By BVS Staff
The United States is home to thousands and thousands of postsecondary educational institutions. Big and small, young and old, public and private, liberal and conservative – there really is something for everyone. In conducting your college search, you may find yourself drawn to small colleges with only a few thousand students on campus. And who could blame you? Although these schools might lack the powerful athletic programs and extensive research capabilities of large universities, they also share a special set of perks. At a small college, you’re more likely to make friends with your classmates and get to know your professors personally. You’re more likely to get the individual attention you need and take on positions of importance in student organizations. And for shy or socially anxious students, a small college can provide a comfortable, friendly alternative to the daunting crowds of 20,000+ that they’d find swarming the nation’s largest campuses.
If you’re leaning in this direction, take a look at our ranking of the best small colleges in the U.S. We’ve selected our top 50 choices based on multiple measures of academic quality – and as always, we factored in cost to ensure that our recommendations are sensitive to the financial needs of a wide range of students.
In order to populate an initial list of small colleges to consider for this ranking, we turned to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS. Using their interactive database, we generated a list of colleges and universities that:
- Are academic institutions of degree-granting status
- Are within the category of “four or more year” colleges offering primarily baccalaureate degrees and above
- Have a total student body numbering 4,000 students or fewer
This original set of criteria produced a list of over 1,000 schools for consideration. We then filtered the results in order to eliminate obvious “non-contenders,” including but not limited to: colleges that offer only graduate degrees, primarily community colleges, seminaries, institutions devoted solely to rabbinical studies, and non-U.S. institutions (namely Puerto Rican universities). Now with a list of just under 1,000, we assessed each institution against a series of carefully chosen indicators*. These were as follows:
Net Price (Weighted 20%): Unlike tuition, “net price” represents an approximate annual cost of attendance that takes a variety of financial factors into account. Each school’s net price is the result of a formula that takes the total cost of attendance (published in-state tuition costs + required fees + books and supplies + weighted average for room and board + miscellaneous expenses) and subtracts the average financial aid package (federal + state/local + institutional grants + scholarship aid) at each university. Net price is only an approximation of cost and does not represent an exact amount that any one student might be expected to pay. However, it is an ideal figure to use for ranking colleges because it is helpful in accurately assessing institutions’ affordability relative to each other.
Retention Rate (Weighted 30%): Retention rate represents the percentage of full-time, undergraduate students who return to the university for a second year. As such, it is an early indication of student satisfaction. Schools with high retention rates provide the resources, student support services, and early academic experiences that make students eager to come back for more.
Graduation Rate (Weighted 30%): Graduation rate represents the percentage of full-time students who complete their degree within 150% of “normal time,” or six years for a bachelor’s degree that typically takes four. People who transfer out are included in this figure, which means that the percentage of those not graduating in six years refers specifically to students who drop out and do not earn a degree at all in this period of time. Schools with high graduation rates demonstrate a commitment to their students’ long-term success. They are also generally superior at maintaining an academic environment that is simultaneously challenging, engaging, and rewarding.
Class Size (Weighted 20%): Small colleges tend to have smaller class sizes, and students who want to attend schools of this type are often looking to benefit from a more intimate, less intimidating campus environment. For the purposes of this ranking, “Class Size” refers to the percentage of classes at each school with fewer than 20 students. A high percentage indicates that overall, students at the institution are more likely to enjoy frequent classroom discussions, get to know their classmates, and forge personal relationships with professors.
*Data for the first three categories came from College Navigator, an online resource maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics. We used the most recent data available, which in most cases was for the 2013-2014 school year. For graduation rates, the data came from students who began their studies in 2008 and – if successfully finishing within 150% of normal time – would have graduated by 2014. Data for “Class Size” came from U.S. News, which provides a breakdown for each school based on the percentage of classes with fewer than 20 students, 20 to 49 students, and 50 or more students. This information is listed under the “Academic Life” tab on each college’s profile and is based on 2014 data.
After rating each school according to the above indicators, we combined and weighted the results to give each college a total score out of 200. You can see the 50 with the overall highest scores below, listed in ascending order of performance. Read through at your leisure or scroll right to the bottom to see our number one pick for best small college!
