Top Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

Want a Small School with an Undergraduate Focus? Check Out These 30 Schools

The top liberal arts colleges in the United States all feature strong academic programs, low student to faculty ratios, small classes, and attractive campuses. Every school on our list has fewer than 3,000 undergraduates, and most have no graduate programs. Liberal arts colleges can be an excellent choice for students who want an intimate academic experience working closely with peers and professors. 

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, academic strengths, and other factors.

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, and students can expect a lot of personal attention thanks to the school's 8 to 1 student / faculty ratio.

  • Location: Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Enrollment: 1,849 (all undergraduate)
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Bates College Quad
Bates College Quad. reivax / Flickr

Students at Bates College can expect a lot of interaction between students and faculty for the college places emphasis on seminar classes, research, service-learning, and senior thesis work. The college has been true to the spirit of a liberal education since its founding in 1855 by Maine abolitionists. A high percentage of students participate in study abroad, and the college is one of the few on this list with test-optional admissions.

  • Location: Lewiston, Maine
  • Enrollment: 1,780 (all undergraduate)
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Bowdoin College
Bowdoin College. Paul VanDerWerf / Flickr

Located in Brunswick, Maine, a town of 21,000 on the Maine coast, Bowdoin takes pride in both its beautiful location and its academic excellence. Eight miles away from the main campus is Bowdoin's 118 acres Coastal Studies Center on Orr's Island. Bowdoin was one of the first colleges in the country to offer loan-free financial aid.

  • Location: Brunswick, Maine
  • Enrollment: 1,806 (all undergraduate)
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Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College. Montgomery County Planning Commission / Flickr

A top women's college, Bryn Mawr is a member of the Tri-College Consortium with Swarthmore and Haverford. Shuttles run between the three campuses. The college is also close to Philadelphia, and students can register for courses at the University of Pennsylvania. A high number of Bryn Mawr women go on to earn PhDs. Along with strong academics, Bryn Mawr is rich in history and traditions.

  • Location: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 1,708 (1,381 undergraduates)
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Carleton College Bell Tower
Carleton College Bell Tower. Roy Luck / Flickr

Situated 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 a 9 to 1 student / faculty ratio, quality teaching truly gets top priority at Carleton College.

  • Location: Northfield, Minnesota
  • Enrollment:  2,105 (all undergraduate)
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The Kravis Center at Claremont McKenna College
The Kravis Center at Claremont McKenna College. Victoire Chalupy / Wikimedia Commons

Located about 35 miles from Los Angeles, Claremont McKenna's small 50-acre campus sits in the heart of the Claremont Colleges, and students at CMC share facilities and often cross-register for classes at the other schools — Scripps CollegePomona CollegeHarvey Mudd College, and Pitzer College. Academics are supported by a 9 to 1 student / faculty ratio.

  • Location: Claremont, California
  • Enrollment: 1,347 (all undergraduate)
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Miller LIbrary at Colby College
Miller LIbrary at Colby College. Colby Mariam / Wikimedia Commons

Colby College frequently ranks among the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country. The 714-acre campus houses attractive red-brick buildings and a 128-acre arboretum. Colby wins high marks for its environmental initiatives and for its emphasis on study abroad and internationalization. It's also one of the top schools for skiing and fields NCAA Division I alpine and Nordic ski teams.

  • Location: Waterville, Maine
  • Enrollment: 1,879 (all undergraduate)
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Colgate University
Colgate University. Jayu / Flickr

Located in a small town in the picturesque rolling hills of central Upstate New York, Colgate University frequently ranks among the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the United States. Colgate has an impressive 90% 6-year graduation rate, and roughly 2/3 of students eventually go on to do some form of graduate study. Colgate is a member of the NCAA Division I Patriot League.

  • Location: Hamilton, NY
  • Enrollment: 2,890 (2,882 undergraduates)
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College of the Holy Cross
College of the Holy Cross. Joe Campbell / Flickr

Founded by the Jesuits in 1843, Holy Cross is the oldest Catholic college in New England. Holy Cross has an impressive retention and graduation rate, with well over 90% of entering students earning a degree within six years. The college's athletic teams compete in the NCAA Division I Patriot League.

  • Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Enrollment: 2,720 (all undergraduate)
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Davidson College Presbyterian Church
Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Jon Dawson / Flickr

Established by the Presbyterians of North Carolina in 1837, Davidson College is now a highly-ranked liberal arts college. The college has a strict honor code that allows students to schedule their own exams and take them in any academic classroom. On the athletic front, the college competes in the NCAA Division I Atlantic 10 Conference.

  • Location: Davidson, North Carolina
  • Enrollment: 1,796 (all undergraduate)
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Denison University Swasey Chapel
Denison University Swasey Chapel. Allen Grove

Denison is a highly-rated liberal arts college located about 30 miles east of Columbus, Ohio. The 900-acre campus is home to a 550-acre biological reserve. Denison does well with financial aid — the majority of aid comes in the form of grants, and students graduate with less debt than at most comparable colleges. Academics are supported by a 9 to 1 student / faculty ratio.

  • Location: Granville, Ohio
  • Enrollment: 2,277 (all undergraduate)
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Dickinson College
Dickinson College. Tomwsulcer / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 11.0

With small classes and a healthy 9 to 1 student / faculty ratio, students at Dickinson will receive a lot of personal attention from the faculty. Chartered in 1783 and named after a signer of the Constitution, the college has a long and rich history.

