By BVS Staff
Each year, thousands of high school students apply to liberal arts colleges in hopes of receiving a well-rounded education that will prepare them for any choice of a career. Liberal arts colleges are often smaller than research universities, providing the perfect atmosphere in which an ambitious student can excel, form meaningful relationships, and pursue opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable. It is for students looking for just this type of college experience that we've found the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South.
To find the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South, we started by considering only those colleges in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are far more than 30 liberal arts colleges in the South, so we narrowed down our list by considering factors such as:
- National rankings (40%)
- Freshmen retention rates (20%)
- Unique curriculum (30%)
- Membership in a college consortium (5%)
- Historical significance (5%)
Though we didn't directly consider the 4-year cost of attending these liberal arts colleges, we did order our 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South based on their average 20-year net return on investment, as decided by PayScale.
1. Washington and Lee University
20-Year Net ROI: $542,000
Washington and Lee University is named after two of the most respected Americans in history — George Washington and Robert E. Lee — so perhaps it's fitting that the university itself also happens to be one of the most respected in academics. W&L students can choose from 40 undergraduate majors ranging from Renaissance Studies to Neuroscience. Washington and Lee has been included on a number of "best of" lists including those by Forbes (28th best university in the nation), U.S. News & World Report (11th best liberal arts college), Washington Monthly (7th best liberal arts college), and The Princeton Review.
2. University of Richmond
20-Year Net ROI: $409,000
University of Richmond, located in Richmond, Virginia, is a private liberal arts college comprised of five schools: the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Professional & Continuing Studies, School of Business, School of Leadership Studies, and School of Law. Regardless of school or chosen major, all students must complete a liberal arts core curriculum which includes a freshman seminar, a foreign language, a wellness class, an expository writing class, and one class each in six specific fields of study. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks University of Richmond among the best liberal arts colleges in the country, as does Forbes, SmartMoney, BusinessWeek, and Time, among others.
3. Furman University
Greenville, South Carolina
20-Year Net ROI: $234,000
Furman University is the top-ranked liberal arts college in all of South Carolina, the 5th best liberal arts college in the South, and the 51st best liberal arts college in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Mentioned in nearly every ranking is Furman's unique approach to a liberal arts education, an approach which promotes first-hand experiences and problem solving through project-oriented and experience-based education. Whatever the approach, it seems to be working. The Daily Beast called Furman the 2nd most rigorous college in America, while the Social Science Research Network named it as one of the top choices for high-achieving students.
4. Southwestern University
20-Year Net ROI: $230,000
Texas's oldest university also happens to be one of the best liberal arts colleges in the South. Chartered in 1840 and founded in 1873, Southwestern University in Georgetown offers more than 40 degrees, plus a handful of pre-professional programs. In addition to a strong liberal arts curriculum, Southwestern students have plenty of opportunity to take part in research. In fact, the university hosts two academic exhibitions each year to show off student research projects, including a well-attended and prestigious Creative Works Symposium. Southwestern has been included on a number of "best of" lists, including Loren Pope's list of the Colleges That Change Lives.
5. Austin College
20-Year Net ROI: $221,000
Located about 60 miles north of Dallas, Austin College is a private liberal arts school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Students complete a humanities-heavy core curriculum before choosing from more than 35 majors and pre-professional programs. To supplement its students' liberal arts education, Austin encourages off-campus and study abroad opportunities, particularly during a special three-week January Term. Students are required to participate in at least three January Terms over the course of their undergraduate career, and can choose to take an on-campus intensive, study abroad, or study off-campus at a variety of pre-determined locations.
6. Eckerd College
St. Petersburg, Florida
20-Year Net ROI: $186,000
Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida is a great option for students looking for both a solid liberal arts curriculum and some of the "harder to find" majors like Marine Science, Environmental Studies, International Business, and Creative Writing, among many others. Eckerd prides itself on the quality experiences it provides its students. For example, Eckerd faculty members are themselves active scholars, and often include undergraduate students in research or other projects. Eckerd was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 127th best liberal arts college in the country, and was also included in Loren Pope's book "Colleges That Change Lives."
