America’s Best Colleges

Bigger is not necessarily better. At least that is certainly not the case when it comes to college towns. In fact, students across the country are doing their homework to find small-town colleges for many reasons.

Small town campuses offer a spirit of community that can sometimes escape metropolitan areas. Nothing evokes the feeling of the traditional, American college experience like a small campus. When students elect to attend a small school, they are choosing not only a charming environment or vibrant student life, but a thoughtful place to begin their college journey.

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology


This premier private research university is an established leader in science and technology education, and the school provides students with exciting and rigorous academic opportunities. Founded in 1861, MIT boasts an impressive list of distinguished alumni, including 80 Nobel Laureates, 56 National Medal of Science winners, 28 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners and 43 MacArthur Fellows. Since its inception, MIT has subscribed to the principle of developing and imparting practical and relevant knowledge for the betterment of humankind, as reflected in its motto, “Mens et manus,” meaning “Mind and Hand.”

Academics and researchers at MIT are global leaders in their field and many of them work closely with students in classes or on research. With an undergraduate acceptance rate of 7.9% in 2014, students are immersed in a competitive and rewarding academic atmosphere. The school offers 46 undergraduate majors and 49 minor programs, along with dozens of graduate and doctoral programs in science, engineering and the arts.


Stanford University


Founded in 1885, Stanford is one of the top residential teaching and research universities in the world. The school prides itself on its sustainability efforts and uses energy saving technology throughout its tree-lined campus. Stanford continues to produce and market new technologies on campus and is a leader in stem cell research and computer technology. The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is a prized facility and it has helped produce several important discoveries in particle physics.

Stanford’s social and entrepreneurial culture is reflective of the school’s Bay Area location and proximity to Silicon Valley. With a 4:1 student to teacher ratio, one of the lowest in the country, students receive an outstanding and personalized education. Over 95% of undergraduates live on Stanford’s vast 8,180 acre-campus; due to the size of the school, biking and the campus bus service are popular modes of transportation.


Yale University


Yale, founded in 1701, is the third oldest university in the nation. The school is comprised of an undergraduate college and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This historic Ivy League institution boasts hundreds of high-profile graduates and leaders in every field, from the arts to politics. Students hail from all 50 states and 108 countries.

Yale offers an impressive range of academic programs, clubs, student organizations and research opportunities. The school has over 2,000 undergraduate courses and maintains a diverse global character in academics through its outreach and global affiliate programs. Students are encouraged to “learn broadly and deeply” and have few prerequisite classes. To help negotiate the extensive course catalog, Yale allows students to “shop” for classes, which lets undergraduates attend lectures before they set their schedule.


University of Pennsylvania


Established in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, the University of Pennsylvania’s 12 undergraduate and graduate schools sit on a historic 302-acre campus in the heart of Philadelphia. This Ivy League institution maintains an $851 million research budget and offers interdisciplinary and innovative research opportunities through the Penn Integrates Knowledge program.

Penn has four undergraduate colleges, including the distinguished Wharton Business School. Penn is committed to embracing diversity globally and locally. To President Amy Gutmann, “the diversity of our university must reflect the diversity of the world around it – and the diversity of the world that we want our students to lead.” The school’s 9,746 undergraduates can select from over 90 majors.


Harvard University


Harvard University is a symbol of academic excellence and one of the most recognizable schools in the world. Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the country and the school has produced 47 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state and 48 Pulitzer Prize winners. Harvard attracts top faculty members in every field, providing students with an unparalleled academic experience and a close-knit community.

Harvard offers expansive research opportunities and students have access to some of the best research facilities, libraries and professors in the world. The school encourages students to think broadly and to engage with the collaborative academic environment that characterizes the Boston area. A sense of tradition is a driving force at Harvard, and students benefit from an invaluable and vast alumni network.


Amherst College


Amherst is a private liberal arts school located about 100 miles west of Boston. Graduates include four Nobel Laureates, several Pulitzer Prize winners, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and one U.S. President. The school is committed to ongoing sustainability efforts and participates in numerous “green” initiatives. Amherst is one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country; its acceptance rate was 13.7% in 2015.

Amherst promotes a philosophy of academic freedom and allows students to create their own curriculum. Classes are primarily taught through a colloquium format that encourages close contact between students and teachers. Aside from a first-year seminar, there are no core requirements or rules regarding your academic path, and advanced classes are open to freshmen and seniors alike.

Amherst offers 38 majors, 850 courses and boasts an 8:1 student-teacher ratio. Students can participate in over 100 clubs and organizations on campus, including newspapers, journals, a radio station and academic organizations that extend beyond campus through the Five College consortium.


Duke University


Fifth in the nation in research funding, Duke counts eight Nobel Laureates and 43 Rhodes Scholars among its graduates. Residential students enjoy the school’s 8,547 acre campus, which includes the Duke Forest and an iconic gothic cathedral. The school has also recently renovated several buildings as part of its sustainability initiatives.