50. Barnard College
New York, NY
Far and away the most selective women’s college in the country, Barnard College is renowned both as an “independently incorporated educational institution” as well as an “official college of Columbia.” This unique affiliation with one of the most prestigious universities in the world makes Barnard a gem among smaller colleges, as students can enroll in any course at either institution. Barnard’s longstanding relationship with Columbia also makes it the only women’s college with NCAA Division I athletics. Outside of this relationship, Barnard still holds its own as one of the best small colleges around; its 9 Ways of Knowing Program, for instance, grounds students in a rigorous liberal core encompassing laboratory science, cultural and social studies, literature, foreign language, and more.
Net Price: $21,791/yr
49. Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, PA
Like Barnard, Bryn Mawr College is another small women’s college connected to a greater co-educational resource. Except, where Barnard students can only take courses at one other college, ladies at Bryn Mawr benefit from the Tri-College Consortium, which includes Swarthmore (also on this list) and Haverford College. But with nearly 70% of classes featuring 20 students or less, Bryn Mawr students aren’t dying to study anywhere else. This top small college is also noted for its Praxis program, an experiential learning initiative that allows students to take courses that are engaged with community affairs. Features of this program include opportunities for museum curation assignments, curriculum development at local schools, and field trips.
Net Price: $32,285/yr
48. Grinnell College
With the third-highest ranking for economic diversity (US News, 2014) and a 90% graduation rate, Grinnell College is among the best small colleges for disadvantaged students. But the way they achieved this goal is not what you might expect: Grinnell’s “open curriculum” features virtually no course-specific graduation requirements whatsoever. The only required course is the First-Year Tutorial, a semester-long seminar that emphasizes critical thinking, writing skills, and methods of inquiry. The ambitious students at Grinnell use this academic freedom as an opportunity to explore their own interests more deeply and develop real knowledge they can actually use after graduation.
Net Price: $24,896/yr
47. Augustana College
Rock Island, IL
Based on the number of graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.’s, little Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois is actually among the best small colleges for science education in the country. On Augustana’s 115-acre campus, tucked away in the hilly woodlands alongside the Mississippi River, students can study from among 90 distinct academic disciplines, including pre-professional (dental, pre-med, business, pharmacology, etc.) and interdisciplinary (neuroscience, public health, environmental studies, etc.) programs. Yet for all it has to offer, 73% of Augustana classes features fewer than 20 students, making every course a personalized learning experience.
Net Price: $24,651/yr
46. Hamilton College
Hamilton College is another great example of the success of the “open curriculum” model of higher education. With a 96% retention rate and a 91% graduation rate, this top small college clearly demonstrates that students respond favorably to taking responsibility over their own educational trajectory. But Hamilton doesn’t stop there: bucking tradition even further, Hamilton has been SAT-optional since 2002, admitting students based on their personal—rather than numerical—attributes. And with a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio (and nearly a third of all classes featuring fewer than nine students), Hamilton guarantees that every student gets the attention they need to succeed.
Net Price: $22,392/yr
45. Davidson College
Davidson College is another trendsetter in higher education, being the first liberal arts college in the country to eliminate loans from their financial aid package. Rather than straddling financially-dependent students with up to 6-figure debt right after graduation, Davidson meets 100% of students’ demonstrated need through grants and/or work-study packages. But this is just one facet of Davidson’s idiosyncratic commitment to student development. Davidson also promotes a unique Honor Code that trusts students with unproctored exams and closed-book take-home assignments, relying solely on students’ integrity to follow the established guidelines. These programs help Davidson students develop into mature, thoughtful adults by treating them like partners rather than customers.
Net Price: $22,457/yr
44. Centre College
Centre College is probably best known for hosting the 2000 and 2012 Vice Presidential Debates—and being the smallest college in the smallest town to ever do so. What brought the debates to this tiny school in the middle of Kentucky? Well, with alumni including two US Vice Presidents, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 13 Senators, and 11 Governors, Centre has built something of a reputation as one of the best small colleges for producing political leaders. Perhaps that’s why nearly 85% of students at Centre study abroad in their permanent residential programs in England, France, and Mexico: to build acumen as an ambassador of their nation.
