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The 10 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the US (2021)

24 AUG 2021

As you research colleges and narrow down your top choices, consider looking at some of the top liberal arts colleges in the US. While you may not recognize them all by name, they offer superior, well-rounded education with a broad knowledge base and an emphasis on personal growth.

What is a liberal arts college?

Liberal arts colleges have a curriculum designed to provide a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education typically has a defined set of characteristics that distinguish them from other universities. A typical element 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 small class sizes and village-like settings, meaning that cohesion amongst students and teachers is higher than a typical US college.

Liberal arts colleges typically have undergraduate programs that focus on overall intellectual enrichment and offer a curriculum centered on the humanities, arts, literature, writing, philosophy, sociology, creative arts, and natural and social sciences. Students at liberal arts colleges learn how to formulate compelling arguments, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Most liberal arts colleges award at least 50% of their degrees in the arts and sciences.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities defines liberal education as "an approach to undergraduate education that promotes the integration of learning across the curriculum and co-curriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, in order to develop specific learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life." The association also notes that a liberal arts education emphasizes the development of "social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings."

What is the difference between a liberal arts college and a university?

The main difference between a university and a liberal arts college is specialization. When you attend a university, you typically declare your major within the first year, and most of your credit hours are for your major. At a liberal arts college, you spend most of your time learning about different fields and acquiring a well-rounded education.

Other key differences between a liberal arts college and a university include:

  • Cost: Top liberal arts colleges cost about $10,000 more than a top university because smaller universities have more resources per student. Students also enjoy a smaller, intimate campus setting with more access to teachers.
  • Class size: Most first and second-year students attend class with hundreds of students at a typical university, inhibiting a strong professor-student connection. Liberal arts colleges offer small class sizes, so students have more opportunities to connect with their professors.
  • Extracurricular activities: Universities and liberal arts colleges offer extracurricular activities, but more prominent universities have clubs, diversity, and resources for growth because of their size. Additionally, larger universities typically have more competitive sports opportunities.

Did you know Crimson can help you get into top liberal arts colleges? Find out more about our college admissions support program to see how we can help you gain admission to your dream US or UK university!

Let's take a closer look at the top 10 liberal arts colleges in the US based on US News National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking.

US News Top 10 National Liberal Arts Colleges
CollegeLocationRank
Williams CollegeWilliamstown, Massachusetts1
Amherst CollegeAmherst, Massachusetts2
Swarthmore CollegeSwarthmore, Pennsylvania3
Pomona CollegeClaremont, California4*
Wellesley CollegeWellesley, Massasschusetts4*
Bowdoin CollegeBrunswick, Maine6*
Claremont McKenna CollegeClaremont, California6*
United States Naval AcademyAnnapolis, Maryland6*
Carleton CollegeNorthfield, Minnesota9*
Hamilton CollegeClinton, New York9*

Williams College

Williamstown, Massachusetts

Williams College is the best liberal arts college in the US

Williams College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
17932,0787:14-1-4$50,760

About Williams College

In the heart of the Berkshires, a charming rural area in the western part of Massachusetts and northwest Connecticut lies Williams College. Established in 1793, this private liberal arts college offers three academic divisions: languages and the arts, social sciences, and science & mathematics. These divisions encompass 25 departments, 36 majors, and several special programs.

Williams College has a unique academic calendar, including a three-week “winter study” term in January. In this term, students study a course outside the typical curriculum, including ski patrol, chess, and inside jury deliberations, among many others.

Is it for you?

Almost all students live on the Williams College campus. The college has a long history and many school traditions, including a semi-annual school-wide trivia contest and Mountain Day when students hike nearby Mount Greylock.

Williams College offers unique opportunities like its renowned tutorial and research programs. Additionally, they emulate the atmosphere of Oxbridge tutorials where students take small classes and meet with professors in pairs once a week.

Check out an in-depth comparison between US Liberal Arts College and Oxbridge.


See if you can get into Williams College? Try our US College Admissions Calculator.

Amherst College

Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst college best liberal arts college in US 2021

Amherst College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18211,8397:1Semester$60,890

About Amherst College

Amherst College is a private liberal arts college based in Massachusetts. The college offers an open curriculum with no core requirements, leaving students free to build their own interdisciplinary majors.

Founded in 1821, Amherst has a reputation for being one of the most inclusive colleges in the US. Nearly 50% of the students are women, and 45% identify as students of color.

The creation of Amherst was originally an attempt to relocate Williams College 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 College Consortium, which allows its students to attend classes at Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Is it for you?

Amherst is a small college that fosters a close-knit community. Academics take priority over school spirit and extracurricular activities. Due to its open curriculum, students can explore many career options and develop strong working relationships with their professors and other students.



