Big universities and well-known liberal arts colleges on the two coasts might command most of the attention, but for those students seeking a quality liberal arts education in a familiar setting, there's no need to look further than the Midwest.
To find the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, we started by considering only those colleges in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
There are far more than 30 liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, 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 Midwest based on their average 20-year net return on investment, as decided by PayScale.
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
20-Year Net ROI: $430,000
Prestigious Washington University in St. Louis is a great option for those students who want both an urban college experience and a liberal arts education. Seven undergraduate and graduate schools offer students an impressive number of degree choices, many of which are in areas directly relating to the liberal arts. Impressively, Washington University in St. Louis has produced 25 Nobel laureates, and is ranked #20 on the 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Kansas City, Missouri
20-Year Net ROI: $352,000
Prestigious Rockhurst University is a private liberal arts college which aims to provide its students with "Learning, Leadership, and Service in the Jesuit Tradition." Rockhurst consistently makes the rankings of the best colleges in the country, including those done by Forbes and U.S. News & World Report. Its reputation as one of the best liberal arts colleges in America has to do in large part with its rigorous academics. Before choosing from more than 50 degree programs, students must complete a well-designed core curriculum meant to expose students to a variety of subjects.
20-Year Net ROI: $291,000
DePauw University is a well-respected liberal arts college located in Indiana. DePauw's 4-1-4 calendar allows students to participate in a four-week Winter Term class as part of the college's mission to provide student's with a well-rounded education. Students are encouraged to take classes both inside and outside of their major, while also participating in extracurricular programs such as study abroad or team sports. U.S. News & World Report almost always includes DePauw University among the very top liberal arts colleges in the country, while Forbes has included it as the 2nd best college in Indiana (after Notre Dame) and the 14th best in the Midwest.
Truman State University
20-Year Net ROI: $241,000 (in-state); $217,000 (out-of-state)
Truman State University is one of the few public liberal arts schools to make our list. As a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, Truman offers its students 48 undergraduate degrees and eight graduate degrees. Truman's curriculum is carefully organized into three tenets of the liberal arts — essential skills, modes of inquiry, and interconnecting perspectives — and every student must complete a set of classes that include critical thinking, public speaking, history, and literature, among others.
20-Year Net ROI: $232,000
Carleton College is a well-respected liberal arts college located in Northfield, Minnesota. Carleton, which is one of the few liberal arts colleges to run on a trimester system, offers more than 30 undergraduate majors, including its top-ranked program for education. Students may also design their own major, or earn a Certificate of Advanced Study in Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Latin, or Greek. Carleton is almost always included on "top colleges" lists and is highly selective when it comes to admitting applicants. Since 2000, Carleton has produced over 120 National Science Graduate Fellows, 112 Fulbright Scholars, 20 NCAA Postgraduate Scholars, 13 Goldwater Scholars, 2 Rhodes Scholars, and 22 Watson Fellows.
William Jewell College
20-Year Net ROI: $232,000
William Jewell College is a small liberal arts college with a population of just over 1,000 students. Though it was founded by members of the Missouri Baptist Convention, the college is now an independent institution and one of the top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Honors students at William Jewell have the unique opportunity to take part in the Oxbridge Honors Program, during which they take English-style tutorials throughout their degree program, study abroad at either Oxford or Cambridge, and complete their senior year after passing comprehensive exams.
Illinois Wesleyan University
20-Year Net ROI: $228,000
Illinois Wesleyan University offers its students an entire College of Liberal Arts (along with colleges of fine arts and nursing) through which they can obtain a liberal arts education. In that College are 17 different departments and classes, each with an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. Students wishing to pursue the liberal arts at Illinois Wesleyan can be sure that they are a part of the university's mission to "foster the traditional liberal arts of creativity, character, and knowledge."
20-Year Net ROI: $219,000
Denison University was founded in Granville, Ohio in 1831, which makes it the state's second-oldest liberal arts college. As a private liberal arts college, Denison offers a number of undergraduate majors, while also offering students the opportunity to create their own. Technology-minded applicants in search of a liberal arts education will also be happy to know that Denison is one of the few liberal arts schools to offer a major in data analytics. Denison is ranked among Forbes's 100 best universities in the nation, while U.S. News & World Report and Washington Monthly both include Denison on their lists of the country's best liberal arts colleges.
