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30 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the West, Ranked by Return on Investment (ROI)

By BVS Staff
September 2017

The Western United States may be home to large research universities and tech-heavy places like Silicon Valley, but the West also happens to be chock-full of smaller colleges where the liberal arts — that is, the study of classical academic fields like the humanities and natural sciences — prove key to success in all kinds of academic and career endeavors.

Ranking Methodology:

To find the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the West, we started by considering only those colleges in the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. There are far more than 30 liberal arts colleges in the West, 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 West based on their average 20-year net return on investment, as decided by PayScale.

1. Harvey Mudd College

Claremont, California


20-year Net ROI: $962,000
Harvey Mudd College is a top liberal arts college that excels in science, engineering, and mathematics. As the school's mission states, "Harvey Mudd College seeks to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematics well versed in …the humanities and the social sciences. . . ." Such a mission is important to the school's tradition of "science with a conscience." Harvey Mudd has been included in a number of national rankings, including those by Money (79th best college in the country), Forbes (59th best college in the country), and U.S. News & World Report (21st best liberal arts college).

2. Claremont McKenna College

Claremont, California


20-year Net ROI: $514,000
Claremont McKenna College is one of the seven private liberal arts colleges comprising the prestigious Claremont Colleges consortium. This connection makes it possible for Claremont McKenna students to cross-register in classes at the other member schools, thus tailoring their education. According to U.S. News & World Report, Claremont McKenna is the 8th best liberal arts college in the nation, while Forbes has the school ranked 31st on its list of the best colleges and universities in America.

3. Gonzaga University

Spokane, Washington


20-year Net ROI: $392,000
Gonzaga University, located in Spokane, Washington, is a selective liberal arts university ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 4th best school in the West. Gonzaga employs a core curriculum that is especially strong in the liberal arts, and includes classes in mathematics, literature, natural and social sciences, philosophy and religious studies, and writing. Besides U.S. News & World Report, Gonzaga has been ranked amongst the best schools in the country by Forbes, The Princeton Review, and Fiske.

4. Pomona College

Claremont, California


20-year Net ROI: $375,000
Established in 1887 as one of the founding members of the Claremont Colleges consortium, Pomona College is today considered one of the best liberal arts schools in the country. Pomona itself offers more than 48 majors and 600 classes, and students are able to cross-register at any of the other schools in the consortium. Students can also choose to design their own major. Though the variety of classes included in Pomona's core curriculum makes it a liberal arts college, it's interesting to note that the college's most popular majors include computer science, economics, mathematics, and neuroscience. In 2015, Forbes named Pomona College the best liberal arts school in the nation.

5. Loyola Marymount University

Los Angeles, California


20-year Net ROI: $371,000
Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit-affiliated liberal arts college located in Los Angeles, has a long history of excellence in education. The university is comprised of seven schools, including Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, and students from every school and major complete a core curriculum that focuses on the humanities and sciences. Loyola Marymount consistently ranks among the very best schools in the country by such publications as U.S. News & World Report (3rd best university in the West), The Wall Street Journal (110th best college in the country), and Forbes (150th best college in the country), to name but a few.

6. University of San Diego

San Diego, California


20-year Net ROI: $330,000
Perched atop a hill in San Diego, California is University of San Diego, a private liberal arts college associated with the Roman Catholic church. The university offers more than 40 baccalaureate degrees, though each student, whether majoring in nursing or the arts, receives an education solidly built on the core principles of the liberal arts and sciences. University of San Diego is consistently ranked among the best colleges and programs in the nation by publications such U.S. News & World Report, PayScale, Princeton Review, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Forbes, among others.

7. Mount Saint Mary's University

Los Angeles, California


20-year Net ROI: $261,000
Mount Saint Mary's University is a women's college located in Los Angeles. The university does a great job of attracting and admitting first-generation college students to its freshmen class. Additionally, more than three-quarters of the whole student body is made up of minority students. Students pursue a well-rounded, liberal arts core curriculum before choosing from more than 30 majors. Mount St. Mary's University is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 23rd best university in the West.

8. Point Loma Nazarene University

San Diego, California


20-year Net ROI: $218,000
Point Loma Nazarene University is a gorgeous liberal arts school located right on the beach in San Diego, California. As a true liberal arts university, Point Loma Nazarene's mission is to education students "as whole people." This includes a well-rounded core curriculum, plus more than 60 options for pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. Point Loma Nazarene is currently included in U.S. News & World Report's rankings of the best universities in the West (#17) and Best Value Schools (#24).

9. Thomas Aquinas College

Santa Paula, California


20-year Net ROI: $208,000
Students at Thomas Aquinas College spend four years among the beautiful hills of Santa Paula, California while receiving a top notch liberal arts education. Thomas Aquinas College's curriculum is based almost entirely on the Great Books of the Western Heritage, and students read only from primary sources — that is, works by people like Homer, Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid, St. Augustine, Descartes, and Newton in their entireties. Upon graduation, students receive a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts.

