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Liberal arts colleges are typically smaller than universities, with smaller class sizes and a greater emphasis on individual instruction. They mainly confer bachelor’s degrees; universities offer master’s and doctoral degrees as well. Because they provide a more focused undergraduate experience, we look at liberal arts colleges separately from both public and private universities in our rankings.
All of the liberal arts colleges on our top 100 list represent Kiplinger’s definition of value: a combination of academic quality and affordability.
These 10 institutions stand above the rest for their academic excellence and generous financial aid. (Total annual cost includes tuition, fees, room and board, and estimated expenses for textbooks.)
By Sandra Block, Senior Associate Editor
| December 2014
All of the schools featured here have a student-faculty ratio of 9:1 or less.
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Location: Swarthmore, Pa.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,534
4-year grad rate: 89%
Total annual cost: $60,840
Avg. need-based aid: $38,701
Total net cost: $22,139
Average graduating debt: $19,338
This 150-year-old school, located 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia, nabs first place for its mix of academic quality and financial aid. Not only do incoming freshmen post exceptionally high test scores (66% score 700 or higher on the verbal SAT, and 66 % score 700 or higher on the math section), but Swarthmore also has a low student-faculty ratio and a strong four-year graduation rate. Generous need-based aid brings the average cost for students who qualify to about one-third of the sticker price. Swarthmore is a no-loan school, which means financial aid packages consist entirely of grants and scholarships. While some students still borrow, the average debt for undergraduates who take out loans is $19,338, compared with an average of more than $31,000 for students at private colleges and universities who graduate with debt.
Notable alumni: Authors Jonathan Franzen and James A. Michener, suffragist/feminist Alice Stokes Paul
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Location: Lexington, Va.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,855
4-year grad rate: 86%
Total annual cost: $58,062
Avg. need-based aid: $39,850
Total net cost: $18,212
Average graduating debt: $21,538
Last year’s first-place winner in the liberal arts category continues to attract top students. Of incoming freshmen, 46% score 700 or higher on the verbal portion of their SATs, and 43% score 700 or higher on the math section. What attracts smart students to this lush campus in southern Virginia? An honor code that lets students proctor their own exams, a “speaking tradition” that dictates that students and faculty greet everyone they pass on campus, and a generous financial aid program. Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, you may qualify for merit aid (assuming your child has good grades and test scores or special qualities the school is seeking). W&L offers merit aid to 13% of students who don’t qualify for need-based aid, with an average scholarship of about $35,000.
Notable alumni: Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., author Tom Wolfe, TV journalist Roger Mudd
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Location: Wellesley, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,474
4-year grad rate: 87%
Total annual cost: $59,838
Avg. need-based aid: $39,375
Total net cost: $20,463
Average graduating debt: $14,030
Wellesley’s low admission rate, high graduation rate and generous need-based financial aid program helps vault this all-women’s school to third place, from number 16 last year, on our liberal arts list. The college calls its alumnae network on LinkedIn “one of the most powerful and valuable women’s networks” in the world.
Notable alumni: Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton, author Nora Ephron, TV journalist Diane Sawyer
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Location: Haverford, Pa.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,187
4-year grad rate: 91%
Total annual cost: $62,758
Avg. need-based aid: $41,124
Total net cost: $21,634
Average graduating debt: $14,110
This small (in student enrollment) liberal arts college on 216 acres near Philadelphia attracts stellar students (more than half of incoming freshmen score 700 or higher on the verbal and math portions of the SAT). A nine-to-one student-faculty ratio means students get plenty of face time with their professors, about two-thirds of whom live on campus. And an impressive 91% of students graduate in four years. Every senior must complete a senior thesis, and many have their work published before graduation.
Notable alumni: Humor columnist Dave Barry, comedian Chevy Chase, TV news commentator Juan Williams.
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Location: Claremont, Calif.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,612
4-year grad rate: 93%
Total annual cost: $61,432
Avg. need-based aid: $43,486
Total net cost: $17,946
Average graduating debt: $13,441
Like many of our other top contenders, Pomona has a no-loan policy, which keeps average debt among undergraduates who borrow to a low $13,441. The average net cost for students who qualify for aid is second only to Amherst College in our top 10 liberal arts rankings. While Pomona features an idyllic southern California campus setting, students don’t hang around to admire the view: 93% graduate within four years, the highest graduation rate of all 300 schools in our rankings.
Notable alumni: Actors Robert Taylor, singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller
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Location: Amherst, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,785
4-year grad rate: 90%
Total annual cost: $62,206
Avg. need-based aid: $45,604
Total net cost: $16,602
Average graduating debt: $15,466
Only the best and the brightest get into Amherst. Its 14% admission rate is tied with first-place Swarthmore and fifth-place Pomona. Founded in 1821, it is the third-oldest college in Massachusetts, behind Harvard and Williams.
Notable alumni: President Calvin Coolidge, director David O. Russell, economist Joseph Stiglitz
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Location: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,477
Total annual cost: $62,090
Avg. need-based aid: $41,649
Total net cost: $20,441
Average graduating debt: $16,365
Founded in 1861 as a “sister” institution to the Ivy League, Vassar has come a long way from the all-girls’ school depicted in the Mary McCarthy literary classic The Group. Vassar has matriculated men since 1969. It awards need-based aid to 62% of its students, the highest percentage in our top 10. The college’s library holds one of the most extensive documentary collections about Albert Einstein’s social and political activism.
Notable alumni: Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, actors Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda
Location: Brunswick, Maine
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,795
4-year grad rate: 88%
Total annual cost: $60,400
Avg. need-based aid: $40,025
Total net cost: $20,375
Average graduating debt: $21,292
When a school’s mascot is a polar bear, you know the winters are going to be tough. But plenty of students seek admission to this school, and only 15% get in. While the campus population is small, its breadth is broad: The school offers more than 40 majors, and 99% of the faculty has a PhD or the highest degree available in their field.
Notable alumni: President Franklin Pierce, North Pole explorer Robert Peary, authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Location: Williamstown, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,077
Total annual cost: $61,870
Avg. need-based aid: $42,565
Total net cost: $19,305
Average graduating debt: $12,474
Williams ties with Wellesley for the lowest student-faculty ratio (seven-to-one) on our top 10 list. Ninety-eight percent of freshmen stay around after the first year, and 90% graduate within four years. When they leave, they don’t take a lot of debt with them: The average debt for students who borrow is $12,474, the lowest on our top 10 list.
Notable alumni: AOL founder Steve Case, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, historian Michael Beschloss, former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner
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Location: Richmond, Va.
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,983
4-year grad rate: 82%
Total annual cost: $58,570
Avg. need-based aid: $36,192
Total net cost: $22,378
Average graduating debt: $22,225
Home of the Spiders, this highly selective liberal arts school has climbed up into our top 10 list for the first time. It offers more than 60 undergraduate majors and an eight-to-one student-faculty ratio. It also stands out for its liberal helping of merit aid, which is awarded to 28% of students who receive no other aid, with an average grant of $23,300.
Notable alumni: NASA astronaut Leland Devon Melvin, Professional Golf Association commissioner Tom Finchem, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Southall Freeman.
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