  • Location: Carlisle, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 2,381 (all undergraduate)
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breidenbaugh-hall-gettysburg-college.jpg
Breidenbaugh Hall at Gettysburg College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Gettysburg College is a highly-ranked liberal arts college located in the historic town of Gettysburg. The attractive campus features a new athletic center, a music conservatory, a professional performing arts center and an institute on public policy. Gettysburg offers its students a wide array of rewarding social and educational experiences.

  • Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 2,394 (all undergraduate)
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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 a 9 to 1 student / faculty ratio, Grinnell holds its own against the most elite schools in the Northeast.

  • Location: Grinnell, Iowa
  • Enrollment: 1,699 (all undergraduate): 
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Hamilton College
Hamilton College. Joe Cosentino / Flickr

Hamilton College, located in picturesque upstate New York, was ranked as the 20th best liberal arts college in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. The college's curriculum places particular emphasis on individualized instruction and independent research, and the school highly values communication skills such as writing and speaking. Students come from 49 states and 49 countries.

  • Location: Hamilton, New York
  • Enrollment: 1,883 (all undergraduate)
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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.

  • Location: Haverford, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 1,268 (all undergraduate)
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Leonard Hall at Kenyon College
Leonard Hall at Kenyon College. Curt Smith / Flickr

Kenyon College has the distinction of being the oldest private college in Ohio. Kenyon prides itself on the strength of its faculty, and the attractive campus with its gothic architecture features a 380-acre nature preserve. The average class size is just 15 students. 

  • Location: Gambier, Ohio
  • Enrollment: 1,708 (all undergraduate)
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Lafayette College - Pardee Hall
Lafayette College - Pardee Hall. Charles Fulton / Flickr

Lafayette college has the feel of a traditional liberal arts college, but it is unusual in that it also has several engineering programs. Kiplinger's ranks Lafayette highly for the school's value, and students who qualify for aid often receive significant grant awards. Lafayette is a member of the NCAA Division I Patriot League.

  • Location: Easton, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 2,550 (all undergraduate)
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Macalester College - Leonard Center
Macalester College - Leonard Center. Evenjk / Wikimedia Commons

For a small Midwestern liberal arts college, Macalester is quite diverse — students of color make up 21% of the student body, and students come from 88 countries. Central to the college's mission are internationalism, multiculturalism and service to society. The college is highly selective with 96% of students coming from the top quarter of their high school class.

  • Location: Saint Paul, Minnesota
  • Enrollment: 2,146 (all undergraduate)
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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 its foreign-language and international studies programs, but it excels in nearly all fields in the liberal arts and sciences. Most classes have fewer than 20 students.

  • Location: Middlebury, Vermont
  • Enrollment: 2,549 (2,523 undergraduates)
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Oberlin College
Oberlin College. Allen Grove

Oberlin College has a distinguished history as the first college to grant undergraduate degrees to women. The school was also an early leader in educating African Americans, and to this day Oberlin prides itself on the diversity of its student body. Oberlin's Conservatory of Music is one of the best in the country.

  • Location: Oberlin, Ohio
  • Enrollment: 2,912 (2,895 undergraduates)
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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.

  • Location: Claremont, California
  • Enrollment: 1,563 (all undergraduate)
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Reed College
Reed College. mejs / Flickr

Reed is a suburban college located about 15 minutes from downtown Portland, Oregon. Reed consistently ranks high for the number of students who go on to earn PhDs, as well as their number of Rhodes scholars. The Reed faculty takes pride in teaching, and their classes are consistently small.

  • Location: Portland, Oregon
  • Enrollment: 1,427 (1,410 undergraduates)
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Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College
Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College. Eric Behrens / Flickr

Swarthmore's gorgeous campus is a 425-acre arboretum 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.

  • Location: Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 1,543 (all undergraduate)
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Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College
Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College. Notermote / Wikimedia Commons

Vassar College, founded in 1861 as a women's college, now ranks as one of the top coeducational liberal arts colleges in the country. Vassar's 1,000-acre campus includes over 100 buildings, picturesque gardens, and a farm. Vassar is located in the attractive Hudson Valley. New York City is about 75 miles away. Academics are supported by an 8 to 1 student / faculty ratio.

  • Location: Poughkeepsie, New York
  • Enrollment: 2,451 (2,450 undergraduates)
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Founded in 1746, Washington and Lee University has a rich history. The university was endowed by George Washington in 1796, and Robert E. Lee was the president of the university immediately after the civil war. The school is highly selective with acceptance rates below 25% in recent years.

  • Location: Lexington, Virginia
  • Enrollment: 2,160 (1,830 undergraduates)
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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 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.

  • Location: Wellesley, Massachusetts
  • Enrollment: 2,482 (all undergraduate)
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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 supported by an 8 to 1 student / faculty ratio. 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.

  • Location: Middletown, Connecticut
  • Enrollment: 3,206 (2,971 undergraduates)
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Whitman College
Whitman College. Joe Shlabotnik / Flickr

Located in the small town of Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman is a great choice for students looking for a quality education and engaged campus community in an intimate setting. Students interested in the sciences, engineering or law can take advantage of collaborations with top schools like CaltechColumbiaDuke and Washington University. Whitman also offers a wide range of options for study abroad.

  • Location: Walla Walla, Washington
  • Enrollment: 1,493 (all undergraduate)
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Williams College
Williams College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

With a beautiful campus 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.

  • Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts
  • Enrollment: 2,150 (2,093 undergraduates)
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Grove, Allen. "Top Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2018, thoughtco.com/liberal-arts-colleges-in-u-s-787014. Grove, Allen. (2018, January 12). Top Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/liberal-arts-colleges-in-u-s-787014 Grove, Allen. "Top Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/liberal-arts-colleges-in-u-s-787014 (accessed January 20, 2018).