best small colleges

Best Small Colleges

If you’re interested in learning about small colleges and what they offer their students, then you’re in the right place! While the majority of students across the nation attend large public universities, there’s something to be said for those who graduate from the best small colleges. Students who attend small colleges are granted a personalized education. The best small colleges offer experienced professors, small class sizes, customized curriculums, and a completely different environment from larger schools.

When researching the best small colleges in the nation, you’ll come across schools like Amherst, Pomona, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, and Claremont McKenna. However, there are many more fantastic small schools that offer their own unique setting and opportunities.

Aside from exploring more of the best small colleges in the U.S., we’ll also look at: 

  • Advantages and disadvantages of small schools
  • How to choose the best small colleges for you
  • Small public colleges
  • The best small schools in different states
  • Tips on applying to small colleges, and more!

Before we get into our list of the best small colleges, let’s start by defining what a small college is.

What is a Small College?

best small colleges

Colleges come in all different shapes and sizes. According to CollegeBoard, small schools are those that have less than 5,000 students. However, the term “small college” or “small school” can mean a lot of different things to different people. 

For example, let’s say you attended a high school with 8,000 students. A small college for you may feel like any school that has fewer students than that. Alternatively, if you were homeschooled, a school with 2,000 students will probably feel quite large. Therefore, your perspective and experiences will influence what you consider to be a small college. 

With that in mind, we still want to provide you with a comprehensive picture of the best small colleges in the country. Throughout this article, we will highlight schools that have less than 2,000 undergraduate students. 

Why attend a small college?

Choosing a college is a personal decision that involves many factors. Naturally, school size is one of them. The size of your college will largely affect your undergraduate experience. Many students are drawn to small colleges because of the close-knit communities that easily form there. And that’s not to say you won’t find community at a large school. However, with fewer people on campus, the best small colleges make the process much easier. 

Additionally, one of the largest draws of the best small colleges is the small class size. You won’t have large lecture halls with hundreds of students like you would at a large university. A small class setting is ideal for many learners looking to build deeper relationships with their professors and classmates. Also, the attention will be much more personalized. 

At small schools, students can also have more opportunities to engage with diverse learning opportunities. Requirements may be more flexible within majors, or you might even have the freedom to design your own course of study. Beyond customization, some schools offer their own novel approach to undergraduate curriculum.

For example, St. John’s College is one of the most unique small liberal arts colleges in the nation. Home to only 300 undergraduates, St. John’s College has a curriculum designed around reading and discussing themes in some of the greatest books. So, if you’re a bookworm looking for a unique undergraduate education, then this school may be for you!

Choosing the Best Small Colleges

best small colleges

There are many factors to consider when creating your personal list of the best small colleges. Of course, you’ll want to think about things such as majors, location, clubs, and the campus itself. Visiting schools can give you a feel for on-campus life and help you determine which school is the best fit for you. 

However, before you start planning college visits, you’ll want to do your research. Up next, you’ll find our list of the 20 best small colleges. The list we’ve put together is based primarily on U.S. News rankings constrained to colleges with less than 2,000 undergraduate students.

When exploring these schools, keep in mind your list of the best small colleges could include institutions that have more! Students can certainly get a fantastic and personalized education at a larger school. However, for our list of the best small colleges, we wanted to feature colleges that are truly close-knit, small communities. 

20 Best Small Colleges

Here is our list of the 20 Best Small Colleges: 

Top 20 Small Colleges

1. Amherst College

best small colleges

The Amherst College ranking is as high as it gets. One reason you’ll see Amherst College ranking so highly is because 85% of classes offered at Amherst have fewer than 30 students. Amherst’s 1,898 undergraduate students have the opportunity to study a wide variety of majors (there are 41 choices!). With the option to double-major or even create your own major, it’s no surprise to see Amherst College ranking highly among the best small colleges in America. And, Amherst is a pretty cool college town

2. Pomona College

best small colleges
Pomona College Reunion” by The Consortium | CC BY-SA 2.0.

