Students interested in achieving a well-rounded education through holistic experiences may benefit from a liberal college education. Most liberal colleges provide broad undergraduate programs in classical fields like art, philosophy, literature, and social sciences, rather than career training or technical degrees.
Liberal colleges emphasize critical thinking and global perspectives, often featuring interdisciplinary curriculum options. Most of the nation's top liberal colleges also promote small class sizes, diversity among students, and environmentally sustainable policies and practices.
The following schools are among the top liberal colleges in the nation. They are ranked using a methodology that highlights schools with the most diverse student enrollment, the most innovative sustainability initiatives, and the most environmentally friendly campuses. Additionally, most schools on this list are privately or independently operated liberal arts institutions.
Most Liberal Colleges in America
Bryn Mawr College
|Bryn Mawr, PA||
As a private liberal arts institution located in its namesake city in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr enrolls more than 1,600 female students in primarily undergraduate programs. Learners may choose from interdisciplinary and intercultural majors such as gender and sexuality, ecology, and women's studies.
The first college in the U.S. to establish a self-government association in 1892, which enabled students to develop and implement their own rules, Bryn Mawr continues to emphasize independent learning in its programs. The college's celebration of diversity is evident in its most recent undergraduate class, which included almost 50% minority, multiracial, and international students.
The college hosts numerous LGBTQ+ student groups, such as the Rainbow Alliance. After committing to reducing its carbon footprint in 2014, Bryn Mawr received a silver star rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It also received a Tree Campus designation from the Arbor Day Foundation.
Olin College of Engineering
Since its inception in 1997, Olin has emphasized collaborative, interdisciplinary learning by housing all educational programs together, with no tenured faculty or academic departments. Olin strives to maintain a gender-balance on campus, and the college educates students from several countries around the world.
Olin students enjoy more than a dozen groups dedicated to supporting diversity on campus, including the LGBTQ+ community, students of color, and religious groups. Highlights include Open, which hosts LGBTQ+ movie nights and drag shows; the MIX, which connects students with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; and the Identity and Engineering Cocurricular.
Olin also ranks among the nation's top liberal colleges for its initiatives and programs in environmental sustainability and responsible engineering practices. As a co-leader of the International Development Design Summit, the college also offers year-long capstone experiences.
A private liberal arts institution located halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City, Iowa, Grinnell enrolls students from all 50 states and almost 50 countries. More than 24% of its students identify as people of color. Grinnell's undergraduate curriculum features only one required course, with each student tailoring the remainder of their program to their unique path of study.
Grinnell encourages students to seek out independent learning opportunities, expand their cultural awareness, and take a global perspective. The college offers more than 3,000 internship opportunities in the U.S. and internationally, and it features mentored project options; more than 40% of students participate in these projects.
Grinnell hosts more than 150 student groups and offers more than 500 free lectures and symposia each year. Grinnell's dining hall features local food choices, including many vegetarian and vegan options. The campus sits near the Conard Environmental Research Area, registering 10 distinct ecosystems and more than 100 bird species.
As the seventh-oldest college in the U.S., Brown is an Ivy League institution located in Providence, Rhode Island. Brown's undergraduate students do not declare traditional majors; instead, they choose from more than 80 distinct academic concentrations. The school's open-curriculum policy mandates that all programs meet minimum requirements for diversity and inclusion coursework.
Brown's diverse community includes the queer legacy series and an LGBTQ+ leadership award. Students can also participate in BiG (Brown is Green) initiatives toward reducing waste and improving water efficiency.
Brown Dining Services was the first of its kind in Rhode Island to become Green Restaurant Certified, with more than 20% of options from "real food" sources and 100% fair-trade-certified coffee. The university also participates in the Food Recovery Verified program, which donates surplus perishable food to communities in need.
Harvey Mudd College
Harvey Mudd -- a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California -- offers primarily STEM and STEM-related programs in the humanities. Through academic and advocacy initiatives, Harvey Mudd strives to increase diversity in the STEM workforce, especially for minority and female learners. Student enrollment features a 1-to-1 male-to-female ratio on campus.
Harvey Mudd's Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) supports multiple student-led organizations, including BLAM (Black Lives at Mudd), FEMUnion (Feminist Empowerment at Mudd), and PRISM (People Respecting Identities and Sexualities at Mudd). Additionally, OID hosts programs like WOKEshop and the Chew on This lunchtime learning series.
As a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, Harvey Mudd houses four Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings on campus and created its own sustainability committee. The college's president, Maria Klawe, is a signatory member of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
Mount Holyoke College
|South Hadley, MA||
Mount Holyoke emphasizes collaborative, forward-thinking programs in an all-female environment. The school also welcomes transgender students who identify as women, female, or other. Twenty-seven percent of Mount Holyoke's students come from outside the U.S., and 25% of domestic students identify as racial or ethnic minorities.