Net Price: $24,855/yr
43. Swarthmore College
Swarthmore is another member of the Tri-College Consortium including Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, but it’s probably better known as the #3 liberal arts college in the nation (according to U.S. News). With a 12% acceptance rate, Swarthmore is just as selective as its Ivy League competitors, and even offers an Oxford-tutorial style honors program to attract particularly serious candidates. In this prestigious program, 4-8 students participate in small seminar courses and produce three ten-page papers per semester, culminating in a 20-50 page senior thesis. Less verbose students may also be attracted to Swarthmore’s engineering and cognitive science programs, which are very rare for a school of its size.
Net Price: $22,557/yr
42. Massachusetts Maritime Academy
Buzzards Bay, MA
Originally established to graduate deck and engineering officers for the US Merchant Marine, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy is a military institution that provides students (or, rather, cadets) with an education of the whole person. Upon admittance, all students are inducted into the Regiment of Cadets, which features military-style hierarchy, duties, and physical training. Academically, student-cadets focus on maritime-related fields such as Marine Transportation, Facilities Engineering, and International Maritime Business. And although it is not required anymore, many graduates do in fact go on to active or reserve service in the US Armed Forces.
Net Price: $13,246/yr
41. Central Christian College of the Bible
Accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education and supported by the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, Central Christian College of the Bible was chartered to provide biblical instruction for service leaders around the world. Students primarily pursue biblical training in several core disciplines, such as Christian Education, Christian Ministries, and Preaching. However, students looking to enter the workforce can double-major and augment their biblical education with professional coursework in Health, Business/Web, Education, and/or Industry. In support of their mission for spreading the Gospel and creating Christian leaders, this affordable small college provides all students with a full scholarship to cover their tuition costs.
Net Price: $11,647/yr
40. Wellesley College
Boasting the largest endowment of any women’s college in the country as well as an impressive alumni roster including trailblazers such as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Diane Sawyer, Wellesley College is one of the best small colleges for women looking to make a name for themselves. Wellesley also boasts a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio (one of the best on this list) and a 500-acre campus located on Lake Waban surrounded by evergreen and deciduous forests and meadows. And like several of the other women’s colleges on our list, Wellesley is noted for allowing cross-registration at local institutions such as MIT, Brandeis, and Olin.
Net Price: $21,216/yr
39. Nebraska Wesleyan University
Founded by Methodists to bring the liberal arts to the rural Midwest, Nebraska Wesleyan University remains one of the best small colleges in the state to this day. Since the 19th century, however, Lincoln, Nebraska has grown into a mid-sized college town with a quarter of a million people, over 40,000 of whom are college students. This means not only great recreational opportunities for NWU students off campus, but also abundant internship and career opportunities in government, business, scientific research, education, arts, and more. Unlike other students in Lincoln, NWU students can retreat from city life to an intimate educational community where nearly 75% of all courses have fewer than 20 students.
Net Price: $20,987/yr
38. Colgate University
Ranked the most beautiful college campus in the country by the Princeton Review in 2010, Colgate University’s location in upstate New York is a 600-acre pastoral wonderland with another thousand acres or so of undeveloped woodlands also held by the university. Naturally drawn to the splendor of the outdoors, 80% of Colgate students participate in varsity, club, or intramural athletics. Plus, nearly all of them make regular use of the university’s outdoor education program, which rents out skiing, hiking, and camping equipment free of charge. If these kinds of amenities sound too good to be true, you wouldn’t be far off; Colgate’s wide appeal allows them to select only top candidates for admission, 92% of whom graduate within 4 years.
Net Price: $21,649/yr
37. Webb Institute
The Webb Institute is an undergraduate engineering college in Long Island whose reputation precedes it. With free tuition—or, rather, full scholarships for all admitted students—and a 100% job placement rate after graduation, there must be some kind of catch, right? Actually, there is: all graduates receive a BS in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Even if that sounds like your life calling, there’s stiff competition; Webb’s student body consists of about 90 students, around 10 of which are female at any given time. But if the statistics are any indication, this affordable small college serves these students well, even featuring a Winter Work semester every January and February for internships.