With a tight community of scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists, you’re sure to find your place at Pomona College. And Pomona’s 1,791 undergraduate students love being on campus. So much so, that about 90% of students choose to live on campus for all four years of study. Combining the California sunshine, welcoming community, and academic opportunities, it’s no wonder why the Pomona College ranking is so high. 

3. Swarthmore College

best small colleges

Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore aims to educate students committed to becoming leaders for the common good. Swarthmore’s 1,625 students can choose from over 600 courses and research opportunities during their time on campus. And, with an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio, students are ensured an engaging learning environment. 

4. Bowdoin College

best small colleges
Paul VanDerWerf | CC BY 2.0

Why is the Bowdoin ranking high on our list? Well, located in Maine, Bowdoin College believes that their students will go on to do good in the world. Self-proclaimed as historic, rigorous, and selective, Bowdoin provides its students with one of the best liberal arts educations around. For this reason, the Bowdoin ranking continuously comes in high among the best small liberal arts colleges in the nation. The undergraduate population is 1,915. Of course, a high Bowdoin ranking means it’s competitive—so don’t slack on their application!

5. Claremont McKenna College

best small colleges
Claremont McKenna College” by CampusGrotto | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As one of the seven Claremont Colleges, Claremont McKenna is known for being a small but mighty liberal arts college. This school prepares students to be leaders in any field, however, they excel in both business and government. Therefore, intellectual curiosity and developing an understanding of public policy issues are pillars of a Claremont education. Claremont’s undergraduate enrollment of 1,386 students helps make up the 8,500 students who study at one of the Claremont Colleges.

6. Grinnell College

best small colleges

Intellectual freedom is at the forefront of a Grinnell education. Therefore, students who are curious, motivated, and passionate will thrive on its campus. You’ll be able to customize your learning to your interests, ultimately deciding the purpose behind your education and future career path. With an undergraduate enrollment of 1,759, you’ll easily find inspiration and connection among your peers. 

7. Davidson College

best small colleges

With Davidson College ranking high among the best small colleges in America as well as the best liberal arts colleges, the acceptance rate is selective at 17%. Of course, the Davidson College ranking isn’t high just because of its competitive nature. Students at Davidson can explore their intellectual curiosities in a supportive and closely connected community bound by a common Honor Code. With strong programs and comprehensive financial aid, it’s clear Davidson’s 1,927 undergraduate students were drawn to this school for much more than just the high Davidson College ranking. 

8. Harvey Mudd College

best small colleges
Harvey Mudd Campus Building” by CampusGrotto | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Known as the liberal arts college of engineering, science, and mathematics, Harvey Mudd is certainly one of a kind. For those who worry that small liberal arts colleges aren’t for STEM students, Harvey Mudd will prove them wrong. With small classes, distinguished professors, and unique research opportunities, STEM students can truly have it all here. The undergraduate enrollment is among the lowest on our list of the best small colleges at just 906. 

9. Haverford College

best small colleges
Haverford College – Barclay Hall (1958)” by roger4336 | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Located just outside of Philadelphia, Haverford College secures its place as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation. Balance is a big belief at Haverford. Therefore, creating community outside the classroom is just as important and encouraged as academic excellence. With 1,421 students taking classes at this bucolic campus, every student is urged to take an active role in shaping their Haverford experience. 

10. Washington and Lee University

best small colleges
Washington and Lee University Campus” by Robert of Fairfax | CC BY-NC 2.0.

Located in the mountains of Virginia, Washington and Lee University offers a quaint atmosphere for those looking for a liberal arts education. Additionally, it’s known for its law school, which is among the oldest in the nation. Their undergraduate enrollment is 1,867 – but, don’t be fooled by its small size. Washington and Lee boasts opportunities for experiential learning, undergraduate research, community engagement, and a comprehensive global education. 

11. Bates College

best small colleges

Like all of the best small liberal arts colleges on our list, Bates College values community as much as academics. They aim to create a campus community in which students learn from and grow alongside their peers. To support this mission, all of their resources, facilities, and activities on campus are open to all students. At Bates, their 1,790 undergraduate students are encouraged to “align who they are with what they do.”

12. Berea College

best small colleges
Berea College – Kentucky” by US Department of State | CC BY-SA 2.0.