Duke offers an array of degree programs, including engineering and several interdisciplinary majors guided by a philosophy of collaboration. A low student-teacher ratio ensures that students receive personal attention from faculty members, and a dedicated support staff of advisors help undergraduates navigate through the school’s extensive course catalog. Duke also encourages students to engage in community service and experiential learning ventures in their time at school.


Princeton University


Founded in 1746, Princeton is the fourth oldest college in the nation. Its historic campus is home to over 5,200 undergraduates and 2,600 graduate students. An Ivy League institution, Princeton’s alumni includes 37 Nobel Laureates and the school is a global academic leader across all disciplines.

Princeton distinguishes itself in the attention it gives to undergraduate education. Working with leaders in the field, all undergraduates complete independent research projects in their time on campus. Most independent work begins in your junior year and culminates in a senior thesis. The school’s relatively small size fosters a close-knit relationship between faculty and students and a low student-teacher ratio ensures that vibrant discussion is a part of all courses. Students can choose from an expansive list of elective courses and pursue a degree in over 30 fields of study.


Brown University


A leading research institution, Brown offers 79 concentrations to undergraduates and nearly 90 programs to graduate students. Students at Brown are guided by the school’s mission to provide a personalized education, and they have the freedom to pursue their own study path.

A dedicated advising network oversees students as they design their curriculum. Undergraduates are allowed to incorporate classes from different departments into their major, allowing them to pursue their intellectual interests across disciplines. Faculty members are renowned throughout their respective fields and small class sizes ensure that students are able to develop a relationship with their professors. The school is also well known for its outreach efforts, including study abroad programs and volunteering initiatives.


Bowdoin College


Bowdoin is a private liberal arts school offering over 40 majors and a 9:1 student-teacher ratio. The college subscribes to a global-cultural educational perspective and instills self-assurance and robust morals in its students.

At Bowdoin, the liberal arts format promotes core values of collaboration, critical thinking, service and community. Students are encouraged to be inquisitive and to develop critical thinking and analytical skills to lead a “just and sustainable world.” In their spare time, students have easy access to Portland, Boston and a wealth of natural sceneries and outdoor activities.


Vanderbilt University

Located on a historic arboretum, Vanderbilt is home to 6,800 undergraduates and over 5,000 graduate students. The school offers students a range of scholastic opportunities, from traditional liberal arts disciplines to a top engineering program. Vanderbilt has produced two U.S. Vice Presidents and seven Nobel Prize laureates.

Students can participate in over 500 campus clubs and organizations and enjoy access to the school’s library system. Here, students can find over three million physical volumes and impressive collections of historical documents, art and antiquities. Known as a premier research institution, particularly in comparative literature, education and pharmacology, Vanderbilt is also highly regarded in the fields of law, medicine, and creative writing.


Rice University

Rice’s tree-lined campus rests in Houston’s museum district. A premier research institution, Rice also boasts one of the country’s lowest student-faculty ratios. Rice values experiential learning, and students are encouraged to pursue independent research opportunities as undergraduates. A dedicated staff advises students, and Rice is rated highly for overall student happiness and quality of life on campus.

New students are admitted through a centralized admissions process and are invited to explore their passions before selecting a major in their second year. Tests are administered without proctors on an honor system, which students must cite on their exams. Rice offers a wealth of courses through its six divisions of study, which include architecture, engineering, humanities, music, natural sciences and social sciences. Most natural science students engage in research during their time as undergraduates.


Columbia University in the City of New York

Columbia lists 29 heads of state, three U.S. Presidents, nine Supreme Court Justices and 101 Nobel Prize laureates among its alumni. The school famously housed the Manhattan Project in the basement of the physics building during WWII and was at the epicenter of the 1968 student movement. Columbia maintains affiliations with Teachers College, the Juilliard School and the nearby Manhattan School of Music and Union Theological Seminary. Located in Manhattan, Columbia’s students live in one of the country’s most vibrant cultural centers.

Columbia offers dozens of major and minor programs. Students in all disciplines must complete a core curriculum that includes required classes in literature, art and philosophy, in addition to other basic graduate requirements. A highly selective school, only 6.9% of applicants were admitted to Columbia in the last admissions cycle.


Williams College

A small liberal arts college, Williams is home to just over 2,000 students. The school has undergone significant renovation in the past decade: a new science center, theater and student union building dot the traditional campus. The college offers 36 majors and ensures that all undergraduates have the best academic resources possible as they pursue their passions. Williams also encourages its students to volunteer in the community.

The school is comprised of divisions in the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. Inspired by traditional small colloquiums at Oxford and Cambridge, Williams offers a “tutorial system,” where students meet weekly in small groups to critique each other’s work under the tutelage of a professor. The on-campus Chaplin Library has over 50,000 volumes and includes a collection of notable scientific papers and early U.S. documents. The school’s museum of art also serves as an invaluable resource for students of art history.


