Best liberal arts colleges in the United States 2021

Explore the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the United States using data from the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings

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October 7 2020
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Choosing a college in the United States is no easy decision, not least because there are so many types of universities, colleges and schools.

Liberal arts colleges were once a unique feature of American higher education, but the model has spread to other countries around the world.

At liberal arts colleges there is an emphasis on undergraduate study that includes a wide range of subjects, from science to humanities.

In addition to the interdisciplinary curriculum, the best liberal arts colleges tend to have smaller student populations than other institutions. Class sizes are often small and academic staff tend to focus more on teaching than research, compared with other colleges.

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Liberal arts schools are private, not-for-profit colleges and generally charge the same tuition fees for in-state and out-of-state students, unlike public universities. At the top end, annual tuition for an undergraduate degree at a liberal arts college is just under $50,000.

The best liberal arts colleges can be found across the United States, with clusters in Massachusetts, California and Pennsylvania. Find the top 100 liberal arts colleges below (ranking is calculated according to the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings 2021).

The ranking is designed to answer the questions that matter the most to students and their families. While previously we have used results from the US Student Survey for the ranking, we were unable to conduct a survey in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we have used data from the 2019 survey to inform this year’s ranking. The full methodology can be found here.

Top 5 liberal arts colleges in the United States

=1. Amherst College

Undergraduates at Amherst College study a completely open curriculum without any core modules or restrictions on the subjects or courses to be taken in certain years.

Amherst is highly selective and located in Massachusetts, which often encourages rivalry with Williams College, which is joint first in the liberal arts ranking. 

Classes are extremely small to provide interaction with teachers. About 90 per cent of all courses have fewer than 30 students enrolled.

=1. Williams College

The small academic community at Williams College in Massachusetts is close-knit, consisting of about 2,000 undergraduate students.

An undergraduate degree in the liberal arts takes four years to complete, covering humanities, sciences and social sciences.

The college was established in 1793 and in some departments the teaching is modelled on the tutorial system at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, where students are taught one-to-one or in small groups.

3. Pomona College

California-based Pomona College offers 48 majors for undergraduates, across the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

The small student body of about 1,640 undergraduates is diverse, with 60 countries represented.

Many students take advantage of research and work opportunities in the area, including the geographical diversity around California, and the wealth of work experience in nearby Los Angeles.

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4. Wellesley College

Despite only having about 2,400 undergraduate students, Wellesley College is home to more than 150 student clubs and organisations.

The women-only college offers more than 1,000 courses and also allows students to take courses at other world-leading institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University.

The alumni network includes politician Hillary Rodham Clinton and journalist Diane Sawyer.

5. Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania was one of the first co-educational colleges in the US, founded in 1864.

Alongside the liberal arts curriculum, undergraduates can enrol on an engineering track.

The tree-filled campus has been described in Garden Design magazine as the most beautiful campus in the US.

Despite the rural setting, the city of Philadelphia is only 25 minutes away by train. 