20-Year Net ROI: $194,000
Wheaton College, located in Wheaton, Illinois, has a long and impressive history that includes being a one-time stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, it's one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation and has been recognized for its two traditions of academics and faith. Time Magazine ranked it the 20th best liberal arts college, while U.S. News & World Report and Forbes also include Wheaton on their respective lists. Wheaton College is also one of the schools included in Loren Pope's "Colleges That Change Lives" book.
20-Year Net ROI: $184,000
Albion College is a private liberal arts school located in rural Michigan and affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Albion's curriculum includes 30 undergraduate majors, including pre-professional programs in engineering, medicine, and law. The college is consistently included on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best liberal arts colleges and Forbes's list of America's Top Colleges.
University of Evansville
20-Year Net ROI: $169,000
University of Evansville is a small private university of about 2,500 students. This unique institution is perhaps best known for its prestigious theater department, though its poetry and literature programs are also known internationally and have each produced various books and anthologies. Interestingly, University of Evansville also has a sister school in Grantham, England called Harlaxton College, where many of Evansville's students take the opportunity to study abroad.
20-Year Net ROI: $155,000
Prestigious Kenyon College is so serious about the liberal arts, students are required to complete a series of classes in the Fine Arts, Humanities, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences. Kenyon was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 27th best liberal arts college in the country, while Forbes and Newsweek also included it on their lists of the best American colleges.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
20-Year Net ROI: $150,000
Augustana University is a liberal arts school with a proud Norwegian heritage. It's affiliated with the Lutheran Church and is even named for one of Lutheranism's founding documents, the Augsburg Confession. Students at Augustana have the choice of more than 50 fields of study, plus several pre-professional programs. Consistent with a liberal arts education, Augustana encourages its students to become involved in extracurricular activities such as musical programs or athletics. Augustana is consistently ranked among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest by publications such as The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.
20-Year Net ROI: $147,000
Yet another Midwestern liberal arts college featured in Loren Pope's "Colleges That Change Lives" is Kalamazoo College, a private liberal arts college located in Michigan. Affectionately referred to as K, the college ranks among the top schools for producing graduates who go on to pursue doctorate degrees. It has also been ranked by Forbes as one of the America's Best Colleges, and in 2012 was called the best private college in Michigan.
St. Paul, Minnesota
20-Year Net ROI: $147,000
Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, has been providing students with a quality liberal arts education since it was founded in 1874. Its approximately 2,000 students come from all over the world to enjoy the top-notch curriculum. Indeed, Macalester was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 23rd best liberal arts college in America, while Forbes called it the 68th best college in the country. Macalester has also been included on "best of" lists by Washington Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others.
20-Year Net ROI: $142,000
Social responsibility is a major focus at Grinnell College, a private liberal arts college located in Iowa. Known for its rigorous academics, Grinnell encourages students to take control of their education throughout their college career. First year students are required to take a seminar covering writing skills and various methods of inquiry and analysis. Once completed, students choose the remainder of their classes with the guidance of a counselor in the area of their chosen major.
St. Olaf College
20-Year Net ROI: $131,000
St. Olaf College was founded in 1874 by a group of Norwegian immigrants. Today it is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. St. Olaf's impressive reputation is due in part to its curriculum. Before graduating, students must complete a series of foundation courses in subjects such as writing, speech, a foreign language, mathematical reasoning, Biblical studies, literature, and more. In 2017, St. Olaf was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 53rd best liberal arts college in the nation, while also making Washington Monthly's list as #88.
20-Year Net ROI: $117,000
Thanks to its location between two Michigan lakes, beautiful Hope College is often included amongst the country's most beautiful collegiate institutions. Hope also happens to be one of the premiere liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Hope students have their choice of nearly 100 majors, and each student participates in a core curriculum deeply rooted in Christian faith. The college also offers its students the unique opportunity to take part in off-campus study programs in places like Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Philadelphia.
20-Year Net ROI: $113,000
Lawrence University, located in Appleton, Wisconsin, has the unique distinction of being both a liberal arts college and a music conservatory. While cooperative degree programs in engineering, environmental studies, and health sciences are offered, most Lawrence students choose to major in a liberal arts discipline. Students are even given the opportunity to design their own majors. Regardless of their ultimate degree, every Lawrence freshman is required to take a series of core classes focusing on the Great Books.
Mt. Vernon, Iowa
20-Year Net ROI: $109,000
Cornell College is a private liberal arts school located in Iowa. Uniquely, students at Cornell College study only one course at a time, each of which lasts approximately three-and-a-half weeks. This intensive "block plan" results in an entire semester's worth of a class being covered in few than 18 class days — but don't worry, there is a four day break between each "block." Classes at Cornell average 10-19 students, and the most popular majors include economics, history, and psychology.