University of Chicago

Located in Chicago’s beautiful Hyde Park neighborhood, this private research university serves over 5,000 undergraduate and 9,800 graduate students. The university has an impressive list of distinguished alumni, including 49 Rhodes Scholars, 13 National Humanities Medalists and nine Fields Medalists. UC has earned a global reputation in several fields, most notably medicine and economics.

The undergraduate college offers students 50 majors and 28 minors. Undergraduates must complete a core curriculum requirement in addition to courses in their major; classes are considered challenging but rewarding. UC is home to approximately 400 groups and organizations, which contribute to a diverse and enriching campus life.


Pomona College

Pomona College’s strikingly elegant campus lies adjacent to Claremont Graduate University on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It has a small undergraduate population of just over 1,600 students and boasts an incredible endowment for a school its size (over $2 billion).

Students can register for up to 50% of their classes at neighboring Claremont Colleges and can choose from any of 47 majors. Popular areas of study include economics, mathematics, neuroscience and English. Students have the option to conduct individual research or take part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program; many choose to study abroad. Most students live on campus, and a strong sense of tradition and close collaboration characterizes Pomona’s academic experience.


Vassar College

Vassar is known for its well-rounded and forward looking curriculum. Originally an all women’s college, Vassar was the first school with an on-campus museum. The acceptance rate for the class of 2019 was 25.6%, and 98% of students live on campus.

A reliance on source materials is key to Vassar’s academic experience, and students will find an array of primary sources in the main library, rare books collection and Virginia B. Smith Manuscript Collection. Topics in women’s history are particularly well represented. Courses are broad and diverse, and Vassar gives students plenty of opportunities to pursue cross-disciplinary study.


Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749 and is home to just over 2,200 students. The campus is a 325-acre National Historic Landmark, and the school upholds a traditional “honor system” to govern student conduct. W&L provides students with a strong liberal arts foundation grounded in modern technology and an interdisciplinary academic environment. Three U.S. Supreme Court Justices, several U.S. Congressman, a Nobel Laureate and many other distinguished alumni hail from Washington and Lee.

Students have access to an extensive library and can choose from 37 majors and 29 minors. Classes are small and students can expect to receive personal attention and develop a close working relationship with their professors. Students often choose to study abroad, and the trimester academic calendar is designed to facilitate foreign learning opportunities. Students find campus life varied and enriching, and can participate in a number of clubs and student organizations. Prospective students should also consider pursuing an experiential learning opportunity.


Dartmouth College

The smallest Ivy League school, Dartmouth College provides its students with a personalized and well-rounded education. Campus life centers on The Dartmouth Green, and features a variety of activities and community event offerings. The school provides students with a solid liberal arts foundation and outstanding research opportunities.

Dartmouth is home to 4,200 undergraduates, and students can choose from over 50 majors. Students are encouraged to follow their passions and they have the flexibility to design a cross-disciplinary course of study that suits their academic interests. Furthermore, students can enrich their academic experience with study abroad opportunities, research projects and internships. A comprehensive library system forms the backbone of the school’s teaching facilities.


Haverford College

Haverford College sits on a gorgeous, tree-filled, arboretum campus. The school is part of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore College, and has graduated three Nobel Prize winners, 67 Fulbright Scholars, 20 Rhodes Scholars and four MacArthur Fellows. Since 1897, students have followed an honor code, an integral part of student life and academics at Haverford.

More than 95% of the 1,187 undergraduate students live on campus. Exams are not proctored (the Honor Code system deters academic dishonesty) and broad general education requirements ensure that students receive a well-rounded education in their first two years on campus. Students then move on to concentrated study, which culminates with a senior thesis.

Academic partnerships with neighboring institutions offer students more educational opportunities than most liberal arts schools can provide, and the college’s vast library system contains over 2.5 million volumes. Students work closely with professors in small classes and are rewarded with an academic experience that develops strong analytical skills and “expansive” thinking.


Wesleyan University

Home to over 2,800 undergraduates, Wesleyan is a liberal arts college with small classes and an intimate campus feel. The school is committed to pursuing sustainability initiatives on campus and has several energy saving and recycling plans in place. Among other measures, Wesleyan no longer provides bottled water on campus and a robust recycling and composting system ensures that waste materials are handled appropriately.

Students have a number of options to pursue when considering a major. Wesleyan offers more than 40 undergraduate programs and nearly 1,000 total courses. There are no course requirements, freeing students to pursue their academic interests. Students will also appreciate the flexibility of the Twelve College Exchange Program, which allows students to study for a semester or two at nearby college of similar size and academic reputation.


