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The 27 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the Country

Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Sep 12, 2019 12:00:00 PM

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There are a lot of different ranking systems out there for almost any type of college you can imagine. Even though these rankings purport to use sophisticated algorithms and calculations, all the final lists seem to differ from each other. How should you be able to figure out what the best liberal arts colleges are when there so many different ranking systems out there?

I did the work for you by considering many of the top lists and compiling rankings of liberal arts colleges; in the beginning of this article, I'll lay out how exactly these ranking systems work. If you're looking for a realistic, reliable ranking list for the best liberal arts colleges in the country, then you're in luck.

 

How Are These Schools Ranked?

There are many methodologies for ranking any type of school—they often involve complicated formulas, taking all sort of variables into account. How can you quantify exactly how good a school is, especially in relation to so many others? Well, you can’t, exactly. But if you consider concrete variables that people care about, you can get a pretty solid idea of whether a school is good or not.

I’ve pored over some of the most popular lists that rank liberal arts colleges and looked into what measures are used when determining a school's quality. If some of these factors are more important to you than others, you can use those preferences to guide your college admissions decisions.

The methods used to calculate each school’s ranking tend to take the following variables into account:

 

Undergraduate Academic Reputation

Education experts (like deans, provosts, and presidents) are surveyed on their opinions of each school’s academic excellence. What do leading experts think about a particular school’s offerings?

 

Retention

How many students who started as freshman return each year, and end up graduating? The greater this percentage, the higher the retention rate; the higher the retention rate, the better the ranking.

 

Faculty Resources

What’s the average class size? How well are professors compensated? How many professors have the highest degrees available in their field? The more access that students have to professors and the happier and more educated professors are, the higher the school’s ranking on this criterion.

 

Student Selectivity

The more competitive the students are who attend a school, the better its score. Students with impressive abilities and ambitions are thought to contribute positively to an institution’s academic environment. Variables used to assess selectivity include admissions rate, average GPA, and average standardized test scores (SAT and ACT).

 

Financial Resources

Ranking systems consider schools’ per-student spending—the higher the amount, the better the ranking. More spending per student generally means more resources and opportunities available to the student body.

 

Alumni Giving Rate

If alumni are happy with their undergraduate experience, they tend to give more. Greater giving rate = higher ranking.

 

Top Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings

There are some definite patterns in looking over some of the most popular liberal arts ranking lists (including US News & World Report, Niche, Forbes, and College Choice). All of these lists will have their own ranking systems, so schools’ exact place on the list will tend to differ, even from year to year. What’s more helpful is if you can get an idea of where these colleges stand in relation to each other on average.

I've combined some of the most popular lists in a unique ranking system. Colleges highly ranked on any list gained bonus points, as did colleges with higher than average graduation rates and financial aid packages. Each college also gained bonus points for high marks from Niche's student reviews.

Without further ado, here's our ranking of the top 27 liberal arts colleges!

 

body_amherstKenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons

 

#1: Amherst College—Amherst, Massachusetts

Acceptance Rate: 14.3 percent
Graduation Rate: 95 percent
In-State Tuition: $72,950
Average Financial Aid: $54,501

Amherst College, located in Amherst, Massachusetts, is a private liberal arts college. As a liberal arts college rather than a university, Amherst is focused on providing quality undergraduate education to its students rather than splitting its attention between undergraduate and graduate studies. The college's small student body is a draw for many students, as it means that it's easier to make friends and meet people than it is at a larger schools. Students also cite school pride and the nearby town of Amherst as positive draws, giving the student body a community-driven and intimate feeling in addition to strong academics.

 

#2: Bowdoin College—Brunswick, Maine

Acceptance Rate: 14.9 percent
Graduation Rate: 86 percent
In-State Tuition: $55,822
Average Financial Aid: $46,614

Bowdoin College has over 200 years of history as a private liberal arts college. With just over 1800 students, Bowdoin also has a very small student body and closely-knit community. Bowdoin has many nearby activities, including arts and culture events on campus, hiking, and great dining options. Students cite both the town of Bowdoin and nearby Portland as big draws, as well as the small student body and sense of camaraderie between students.

 

#3: Middlebury College—Middlebury, Vermont

Acceptance Rate: 17.2 percent
Graduation Rate: 94.1 percent
In-State Tuition: $50,063
Average Financial Aid: $48,374

Founded in 1800, Middlebury College is the first and oldest operating college in the state of Vermont. Middlebury has a rich history; it was the first American university to award a Black man a bachelor's degree in 1823, and was the first historically men-only liberal arts colleges to become coed in 1883. With just over 2,500 students, it's a bit larger than the two highest-ranked liberal arts colleges on our lists, but that doesn't mean you're just another face in the crowd—students cite great relationships with their professors and fellow students as part of what they love about attending.