The undergraduate enrollment at Berea College is 1,433—and not one of those students pays tuition. Truly one-of-a-kind, Berea is one of the best small colleges in America, and you don’t have to pay for it! The school is truly, quite literally, invested in their students’ success. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work hard when enrolled. Students at Berea have a thirst for knowledge, aren’t afraid to work, and are planning for a meaningful future. 

13. Bryn Mawr College

best small colleges

Located in Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr’s undergraduate enrollment is 1,409 and the acceptance rate is 31%. But why does this women’s college make our list of the best small colleges? Students at Brynn Mawr are encouraged to make an impact not only on campus, but beyond. With this forward way of thinking, students can study in a personalized environment where they can fuel their intellectual curiosity and find their purpose.

14. Franklin and Marshall College

best small colleges

Creativity and innovation mix with academic rigor at this school. Franklin and Marshall wants students to take charge of their academic experience while studying on their residential campus. Part of their motto is “both/and” which means students are encouraged to cross boundaries and pursue a truly interdisciplinary education. The acceptance rate is 36% and the undergraduate enrollment is 1,990.

15. Occidental College

best small colleges
Occidental College” by Jeffrey Beall | CC BY-SA 2.0.

With its campus in Los Angeles, California, Occidental College provides students with the close community of a small school and the opportunities of a big city. Students are encouraged to put what they learn in the classroom into practice in the real world—which is right at their fingertips. The undergraduate enrollment is 1,942. These students have the opportunity to choose among 45 majors, minors, and programs.  

16. Scripps College

best small colleges

Another all-women’s college, Scripps has over 65 majors for students to choose from. And, as a part of the Claremont Colleges, students can expand their horizons and take courses among any of the seven colleges making up this group. The undergraduate enrollment is 1,081 and the acceptance rate is 28%. 

17. Hillsdale College

best small colleges

Located in Michigan, this Christian college makes our list of the best small colleges in America. Hillsdale offers students a supportive community in which they can “grow in heart and mind.” The undergraduate enrollment is 1,573 and the acceptance rate is 21%. One unique offering of the college is its free (no credit) online courses, which truly exemplify Hillsdale’s dedication to the liberal arts.

18. Kenyon College

best small colleges
Kenyon College” by MasDom | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Located in Gambier, Ohio, Kenyon College offers students the chance to thrive in a “community connected by purpose.” Students will acquire a diverse education in which they can form long-lasting bonds with classmates who are just as passionate as themselves. The undergraduate population is 1,885 and the acceptance rate is 34%. Those accepted to Kenyon can discover fascinating courses such as Gender Benders to the Art of Making Cartoons, Comics, Zines, and Graphic Novels.

19. Pitzer College

best small colleges

Another one of the Claremont Colleges, Pitzer also makes our list of the best small colleges. Similar to other liberal arts schools, students are encouraged to improve their critical thinking and writing skills in each of their courses—particularly in their First-Year Seminars. The school links social responsibility, academic achievement, and community involvement in their dynamic curriculum and values. The undergraduate enrollment at Pitzer is 1,212.

20. Connecticut College

best small colleges
Connecticut College” by slack12 | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The final school on our list, Connecticut College, has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,948. A personalized learning experience is stressed at Connecticut College where students aren’t defined by their majors. Their academic program, known as Connections, encourages students to instead follow their interests and explore deep, personal questions. In doing so, Connecticut College believes students will best understand how to make an impact on the world.

Now that we’ve looked at the best small colleges in America, let’s focus on a more specific region.

Best Small Colleges in the South

If you’re looking for the best small colleges in the South, this section is for you. Before we discuss these schools, it’s important to note that the South is known for large, public universities. As such, for this list, we’ve included schools that have enrollments greater than 2,000. 

Here are the best small colleges in the South: 

Top 5 Southern Small Colleges

best small colleges

1. Davidson College

Also making our list of the best small colleges in America, Davidson comes in at the top of our best small colleges in the South list. The average class size at Davidson is 17 students and the undergraduate enrollment is just under 2,000. Davidson’s purpose is to provide an education that “fosters humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds.”

