Become a physicists at a small college
By Iris Stone
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs for physicists and astronomers will grow by 14% between 2016 and 2026, much faster than average. In addition to making higher-than-average salaries, these scientists can work in many kinds of industries, from automotive and aerospace manufacturing to working on models to terraform distant planets.
The following is our list of the 15 best small colleges for physics majors on a budget. In order to make our list, each college has to adhere to the following criteria:
- Three different majors (or at least three different concentrations within a major) for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in physics or a related area
- Overall undergraduate graduation rate of at least 50%
- Estimated annual cost (as reported by College Navigator) of less than $24,000 a year
Scroll down to #1 to find out which college is the least expensive of them all!
15. Barnard College
New York, NY
People often associate liberal arts colleges with the arts and languages over science and math, but Barnard breaks that stereotype with its top undergraduate physics degree program. In fact, the school’s emphasis on well-rounded learning is precisely what makes its physics and astronomy department so robust. Through close collaborations with other disciplines, the department supports majors in Biophysics, Mathematical Physics, Chemical Physics, and even Astrochemistry – in addition to standard degrees in Physics and Astronomy, of course. Barnard’s connection to Columbia University also ensures that STEM undergrads can access plenty of research opportunities. You might even get to assist the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) Group as they explore “galactic and extragalactic sources” of gamma-rays in the atmosphere.
Net Price: $23,741/yr
14. Andrews University
Berrien Springs, MI
For a small school in such a small town (Berrien Springs has a tiny population of around 1,800), Andrews University offers a surprisingly large number of physics degrees. In addition to the standard Physics BS, you can choose from programs in Biophysics, Physics Education, and Physics Studies. These four different options reveal a particularly unique quality of the university’s curriculum; more than most other programs on this affordable physics colleges ranking, Andrews’ coursework focuses on professional career preparation. The Physics Studies BS, for example, is available exclusively as an “add-on degree” to “strengthen and expand marketability” for those majoring in another discipline.
Net Price: $23,491/yr
13. California Institute of Technology
It’s common knowledge that the California Institute of Technology is one of the world’s preeminent institutions for physics and astronomy. With barely 1,000 enrolled undergraduates in total, it is also undoubtedly the best small college for physics majors – especially if you want to conduct research. CalTech exclusive academic environment deftly balances comfortable class sizes with enormous scientific resources, which includes numerous opportunities for students to work in labs over the summer and study alongside some of the field’s most accomplished scholars. As for degree programs (or “options” as CalTech calls them), you can choose from four distinct tracks in the physical sciences: Physics, Astronomy, Planetary Science, or Geophysics.
Net Price: $23,213/yr
12. Bowdoin College
Like many liberal arts colleges, Bowdoin supports interdisciplinary programs as a way to help students make connections between ideas and develop a more integrated understanding of the world. This approach has much to offer a subject like physics, which requires that you learn how to think more than what to think. It also makes Bowdoin’s Department of Physics and Astronomy home to some of the best undergraduate physics degrees for aspiring scientists whose interests straddle multiple fields. The course catalog counts both Chemical Physics and Physics Education as official interdisciplinary majors, but you can also design a program focusing in biophysics, geophysics, or even oceanographic science if it suits your interests.
Net Price: $23,156/yr
11. Wesleyan University
Without a doubt, one of the most impressive features of Wesleyan University’s physics program is its unique – and diverse – set of concentrations. In addition to all the typical options (General Physics, Astrophysics, Chemical Physics, and Biophysics), the department also provides pre-approved study plans for Geophysics, Mathematical Physics, and Econophysics. The latter topic is particularly rare at the undergraduate level – in fact, it is one of only two programs of its kind on our top physics colleges ranking. Students who select this track are interested in “seemingly chaotic market behavior” and take courses that use physical principles to explain the many forces that shape both local and global economies.
Net Price: $22,257/yr
10. Wellesley College
Physics has come a long way since Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her pioneering work in radioactivity. And yet, the field is still surprisingly male-dominated. Fortunately, schools like Wellesley College are looking to change that. At this women’s college, aspiring female scientists can pursue degrees in Physics, Astrophysics, and Chemical Physics in a supportive and bias-free environment. And if you are interested in engineering, you can take classes at nearby MIT or the Olin College of Engineering thanks to a Wellesley exchange program. But that’s not all; women who see Wellesley as one of the best colleges for a physics degree should also check out the school’s Astronomy Department and 200 year-old Whitin Observatory.
Net Price: $22,138/yr
9. Anderson University
Throughout history, there have been many events that seem to place science and religion at odds with one another. Anderson University, however, is doing its part to deconstruct what it sees as an unnecessary rivalry. While its mission statement aims to “educate [students] for a life of faith and service,” this goal in no way contradicts the university’s strong commitment to scientific exploration. In fact, Anderson has developed some of the top undergraduate physics degrees for Christian students, including programs in Computational Physics and Physical Science. And if you are curious to understand more about what it means to be a religious physicist, the university’s “Integration of Science and Faith” class can help you do just that.