Top 100 liberal arts colleges in the United States

Liberal Arts Rank 2021 US College Rank 2021 University City State
=1 =21 Amherst College Amherst Massachusetts
=1 =21 Williams College Williamstown Massachusetts
3 =24 Pomona College Claremont California
4 29 Wellesley College Wellesley Massachusetts
5 30 Swarthmore College Swarthmore Pennsylvania
6 35 Claremont McKenna College Claremont California
7 36 Carleton College Northfield Minnesota
8 37 Middlebury College Middlebury Vermont
9 =40 Haverford College Haverford Pennsylvania
10 42 Bowdoin College Brunswick Maine
11 =43 Smith College Northampton Massachusetts
12 46 Wesleyan University Middletown Connecticut
13 50 Colgate University Hamilton New York
14 52 Barnard College New York New York
15 54 Mount Holyoke College South Hadley Massachusetts
16 =56 Hamilton College Clinton New York
17 =59 Davidson College Davidson North Carolina
18 62 Vassar College Poughkeepsie New York
19 63 Bates College Lewiston Maine
20 64 Wake Forest University Winston-Salem North Carolina
=21 =66 Bryn Mawr College Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania
=21 =66 Scripps College Claremont California
23 =68 Grinnell College Grinnell Iowa
24 =71 Washington and Lee University Lexington Virginia
25 =74 Lafayette College Easton Pennsylvania
26 76 Franklin & Marshall College Lancaster Pennsylvania
=27 =77 Bucknell University Lewisburg Pennsylvania
=27 =77 Macalester College Saint Paul Minnesota
29 =80 Pitzer College Claremont California
30 =86 Reed College Portland Oregon
31 92 Trinity College Hartford Connecticut
32 93 Dickinson College Carlisle Pennsylvania
33 =94 Kenyon College Gambier Ohio
=34 =98 Skidmore College Saratoga Springs New York
=34 =98 Whitman College Walla Walla Washington
36 =100 Occidental College Los Angeles California
=37 =102 Colorado College Colorado Springs Colorado
=37 =102 Gettysburg College Gettysburg Pennsylvania
=39 =106 Connecticut College New London Connecticut
=39 =106 Oberlin College Oberlin Ohio
41 111 DePauw University Greencastle Indiana
42 113 Trinity University San Antonio Texas
43 =114 Denison University Granville Ohio
44 117 College of the Holy Cross Worcester Massachusetts
=45 =121 Rhodes College Memphis Tennessee
=45 =121 Seattle University Seattle Washington
47 =129 Simmons University Boston Massachusetts
48 132 Union College Schenectady New York
49 =135 Furman University Greenville South Carolina
50 138 Spelman College Atlanta Georgia
51 =140 Wheaton College (Massachusetts) Norton Massachusetts
52 =144 Berea College Berea Kentucky
53 146 Elon University Elon North Carolina
54 =147 Sewanee-The University of the South Sewanee Tennessee
55 =149 St Olaf College Northfield Minnesota
56 154 Allegheny College Meadville Pennsylvania
57 155 Willamette University Salem Oregon
58 =158 The College of Wooster Wooster Ohio
59 =162 Hobart and William Smith Colleges Geneva New York
60 164 Linfield College - McMinnville campus McMinnville Oregon
61 167 Lawrence University Appleton Wisconsin
=62 =169 Kalamazoo College Kalamazoo Michigan
=62 =169 Wheaton College (Illinois) Wheaton Illinois
64 =175 Sarah Lawrence College Bronxville New York
65 =181 Muhlenberg College Allentown Pennsylvania
66 186 Westmont College Santa Barbara California
67 =187 St Lawrence University Canton New York
=68 =189 Gustavus Adolphus College Saint Peter Minnesota
=68 =189 Washington College Chestertown Maryland
70 =198 Ohio Wesleyan University Delaware Ohio
71 =201 Albion College Albion Michigan
=72 =205 Lake Forest College Lake Forest Illinois
=72 =205 Southwestern University Georgetown Texas
74 =208 Wofford College Spartanburg South Carolina
75 211 Gonzaga University Spokane Washington
76 =212 Lewis & Clark College Portland Oregon
77 =215 Susquehanna University Selinsgrove Pennsylvania
=78 =217 Earlham College Richmond Indiana
=78 =217 Saint Mary's College of California Moraga California
80 223 Ithaca College Ithaca New York
81 =225 Beloit College Beloit Wisconsin
82 =227 Adelphi University Garden City New York
=83 =229 Knox College Galesburg Illinois
=83 =229 Mercer University Macon Georgia
=83 =229 Providence College Providence Rhode Island
=83 =229 Westminster College (Utah) Salt Lake City Utah
87 =235 Centre College Danville Kentucky
88 238 Stonehill College Easton Massachusetts
89 =240 College of Saint Benedict Saint Joseph Minnesota
90 =243 Luther College Decorah Iowa
91 =248 Hope College Holland Michigan
=92 =252 Mount Saint Mary's University Los Angeles California
=92 =252 Saint Anselm College Manchester New Hampshire
94 =255 Austin College Sherman Texas
95 261 Hendrix College Conway Arkansas
96 =262 Drew University Madison New Jersey
97 =264 Bard College Annandale-On-Hudson New York
98 =270 Rollins College Winter Park Florida
=99 =276 Augustana College (Illinois) Rock Island Illinois
=99 =276 Manhattan College Riverdale New York

Read more: Best private universities in the US

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