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SEP 21, 2020 • 16 min read
What is a liberal arts college?
There is no hard-and-fast definition, but USNews’ list of the best National Liberal Arts Colleges defines a liberal arts college as one that focuses almost exclusively on undergraduate education, and awards at least 50% of their degrees in the arts and sciences. Since this definition may not completely capture the nature of a liberal arts college, there are several other major characteristics we would like to point out.
As the name implies, students at liberal arts colleges focus on an extremely broad curriculum in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences, rather than technical skills. In many ways, the entire US college system seeks to provide undergraduates with a broad liberal arts education, but a liberal arts college is likely to provide this to an even greater extent.
Another typical characteristic of a liberal arts college is small student to faculty ratios, with many trying to pursue an atmosphere similar to the tutorial system in Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. They are also notorious for having smaller class sizes and village-like settings, meaning that cohesion amongst students and teachers is higher than your typical US college.
So what are the best liberal arts colleges in the United States? To obtain the rankings, USNews used the same methodologies as they did for their National Universities rankings. Check out the top-5 below:
Claiming USNews’ title for the best liberal arts college in the US is Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Established in 1793, this private liberal arts college is the oldest college on our list today. There are three academic divisions, languages and the arts, social sciences, and science & mathematics that encompass 25 departments, 36 majors, and several special programs. Students must complete at least three graded semester courses in each division, and two in each division must be completed by the end of sophomore year.
Williams has a unique academic calendar, including a three-week "winter study" term in January. In this term, students study one of various courses outside of typical curriculum, such as Ski patrol, Chess, Inside Jury Deliberations, among many others.
Williams’ undergraduate enrollment is approximately 2,000 students, and the student-faculty ratio is the lowest on our list at 7:1. It is Williams in particular that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Oxbridge tutorials. Most upperclassmen courses at the university will be held in tutorials, where students take small classes, as well as meet separately with the professor in pairs once a week.
Check out our in-depth comparison between US Liberal Arts College and Oxbridge here.
Williams provides all of this surrounded by a charming rural setting in the Berkshires, a highlands area in the western parts of Massachusetts and northwest Connecticut. Williams College is also the site of the Hopkins Observatory, the oldest astronomical observatory in the US.
Want to see if you can get into Williams College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!
In second position is Amherst College, another Massachusetts-based private liberal arts college.
When it comes to academics, it doesn’t get more “liberal arts” than Amherst. They offer a completely open curriculum with no core requirements; leaving students free to build their own interdisciplinary majors. They have an enrolment of 1,839 and have a student-faculty ratio of 7:1.
Amherst has a built a reputation for being one of the most inclusive colleges in the US; about 50% of the students are women, and about 45% identify as students of color.
The history of Amherst College has a strange intersection with Williams College, and the creation of Amherst was in fact an attempt to relocate Williams by its then-president Zephaniah Swift Moore. Because of their shared history, geographical proximity and similarity, the two schools are fierce competitors for supremacy in sports, academics and prestige.
Amherst is a member of the Five Colleges consortium, which allows its students to also attend classes at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Want to see if you can get into Amherst College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!
Third on USNews’ list is Swarthmore College, a private liberal arts college just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In terms of academics, Swarthmore has similar liberal arts academic requirements to Williams, whereby students must complete at least three courses in each of the three divisions of the College (humanities; natural sciences & engineering; and social sciences). They have an undergraduate enrollment of 1,594 and a student to faculty ratio of 8:1.
Further, Swarthmore is one of the only top liberal arts colleges to have an ABET accredited engineering program, granting students a B.S. in Engineering. The program hopes to give engineers not only the technical skills they need as an engineer, but also be well rounded and understand the broader impacts of engineering.
Swarthmore has the added bonus of being a part of the Quaker Consortium of universities in the greater Philadelphia area, allowing students to cross-register for classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Haverford College.
Want to see if you can get into Swarthmore College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!
Pomona is the only member on our list from the country outside of the Northwest USA, instead located in the Eastern Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, California.
The college, founded in 1887 was the first of a movement of liberal arts colleges in Claremont attempting to recreate a "college of the New England type" in Southern California. The Claremont area is now home to four other liberal arts colleges, including Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, and Pitzer College. Any student attending Pomona or any of the other Claremont Colleges can cross-enrol and take up to 50% of their classes at the other four colleges.
Pomona upholds many of the key features of its East Coast rivals, albeit with a West-Coast spin, in particular a broad liberal arts education. Course requirements include a first year Critical Inquiry seminar, courses within the "Breadth of Study" area, a foreign language, two physical education courses, a writing intensive course, a speaking intensive course, and an analyzing difference course, in addition to any core requirements for a student’s major or minor concentrations.
There are 1,671 undergraduate students, and the student-faculty ratio is 8:1. Pomona is also the most competitive liberal arts college in the US to gain admission, with an acceptance rate of just 9.1% in 2020. That's lower than some Ivy League universities!
If you want to know more about campus life at Pomona College, check out our Pomona edition of our ‘Day in the Life’ youtube series here.
Want to see if you can get into Pomona College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!
To round out the top-5 is Wellesley, a private women's liberal arts college in Wellesley, Massachusetts, part of the greater Boston area.
As noted, Wellesley is the first college on our list to be all-female, and is a member of the original Seven Sisters Colleges. Other members of the group include Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard College), Smith College, and Vassar College (now coeducational).
This historic group of liberal arts colleges were some of the first in the country to offer collegiate liberal arts education to women, and were a shining light of equal opportunity when almost all other colleges (including all of the Ivy League) were exclusively for men. Almost all the Seven Sisters remain some of the top liberal arts colleges in the US, with the exception of Radcliffe College, which has been absorbed by the now co-educational Harvard College.
Wellesley offers dual degree programs with MIT and the Olin College of Engineering, allowing students to receive a Bachelor of Science at those schools in addition to a Bachelor of Arts at Wellesley. The college offers cross-registration programs with other Boston-area colleges, including MIT, Babson College, Olin College, and Brandeis University.
Wellesley has the highest enrollment in the top-5 with 2,519 students. The student-faculty ratio is 8:1. Most of the faculty at Wellesley are also women, and the university prides itself on providing opportunities for female academics in a traditionally male-dominated field.
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