Middlebury College

Middlebury College’s campus is marked by public art projects, a recently completed 220,000 square foot science facility, several open quads and the historic “Old Stone Row.” The school is committed to diversity and encourages its students to become active participants in the community. Environmental sustainability initiatives are forefront at Middlebury, and the college is known for its environmental studies program.

A small student to teacher ratio of 9:1 ensures that students work closely with faculty members. There are no teaching assistants leading lectures at Middlebury; all classes are taught by professors. The average class size is 16 students, and the school offers more than 850 courses and 44 majors. Standout programs include language instruction, international studies, environmental studies and the sciences. First year seminars provide students with a strong writing and discussion foundation. Undergraduates will also have the opportunity to conduct research and to study abroad.


Cornell University

Cornell has the largest enrollment of any Ivy League college, at over 13,000 undergraduates. Still, Cornell’s vast and knowledgeable faculty ensure that students receive the same personal attention they would find at a liberal arts college, and small classes are a staple of the campus experience. Lakes and gardens frame the 2,300-acre campus, natural features that add a flourish to Cornell’s vibrant campus community. The school also maintains a presence in New York City and abroad.

Cornell offers over 80 majors and minors to undergraduates, including nationally renowned veterinary, history, hotel management and physics programs. The school also attracts graduate students from around the world, particularly to their medical and law programs. Students here find a challenging, yet rewarding academic experience, and have access to some of the best research facilities in the world. Cornell offers over 4,000 courses across more than 90 disciplines.


Swarthmore College

Swarthmore is a small liberal arts college tucked just west of Philadelphia. Founded in 1864, Swarthmore is part of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford: students are permitted to register for courses at each college and the schools share a number of resources, including library materials. Swarthmore counts 30 Rhodes Scholars and 151 Fulbright Scholarship recipients among its alumni.

Swarthmore follows the “Oxbridge tutorial” method, in which students engage in weekly small group seminars and critique each other’s work under professorial guidance. Seniors must complete a thesis in the honors program. In addition to the usual range of humanities and science majors found at liberal arts schools, Swarthmore also offers an engineering program. The 399 acre campus maintains an intimate feel, and students can participate in over 100 clubs and organizations.


Hamilton College

Founded in 1793, Hamilton College is located on a gorgeous 1,350-acre campus in Clinton, New York. The school has produced 100 Fulbright scholars and 18 Goldwater Scholarship winners since 2000. At Hamilton, creativity, and critical thinking are paired with a community centered and culturally diverse academic environment.

Students can pick from 51 areas of study and over 95% of professors hold terminal degrees in their field. Classes are small at Hamilton: 30% of classes have nine students or fewer and the student-teacher ratio is 9:1. There are no formal distribution requirements for courses, save for three writing-intensive courses, and students can design their own program of study in line with the school’s “open curriculum” policy.

Whether you’re looking for low tuition, proximity to home or an innovative curriculum, you should evaluate schools by how well their strengths match your needs and interests. Do not let perceived academic prestige cloud more important considerations.

All of the schools listed above are excellent colleges with outstanding academic traditions. Each offers a quality education and exciting extracurricular activities. Their relative placement on this or any other general academic list matters much less than the substance behind their offerings and how well their strengths align with what you want to get out of your college experience.

Possible considerations

When you’re looking at schools, it’s best to start broadly. Make an initial list of colleges that interest you. Your list can grow quickly, so be realistic; if you can’t see yourself attending a particular college, whether because of cost, distance or some other factor, don’t waste time researching it or applying there.

Once you have a list, you can start evaluating the relative merits of each school, comparing each one’s strengths with your needs and preferences. There are a number of factors you can take into consideration, and to determine which ones are most important to you, it helps to tour a few campuses. In-person, you can ask students what they like about their school and determine whether you’d feel more comfortable at a large university or on a small campus.

A school’s academics will probably be your most important consideration. You’ll want to make sure each prospective school has the programs that interest you most. Most liberal arts schools, for instance, don’t offer engineering; if that field interests you, spend more time researching larger universities than small colleges. You should also investigate a school’s available undergraduate research opportunities and study abroad programs.

Beyond Academics

Location is another important consideration. Be honest with yourself: if you’re a homebody at heart, avoid looking at schools on the other side of the country. You should also think about whether you’d like to attend school in a rural town or a major metropolitan area.

A school’s student services and amenities are a final consideration to keep in mind. A renovated athletic center or freshly built dormitory shouldn’t be the most important part of a school’s profile, but facilities and extracurricular opportunities are still part of the equation. You’ll spend a lot of time on campus over the next few years, and so you’ll want to put yourself in a situation where you can most enjoy what your school has to offer.

Ultimately, academic prestige plays a smaller role than you’d think in your undergraduate education. While you shouldn’t ignore a school’s academic reputation, it’s much more important to find the college that is most compatible with your interests; a school where you can feel confident, poised to get the most out of your education.