 

 

body_pomona Sdkb / Wikimedia Commons

 

#4: Pomona College—Claremont, California

Acceptance Rate: 7.6 percent
Graduation Rate: 90 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,380
Average Financial Aid: $52,688

Pomona is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the US, with an acceptance rate of just 7.6 percent. It's also considered to be one of the most diverse college campuses, with 61 percent of students self-identifying as people of color or international students. Students at Pomona identify the sense of community, even among different disciplines and backgrounds, as one of the college's major strengths. With a supportive and friendly atmosphere, Pomona provides a strong sense of camaraderie and rigorous academics for its students.

 

#5: Williams College—Williamstown, Massachusetts

Acceptance Rate: 15 percent
Graduation Rate: 86 percent
In-State Tuition: $55,450
Average Financial Aid: $51,773

Williams has been awarded the number-one spot on US News' top liberal arts colleges for 17 consecutive years. Unlike many liberal arts colleges, Williams offers two graduate programs: development economics and art history. Its rigorous academics make it a strong college for those who like to study among other brilliant students, but studying isn't the only thing there is to do. Nearby ski lodges and other winter activities are also big draws for students who enjoy outdoor athletics.

 

#6: Carleton College—Northfield, Minnesota

Acceptance Rate: 21 percent
Graduation Rate: 89 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,759
Average Financial Aid: $40,675

Carlton is known for producing high-achieving students—in 2000 through 2016, the school produced over 100 Fullbright Scholars, as well as Watson Fellows, Goldwater Scholars, and Rhodes Scholars. Like many top-ranked liberal arts colleges, Carleton is known for its strong academic programs. According to students, the student body is very supportive and welcoming, and there are many free activities and opportunities available for those who want to pursue them.

 

#7: Claremont McKenna College—Claremont, California

Acceptance Rate: 9 percent
Graduation Rate: 91 percent
In-State Tuition: $28,095
Average Financial Aid: $41,960

Claremont McKenna offers a variety of programs, but specializes in fields like economics, government affairs, and international relations. It's also one of the few liberal arts colleges to offer graduate-level education, as its Robert Day School of Economics and Finance. Unlike many liberal arts colleges, Claremont McKenna is known for learning more toward conservative political beliefs, which can make it an attractive option for students who are more conservative in their own beliefs. Its competitive academics and talented students are a great drive for high achievers, though the campus is also known for having a fun party scene.

 

#8: Swarthmore College—Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Acceptance Rate: 9 percent
Graduation Rate: 87 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,656
Average Financial Aid: $51,079

Swarthmore is known for producing high-achieving students—the school's alumni include five Nobel Prize winners, as well as multiple Rhodes, Truman, and Fulbright Scholars. These strong academics are one of the primary reasons students attend Swarthmore, and many cite the resources available on campus, including generous office hours with professors, small class sizes, and supportive faculty. But according to students, Swarthmore also has a "world hard, play hard" atmosphere; they match their strength in studying with having fun on weekends.

 

#9: Haverford College—Haverford, Pennsylvania

Acceptance Rate: 20 percent
Graduation Rate: 87 percent
In-State Tuition: $56,698
Average Financial Aid: $51,198

Haverford College was founded in 1883 by a Quaker organization. Though Haverford is no longer religiously affiliated, Quaker values, such as integrity, community, and ethics, are still important parts of the school's ethos. The school's alumni include five Nobel Prize recipients as well as six Pulitzer winners, and a number of Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars. Students place a high value on their academic discussions with others, and with small class sizes and a challenging courseload, there is always interesting conversation to be had.

 

body_wellesleyDaderot / Wikimedia Commons

 

#10: Wellesley College—Wellesley, Massachusetts

Acceptance Rate: 22 percent
Graduation Rate: 78 percent
In-State Tuition: $53,732
Average Financial Aid: $47,375

Wellesley College is a private women's college, and is one of the Seven Sisters Colleges along with Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and others. It's also the highest endowed women's college in the entire world, with almost $2 billion. High academic standards and student ambition make it a school of high achievers—that sense of intellectual stimulation and striving for greater heights contribute to a great sense of community among students.

 

#11: Davidson College—Davidson, North Carolina

Acceptance Rate: 20 percent
Graduation Rate: 88 percent
In-State Tuition: $51,447
Average Financial Aid: $44,434

Unlike some of the other liberal arts colleges on our list, one of Davidson College's biggest draws is its strong athletics—some 25 percent of Davidson students participate in NCAA Division I athletics, the highest level available for college students. Sports aren't the only place that Davidson excels; students are intellectually driven and passionate about social causes. The strong campus community encourages all students to work their hardest and set high goals, which are supported by dedicated faculty and professors.

