10 Best Values in Liberal Arts Colleges, 2015
Liberal arts colleges are typically smaller than universities, with smaller class sizes and a greater emphasis on individual instruction.
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.)
All of the schools featured here have a student-faculty ratio of 9:1 or less.
1. Swarthmore College
- 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
- Notable alumni: Authors Jonathan Franzen and James A. Michener, suffragist/feminist Alice Stokes Paul
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.
2. Washington and Lee University
- 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
- Notable alumni: Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., author Tom Wolfe, TV journalist Roger Mudd
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.
3. Wellesley College
- 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
- Notable alumni: Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton, author Nora Ephron, TV journalist Diane Sawyer
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.
4. Haverford College
- 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
- Notable alumni: Humor columnist Dave Barry, comedian Chevy Chase, TV news commentator Juan Williams.
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.
5. Ponoma College
- 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
- Notable alumni: Actors Robert Taylor, singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller
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.
6. Amherst College
- 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
- Notable alumni: President Calvin Coolidge, director David O. Russell, economist Joseph Stiglitz
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.
7. Vassar College
- Location: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,477
- 4-year grad rate: 90%
- Total annual cost: $62,090
- Avg. need-based aid: $41,649
- Total net cost: $20,441
- Average graduating debt: $16,365
- Notable alumni: Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, actors Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda
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.
8. Bowdoin College
- 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
- Notable alumni: President Franklin Pierce, North Pole explorer Robert Peary, authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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.
9. Williams College
- Location: Williamstown, Mass.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,077
- 4-year grad rate: 90%
- Total annual cost: $61,870
- Avg. need-based aid: $42,565
- Total net cost: $19,305
- Average graduating debt: $12,474
- Notable alumni: AOL founder Steve Case, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, historian Michael Beschloss, former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner
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.
10. University of Richmond
- 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
- Notable alumni: NASA astronaut Leland Devon Melvin, Professional Golf Association commissioner Tom Finchem, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Southall Freeman.
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.
Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.
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