Want to see if you can get into Amherst College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

swarthmore college best liberal arts college

Swarthmore College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18641,5948:1Semester$54,656

About Swarthmore College

Located just outside Philadelphia, Swarthmore College has similar liberal arts academic requirements to Williams College, where students must complete at least three courses in each of the three divisions of the college (humanities, natural sciences & engineering, and social sciences).

Swarthmore is one of the only top liberal arts colleges with an ABET-accredited engineering program, granting students a BS in Engineering. The program hopes to give engineers the technical skills they need as an engineer and a well-rounded understanding of the broader impacts of engineering.

As part of the Quaker Consortium of universities in the greater Philadelphia area, Swarthmore students can cross-register for classes at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, and Haverford College.

Is it for you?

Regardless of your major, Swarthmore College encourages open dialogue and exploration. If you’re nervous about transitioning to college-level academic work, Swarthmore might be the perfect college for you. First-year students only received credit or no credit for their first semester classes. Swarthmore students aren’t afraid to debate and have their beliefs challenged. They’re looking for students who can face academic rigor without burning out. Swarthmore’s unique campus also doubles as an arboretum, with more than 4,000 kinds of ornamental plants. Students love to wander, study, and enjoy the campus beauty.


Want to see if you can get into Swarthmore College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator.

Pomona College

Claremont, California

pomona college top liberal arts college  in us 2021

Pomona College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18871,7178:1Semester$54,774

About Pomona College

Located in the eastern Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, California, Pomona College was the first college in a movement of liberal arts colleges attempting to recreate a “New England style college” 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-enroll and take up to 50% of their classes at the other four colleges.

Pomona upholds many of the key features of its East Coast liberal arts school rivals, with a West Coast spin. In addition to core requirements for a student’s major or minor concentrations, students must take 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.

Is it for you?

Pomona College is the most competitive liberal arts college in the US to gain admission. With an acceptance rate of just 9.1% in 2020, it’s lower than some Ivy League universities! Located within an hour of mountains, deserts, and beaches, the college is ideal for those who enjoy the outdoors. Its proximity to Los Angeles makes it ideal for those hoping to launch careers in the arts or technology.

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 below

A Day in the Life: Pomona College


Want to see if you can get into Pomona College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

Wellesley College

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Wellesley College blogs best liberal arts college us 2021

Wellesley College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18702,5198:1Semester$58,448

About Wellesley College

Wellesley is a private women's liberal arts college in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in the greater Boston area.

Wellesley is a member of the original Seven Sisters Colleges. Other group members include Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College (now part of Harvard College), Smith College, and Vassar College (now co-educational).

This historical group of liberal arts colleges was some of the first to offer collegiate liberal arts education to women. They were a shining light of equal opportunity when almost all other colleges (including the Ivy League) were exclusively for men. Virtually all the Seven Sisters remain some of the top liberal arts colleges in the US, except Radcliffe College, which is now a co-educational school that Harvard College has absorbed.

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.

Is it for you?

Most of the faculty at Wellesley are women, and the university prides itself on providing opportunities for female academics in a traditionally male-dominated field. Class sizes are small, with dedicated faculty who prioritize teaching. Wellesley offers more than 150 student organizations, 14 varsity athletics teams, and a 500-acre campus with expansive space including a lake, woodlands, an arboretum, and open meadows. The campus also includes residence halls, libraries, theaters, cafes, art galleries, classrooms, a golf course, and more.


Want to see if you can get into Wellesley College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

Bowdoin College

Brunswick, Maine

Bowdoin College best liberal arts college us 2021

Bowdoin College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
17941,835Semester$56,350

About Bowdoin College

Set on 207 acres in the coastal New England town of Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin College believes “that if you give smart, kind, young people access to one of the best educations on earth, they will use it to create good in the world.” The college offers a world-class liberal arts education that encourages students to think independently, take action, and recognize their social responsibility. Rather than competing against each other, students work together to find the best solutions. Students can choose from many areas of study, including sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts.

Is it for you?

Bowdoin has more than 100 student organizations, with the Outing Club being one of the largest. This group offers about 150 excursions each year. They’re also home to the Peucinian Society, one of the country’s oldest literary and intellectual societies. Founded in 1805, its alumni include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

First-year students are required to live on campus and assigned to a college house. Studying abroad is a popular option, with more than half of the students participating through more than 100 affiliated academic programs.


Want to see if you can get into Bowdoin College today? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

Claremont McKenna College

Claremont, California

Claremont McKenna College best liberal arts college us 2021

Claremont McKenna College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
19461,343Semester$56,475

About Claremont McKenna College

Just 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles lies Claremont McKenna College. Located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, the school is part of the seven-college consortium known as The Claremont Colleges. These colleges include Scripps College, Pomona, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College, Claremont Graduate University, and Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences. Originally a men’s college, Claremont McKenna became coeducational in 1976.