10. Occidental College

Los Angeles, California


20-year Net ROI: $205,000
Occidental College in Los Angeles is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges on the West Coast, so it should come as no surprise that it is also one of the best. Occidental has a strong liberal arts tradition in part because of its unique three-part core curriculum. Before pursuing one of 33 available majors, students must complete two writing seminars, a set of geography courses, a language class, three math and science courses, and a pre-1800s history class. Whatever the reason for its success, Occidental is indeed successful. It has produced more than 10 Rhodes Scholars and is almost always included on lists of the best colleges and universities.

11. Concordia University — Irvine

Irvine, California


20-year Net ROI: $198,000
Concordia University in Irvine, California is a private Christian college associated with the Lutheran Church. The university is comprised of five schools, including a Christian seminary, a School of Education, and a School of Arts and Sciences. Students can choose from 20 undergraduate majors, or 50 specializations that include three different nursing programs. The university has an especially strong master's program, which The Chronicle of Higher Education hailed as "one of the fastest growing private nonprofit master's universities" in the country.

12. George Fox University

Newberg, Oregon


20-year Net ROI: $198,000
George Fox University is a private liberal arts college located in Newberg, Oregon. Founded in 1885 as a school for Quakers, the university now offers bachelor's degrees in nearly 40 majors. Interestingly, George Fox participates in the Richter Scholars program, in which 15-25 students per year are chosen to conduct original research in an area of interest. The university has been included on a number of rankings, including U.S. News & World Report's list of the best colleges in the West, as well as Kiplinger's Personal Finance's lists of the top Christian Schools and the "Best Value" schools in the country.

13. Linfield College

McMinnville, Oregon


20-year Net ROI: $190,000
Linfield College, a private liberal arts school located in McMinnville, Oregon, is well-known for its strong and well-rounded curriculum. No matter their choice of major, students take a variety of general education courses, and can even become involved in faculty-led research projects as undergraduates. Linfield College is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 128th best liberal arts college in the country.

14. Scripps College

Claremont, California


20-year Net ROI: $179,000
Like the other colleges making up the Claremont Colleges consortium, Scripps College is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the West. This all-women's liberal arts school offers students a number of majors to choose from, the most popular of which include art, biology, economics, English, French, math, politics, and psychology. Regardless of major, all students must complete some classes in the humanities, including at least one course in each of the following: women's/gender studies; fine arts; letters; and foreign language. Students must also complete a senior thesis or project before graduating. Scripps is currently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 23rd best liberal arts college in America.

15. Fresno Pacific University

Fresno, California


20-year Net ROI: $166,000
Fresno Pacific University is a private liberal arts school associated with Christian education and founded by the Mennonite Brethren Churches. The university aims to develop "students for leadership and service through excellence in higher education," which it does by offering bachelor's degrees in 29 fields and 60 areas of study. Fresno Pacific University is currently ranked the 26th best school in the Western United States by U.S. News & World Report.

16. Whitworth University

Spokane, Washington


20-year Net ROI: $160,000
Whitworth University, located in Spokane, Washington, is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian church. Students can choose from more than 100 undergraduate majors, each of which requires a number of classes anchored in the liberal arts. To complement their chosen program of study, students are encouraged to take part in experiences such as studying abroad, internships, service learning, or research projects.

17. Whitman College

Walla Walla, Washington


20-year Net ROI: $147,000
Students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington spend the vast majority of their undergraduate careers immersed in the liberal arts. This valuable immersion begins in the freshman year when students take the two-semester Encounters course that acts as a solid base in the liberal arts. From there, students can choose from the list of 48 majors, or decide to design their own study program. Whitman has been ranked by Forbes as the 53rd best university in the nation, and by U.S. News & World Report as the 41st best liberal arts college in America.

18. Willamette University

Salem, Oregon


20-year Net ROI: $145,000
Founded in 1842, Willamette University is the oldest university in the western United States. It's also one of the best liberal arts colleges in the region. Willamette's College of Liberal Arts offers a strong base of liberal education, and gives students unique opportunities to design their own courses of study, publish papers, and conduct research. Currently, U.S. News & World Report has Willamette ranked as the 72nd best liberal arts college in the United States, while Washington Monthly has ranked it as the 42nd best American liberal arts college.

19. Reed College

Portland, Oregon


20-year Net ROI: $143,000
Students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon receive one of the best liberal arts colleges in the western United States. As part of the core curriculum, each ‘Reedie' completes a humanities program that consists of courses such as Introduction to Western Humanities, Early Modern Europe, Modern Humanities, and Foundations of Chinese Civilization. Reed College has produced more than 90 Fulbright Scholars, 67 Watson Fellows, 3 MacArthur Fellows, and 32 Rhodes Scholars. The school is currently ranked the 52nd best college in the country by Forbes, while Newsweek declared it to be one of the 25 "new Ivies" back in 2006.