7. Davidson College
Davidson, North Carolina
20-Year Net ROI: $177,000
"Let learning be cherished" is the motto of Davidson College, a perfect summary of what it means to pursue an education in the liberal arts. Davidson, a private school located in North Carolina, offers students the choice of 26 majors, plus a bevy of interdisciplinary studies and minors. Davidson has been included in a slew of university rankings by such publications as U.S. News & World Report (9th best liberal arts college in the nation), Forbes (25th best college in the nation; 1st best college in the South), and the Princeton Review ("Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates"), among others.
8. Wofford College
Spartanburg, South Carolina
20-Year Net ROI: $168,000
Wofford College is a liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its top-notch curriculum is taught by an accomplished faculty, 92% of whom have a doctorate or higher in their chosen field. Students at Wofford can choose from more than 25 majors within the liberal arts, and are also encouraged to take part in unique study abroad opportunities. Wofford has steadily been climbing U.S. News & World Report's list of the best liberal arts colleges (it is currently ranked the 77th best), and is ranked by Forbes as the 58th best college in America.
9. Millsaps College
20-Year Net ROI: $164,000
Jackson, Mississippi is home to Millsaps College, a small liberal arts college loosely affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its secular curriculum requires students to take a variety of courses in the liberal arts, compile a portfolio of written work, and pass exams both oral and written before graduation. Millsaps is consistently ranked among the best colleges in America by publications like U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, and Fiske. Millsaps was also one of only 40 schools included in Loren Pope's book "Colleges That Change Lives."
10. Centre College
20-Year Net ROI: $159,000
Centre College is a private liberal arts college located in Danville, Kentucky. This selective and top-ranked school has produced more than 70% of Rhodes Scholars to come out of Kentucky — a huge accomplishment considering the Bluegrass State is also home to powerhouses like University of Louisville and University of Kentucky. After completing a traditional and well-rounded core curriculum, Centre students can choose from 27 majors and 28 minors in which to pursue a degree. Centre has been included on numerous lists of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, including those lists by Forbes (81st best college), U.S. News & World Report (45th best liberal arts college), and Washington Monthly (38th best liberal arts college).
11. Bellarmine University
20-Year Net ROI: $158,000
Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky is a private Catholic university with a strong reputation in the liberal arts. Students can choose from more than 50 majors from seven colleges and schools, including the arts and sciences, business, communication, education, and health sciences. Bellarmine is consistently ranked among the best universities in the country, liberal arts and otherwise, by such publications as Forbes, U.S. News & World Report (the 11th best university in the South), and Washington Monthly (76th best university in the country).
20-Year Net ROI: $146,000
No doubt due to the excellent liberal arts education it provides, Transylvania University has produced two U.S. Vice Presidents, 101 U.S. representatives, 36 U.S. governors, 34 U.S. ambassadors, 50 U.S. senators, and two Supreme Court justices. Transylvania students have 38 majors to choose from, including quite a few options within the fields of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Natural Sciences. The university is currently ranked among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and Washington Monthly, and among the best national universities by Forbes.
13. Birmingham-Southern College
20-Year Net ROI: $126,000
Birmingham-Southern College is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The college prides itself on its "new" curriculum, which guides students through a series of experiential learning opportunities, including an entire term aptly called the January Exploration Term. During this four-week period, students can work on a project, take part in faculty-sponsored research, or conduct independent study either on campus or abroad. This unique approach certainly seems to have paid off. The college is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
20-Year Net ROI: $122,000
Spelman College is one of the nation's best liberal arts colleges and the country's oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women. Spelman has a long resume of accomplishments including its ranking among the top 50 universities for producing Fulbright and Truman Scholars, being the second largest producer of African-American college graduates to attend medical school, and its ranking as the #1 institution for African-American women majoring in STEM fields. Forbes and The Princeton Review have both included Spelman on their lists of the best colleges in America.