 

#12: Bates College—Lewiston, Maine

Acceptance Rate: 22 percent
Graduation Rate: 89 percent
In-State Tuition: $53,794
Average Financial Aid: $42,804

Bates College began in 1855 as the first coed college in New England, and also one of the first in the United States to admit minority students prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. While the college is known for its rich history and strong academics, students also mention campus food as being a big draw, especially in comparison to many other colleges. Though small, students say that the tight-knit community has plenty of great leadership opportunities and the right ratio of students to teachers.

 

#13: Harvey Mudd College—Claremont, California

Acceptance Rate: 15 percent
Graduation Rate: 86 percent
In-State Tuition: $56,876
Average Financial Aid: $40,138

Students at Harvey Mudd are proud of their academic rigor, but particularly their engineering and computer science programs. Though many students cite Harvey Mudd's STEM programs as a particular highlight of their education there, it's also known for having great facilities and student groups.

 

#14: Barnard College—Manhattan, New York City, New York

Acceptance Rate: 15 percent
Graduation Rate: 87 percent
In-State Tuition: $55,032
Average Financial Aid: $43,984

Like Wellesley, Barnard College is also a private women's liberal arts college—in fact, it's one of the oldest in the world. Because it's part of a network of colleges, students have the option of taking classes as other nearby schools like Columbia and even Wellesley. This flexibility allows students to experience the intimacy of a small liberal arts college with the program availability of larger schools. Being in Manhattan, there is also an abundance of food, activities, and museums nearby, giving Barnard students lots to do outside of class.

 

#15: Colgate University—Hamilton, New York

Acceptance Rate: 28 percent
Graduation Rate: 88 percent
In-State Tuition: $55,870
Average Financial Aid: $48,369

Colgate University is another rare liberal arts college that offers graduate-level education—in this case, a Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Though Colgate students cite their intensive academics as a big draw, they also mention lots of nearby activities and parties for those interested. Their financial aid offerings are generous, and some students have traveled to multiple countries thanks to study abroad programs.

 

#16: Wesleyan University—Middletown Connecticut

Acceptance Rate: 17 percent
Graduation Rate: 85 percent
In-State Tuition: $57,004
Average Financial Aid: $50,051

Wesleyan Universities is one of the handful of liberal arts colleges that also offer a few master's and doctoral degrees, include a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, which was the first program of its kind when it launched in 1953. Like many other colleges on this list, there are many esteemed alumni, including Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, four Nobel laureates, and 34 members of the US Congress. Wesleyan students are proud of their academics, particularly because while the programs are rigorous, there's less of an atmosphere of competition than at some other schools. Students also take pride in being politically active and having a thriving arts culture.

 

body_usmilitaryUSMA Public Affairs Office / Wikimedia Commons

 

#17: United States Military Academy—West Point, New York

Acceptance Rate: 10 percent
Graduation Rate: 86 percent
In-State Tuition: N/A
Average Financial Aid: N/A

The United States Military Academy, as you might suspect, is a bit different from the other colleges on this list—there's no tuition, because accepted students become active duty members of the military upon graduation. Graduates frequently become second lieutenants in the army, and foreign cadets may be commissioned into the military organization of their home country. Students are proud of their strong academic program, their accessible professors, and the campus safety.

 

#18: Hamilton College—Clinton, New York

Acceptance Rate: 21 percent
Graduation Rate: 88 percent
In-State Tuition: $56,530
Average Financial Aid: $43,434

Hamilton College has a relatively small student body of just over 1,800 students, but has a wide range of academic options—they offer 56 areas of student with 43 concentrations. Their beautiful campus, surrounded by trees, contributes to their tight-knit community, and students praise the college's small classes and professor accessibility. However, it's not all about studying; students also say that there's a great social scene on campus with frequent parties.

 

#19: University of Richmond—Richmond, Virginia

Acceptance Rate: 30 percent
Graduation Rate: 82 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,690
Average Financial Aid: $43,705

The University of Richmond is a bit larger than many liberal arts colleges, with over 4,000 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs. The college is split into five schools: the School of Arts and Sciences, the E. Claiborne Robins School of School of Business, the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the University of Richmond School of Law, and the School of Professional and Continuing Studies. The last two colleges—the School of Law and the School of Professional and Continuing Studies—are both graduate programs. Like many liberal arts colleges, University of Richmond boasts an active and receptive faculty, who are available to help students with coursework and guidance even outside of office hours.

 

#20: Washington and Lee University—Lexington, Virginia

Acceptance Rate: 21 percent
Graduation Rate: 92 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,830
Average Financial Aid: $46,849

Washington and Lee University's history is intertwined with the history of the United States. Founded in 1749, almost 30 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1796, George Washington gave the college a large gift, leading them to change the name of the college in honor of the president. In 1865, Robert E. Lee, former General-in-Chief of the Confederate States Army, began to serve as president of the college, and the name was changed again to honor his time as president. Washington and Lee is known for its strong Greek life and party scene, but academics are equally important—students say that professors are always available to talk, and political activism, intellectual conversation, and good study habits are all important aspects of this college.