Net Price: $18,276/yr
36. McKendree University
Founded in 1828, McKendree University is technically the oldest college in the state of Illinois, even if the nearest major city is St. Louis (about a 25 minute drive). And with an accreditation by the North Central Association of the Higher Learning Commission that has endured since 1915, this top small college has a long heritage of providing mainstream education off the beaten path. In fact, McKendree’s 235-acre wooded campus in Lebanon holds just over 3,000 students yet contains nearly two-dozen academic fraternities and honor societies to satisfy nearly every intellectual curiosity imaginable.
Net Price: $17,572/yr
35. Washington and Lee University
Endowed with a gift from the first president of the U.S., Washington and Lee is another liberal arts college with a storied heritage. In fact, their Honor Code is a holdover from General Robert E. Lee’s presidency of the college, where he declared that Washington and Lee had “but one rule…that every student must be a gentleman.” Today, this Honor Code remains an integral part of the values and traditions of the college, and forbids lying, cheating, and stealing among other offenses. With this commitment to integrity and excellence, it’s no surprise that Washington and Lee is considered a top small college by every credible ranking organization.
Net Price: $20,700/yr
34. Haverford College
The third and final member of Pennsylvania’s Tri-College Consortium, Haverford has been mentioned several times in this list, albeit by name only. Surprisingly enough, Haverford is also a member of the Quaker Consortium, allowing students to cross-register at the University of Pennsylvania through the aptly named “Penn-Pal” program. And, like several schools listed before, Haverford abides by a strict honor code that allows students to schedule their own exams, and even governs social interactions through an emphasis of “trust, concern, and respect for other students.” What sets Haverford above comparable institutions, however, is its academic rigor, requiring all students in all majors to submit original research for a senior thesis.
Net Price: $22,409/yr
33. Elmhurst College
Affiliated with the United Church of Christ, Elmhurst College has a long-standing tradition of service-oriented learning. While students can expect a top-notch education at Elmhurst, they should also expect to spend a good portion of their time giving back to others in the local community. Today, the college maintains 14 student-led social action and service groups, including Habitat for Humanity, Best Buddies, Relay for Life, Global Poverty Club, and Autism Speaks. Students and faculty also support the local community through outreach programs like the Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy, which offers assistance for adult and disabled students, and Elmhurst Partners, which provides employee training and business consulting services for local businesses and organizations.
Net Price: $21,826/yr
32. Illinois Wesleyan University
At Illinois Wesleyan University, “knowledge and wisdom” isn’t merely a tagline, but a guarantee. This top small college features over 80 majors and concentrations in three academic departments: Liberal Arts, Fine Arts, and Nursing. Through an undivided commitment to academic studies, creative pursuits, and professional training, Illinois Wesleyan fosters a rare intellectual tradition that stretches all the way back to the early 19th century. And with an 11:1 student to faculty ratio and an average class size of just 17 students, Wesleyan’s guarantee is made good by individualized instruction at every level.
Net Price: $27,996/yr
31. Lawrence University
Featured in Loren Pope’s book, Colleges That Change Lives, Lawrence University is more than just another affordable small college. For one thing, Lawrence also houses a music conservatory, which a full quarter of the study body attends. The conservatory features two jazz ensembles, a symphony orchestra, and three choirs, among other musical groups. Lawrence is also considered a “Great Books” college, meaning that students are instructed to read primary source texts from the Western canon to augment their critical and historical thinking. But Lawrence takes this approach one step further in their Freshman Studies curriculum by coupling classics like the Odyssey and Plato’s Republic with contemporary, multi-cultural works.
Net Price: $30,938/yr
30. Bowdoin College
In 2010, Newsweek ranked Bowdoin College as the 6th best small college in the country, and it’s not hard to see why so many students are attracted to this rural liberal arts college. With Princeton Review’s #1 student dining services (a New York Times article described it as indistinguishable from a restaurant), Bowdoin’s 98% retention rate starts to make sense. Couple that with the largest student group in the school—the Outing Club—which organizes canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and backpacking trips around the state of Maine, and you get a college experience that is unlike any other.
