class every January in less traditional academic areas. Besides Ski Patrol and Chess, there is even a class about how to shape your life after Williams.
Though a centuries-old institution, the physical look of the college itself has changed dramatically over the last two decades. In 2001, the school opened a $38 million Unified Science Center housing lab spaces as well as a comprehensive science library. A few years later, a $60 million Center for Theatre and Dance was opened, as well as a $44 million student services building known as the Paresky center.
One attractive component to Williams College is its close collaboration with Oxford College in England. Founded in 1985, the Williams-Exeter program provides 26 students the opportunity to study at Oxford’s Exeter College in Britain for an entire year as members of the college.
Many publications have ranked Williams at the top of the list for liberal arts colleges, and with good reason. With an endowment of approximately $2.6 billion for less than 2,500 total students, Williams has long been considered one of the most impressive of all liberal arts colleges since its inception more than two centuries ago.
This is our current list of 10 amazing liberal arts colleges in the country for 2019. Are there any significant schools that should also be included on such a list as this?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
This list was made by aggregating 8 of the most widely-read ranking lists online for the top liberal arts colleges.
We sourced the rankings below in the first week of August 2019.