Mount Holyoke offers resources for low-income, LGBTQ+, and undocumented and DACA enrollees to cultivate a diverse student body. The school also offers nearly 50 majors, 35% of which are interdisciplinary, including programs in critical social thought, identity studies, and sustainability.
Home of the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, Mount Holyoke plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2037. The school hosts a living laboratory and programs in environmental and sustainability studies. Mount Holyoke is also home to a women's leadership center and the feminist a capella group, Nice Shoes.
Sarah Lawrence College
Known for its exemplary gender relations studies, Sarah Lawrence attracts predominantly female students. At the forefront of social and political activism since the 1950s, the college is also known for its progressive LGBTQ+ policies on campus. The college strives to meet the needs of its geographically, racially, and culturally diverse student body with sensitivity.
Sarah Lawrence students support liberal causes, often participating in peaceful protests and volunteer opportunities in the local community or nearby New York City's cultural hub. The school recently opened the Barbara Walters Campus Center to maximize environmental sustainability and celebrate natural resources.
Sarah Lawrence promotes sustainable and eco-friendly "green dining," using 100% recycled cans, 100% recycled plastic storage, and only naturally produced, biodegradable fryer oil. Additionally, the college incorporates trayless dining options and locally sourced food.
Pioneering women's rights since its founding in 1861, Vassar embraces diversity among its community members and sustainability of the environment as two of its core principles. Vassar's Campus Life and Diversity Office houses the LGBTQ Center, the Women's Center, and the ALANA Cultural Center, which supports students of color.
The school's Office of Sustainability promotes campus-wide green initiatives, including efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 and maintaining the 400-acre Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve. Additionally, Vassar banned the sale of water bottles on campus and hosts a weekly farmers' market to promote healthy eating habits among students.
Vassar offers more than 50 majors, exploring diverse topics such as putting sustainability theory into practice, female studies, and immigration. Students can seek out experimental learning opportunities through CAAD (creative arts across disciplines) workshops and attend the Collabotory mobile art venue.
Emerson enrolls more than 4,400 students at its private campus in Boston, Massachusetts -- located in the heart of the city's theater district. Women represent more than 60% of the student body. Additionally, 16% of Emerson students hail from international locations.
Students choose from more than 70 graduate, undergraduate, and certificate programs in fields emphasizing communication and the liberal arts. Emerson offers undergraduate options like environmental studies; women's, gender, and sexuality studies; and an individually designed interdisciplinary program.
Emerson's green community, Eco Corps, distributes reusable tumblers and dishware for use in the dining hall to all first-year students. Additionally, Emerson aspires to carbon neutrality by 2030. The college also generates 100% of its electricity through green power sources.
Agnes Scott College
Founded in 1889 in the Presbyterian tradition, Agnes Scott currently operates as one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges for women. This private institution enrolls more than 1,000 students from around the world at its campus in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia.
Agnes Scott maintains one of the oldest collegiate honor systems and student-led self-governments in the United States. The college launched SUMMIT in 2015 -- a signature series of core curriculum required of all Agnes Scott students. The module emphasizes global learning and leadership in the liberal arts through a three-day immersion, a week-long global study tour, and personal career mentorship.
The college's Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion supports initiatives including heritage/history month celebrations, multiple intercultural dialogue series, and a Safe Zone program for LGBTQ+ students. Agnes Scott also maintains a campus arboretum, containing more than 100 different species of trees.
Evergreen State College
Offering alternative higher education since its inception in the mid-1960s, Evergreen still employs experimental education tactics, providing students with written feedback on their work rather than assigning traditional grades. Students can design interdisciplinary majors or choose paths in Latin American, environmental, or Native American or Indigenous studies.
As a remarkably diverse and inclusive school, Evergreen constructed its own Longhouse Education and Cultural Center to welcome indigenous students. The Supreme Court cited the work of one of Evergreen's faculty members in its decision to nationally legalize marriage equality. The college provides comprehensive programs for LGBTQ+ students and students of color through its First Peoples Multicultural, Trans, and Queer Support Services.
Evergreen focuses on sustainability by maintaining its entire campus as a nature reserve and overseeing Evergreen Organic Farm. The college offers locally-sourced food options in its dining halls and student-run cafe, and it also sells farm produce in the surrounding community.
College of the Atlantic
|Bar Harbor, ME||
One of the most progressive colleges in the U.S., COA prizes collaboration, innovation, and eccentricity above all else in higher education. About 350 students attend COA in Bar Harbor, Maine. Enrollment includes predominantly female students and more than 24% international learners.
All COA students design their own majors in human ecology. Within this flexible path of study, learners complete 36 credits in their choice of field or fields, such as climate change and energy, sustainable business, and gender and identity studies. COA encourages interdisciplinary learning and offers diverse independent research projects, internships, and study-abroad opportunities.