20. Evergreen State College

Olympia, Washington


20-year Net ROI: $108,000
Evergreen State College was founded in 1967 as an experiment in non-traditional education. Considering this public liberal arts college consistently ranks among the very best in the nation in categories ranging from the best first-year experiences to the best master's degree programs for teaching, we'd say the experiment has been a success.

21. Colorado College

Colorado Springs, Colorado


20-year Net ROI: $100,000
Colorado College, a beautiful liberal arts college located in Colorado Springs, has been ranked the 24th best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News & World Report. That same publication declared Colorado College the 2nd most innovative liberal arts college in recognition of the school's "curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology, and facilities." Speaking of curriculum, Colorado College follows a unique block plan in which students study only a single subject for an intensive three-and-a-half week period.

22. Mills College

Oakland, California


20-year Net ROI: $97,100
Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mills College is a women's liberal arts school with a strong tradition in academic excellence. The college offers more than 60 majors and minors, and besides the usual liberal arts degrees in the humanities, students can choose to major in nursing, psychology, or biology, among others. Mills consistently ranks among the best schools in the country. Most recently, U.S. News & World Report included it on its lists of best universities in the West (#5) and Best Value Schools (#1).

23. Pitzer College

Claremont, California


20-year Net ROI: $85,000
Considered to be one of the "West Coast Ivy-League" equivalent schools, Pitzer College was an easy addition to our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West. As part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, Pitzer allows its students to cross-register in classes at Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pomona, and Scripps — all liberal arts schools that are also included on our list. Pitzer excels in fields relating to social and behavioral sciences, and is currently ranked #32 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the country's best liberal arts colleges.

24. Prescott College

Prescott, Arizona


20-year Net ROI: $29,000
Prescott College is a unique private liberal arts college located in Prescott, Arizona. The school — which operates under the motto "For the Liberal Arts, the Environment, and Social Justice" — offers its 1,200 students the choice of three Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees (creative writing, visual arts, and interdisciplinary arts & letters), or a Bachelor of Arts or Science in Environmental Studies. The latter is especially popular, a fact that is hardly surprising when you consider that nearly all of Prescott's environmentally friendly campus consists of buildings that have been recycled or converted from their original purposes.

25. George Wythe University

Salt Lake City, Utah


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
George Wythe University is a private liberal arts college that focuses on classical education and Great Books of the Western World. The university does not operate like most schools on this list. Rather, classes are conducted using the Socratic seminar style and the Oxford tutorial model — meaning learning is more discussion-based. Currently, George Wythe offers a Bachelor of Arts in Statesmanship, and in case you're wondering, the school is named after George Wythe, mentor to Thomas Jefferson.

26. Gutenberg College

Eugene, Oregon


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
Like George Whyte University above, Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon has a liberal arts curriculum focused on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. Rather than traditional classes, students study with tutors at a round table discussion — a method of learning similar to the Oxford style. To earn Gutenberg's one degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, students complete two years each of classical Greek, German, mathematics (ancient and modern), Great Books of the Western Civilization, and Great Conversation; four years of Microexegesis (reading of difficult texts); and a number of classes in art and the natural sciences.

27. Imago Dei College

Oak Glen, California


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
Imago Dei College is a liberal arts school and an Evangelical Classical Christian institution. Like other schools on our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West, Imago Dei has a curriculum that focuses on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. As part of this unique core, students read — in chronological order — dozens of classic primary sources from the subjects of theology, philosophy, mathematics, science, history, literature, language arts, and even physical education. Students graduate from Imago Dei with a degree in Classical Liberal Arts as well as their choice of a degree in theology, philosophy, history, and literature.

28. Soka University of America

Aliso Viejo, California


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
Soka University of America, located in Aliso Viejo, California, is associated with the much larger Soka University of Japan. Both universities are liberal arts colleges that focus on the principles of pacifism, human rights, and the co-existence of humans and nature. Unlike the traditional American university, Soka University of America offers just one degree — a Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts — though students choose to "track" or focus in either environmental studies, humanities, international studies, or social & behavioral sciences. Interestingly, Soka was the first liberal arts university in the country to require its students to study abroad at some point before graduation.

29. St. John's College

Santa Fe, New Mexico


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
Like many other top liberal arts colleges, St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico has a core curriculum that focuses on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. Like the 17th century King William's School, students at this top liberal arts college work towards a bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts by reading and discussing the most acclaimed works of western civilization. St. John's is currently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 83rd best liberal arts college in the country.

30. United States Air Force Academy

Colorado Springs, Colorado


20-year Net ROI: No data listed
Some may be surprised to see the United States Air Force Academy on a list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West, but sure enough, this prestigious institution has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 32nd best liberal arts college in the country. All cadets must complete the same humanities-heavy core curriculum, after which they can choose a specialized field of study from more than 30 majors. While pursuing academics, cadets also participate in four years of training and athletics.