 

#21: Colby College—Waterville, Maine

Acceptance Rate: 13 percent
Graduation Rate: 87 percent
In-State Tuition: $57,280
Average Financial Aid: $48,637

Colby College offers 54 different academic fields, and a generous study abroad program. Over two-thirds of Colby students take advantage of the study abroad program, allowing them to earn college credits for studying in places like France, Russia, and Spain. Colby students prize the academic strength of their college, as well as the number of student organizations and events taking place on campus.

 

#22: Vassar College—Poughkeepsie, New York

Acceptance Rate: 25 percent
Graduation Rate: 88 percent
In-State Tuition: $58,770
Average Financial Aid: $49,190

Vassar College, now coeducational, was the second institute of higher education to grant degrees to women in US history. Along with several other colleges on this list, Vassar is part of the Seven Sisters, a group of elite liberal arts colleges that were once women's colleges. Colby's campus also boasts two National Historic Landmarks and a National Historic Place. According to students, Vassar has many scholarships and generous financial aid to make it easier on low-income students to attend. There's also a vibrant art scene and plenty of on-campus activities and groups committed to making the college better for everybody.

 

#23: Smith College—Northampton, Massachusetts

Acceptance Rate: 31 percent
Graduation Rate: 83 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,224
Average Financial Aid: $52,924

Smith College is a women's college, but its graduate and certificate programs also allow men to attend. The college was founded by Sophia Smith, who hoped to provide education for other women in a time when that was uncommon. With an open curriculum, students are able to take classes in a variety of fields to make their education even richer and more fulfilling. Though the campus and student body are small, many students travel to the nearby University of Massachusetts for larger parties if they're so inclined.

 

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Beyond My Ken / Wikimedia Commons

 

#24: Soka University of America—Alisa Viejo, California

Acceptance Rate: 39 percent
Graduation Rate: 86 percent
In-State Tuition: $34,086
Average Financial Aid: $27,931

Soka University of America is the sister school to Soka University of Japan, which also emphasizes discussion, human rights, and peace as part of their educational process. Soka also offers a Master's degree in Educational Leadership and Societal Change. Generous financial aid packages allow students at many income levels to attend, and all students must spend one semester studying abroad. The college also has small class sizes and a large amount of international students, creating a tight-knit community comprised of students with diverse backgrounds, interests, and beliefs.

 

#25: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art—Manhattan, New York City, New York

Acceptance Rate: 16 percent
Graduation Rate: 83 percent
In-State Tuition: $46,700
Average Financial Aid: $44,870

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, commonly known as Cooper Union, was founded with the intent that education be accessible to all. Tuition was initially free for all undergraduate students, but since 2014, tuition instead operates on a sliding scale from half to full tuition covered based on need. Students take pride in the competitive nature of Cooper Union, which prepares them for the job market.

 

#26: Grinnell College—Grinnell, Iowa

Acceptance Rate: 24 percent
Graduation Rate: 78 percent
In-State Tuition: $54,354
Average Financial Aid: $43,783

As a college, Grinnell is committed to socioeconomic diversity within their student body. To achieve this goal, they have need-blind admissions and many merit scholarships to help pave the way for students who might otherwise not have the opportunity to attend college. This contributes to a welcoming and diverse student body, one that is especially politically active and interested in social justice. Students praise the academic strength at Grinnell, but also the freedom to pursue athletics and other activities if they're interested.

 

#27: Kenyon College—Gambier, Ohio

Acceptance Rate: 36 percent
Graduation Rate: 85 percent
In-State Tuition: $58,570
Average Financial Aid: $42,078

Kenyon College, established in 1824, boasts some 1700 students and a large, 1,000-acre campus. Kenyon has played host to a number of prominent graduates, including multiple Rhodes Scholars, US President Rutherford B. Hayes, actor Paul Newman, and even writer John Green. Students at Kenyon praise the diversity of the student body and acceptance of people of different backgrounds, as well as the intellectual discussions happening across campus at any given moment.

 

How Do You Get Into Top Liberal Arts Colleges?

The first step in getting into any of the top liberal arts colleges is figuring out how competitive of an applicant you are. If you click on the name of any of the schools in the chart above, you'll be directed to PrepScholar's admission page for that college. You can get more information about admissions rates, average GPA, and average ACT/SAT scores. There's even a tool built into the pages to help you estimate your chances of admission.

Many of the top tier schools are very competitive, with admissions rates <20%. If you want to strengthen your application, work on:

 

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Follow these steps to come out on top.

 

What's Next?

It's time to get to work! If you have your eye on one (or more) of the schools above, figure out what SAT score you should be aiming for.

Are you worried that some parts of your application might be a little weak for your target schools? Learn about what to do if you have a low GPA or low test scores.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.



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