2. University of Richmond

Ranking #25 on U.S. News’ National Liberal Arts Colleges list, University of Richmond is certainly among the best small colleges in the South. The undergraduate enrollment is over 2,000 at 3,145 and the acceptance rate is 24%. In and outside of the classroom, students at Richmond are encouraged to explore all of their interests and passions. 

3. Spelman College

Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Spelman College is an HBCU for women. It comes in at #39 in National Liberal Arts Colleges and has an undergraduate enrollment of 2,374. The student-to-faculty ratio is 11:1. Spelman empowers women to create positive social change by encouraging academic excellence and leadership development. 

4. Furman University

Founded in 1826, Furman University is located in Greenville, South Carolina. The undergraduate enrollment is 2,283 and the acceptance rate is 67%. Internship, research, study, creativity, and collaboration are pillars of the Furman educational experience. 

5. The University of the South

Coming in at #51 among the best National Liberal Arts Colleges is the University of the South. You may know this university by another name, Sewanee, which is also the name of its hometown in Tennessee. This is one of the few schools on our best small colleges in the South list that has an undergraduate enrollment under 2,000. Sewanee’s 1,613 undergrads will explore a liberal arts curriculum along with their major program and elective courses.

Like the schools on our best small colleges list, the best small colleges in the South value intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and positive change. Next, let’s turn our attention to the west coast.

Best Small Colleges in California

With its sunshine and preceding reputation, California attracts students from all over the nation. Of course, as such a large, diverse state, there are many different schools. We’ve compiled a list of the top 5 best small colleges in California to help you get started with making your own best small colleges list!

Here are the top 5 best small colleges in California:

Top 5 Californian Small Colleges

best small colleges

1. Pomona College

As one of the Claremont Colleges, Pomona offers students many areas in which to focus their attention: both extracurricularly and academically. Located 35 miles outside of Los Angeles, most students choose to completely immerse themselves in the Pomona experience, living on campus for their four years of schooling. And with a beautiful campus, ample clubs, and a tight community, we understand why.

2. Claremont McKenna College

Another of our best small colleges in California also makes up part of the Claremont Colleges. Students will be granted unique opportunities to learn and grow on this campus. In fact, 75% of students work on research with faculty. For hands-on, experiential learning, students can apply for their Silicon Valley and Washington programs. 

3. Harvey Mudd College

Still yet another of the Claremont Colleges ranks on our best small colleges in California list. Finding the intersection of STEM and liberal arts, students are granted a truly unique education at Harvey Mudd. Students are required to take Core, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts classes along with their major program. So, every student gets a well-rounded education, regardless of their chosen area of study.

4. Occidental College

The only school on our list that isn’t a part of the Claremont Colleges is Occidental College. This school “challenges, engages, and enlivens” its students. Oxy encourages students to consider new places, cultures, and perspectives in their studies. Its location (Northeast LA) provides ample opportunities for students to get real-world experience through one-of-a-kind partnerships and programs.

5. Scripps College

We head back to the Claremont Colleges for our final spot on this list of the best small colleges in California. Scripps is a nationally high-ranking private, women’s liberal arts school. Popular majors include psychology, biology, politics, media studies, and environmental analysis. With so many majors and courses to choose from, 20% of students actually decide to double major. 

Up next, we’ll look at small schools in another big state: Texas.

Best Small Colleges in Texas

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Texas doesn’t have many small liberal arts colleges. The majority of universities in Texas are large public schools. Therefore, in our list of the best Small Colleges in Texas, we’re including colleges that have more than 2,000 students. 

Here are the 3 best small colleges in Texas: 

Top 3 Texan Small Colleges

best small colleges

1. Trinity University

Recently recognized by TIME Magazine, Trinity University is known for creating leaders. What type of education could produce such great leadership? Well, one in which students “answer questions and question answers.” With an education that’s a balance between liberal arts and science, 80% of students complete internships or research. The undergraduate enrollment is 2,512.

2. Southwestern University

Located in Georgetown, Texas, Southwestern University has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,483. The curriculum at Southwestern is quite holistic in its approach incorporating science, arts, and humanities. Students are encouraged to be active seekers of knowledge in order to gain the most from their experience.