15. Rollins College
Winter Park, Florida
20-Year Net ROI: $118,000
U.S. News & World Report's second best university in the South (2017), Rollins College, is a great liberal arts college located in beautiful Winter Park, Florida. Students can choose from more than 30 unique majors that range from biochemistry to Caribbean studies, plus a unique M.B.A. program and myriad minor options. Rollins' top-notch liberal arts curriculum has made it one of the best producers of Fulbright Scholars, according to the college's website.
16. Rhodes College
20-Year Net ROI: $114,000
Memphis, Tennessee is home to Rhodes College, one of the best liberal arts colleges in the South. Though it was once associated with the Presbyterian Church, today it's known for a secular core curriculum that is firmly grounded in the humanities and liberal arts. The college prides itself on providing small classes in which students can learn. Consistent with the idea that a liberal arts education prepares students well for any career path, 95% of Rhodes students are accepted to the law or business school of their choice, while the acceptance into medical school is nearly twice the national average.
17. Presbyterian College
Clinton, South Carolina
20-Year Net ROI: $109,000
Presbyterian College, located in Clinton, South Carolina, is a private liberal arts college associated with the Presbyterian Church. Students at PC, as it's commonly known, can pursue Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees in more than 30 courses of study plus nine pre-professional programs such as Pre-Law or Pre-Pharmacy. The school offers a solid liberal arts core curriculum, highlighted by small classes taught by a faculty that includes an amazing six Carnegie/CASE South Carolina Professor of the Year Award winners.
18. Belmont University
20-Year Net ROI: $102,000
Belmont University is Tennessee's 2nd largest private university (after Vanderbilt), and one of the Volunteer State's best liberal arts colleges. Belmont offers more than 75 majors through seven colleges, including a College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Belmont's core curriculum has been recognized as the 2nd most innovative college in the country by U.S. News & World Report, which also ranked the school as one "to watch" in 2009. The prestigious publication also ranked Belmont the 6th best university in the South, the 6th best college for veterans, and the 2nd best college for undergraduate teaching.
19. Roanoke College
20-Year Net ROI: $85,500
Roanoke College, located in Salem, Virginia, is a top option for students who are determined to receive both a well-rounded liberal arts education and training in the sciences. The college offers students more than 35 choices of majors and pre-professional programs, including dentistry, engineering, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine. In 2014, U.S. News & World Report declared Roanoke College to be the 2nd best "up-and-coming" liberal arts school in the country, and since then, the college has consistently been ranked one of the best in the nation.
20. Sewanee — University of the South
20-Year Net ROI: $77,900
Sewanee: The University of the South is a private college with a long history of excellence in the liberal arts. Sewanee is especially well known for its programs in creative writing and literature, and is home to the Sewanee Review, the longest-running literary magazine in the country. In addition to many choices for majors within the liberal arts, Sewanee students can obtain a master's degree in American Literature or Creative Writing from the School of Letters. Sewanee has been ranked as one of the best colleges in the United States by such publications as Forbes and U.S. News & World Report.
21. Sweet Briar College
Sweet Briar, Virginia
20-Year Net ROI: $75,900
Despite some tough financial challenges that threatened to close its doors in 2015, Sweet Briar College has managed to maintain its reputation of excellence and is still one of the best liberal arts colleges in America. Undergraduate students have more than 50 options when it comes to choosing a major, including a degree in Liberal Studies. Sweet Briar has been included on a number of national rankings by publications such as The Princeton Review, Forbes, The Washington post, and U.S. News & World Report, among others.
22. Randolph College
20-Year Net ROI: $63,800
Randolph College, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, is a top liberal arts school that prides itself on its ability to produce alumni well prepared for success in a global environment. As students pursue their choice of the more than 35 majors and pre-professional programs, they are also encouraged to participate in unique study abroad programs such as the program Randolph College Abroad: The World in Britain which takes place at England's University of Reading.