Net Price: $21,945/yr
8. Colgate University
With an undergraduate enrollment just short of 2,900 students, Colgate’s size nearly disqualifies it from this best physics colleges ranking. But while the university may narrowly make the cut for small schools, there is no question as to its value for physics majors. One especially appealing aspect of Colgate’s physics curriculum is its remarkable range of emphases, which ensure a path for every passion. If you are interested in research, for example, you could choose an emphasis in Biophysics or Condensed Matter Physics. Theorists could opt for the Computational Physics Track or earn a minor in Applied Mathematics. Other options include Science Writing, Econophysics, Renewable Energy, and pre-professional tracks for aspiring teachers, lawyers, architects, and engineers.
Net Price: $21,741/yr
7. Swarthmore College
If you’re determined to earn a Ph.D., consider attending Swarthmore – one of the top small colleges for physics majors who want to attend grad school. After all, in 2016 nearly 75% of Swarthmore graduates entered masters or Ph.D. programs, and almost a third of those students are pursuing degrees in math or physical science. It’s unlikely that there is one obvious explanation for this trend, but the college’s unique pedagogy undoubtedly plays a part. Since most upper-level classes in the major are seminars, frequent student participation and interactive discussion are a must. As a result, physics undergrads learn early on to look past “the mere acquisition of facts” and develop an affinity for dissecting abstract concepts.
Net Price: $21,580/yr
6. Williams College
One of the hallmarks of Williams College’s physics program – and in fact of the college itself – is its tutorial initiative. This unique course, which was inspired by tutorial sessions at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, allows students to learn advanced topics in a nearly one-on-one environment with their professor. Physics tutorials in particular can be challenging, as majors must work with a partner to solve complicated problems in subjects like electromagnetic theory – all while their professor watches, critiques, and asks for explanations. It is this focus on intimate, thought-provoking instruction – which undergrads will find throughout their curriculum – that help Williams stand out from the pack on this top physics colleges ranking.
Net Price: $21,546/yr
5. Haverford College
Forget being the best college for a physics degree – Haverford will turn heads as one of the best schools on this list specifically for astronomy and astrophysics. One of the many reasons it deserves this title is its membership in the Northeast Participation Group, a consortium of small schools that lease time on the Apache Point Observatory (APO) in New Mexico. As an astronomy major at Haverford, you may even have the chance to spend a spring break contributing to research on-site at the APO. But perhaps the biggest challenge undergrads in the Departments of Physics and Astronomy face is their senior project, which consists of a seminar, a poster presentation, and comprehensive research paper.
Net Price: $21,056/yr
4. Colorado College
Colorado Springs, CO
The physics major at Colorado College is structured a little differently than most of the other programs on our best physics colleges ranking. Most notably, CC does not have separate degrees for physics, astronomy, and astrophysics. Instead, the department consolidates all relevant coursework into a single curriculum – but with an extensive list of concentration options. “Default” tracks are available in Liberal Arts Physics and Comprehensive Physics; these programs provide a broad overview of the field, but the latter includes much more intensive coursework for students who intend to earn Ph.Ds. and conduct research. However, CC also offers an incredible six additional emphases in interdisciplinary areas like Environmental, Materials Science/Chemical, and Computational Physics, plus Astrophysics, Geophysics, and Science Education.
Net Price: $21,027/yr
3. Bridgewater College
With a net price barely north of $20,000 per year, Bridgewater College deserves recognition simply for being one of the nation’s most affordable small colleges for physics majors. But to stop there would be to sell the school way short, and the programs within the Department of Physics have plenty of value to offer students of all interests and career goals. In fact, job-related training is a clear strength of Bridgewater’s curriculum. If you are considering an occupation in engineering or technology, for example, the Applied Physics degree would be right up your alley. Another option is the Physics and Mathematics dual major, which caters to the needs of future high school teachers.
Net Price: $20,058/yr
2. Pomona College
Unlike most of the schools on this affordable physics colleges ranking, Pomona places just as much – if not more – emphasis on astronomy as it does “pure” physics. Of course, this isn’t all that surprising considering Pomona’s proximity to astrophysics heavyweights like CalTech and the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Not that you’ll need to leave campus to learn about outer space; just sign up for any one of the physics program’s three astro-relevant concentrations (Astronomy; Astrophysics; and Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences). But Pomona really goes above and beyond expectations with its impressive facilities, which include a 1-meter telescope atop nearby Table Mountain and a brand-new 3D planetarium.
Net Price: $18,423/yr
1. Amherst College
Officially, Amherst ranks first on our list because it offers the most affordable undergraduate physics degree of any small college in the U.S. However, it also happens to feature some truly stellar learning opportunities, not to mention an almost unbeatable 95% graduation rate. As would be expected, Amherst supports programs in both physics and astrophysics, with classes that cover everything from “Stellar and Planetary Structure” to “Methods of Theoretical Physics.” The school also has some unique options available during its three-week Interterm semester in January. During this time, you’ll participate in an intensive study course like “Celestial Navigation” or “Turbine Flight, the latter of which includes a field trip to an airplane hangar at Bradley International Airport.
Net Price: $16,861/yr
Want to find out exactly how much it will cost for you to attend one of these affordable small college physics program? Check out the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center.
For information about our methodology, click here.
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