College of Wooster
20-Year Net ROI: $102,000
The College of Wooster is a top-ranked liberal arts college located in Wooster, Ohio. The college is well known for its unique curriculum that emphasizes mentored research and independent study. To pursue the latter, students work one-on-one with an advisor to complete a thesis or project over the course of senior year. According to tradition, students turn in their projects and receive a yellow "I did it!" button and a Tootsie Roll. U.S. News & World Report ranked Wooster's independent study program as the second best "senior capstone experience" in the nation. College of Wooster is almost always included on lists of the top colleges, and is also one of Loren Pope's "colleges that change lives."
20-Year Net ROI: $89,800
Luther College in Iowa is a private liberal arts school which was founded as a Lutheran seminary and is today associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The college is home to just under 2,500 students, each of whom can choose from an impressive list of liberal arts majors. The college also has an impressive music program, with various student organizations that tour and sell their recordings worldwide.
20-Year Net ROI: $82,100
Founded in 1833, Oberlin College in Ohio happens to be the oldest co-ed liberal arts school in the country. Therefore, it shouldn't be too surprising that it makes our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Oberlin students can choose from more than 50 majors, plus myriad options for minors and concentrations. Oberlin is also home to an impressive music conservatory.
20-Year Net ROI: $76,800
Moorhead, Minnesota's Concordia College was founded in 1891 by Norwegian settlers. Today, the private liberal arts college is well known for its unique curriculum that focuses on a "Christian and global perspective." Students may choose from 61 majors and 12 pre-professional programs, while also taking required courses in health, communication, religion, and culture. Interestingly, Concordia is one of 20 U.S. institutions to send students overseas as part of the Open Doors program. Because music remains a crucial part of the liberal arts education, Concordia hosts a whopping 19 musical ensembles, including The Concordia Choir and The Concordia Band.
20-Year Net ROI: $66,800
Drury University, located in Springfield, Missouri, is a private school that consistently ranks among the very best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Drury students have the choice of 54 undergraduate majors, plus professional degrees in architecture, business administration, and education. In addition to its inclusion on a number of best colleges lists, Drury was Time Magazine's Honorable Mention for Best Liberal Arts School in the Nation, as well as one of 13 "Institutions of Excellence" named by the Policy Center.
20-Year Net ROI: $62,600
Founded by the Religious Society of Friends in 1847, Earlham College remains rooted in strong Quaker values — all of which complement well a liberal arts education. This is likely one of many reasons that Earlham was chosen to be included amongst the "Colleges That Change Lives." Earlham is an especially excellent choice of school for those looking to pursue post-graduate studies. Currently, the college is ranked in the 98th percentile for those looking to receive Ph.D.s, and the 99th percentile for producing students wishing to obtain Ph.D.s specifically in the biological sciences.
20-Year Net ROI: $7,100
Besides being one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, Beloit College is the oldest continuously operated college in Wisconsin. In the 1960s, the college adopted the Beloit Plan, a unique curriculum that emphasizes experiential learning, learner agency, and learning experiences both in and out of the classroom. The current curriculum retains much of that original plan, and as such, each class averages only 10-15 students. Currently, Beloit College is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 62nd best liberal arts college in the United States. Forbes and Washington Monthly also include Beloit on their lists of top colleges, as does Loren Pope in his classic book "Colleges That Change Lives."
20-Year Net ROI: No data available
Finlandia University is a private college associated with the Lutheran Church. As the only private school located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Finlandia has the distinction of offering its students both a quality liberal arts education and a stunning setting in which to study. Because of its Lutheran affiliation, Finlandia's curriculum, community, and campus events all explore the Lutheran tenets of service, faith, and vocation.
20-Year Net ROI: No data available
Founded in 1844, Hillsdale College is consistently ranked amongst the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Students from all over the country are drawn to Hillsdale's unique classical curriculum which requires each student, regardless of major, to complete courses in the Western and American Heritages, Great Books, and the Constitution. Interestingly, Hillsdale does not accept federal financial support, and instead provides its students with private financial assistance directly from the institution.
North Central College
Historic North Central College is another private liberal arts college to make our list of the best in the Midwest. Students here have almost 70 undergraduate majors from which to choose. The college also has a School of Graduate and Professional Studies. Besides the general core, all students must take a religion course, plus seminars on leadership, ethics, and values. North Central is consistently included on lists of the best colleges by Forbes and U.S. News & World Report, and is almost always recognized as a top producer of Fulbright Scholars.