Net Price: $22,289/yr
29. Dickinson College
Dickinson College may be one of the oldest schools in the country, but that doesn’t stop them from being one of the best small colleges in progressive sustainability and environmental research. Dickinson buys 100% of its electricity from wind sources, has solar panels on campus, and even owns and operates an organic farm and garden for student dining services. Dickinson’s emerging focus on eco-friendly practices has been coupled with the development of science and tech facilities on campus that have attracted students and faculty from around the globe. In fact, since the development of Tome Hall, a state-of-the-art, interdisciplinary science complex, Dickinson’s acceptance rate has become increasingly slim.
Net Price: $33,457/yr
28. Curtis Institute of Music
The Curtis Institute of Music puts other selective schools to shame with the lowest acceptance rate in the country: a meager 3.2%. Prestigious and renowned musicians, conductors, and composers handpick applicants for a rigorous education at one of the best small colleges for music in the country, where students can either earn a performance diploma or a bachelor of music degree. Formerly serving as the training ground for orchestral musicians to “fill the ranks” of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute has produced hundreds of notable graduates and alumni, with virtually every student of the Institute going on to a reputable career in music.
Net Price: $6,751/yr
27. Colorado Heights University
Colorado Heights University provides a unique, internationally focused educational experience to students looking to study in the United States. Students at Colorado Heights represent over 60 countries, making it a top choice for international students seeking the highly valuable English-speaking and international business skills they need to thrive in global commerce. Between degrees in International Business, English as a Second Language (ESL) certification, and total-immersion English coursework to prepare for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, Colorado Heights is one of the best small colleges in the US for students from around the world.
Net Price: $4,206/yr
26. Mount Vernon Nazarene University
Mount Vernon, OH
One of the eight schools affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene, Mount Vernon Nazarene University is an affordable small college grounded in Christian teachings and values. Each affiliated school receives funding from the Church, which subsidizes students’ education and keeps tuition competitive. This is especially impressive considering the educational resources available to students at Mount Vernon. With over a hundred degree programs in the arts, business, education, nursing, theology, and natural sciences, student can pursue virtually any interest they can imagine. Mount Vernon students also augment their spiritual life with chapel services, mission trips, and student-led community service groups.
Net Price: $19,417/yr
25. Vassar College
Formerly a women’s college and a member of the Seven Sisters colleges (female counterparts to the formerly all-male Ivy League universities), Vassar College has a long history of educating influential women such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Meryl Streep. Since becoming coeducational, this top small college’s emphasis on providing a life-enriching education hasn’t changed at all. Students at Vassar can pursue a bachelor of arts degree in more than 50 areas of study, create their own program through an Independent Major, or even make their own coursework through the Self-Instructional Learning Program.
Net Price: $19,661/yr
24. Furman University
At Furman University, the oldest private institution of higher learning of South Carolina and one of the smallest schools in the NCAA Division I league, all students (aside from commuters) have to live on campus. But this isn’t asking so much when you consider Furman’s 700-acre rural campus, seated right alongside the scenic 40-acre Furman Lake (which even features a life-sized replica of Thoreau’s cabin from Walden). The Paris Mountain State Park also overlooks the campus, providing students with ample territory to retreat and ponder their studies and the meaning of life.
Net Price: $30,607/yr
23. Agnes Scott College
Agnes Scott College is reinventing the modern liberal arts curriculum (not just for women, but they’re starting there). Tucked away in Decatur, Georgia, the faculty at Agnes Scott has developed a curricular track called Summit, which aims to develop capable future leaders with a global focus. Summit provides an individualized track that couples with every student’s unique major and focus of study, featuring faculty, peer, and career advisors, leadership workshops, and study abroad programs. In the future, the faculty at Agnes hope to take this program to other, more coeducational institutions, but for now this is the best small college that offers such a unique blend of resources for every student.
Net Price: $20,378/yr
22. Harvey Mudd College
Harvey Mudd College is a technical college that focuses on science, engineering, and mathematics. But unlike larger, perhaps more prestigious research universities, Harvey Mudd focuses on undergraduate education and research, even requiring a research component for every major in the college. Harvey Mudd is also known for particularly rigorous coursework—in fact, only seven students have ever received a 4.0 GPA since the school was founded! What’s more, as a member of the Claremont Consortium, Harvey Mudd students can take classes and even earn majors from other top small colleges like Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Pitzer.