3. Austin College

Another one of our best small colleges in Texas doesn’t shy away from the sciences. Additionally, the school prioritizes applied learning and mentorship. As one of the best small colleges in Texas, students will receive a top education at Austin. The undergraduate enrollment actually comes in under 2,000 at 1,169.

So, we’ve discussed a wide variety of small colleges in Texas, California, and the South. But which is the best in the country?

Best Small College in America

The answer to what is the best small college lies in how you classify small schools. For example, if we expand our parameters to include small colleges with more than 2,000 students, our answer would be Williams College. 

Williams College is definitively one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation and one of the best small colleges. Williams offers its students many options when it comes to majors and minors which span from humanities to science. Located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the small campus and classroom environments allow students to form better relationships with their educators, adding a personal touch to their learning experience.

Williams has an undergraduate enrollment of 2,152. However, the student-to-faculty ratio is 7:1. As #1 on the National Liberal Arts Colleges list, it may come as no surprise that Williams is competitive. At 8%, the acceptance rate is that of an Ivy League school. In fact, Williams is considered one of the little Ivies, outranking schools like Brown and Cornell. Without a doubt, Williams College is one of the best small colleges in the country.

Small Public Colleges

Public colleges and universities are funded by the state or government and usually tend to be large institutions. Private schools are funded privately, just as the name implies. As it happens, the majority of small colleges are in fact private. However, we’re going to check out some small public colleges.

There are advantages to attending small public colleges. Many of these advantages are the same as those of attending any of the small schools mentioned in this article. Small schools offer small class sizes, personalized attention, close campus community, and a customizable learning experience. Small public colleges have the added bonus of generally being less expensive as well. 

Now, let’s look at 7 of the best small public colleges:

Top 7 Small Public Colleges

best small colleges

1. Colorado School of Mines

Among the best research, science, and engineering schools is the Colorado School of Mines. It offers specialties in mining and metallurgy. It ranks as #36 among Top Public Schools. The undergraduate enrollment is 5,733.

2. Rutgers University-Camden

Much smaller than Rutgers University, Rutgers-Camden has an undergraduate enrollment of 4,185. However, as one of the best small public colleges, students have the opportunity to study a variety of disciplines across 38 undergraduate majors. 

3. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Another science-focused school comes in as one of the best small public colleges in the nation. Students who attend ESF are passionate about improving the world, particularly the environment. Majors range from Sustainability Management to Engineering to Wildlife Science. The undergraduate enrollment is 1,621.

4. Michigan Tech University

With over 125 programs to choose from, students looking for small public colleges should look to Michigan Tech. Their STEM-focused campus is located just a few miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The undergraduate enrollment is 5,710, which is on the high end for small public colleges. 

5. Missouri University of Science and Technology

This highly ranked school comes in as one of the best small public colleges. Students will find academic rigor and a bustling social life on campus. It also has a higher undergraduate enrollment among small schools at 5,501. At Missouri S&T, students can pursue unique minors like Adaptive Leadership and Bioinformatics.

6. UMass-Dartmouth

This is the southernmost campus of the large public university, UMass. However, students at the Dartmouth campus will enjoy the benefits of a large school, with a small school environment. Similar to our other small public colleges, the UMass-Dartmouth undergraduate enrollment is 5,517. 

7. Winston Salem University

On our list of small public colleges, Winston Salem is the only HBCU. Students can choose from over 40 majors, some standouts including their nursing and occupational therapy programs. Community is as important as education, and students have plenty of clubs and student organizations to participate in outside of their studies. The undergraduate enrollment is 4,726.

Now that we’ve discussed some of the many benefits of attending a small college, let’s talk about the flipside.

Disadvantages of Small Schools

Now, there are some disadvantages of small schools—even if they are great colleges. And, this is still the case for the best small colleges in the nation. For example, it’s true the Pomona College ranking and Swarthmore College rankings are high. However, you’d want to consider both the advantages and disadvantages of these schools before deciding to apply.

When building your college list, you have to decide what is important to you. How do you feel on campus? Are there opportunities that excite you? Do your values align with those of the school? These questions will help you to create a list of your best colleges. 