23. Hendrix College
20-Year Net ROI: $59,900
Hendrix College, located in Conway, Arkansas, is a private liberal arts college that was founded by the United Methodist Church. Though the school is still loosely associated with the Methodists, its curriculum is secular and focused only on offering one of the best liberal arts educations in the country. Most notably, Hendrix's core curriculum, while also including the traditional classes in the humanities, includes lots of STEM disciplines — a variation on the traditional that contributed to Hendrix being named by U.S. News & World Report as one of the most innovative colleges.
24. Berea College
20-Year Net ROI: $55,300
Founded in 1855, Berea College is unique among the schools on our list. In addition to being one of the best liberal arts colleges in the South, it is a working college at which students pay no tuition in exchange for at least 10 hours of on-campus work per week. Students have nearly 30 choices of major, and can supplement their education through participation in more than 70 on-campus organizations. Berea is ranked among the best colleges in the country by such publications as U.S. News & World Report (76th best liberal arts college in the nation), Kiplinger's Personal Finance (63rd best value liberal arts college), and Washington Monthly (3rd best liberal arts college in the nation).
25. Hollins University
20-Year Net ROI: $51,600
Hollins University of Roanoke, Virginia can trace its roots back to 1842, making it one of the oldest all-women's universities in the United States. Hollins offers its students a solid liberal arts curriculum and a reputation as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country according to all of the major publications. Most notably however, and of special interest to many of those interested in the liberal arts, is Hollins' stellar writing program, which has produced a number of celebrated writers and authors, including Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard.
26. Salem College
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
20-Year Net ROI: $37,900
Founded in 1772 as a primary school, Salem College is today one of the best liberal arts colleges in the South. The all women's institution offers students plenty of options when it comes to majors and minors, plus the chance to cross register at nearby Wake Forest University. Salem is especially well known for its teaching program and its Salem College Center for Women Writers, the latter of which hosts dozens of workshops, lectures, and contests each year.
27. Agnes Scott College
20-Year Net ROI: $23,100
Just as the Northeast has its Seven Sisters consortium, so too does the South. One such southern sister is Agnes Scott College, located in Decatur, Georgia. All students at this women's college, regardless of major, complete the same liberal arts core curriculum. Besides the usual variety of liberal arts core classes, this curriculum also requires students to complete a leadership immersion, work closely with a faculty advisor, and create a digital portfolio of their work over four years. Agnes Scott's rigorous academics has produced more than 30 Fulbright Scholars, two Marshall Scholars, two Goldwater Scholars, and a Truman Scholar, among others.
28. Christendom College
Front Royal, Virginia
20-Year Net ROI: No data available
Christendom College is a liberal arts school associated with the Catholic Church. The college does not accept federal funding — good news if you're interested in an education that doesn't have to answer to the (secular) government when it comes to issues relating to curriculum. Students complete a well-rounded core curriculum before choosing from a list of seven possible majors: Classical and Early Christian Studies, English Language and Literature, History, Philosophy, Political Science and Economics, Mathematics, or Theology. Students wishing to supplement their liberal arts education can participate in Christendom's unique Rome Program, during which students travel to Italy for a semester in Italian, art and architecture, and culture.
29. Randolph-Macon College
20-Year Net ROI: No data available
Not to be confused with Randolph College, which also makes our list and is located nearby, Randolph-Macon College is another of the best liberal arts colleges in the South. The school was founded in 1830, and offers bachelor's degrees in more than 38 subjects. Like more and more liberal arts colleges, Randolph-Macon College operates a 4-1-4 calendar; in addition to two standard semesters, students spend a short January term taking an intensive course, studying abroad, or conducting research.
30. Wesleyan College
20-Year Net ROI: No data available
Wesleyan College, located in Macon, Georgia, is the first college in the world chartered to grant degrees to women. Its 700+ students have the choice of studying some 30 majors, 33 minors, and a handful of pre-professional programs. The Princeton Review consistently ranks Wesleyan among its "Best 361 Colleges," while Forbes has repeatedly included the college in its annual list of the best college buys.