Net Price: $33,137/yr
21. Notre Dame of Maryland University
Located within the archdiocese of Baltimore, Notre Dame of Maryland University was the first Catholic women’s college in the country, and continues to be one of the best small colleges for ambitious women. In addition to providing a world-class liberal arts foundation for all students, NDM hosts a variety of promising auxiliary programs. One example is the Morrissy Honors program, which looks to support first generation college students who show the potential to be “trailblazers.” NDM’s impact on the community is so significant that 34 alumni have been featured in The Daily Record’s list of Maryland’s Top 100 Women.
Net Price: $18,370/yr
20. Earlham College
At this affordable small college everyone (students and faculty included) is on a first-name basis, eschewing formal titles according to the tradition of Quaker friendliness. This culture of inclusivity may contribute to the fact that Earlham is host to nearly 200 international students annually, hailing from 77 different countries—the most diverse, international population in any coeducational liberal arts college in America! This cosmopolitan influence goes both ways at Earlham, where students can apply their financial aid towards study abroad programs in Vienna, Northern Ireland, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Japan, and Tanzania (which 70% of students do).
Net Price: $20,589/yr
19. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
New York, NY
The Cooper Union was established to provide the highest quality education to the most qualified students, regardless of their race, gender, age, ethnicity or income. As such, this university provides serious financial aid assistance to all its students – including full-tuition scholarships! In the 150+ years it has existed, Cooper Union’s three academic departments—the Irwin S Chanin School of Architecture, the School of Art, and the Albert Nerken School of Engineering—have consistently held up among the best small colleges. As a result, Cooper Union has not only one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country, but also some of the most successful alumni, including 12 Rome Prize winners, 23 Guggenheim Fellows, and 9 Chrysler Design Award winners.
Net Price: $17,453/yr
18. Williams College
Williams is consistently ranked among the best small colleges in the nation by the like of U.S. News, Forbes, and the Princeton Review. Statistically, it makes sense; Williams has a 7:1 student to faculty ratio, low double-digit acceptance rates, and an impressive pedigree. But the truth is that Williams is, in many ways, the model against which every other American liberal arts college is evaluated. Where many comparable institutions feature small seminar-based classes, Williams takes it to the next level by offering Oxbridge-style tutorials for both upper- and underclassmen. With these courses capped at 10, students pair up and meet with professors weekly to deliver and defend their papers in person.
Net Price: $20,315/yr
17. College of the Holy Cross
As the only Catholic school in U.S. News’ list of the 50 best small colleges, College of the Holy Cross is clearly doing something right. They also boast a 91% graduate acceptance rate to law and medical school—twice the national average. These impressive outcomes are probably related to Holy Cross’s renowned Monteserrat Program, a yearlong freshman seminar course that integrates students’ academic and social/residential lives. Based on overarching “residence clusters” such as “Global Society,” students choose from topics like “Industry and Empire” and “Islam and the West: Encounters.” These group seminars serve to stimulate meaningful and consequential discussions about the forces that shape the world around them.
Net Price: $26,172/yr
16. College of Saint Benedict
Saint Joseph, MN
The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University are sister (or brother) schools that share most of their resources, including faculty, classrooms, dining halls, and libraries. Located within the Diocese of Saint Cloud, these top small colleges separate men and women by institutional living quarters to respect faith-based boundaries. Students from the respective colleges come together regularly, not just for classes, but also for advancing stewardship for the community and the environment. In addition to housing one of the largest solar fields in the state, these schools require all students to complete an Experiential Learning Designation at a local organization in order to graduate.
Net Price: $25,559/yr
15. Connecticut College
New London, CT
At Connecticut College, what you know is not as important as how well you know it. Focusing on forming the connection between the sciences, arts, and humanities is the hallmark of the liberal tradition at this affordable small college, where students develop the core competencies that will allow them to succeed in any endeavor in life. But students’ learning is not only confined to the classroom—in fact, Connecticut College provides every student with $3,000 dollars for any unpaid internships they are accepted to in the US or abroad, and 80% of them take the university up on the offer.
