As a high-school junior at a very small school, I was relatively clueless (and completely college counselor-less). But even back then, I was pretty sure I wanted a change of scenery. So I made my way to University of Texas for a tour and class visit.
Unimpressed by the huge lecture halls and cramped, concrete dorm rooms, and overwhelmed by the enormity of the institution, I felt at a loss—what I’d expected to be an exciting preview of college fell completely flat.
Shortly after my visit, I connected with a family friend and UT professor to chat about my visit. She kindly suggested that I make a trip 30 miles north of Austin to check out a small, liberal arts college. I was skeptical about some tiny school I’d never heard of, but a few months (and college visits) later, my mom and I made the drive to Southwestern University. (Spoiler alert: Southwestern had everything I didn’t yet know I needed at the sage age of 17, paired with a financial aid package that made it far more economical than the sticker price implied.)
Of course, it’d be somewhat biased of me to promote my alma mater and its intimate, discussion-based classes and inspiring professor mentorships (which evolved into friendships years later) but it really did set me on my course to graduate school. (It was life-changing, and I'll just leave the link above for your consideration...)
Small may not resonate with all, but liberal arts and sciences schools—yep, they’re strong in the sciences, people!—can be a great fit for students who thrive in close-knit, collaborative situations as well as those who want to explore disciplines before declaring a major (typically at the end of sophomore year). Other core values include: undergraduates working directly with professors (and, with rare exception, a distinct lack of teaching assistants); developing critical thinking and interdisciplinary skills (which prove valuable in graduate and professional school outcomes); and easy access to robust, experiential learning and student support services in a residential community.
Well-known names like Amherst, Bowdoin, Carleton, Davidson, Grinnell, Pomona, Swarthmore, Wellesley, and Williams vie for top rankings in the liberal arts and science realm each year, yet there are so many other, equally wonderful colleges that don’t get the same (ahem, overblown) U.S. News & World Report-hype.
Here are a few of these "unsung heroes." And who knows? Maybe you'll have a life-changing visit to an amazing, small liberal arts college that is right for you!
The Northeast is rife with great liberal arts schools, so picking just one in this region is tough. (Shout out to Clark, Juniata, Lycoming, Muhlenberg, Ursinus, and Wheaton, among so many greats!) When push-comes-to-shove, Bard College is a winner for its commitment to civic engagement, summarized well by their motto: a private college for the public good. Bard also offers a noteworthy global network of partnerships and off-campus opportunities for students; has a working, student-run organic farm; and offers a five-year, dual-degree program through the Bard Conservatory of Music.
Mount Vernon, IA
Just outside of Cedar Rapids, you’ll find the welcoming hilltop campus of Cornell College. (Props for their “We’re not in Ithaca!” webpage, which playfully combats understandable brand confusion with Cornell University.) Cornell’s “One Course at a Time” curriculum allows for concentrated study and appeals to students who enjoy deep-diving into subject matter. Intentionally, the block system provides dedicated time in the academic calendar for field work, internships, research, and career and graduate school preparation. An impressive 93 percent of Cornellians graduate within four years and have wonderful success with graduate and professional outcomes.
St. Petersburg, FL
Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Eckerd College boasts all the benefits of a liberal arts education with the added bonus of a beachfront campus. Eckerd offers a solid array of diverse majors and stands out for an excellent marine science major. Eckerd also has an impressive 80 percent study abroad rate, aided by their 4-1-4 calendar system allowing some students to take a short winter term abroad. And heads-up, animal lovers: Eckerd is on a very short list of campuses (big and small) that have pet-friendly dorms (furry, four-legged friends welcome)!
Nestled in midtown Memphis, Rhodes College is the embodiment of collegiate Gothic architecture. Beyond its beauty, Rhodes impresses with its service-minded, friendly students committed to personal growth, enhancing local communities, and the college’s student-run honor code. Students at Rhodes reap the benefits of a supportive, residential community with a city backdrop—allowing them to combine classroom learning with real-world experiences.
University of Puget Sound
The Pacific Northwest boasts a handful of fantastic, quirky liberal arts schools (thinking of you, Lewis and Clark, Reed, Whitman, and Willamette)! But this post focuses on the University of Puget Sound, located in the urban, port city of Tacoma, and the warm and engaged community it offers. Intellectual curiosity, creative exploration, and interdisciplinary programs are a way of life at Puget Sound. Of note are its extensive Asian Studies offerings, including a nine-month, Pacific Rim study abroad program. Faculty at Puget Sound are known for being incredibly accessible, and students also have access to breathtaking mountains, national parks, and the Pacific Ocean. (Plus, Seattle is only 45 minutes away!)
Looking for more info on the colleges featured—plus profiles of many other excellent liberal arts communities? Check out Colleges That Change Lives.
Find the college just for you—big or small.
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