Since we’ve outlined some advantages of attending small schools, let’s look at some disadvantages of small schools: 

Limited resources

Even though the Pomona College ranking is high, it certainly doesn’t have as much money as a large university such as Duke. Without government and state funding, sometimes even the best colleges may struggle with certain finances. 

Lack of mentorship from top faculty

This will vary depending on the school. In fact, some of the best liberal arts colleges we listed have mentorship programs. However, large universities may have more of these types of opportunities. 

No graduate students

This may not make the list of disadvantages of small schools for you, however, maybe you’d like to go on to get your Master’s from the same school. This isn’t always an option at the best small schools. 

Limited majors

Definitely check majors before deciding on a school. If you’re undecided, you’ll still want to understand your academic interests, even though they may not yet directly translate to a major. You may find there are less courses of study at the best small schools—although there are still plenty of great options. 

Lack of cultural diversity

While the best small schools promote cultural diversity, you may find that there is less of it at certain small institutions. At a large school you’ll likely have much more diversity (think of a rural town versus the big city). 

Consider the disadvantages of small schools when creating your best colleges list. For instance, the Swarthmore College ranking among the best liberal arts colleges may not align with your personal Swarthmore College ranking based on your priorities. Be mindful of the disadvantages of small schools when choosing your institution. However, remember that any of the best colleges listed in this article have the resources to provide an excellent education. 

Choosing the best small school for you

best small colleges

Remember, the best colleges for you will be different from the best colleges for your classmates. College selection is a personal choice. You’ll want to consider what’s important to you. Do you want to attend a prestigious, small private school? Then you might look at one of the Little Ivies, like Amherst or Haverford. 

Or maybe being among the Little Ivies isn’t important to you. Before looking at any best colleges lists, think about your priorities. What size school do you want to attend? This matters even when looking at small schools. Attending a school with 500 students is much different than one with 3,000—although both are technically considered small schools. 

Always look at majors available. Think about location. But, most importantly, when choosing the best colleges for you, try to visit your top contenders. This will give a real feel for what it’s like to be on campus. If going in-person presents a challenge, be sure to take advantage of virtual tours.

Remember, it doesn’t matter if your best colleges are Little Ivies or the best liberal arts colleges on national college ranking lists. Your personal priorities, preferences, interests, and future goals are the most important when choosing your school. 

5 Tips for applying to the Best Small Colleges

Before we wrap up, we want to leave you with some tips to keep in mind when applying to these small, largely liberal arts institutions. 

Here are 5 tips for applying to the best small colleges: 

Top 5 Tips for Applying to the Best Small Colleges

best small colleges

1. Focus on your essays

Small schools really care about your essays. Be sure to show who you are and what you’d bring to campus through your college essays—this includes the Common App essay

2. Start applying early

Many of the schools listed have selective acceptance rates. Give yourself the time needed to craft the most competitive application narrative possible. 

3. Choose the right school

Don’t focus on rankings or prestige. Look for schools that excite you based on their programs and campus community. 

4. Show intellectual curiosity

All of the schools we mentioned look for this in their applicants. They want critical thinkers who are motivated and passionate about learning. 

5. Take challenging courses

Academic rigor is important to most small, liberal arts schools. To stand out from the crowd, take AP and IB courses available to you during your time in high school. 

No matter how many small schools end up on your list, these tips apply to all of the best colleges. So, be sure to use these tips to submit the strongest applications you can!

Best Small Colleges – Final Thoughts

Finally, we’ve reached the end of our deep dive into the best small colleges in the country. We defined the term small schools. We also looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of attending one. Additionally, we looked at the best small schools in the nation as well in different states and regions. We even checked out some small public colleges. 

When considering the best small colleges, always consider your interests and goals first. Then consider factors such as financial aid and tuition costs. Most importantly, always try to visit a school when making your final decision. 

Whether one of the Little Ivies or just one of the best small schools we mentioned, you now have a great place to start your own research. Be sure to follow up with your own research into the small schools that caught your attention. And, remember that CollegeAdvisor is always here to help you through the admissions process!

best small colleges

This article was written by Sarah Kaminski. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how can support you in the college application process.