Net Price: $24,152/yr
14. Daemen College
Located at the cusp of the Great Lakes and Niagara Falls, Daemen College is another proponent of the values of a strong liberal arts foundation for all students. Claiming what is arguably the most ambitious general education requirement among the best small colleges, Daemen’s core curriculum stresses information literacy, communication skills, and ethical discernment. It also features a mandatory service-learning component. Daemen balances this all-encompassing, generalist approach to education with a healthy dose of pre-professional programs and career services that help students get on their feet and fend for themselves once they break out into the real world.
Net Price: $17,517/yr
13. Lincoln Christian University
Lincoln Christian University is one of the top small colleges for students of faith who are looking to become spiritual leaders in their community and beyond. Affiliated with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, LCU provides theological coursework in topics that range from Biblical Studies and Intercultural Studies to Preaching, Worship, and Youth and Adult Ministry. LCU also features a host of resources for students with diverse needs, including high school dual enrollment, degree completion, distance learning, and international student programs. In fact, LCU even has a “China Institute” which prepares Chinese-speaking students to meet the college’s English-language requirements.
Net Price: $17,790/yr
12. California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is one of those top small colleges whose reputations precede it. Caltech has consistently attracted the top faculty in the sciences and has affiliation with 34 Nobel laureates, 71 National Medal of Science/Technology recipients, and 102 elected members of the National Academies. Naturally, this attracts top-performing students, only 8% of whom are accepted to join the roughly thousand-member student body each year. As a result of the schools intimacy, however, undergraduates regularly perform research along graduate students in challenging interdisciplinary fields like Applied Physics, Bioengineering, Computational and Neural Systems, and Planetary Astronomy.
Net Price: $26,910/yr
11. Oberlin College
Oberlin College, the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit women and African Americans, is widely regarded as a bastion of progressive, left-leaning politics in a relatively tepid moral climate. Oberlin’s disproportionately activist campus has recently hosted protests against fracking and launched numerous campaigns advocating for LGBT rights – on campus as well as nationally. Oberlin also runs the second-largest housing/dining cooperative in the country, with an annual budget of $2 million. Among the best small colleges, Oberlin is also well known for its venerated music conservatory, which is actually the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the country.
Net Price: $38,887/yr
10. United States Merchant Marine Academy
Kings Point, NY
Dubbed USMMA, or “Kings Point,” the United States Merchant Marine Academy is one of the five U.S. Military Service Academies in the country tasked with training officers. Students, who are called Midshipmen, learn marine engineering, navigation, ship administration, international law, and other requisite knowledge for leading a merchant ship on the high seas. They’ll need to meet rigorous qualifications in order to earn admittance to the academy, but in return, USMMA will offer tuition completely free of charge! To apply, candidates need a Congressional nomination, security and medical clearance, and a stellar academic record. After graduation, a third of USMMA students go out to sea with the US Merchant Marines; the others find employment in private industry onshore or serve as active duty commissioned officers.
Net Price: $4,392/yr
9. College of the Ozarks
Point Lookout, MO
College of the Ozarks is committed to producing Christ-like, hard-working, patriotic, and debt-free graduates. How do they do it? Dubbed “Hard Work U,” Ozark has students earn their education while they study with a unique student-work program. Students work 15 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during breaks to allow them to focus on their studies while building character (without building interest). And with employment opportunities in every sector of the university (there are more administrative departments than there are academic majors!), students learn the value of hard work at one of the best small colleges while developing marketable skills for their postgrad careers.
Net Price: $14,152/yr
8. Grace Mission University
Accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS), Grace Mission University is uniquely qualified to provide a strong theological education for American and international students. Although GMU primarily serves the Korean-American community, admission and courses are open to students of all backgrounds – provided they share the requisite spiritual vigor. All students earn a Bachelor of Theology degree—with concentrations available in Biblical, Theological, and Ministerial Studies—with the aim of gaining field experience and scholarly faith. In this way, GMU is one of the top small colleges for students looking to serve God as a missionary, pastor, or educator.
