Top Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

If a large impersonal university doesn't appeal to you, check out these schools

Lists of top colleges are always problematic. It's unreasonable to compare comprehensive universities like Harvard to small four-year colleges. The schools here offer BA degrees (some also offer BS degrees) and have primarily an undergraduate focus and liberal arts curriculum. Differentiating between #1 and #2 on lists of top colleges is so subjective that here we've simply listed the schools alphabetically. Schools were selected based on four- and six-year graduation rates, first-year retention rates, financial aid, and academic strengths.

Amherst College

Amherst College
Amherst College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Located in Western Massachusetts, Amherst usually stands #1 or #2 in rankings of top colleges with a liberal arts focus. Amherst students can take classes at the other excellent schools in the five-college consortium: Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Amherst has an interesting open curriculum with no distribution requirements.

Carleton College

Carleton College Bell Tower
Carleton College Bell Tower. Roy Luck / Flickr

Located less than an hour from the Minneapolis / St. Paul area, the small town of Northfield, Minnesota is home to one of the best schools in the Midwest. Features of Carleton's campus include beautiful Victorian buildings, a state-of-the-art recreation center, and the 880 acre Cowling Arboretum. With about 1900 students and over 200 faculty members, quality teaching truly gets top priority at Carleton College.

Grinnell College

Grinnell College
Grinnell College. Barry Solow / Flickr

Don't be fooled by Grinnell's rural location in Iowa. The school has a talented and diverse faculty and student body, and a rich history of social progressiveness. With an endowment over $1.5 billion and an 8:1 student/faculty ratio, Grinnell holds its own against the most elite schools in the Northeast.

Haverford College

Haverford College
Haverford College. Antonio Castagna / Flickr

Located on a beautiful campus outside of Philadelphia, Haverford offers its students a wealth of educational opportunities. Although strong in all areas of the liberal arts and sciences, Haverford is often noted for its superb science programs. Students have the opportunity to take classes at Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Middlebury College

Middlebury College Campus
Middlebury College Campus. Alan Levine / Flickr

Located in Robert Frost’s scenic hometown in Vermont, Middlebury College is probably best known for their foreign-language programs, but it excels in nearly all fields in the liberal arts and sciences.

Pomona College

Pomona College
Pomona College. The Consortium / Flickr

Originally modeled after elite Northeastern colleges, Pomona is now one of the most competitive and best-endowed colleges in the country. Situated a little over 30 miles from Los Angeles, Pomona is a member of the Claremont Colleges. Students frequently interact and cross-register with the other Claremont schools: Pitzer College, Claremont McKenna College, Scripps College, and Harvey Mudd College.

Swarthmore College

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College
Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College. Eric Behrens / Flickr

Swarthmore's gorgeous campus is situated just 11 miles from downtown Philadelphia, and students have the opportunity to take classes at neighboring Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and the University of Pennsylvania. Swarthmore consistently sits near the top of nearly all rankings of U.S. colleges.

Wellesley College

A path on the Wellesley College campus
A path on the Wellesley College campus. Soe Lin / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Located in an affluent and beautiful town outside of Boston, Wellesley provides women with one of the best educations available. The school offers small classes taught exclusively by the full-time faculty, a beautiful campus with Gothic architecture and a lake, and academic exchange programs with Harvard and M.I.T.

Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University Library
Wesleyan University Library. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

While Wesleyan does have several graduate programs, the university has the feel of a liberal arts college with a predominantly undergraduate focus. Students at Wesleyan are highly engaged in the campus community, and the university offers over 200 student organizations and a wide range of athletic teams.

Williams College

Williams College
Williams College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Also in Western Massachusetts, Williams typically vies with Amherst for the #1 spot on national rankings of top colleges. One of Williams' unique features is their tutorial program in which students meet with faculty in pairs to present and critique each other's work. With a 7:1 student-faculty ratio and an endowment well over $2 billion, Williams offers exceptional educational opportunities for its students.

The ten colleges listed here don't do justice to the strong field of contenders. Here are 20 more great colleges that are worth a close look. More »