Liberal arts colleges typically have smaller enrollments than universities and focus on undergraduate education, with an emphasis on teaching rather than research.
This year’s top 100 liberal arts colleges excel at that format, providing the academic support that encourages learning and allows students to graduate on time.
They also make their education affordable by offsetting tuition hikes with generous need-based financial aid and, at many schools, offering merit scholarships to students who don’t qualify for need.
The top 10 schools you\'ll see featured in this slide show are the best of the best.
1. Pomona College
Location: Claremont, Cal.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,560
Total Annual Cost: $54,010
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $34,674
Average Debt at Graduation: $10,592
This West Coast school, established on the New England model, draws students for its top academics, generous financial aid and idyllic setting -- near the Mojave Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains. Pomona\'s 15% admission rate (the percentage of applicants who are admitted) is the lowest on our liberal arts list, and the student-faculty ratio is an impressive seven to one.
2. Washington and Lee University
Location: Lexington, Va.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,759
Total Annual Cost: $54,414
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $34,315
Average Debt at Graduation: $23,807
Named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee, W&L continues its climb up our rankings thanks to the high test scores of incoming freshmen, a low percentage of students who borrow and the best four-year graduation rate on our liberal arts list. George Washington gave this school its first major gift, $20,000 worth of stock; the endowment hovers around $1 billion.
3. Swarthmore College
Location: Swarthmore, Pa.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,524
Total Annual Cost: $54,400
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $35,033
Average Debt at Graduation: $18,739
Founded by Quakers, this small school admits only 16% of its applicants, making it one of the most competitive liberal arts colleges on our list. Its billion-dollar-plus endowment allows it to meet 100% of need for students who qualify, reducing the average cost of attendance to less than $20,000.
4. Williams College
Location: Williamstown, Mass.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,029
Total Annual Cost: $55,360
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $39,274
Average Debt at Graduation: $8,369
A New England school that competes with the Ivies, Williams consistently ranks in our top five for its stellar academics -- including a low student-faculty ratio, strong freshman retention rate and outstanding graduation rates. Students who borrow at Williams graduate with an average debt of less than $8,400, the lowest among our top 50 liberal arts colleges.
5. Davidson College
Location: Davidson, N.C.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,742
Total Annual Cost: $50,723
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $24,873
Average Debt at Graduation: $23,233
Davidson\'s no-loan financial-aid policy keeps the percentage of students who borrow to a relatively low 32%. Unlike many other top schools, Davidson also awards non-need-based aid, with an average award of $18,503. Davidson prides itself on its honor code, which allows students to schedule their own exams and take them unsupervised.
6. Hamilton College
Location: Clinton, N.Y.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,861
Total Annual Cost: $54,770
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $33,381
Average Debt at Graduation: $16,982
Founded as a school for the children of colonial settlers and Oneida Indians, Hamilton celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2012. This competitive school accepts less than one-third of applicants; 95% of its freshmen return for sophomore year. Hamilton offers generous need-based aid as well as large merit scholarships to a few students.
7. Vassar College
Location: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,446
Total Annual Cost: $56,635
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $36,353
Average Debt at Graduation: $18,153
Vassar\'s high test scores, low student-faculty ratio and stellar four-year graduation rate makes it one of the academically strongest of our top-ranked schools. Vassar offers need-based aid to almost two-thirds of its students and gets student borrowers across the finish line with less than $20,000 in average debt.
8. Wellesley College
Location: Wellesley, Mass.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,411
Total Annual Cost: $54,050
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $36,299
Average Debt at Graduation: $12,495
One of the few women-only colleges on our list and the only one among our top ten, Wellesley\'s yield (the number of admitted students who enroll) is among the highest of our liberal arts colleges. This elite school provides need-based financial aid to 60% of its students and meets the full need of those who qualify.
9. Bowdoin College
Location: Brunswick, Maine
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,762
Total Annual Cost: $55,290
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $35,590
Average Debt at Graduation: $18,229
Bowdoin\'s low admission rate and high yield demonstrate its competitive strength. Its four-year graduation rate is among the best on both the liberal arts college and private university lists. One of the country\'s oldest liberal arts colleges, Bowdoin claims an eclectic roster of alums, from Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) to Alfred Kinsey (The Kinsey Reports).
Location: Amherst, Mass.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,795
Total Annual Cost: $55,098
Average Annual Need-Based Aid: $39,675
Average Debt at Graduation: $12,843
This school excels on competitiveness measures, including admission rate, yield and the test scores of incoming freshmen. Amherst is a member of the Five Colleges consortium, which also includes Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges and UMass Amherst. Students can attend classes at all five institutions.
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