While liberal arts colleges focus primarily on undergraduate programs, Claremont McKenna also offers a master’s program in finance. They also have ten distinguished research institutes where students can conduct graduate-level research.

Is it for you?

As a student at Claremont McKenna College, you have access to classes at any of the five undergraduate and two graduate colleges that are part of The Claremont Colleges consortium. You also have access to any of these schools’ social activities, athletics, and dining services. Nearly every student lives on campus for all four years, participating in a wide variety of clubs and organizations.


Want to see if you can get into Claremont McKenna College? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

United States Naval Academy

Annapolis, Maryland

United States Naval Academy best liberal arts college us 2021

United States Naval Academy Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18454,5248:1Semester$0

About the United States Naval Academy

The prestigious United States Naval Academy sits on 338 acres in Annapolis, Maryland. As the second oldest of the five federal service academies, the Naval Academy trains students (known as midshipmen) to become officers in the US Navy. The USNA pays for your college education in exchange for active duty service after graduation.

USNA majors vary by discipline and groups into three categories: Division of Engineering & Weapons, Division of Math and Science, and Division of Humanities and Social Science. All USNA graduates receive a BS in their respective disciplines.

Is it for you?

Naval Academy applicants must apply to the academy and receive a nomination, typically from a member of Congress. Sports and physical fitness are core aspects of the academy. Throughout their four years at the academy, you must meet physical education requirements, including swim tests, combat sports, and physical readiness testing. Every day is highly scheduled, and students are on campus longer than a typical semester due to the intensity of the schedule. As a naval academy student, you live in a large dormitory called Bancroft Hall and receive a monthly stipend.

Carleton College

Northfield, Minnesota

Carleton College top liberal arts college in the us 2021

Carleton College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18662,1199:1Trimester$59,352

About Carleton College

Located in Northfield, Minnesota, on 955 rural acres, Carleton College offers nearly 40 undergraduate majors. The majority of classes at Carleton College have fewer than 20 students. The school’s most popular majors include:

  • Social sciences
  • Physical sciences
  • Computer and information sciences and support services
  • Mathematics and statistics
  • Biological and biomedical sciences

Known for its rigorous academics, intellectuals, and sense of humor, this private institution also has 19 varsity athletic teams and more than 170 student organizations with creative names and exciting histories. The Carleton College campus also houses the Goodsell Observatory, which includes three historic telescopes and many modern telescopes that classes can use throughout the year.

Is it for you?

Carleton College is known for being highly rigorous but without the cut-throat competition of similar colleges. Many students are activists and politically and environmentally aware. First-year students must live on campus, and about 90 percent of students stay on campus throughout their four years at the college. Students enjoy the campus-centric environment and find lots of activities, intramural sports, and events to attend on campus.


Want to see if you can get into Carleton College? Try our US College Admissions Calculator!

Hamilton College

Clinton, New York

Hamilton College best liberal arts college us 2021

Hamilton College Admissions Overview
FoundedUndergraduate EnrollmentStudent/Faculty RatioAcademic CalendarAnnual Tuition
18121,9249:1Semester$58,510

About Hamilton College

Hamilton College sits 90 minutes west of Albany in Clinton, New York. As the third oldest college in New York, Hamilton was originally a men’s college until 1978 when it became co-educational and combined with its sister institution, Kirkland College.

Hamilton students build their academic course path with the guidance of an academic advisor and the freedom of an open curriculum. They learn to think critically through classroom projects and student-led discussions. During their time at Hamilton, many students study abroad through their study abroad programs or consortium programs in countries like Spain, India, and France.

Is it for you?

The atmosphere at Hamilton College is friendly yet academic, and most students don’t take themselves too seriously. Hamilton offers a wide variety of unique, on-campus student clubs. Students can also choose to join one of the 18 fraternities or sororities. First and second-year students must live on campus, and about 98 percent of the total student body live on campus for all four years.

Which Liberal Arts College is Right for You?

Choosing between a liberal arts college and a university is a personal decision that should be made after extensive thought and research. All of these top liberal arts colleges deliver high-quality, well-rounded education.

To determine if a liberal arts college is right for you, examine each college with your primary goals in mind. Think about the differences in environment and culture, location, and cost. If you can visit the college, you’ll get an even better feeling of campus life and culture.

While name and prestige are factors in choosing a college, it’s better to choose one based on your personal interests, goals, and expectations

Final Thoughts

Did you know Crimson can help you get into top liberal arts colleges? Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company helping students navigate the US university application process. We assist you in finding your best-fit university, creating a personalized roadmap, acing your standardized tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more. Check out our student success page to find more Q&As and case studies about our successful Crimson students.

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