COA hosts liberally oriented student clubs and organizations on campus, including Spectrum (LGBTQ+), the COA Council on Foreign Affairs, and the Zero Waste Club. COA was the first college in America to achieve carbon neutrality in 2007 and has received recognition from the Princeton Review and the Sierra Club as the greenest school in the United States.
Reed values creative thinking, social engagement, and rigorous scholarship in all of its programs. The college offers small laboratory classes, close interaction between students and faculty, and a year-long interdisciplinary humanities course. Distinguished alumni include Steve Jobs, chef James Beard, and author Donald Miller.
Reed's Office for Inclusive Community provides multicultural and gender-inclusive resources, along with support for undocumented and DACA students. Reed's home city of Portland, Oregon, boasts the seventh-highest LGBTQ+ population in the country and holds a reputation as one of the safest cities for sexual minorities.
The college also encompasses Reed Canyon -- a 28-acre watershed resource -- with its own restoration initiative. Reed also houses multiple Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings on campus and participates in Portland General Electric's Energy Partner Program. At least 20% of Reed's food is locally sourced, with on-site recycling and composting programs.
Originally founded as a women's school, Bennington now operates as a coed institution. The school emphasizes programs in the liberal arts, boasting many successful authors, actors, and artists among its alumni. Bennington features small class sizes and collaborative learning, with a signature fieldwork program that provides students with hands-on experience in the community.
Bennington offers a self-designed major for undergraduate students. The college also hosts a popular MFA program. Students participate in programs that promote human rights and peacebuilding, environmentalism, and democracy through the Center for the Advancement of Public Action.
Bennington hosts its own Queer Club, publishes a student-run literary and arts magazine, and operates Purple Carrot Farm. The college supports the Sustainability Working Group, the Sustainable Food Project, and a sustainable printmaking course.
Located in Brunswick, Maine, Bowdoin ranks among the nation's premier liberal arts colleges. As an extension of its commitment to inclusion and diversity on campus, Bowdoin maintains an affiliation with the Consortium for Faculty Diversity and Liberal Arts Diversity Officers.
Bowdoin offers liberal college programs in many topics, including environmental studies; Latin American studies; and gender, sexuality, and women's studies. Each first-year student must complete an integrative first-year seminar during their first two years of study, with foundational coursework exploring social differences and international perspectives.
Students may also seek support through organizations such as the Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance and the Multicultural Coalition. Bowdoin offers many cocurricular clubs, including Intersection, an Afro-Latin dance company, the Native American Student Association, and Bowdoin Culinary Club.
What Makes a College Liberal?
A liberal college attracts open-minded individuals, providing a space for learners to develop novel ideas and engage with unconventional learning methods. Liberal colleges emphasize universal equality and support progressive causes, especially those affecting young adults, including anti-racism, anti-sexism, and sustainability initiatives.
Academic options at a liberal college typically reflect this free-thinking approach. Most liberal schools emphasize programs in the liberal arts and humanities, with opportunities for student-designed majors, independent research projects, and interdisciplinary coursework.
What Are the Benefits of Attending a Liberal College?
Attending a liberal college often allows students to customize their major and pursue unique cocurricular activities. Many liberal colleges feature a signature educational model for undergraduates, designed to promote critical thinking, interdisciplinary study, and global perspectives. Students seeking an open degree plan, independent research, and/or study-abroad opportunities may be drawn to liberal colleges.
Liberal colleges also foster cultural support resources for students underserved by traditional college communities. For example, most liberal colleges create clubs and organizations specifically for LGBTQ+, female, and minority students, and these schools typically form student unions for each ethnic/racial minority group.
What Are the Disadvantages of Attending a Liberal College?
Students seeking college programs expressly for career preparation or technical training may be better suited for a traditional school. Liberal colleges tend to offer open, customizable curriculum options for students interested in developing a broader perspective. Learners who desire more structured programs might consider a conventional college to fit their needs.
Liberal colleges tend to enroll fewer students than more traditional schools. Additionally, as primarily private schools, liberal colleges tend to charge higher tuition rates. Generally, liberal colleges do not engage in Greek Life, but instead offer multicultural and progressive clubs and activities.
Who May Want to Attend a Liberal College?
Liberal colleges tend to attract forward-thinking students looking to foster creative higher learning prospects. Generally, liberal colleges draw a higher percentage of female learners, perhaps due to a distinct commitment to inclusivity and equality. Likewise, liberal colleges welcome all students, including the LGBTQ+ community and racial/ethnic/religious minorities.
Liberal colleges also attract students seeking small class sizes, personalized instruction, and greater opportunities for mentorship and community engagement. Students dedicated to cultural awareness, social activism and equity, and environmental sustainability may also prefer liberal colleges.