Net Price: $12,933/yr
7. Lafayette College
Like many other liberal arts colleges, Lafayette College attracts students who are interested in studying topics like social sciences, English literature, or psychology in an intimate, more subdued collegiate environment. Unlike those other schools, however, Lafayette is one of the best small colleges to also feature a competitive engineering program – with concentrations in chemical, civil, electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering, to boot. Lafayette’s program is so successful, in fact, that 99% of Lafayette candidates pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination (the first requirement for getting an engineering license) while still in school—15% higher than the national average.
Net Price: $27,019/yr
6. Amherst College
Swarthmore, Williams, and Amherst Colleges are the only three schools to ever reach the number one ranking among U.S. News’ best small colleges—and they are actually quite similar. Like Swarthmore, Amherst is part of a larger consortium with Mount Holyoke, Smith, Hampshire, and University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which provides Amherst students with a surplus of 6,000 courses to take during their term. And like Williams, Amherst features an open curriculum with no core or distribution requirements. But what puts Amherst above them both is their commitment to meeting 100% of demonstrated need for all accepted students, providing an average aid package of $40K/year.
Net Price: $14,687/yr
5. Colby College
Project-based learning is the name of the game at Colby College, where the administration and faculty acknowledge that you can only learn so much in the classroom. Right off the bat, freshman experience the Colby difference through the annual Outdoor Orientation Trip, a campus-wide expedition that hearkens back to the mid-70s. Students can select from up to 52 adventures, including hiking and canoeing around Maine; service- and arts-oriented initiatives; and even international travel. Colby keeps the excitement alive in the curriculum as well by featuring a 4-1-4 academic calendar, which includes a January intercession for independent study, research, and internships.
Net Price: $18,477/yr
4. Kenyon College
As the oldest private college in Ohio, Kenyon College makes all new students take a 180-year-old Matriculation Oath before they attend their first class. The contents of said oath? “To provide the influence of [their] own good example…as far as may be in [their] power.” Although it may be affiliated with the Episcopal Church, this affordable small college challenges students to follow their own initiatives and curiosities. Coursework is both challenging and multidisciplinary, integrating multiple topics into single concentrations such as Law and Society, Neuroscience, Public Policy, and Scientific Computing. But outside of the four core distribution requirements (fine art, humanities, natural science, and social science), Kenyon students are free to use their creativity to forge their own path.
Net Price: $26,734/yr
3. Mid-South Christian College
At Mid-South Christian College, students don’t expect an “all-around education;” they expect to make a difference. The ministry-focused curriculum at this affordable small college prepares students of faith to be spiritual leaders even before the graduate. In fact, what they call “real-time ministry” is an indispensable facet of the educational experience at Mid-South, where students join a Task Force Ministry Team to address the spiritual needs of their community. Students looking for more than a degree are attracted to Mid-South for their hands-on approach to ministry education. And with a 100% graduation rate, this college clearly delivers on its promise.
Net Price: $11,916/yr
2. New College of Florida
New College of Florida is not just an “autonomous honors college” of the State University System of Florida; it’s also the only public liberal arts college in the state and one of the best small colleges on our list. This eccentric institution flies in the face of what most people would expect from a public school. Supporting some of the most progressive curricula available, New College offers independent study terms every January and requires all majors to complete a senior thesis, but there are no grades! These are just some the qualities that attract top students to the New College. Another attractive feature? NCF offers full-tuition scholarships to all National Merit Finalists.
Net Price: $12,353/yr
1. Allen College
With a combination of staggeringly low tuition, perfect (100%) first-year retention rate, and an abundance of small classes, Allen College tops our list of the best small colleges. This outstanding nursing school also features a variety of offerings in its health sciences department, where students can earn a Bachelor of Health Science with concentrations in Dental Hygiene, Diagnostic Medical Sonography, Medical Laboratory Science, Nuclear Medicine Tech, and Public Health. And to make their highly desirable programs more accessible to students of all backgrounds, Allen has recently implemented an Office of Diversity Services as well as Diversity Advising Council.
Net Price: $6,953/yr
By Iris Stone