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Staff Writers
Updated March 24, 2021

Are you ready to find your fit?

Welcome to our Best Value Small Colleges Ranking Series. In this series, you will find rankings of the top small colleges across a wide range of subjects. Each ranking highlights a different academic program; for example: business or sociology.

The Value of Small Colleges

Our methodology for these articles focused specifically on identifying the "best value" degrees at relatively small colleges and universities. The goal was to recognize the programs that are both affordable and reputable, where students don't have to be rich to enjoy rich academic experiences.

Of course, there are schools of all shapes and sizes that fit that description. But in general, small colleges represent a distinct approach to higher education, and they provide opportunities that large research universities simply do not. In place of huge athletic programs, they offer intimate, discussion-based classes. Instead of thousand-acre campuses, they offer one-on-one attention from faculty. As opposed to a laundry list of majors and minors, they feature creative, individualized study options.

The Ranking Methodology

The point is, small colleges are worth a ranking all their own. Therefore, we only considered schools that enroll, at most, 3,000 undergraduates each year (note that total enrollment - including graduate students - may exceed that number).

General Criteria

To get on our "short list" of contenders, each college also had to meet a few other criteria:

  • They had to be 4-year public or private non-profit institutions; no for-profits allowed!
  • They had to have full-fledged bachelor's programs; this meant no community colleges or other schools offering "primarily associate's degrees."
  • They had to offer traditional academic programming; online-only colleges were disqualified.

In addition, we set our search threshold to only return schools that admit a maximum 60% of applicants each year. This criterion served as a first-line filter and allowed us to quickly narrow the list of eligible colleges down to those that are at least moderately selective.

Academic Breadth

From this point, the methodology diverges depending on the academic program of interest. The requirements that we implemented for each degree ranking varied according to the overall number of qualifying programs and the average size/scope of the academic area. (For example, the average business department includes several different majors and concentrations, while the same is not true for a niche liberal arts degree like sociology.)

That being said, we followed the same general guidelines for each ranking so as to be consistent in our approach. For each degree article, we started by compiling a list of all the eligible schools that offer a program in that area (e.g. English). We then extended our search to include related majors and minors (e.g. Creative Writing, Literature, Language Arts) that are likely to appeal to the same type of student. Next, we identified the colleges that, according to our search results, had the most comprehensive programs (greatest number of related majors) in the desired subject area. We were able to query all of this data automatically using College Navigator, the National Center for Education Statistics' online database.

Academic Depth

To verify the quality of our selection, we then vetted each and every one of these "top" programs individually. We looked through each school's website, making note of the actual degree options available to undergraduates and distinguishing different types of programs (i.e. full-fledged majors vs. minors, certificates, and concentrations). We also took note of special initiatives, such as accelerated or combined bachelor's/master's degrees. At the end of this process, we usually had a much better understanding of where to draw the line between average programs and the truly exceptional ones.

Student Support

The penultimate step was then to create a cut-off threshold that would determine our final selection of best value small colleges. To narrow our selection to the top 5 to 50 schools (depending on how many total eligible programs we had considered), we eliminated any programs with six-year graduation rates below a certain percentage (typically 50%). Although graduation rates are not specific to any one degree, they provide an overall indication of academic support and student success on campus and are often an important factor in college rankings.


Now with our official list of top colleges in hand, we sorted the finalists by their net price. Net price, as defined by College Navigator,

"is generated by subtracting the average amount of federal, state/local government, or institutional grant or scholarship aid from the total cost of attendance. Total cost of attendance is the sum of published tuition and required fees, books and supplies, and the weighted average for room and board and other expenses."

It is therefore important to note that net price is not the same as tuition, and the amount any individual pays will vary based on financial aid package and personal living costs.

The Best Value Small Colleges for…

In all of the small college rankings, we arranged the top programs in descending order of price, from most to least expensive. Each article also includes more detailed methodology information, including the specific academic programs we considered for each degree.

To read more about a particular subject, click on any of the best value small college degree rankings below:

Computer Science & Technology
Language & Culture Studies
Mathematics & Natural Sciences
Philosophy & Religion
Social Sciences
Visual & Performing Arts

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