High school students beginning their college search are likely to find the sheer number of choices to be overwhelming. After all, there are thousands of colleges and universities located throughout this very large country. Some are private, others public. Some are big, others small. Some focus on science and technology, while others explore the liberal arts — that is, the comprehensive study of both the natural sciences and the humanities. This list is for those students who have chosen to explore liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.
Our editors began our list of the 30 best liberal arts colleges in America by finding each and every liberal arts college located in the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. We then narrowed down our list to just 30 schools by focusing on the following:
- Core curriculum
- Rankings, both national and international
- Student retention rates
- Notable faculty and alumni
- Historical significance
- PayScale’s 20-year Return on Investment (ROI)
Located in a rural area of Michigan, Albion College is a small private school associated with the United Methodist Church. Albion offers 30 different undergraduate degree programs, including three popular pre-professional programs in law, engineering, and medicine. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks Albion among the best liberal arts colleges in the country, as does Forbes on its annual list of “America’s Top Colleges.”
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Originally established by members of the Lutheran Church, Augustana University gets its name from the Augsburg Confession, one of the founding documents of the Lutheran faith. More than 50 degree programs, including several pre-professional programs, are offered to Augustana students. Students are also encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities such as theater, music, or sports. U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and The Princeton Review all consistently include Augustana University on their rankings of the best liberal arts colleges in the country.
Besides being one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, Beloit College is the oldest continuously operated college in Wisconsin. In the 1960s, the college adopted the Beloit Plan, a unique curriculum that emphasizes:
- experiential learning
- learner agency
- learning experiences both in and out of the classroom
The current curriculum retains much of that original plan, and as such, each class averages only 10-15 students. Beloit College has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 62nd best liberal arts college in the United States. Forbes and Washington Monthly also include Beloit on their lists of top colleges, as does Loren Pope in his classic book Colleges That Change Lives.
Carleton College is one of Minnesota’s most well-respected liberal arts schools. Carleton, which is one of the few liberal arts colleges to run on a trimester system, offers more than 30 undergraduate majors, including its top-ranked program for education. Students may also create their own major, or earn a Certificate of Advanced Study in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin, Russian, or Spanish. Carleton is almost always included on lists of the “top colleges,” and is highly selective when it comes to admitting applicants. Since 2000, Carleton has produced:
- two Rhodes Scholars
- 112 Fulbright Scholars
- 13 Goldwater Scholars
- over 120 National Science Graduate Fellows
- 20 NCAA Postgraduate Scholars
- 22 Watson Fellows.
College of Wooster
The College of Wooster in Ohio offers students an undergraduate experience characterized by opportunities for “mentored research and independent study.” This unique method of study was noted in the book Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope. It requires students to meet one-on-one with a mentor as they work complete a thesis or project due by the end of the students’ senior year. Once students turn in their project, a huge accomplishment, they receive a Tootsie Roll and a yellow button which reads, “I did it!”
Concordia College at Moorhead
Established in 1891 by settlers from Norway, Concordia College at Moorhead is today one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Concordia’s core curriculum emphasizes the ‘Christian and global perspective.’ There are required courses in religion, health, culture, and communication. Students may also choose from 12 pre-professional programs and more than 60 major options. The college also works closely with the Open Doors program, and routinely sends students to study abroad.
Mt. Vernon, Iowa
Cornell College is a private liberal arts school located in Iowa. Uniquely, students at Cornell College study only one course at a time, each of which lasts approximately three-and-a-half weeks. This intensive “block plan” results in an entire semester’s worth of a class being covered in fewer than 18 class days. But don’t worry, there is a four-day break between each “block.” Classes at Cornell average 10-19 students. The most popular majors include economics, history, and psychology.
Denison University was founded in Granville, Ohio in 1831, which makes it the state’s second-oldest liberal arts college. As a private school, Denison offers a number of undergraduate majors, while also offering students the opportunity to create their own. Technology-minded applicants in search of a liberal arts education will also be happy to know that Denison is one of the few liberal arts schools to offer a major in data analytics. Denison is ranked among Forbes’s 100 best universities in the nation, while U.S. News & World Report and Washington Monthly both include Denison on their lists of the country’s best liberal arts colleges.
DePauw University is a well-respected liberal arts college located near Chicago. DePauw’s 4-1-4 calendar allows students to participate in a four-week Winter Term class as part of the college’s mission to provide students with a well-rounded education. Students are encouraged to take classes both inside and outside of their major, while also participating in extracurricular programs such as study abroad or team sports. U.S. News & World Report almost always includes DePauw University among the very top liberal arts colleges in the country. Forbes has included it as the 2nd best college in Indiana (after Notre Dame) and the 14th best in the Midwest.
Drury University is another liberal arts college to rank amongst the best in the Midwest. At this well-respected private school, students have more than 50 undergraduate degree programs to choose from. Additionally, there are pre-professional programs in education, business administration, and even architecture. In addition to the many “best of” lists which include Drury, the university has also been named on the Policy Center’s “13 Institutions of Excellence.” In Time’s “Best Liberal Arts Schools in the Nation,” Drury was runner up.
Located in Richmond, Indiana, Earlham College is an excellent school choice for anyone looking to immerse themselves into all aspects of the liberal arts. Established by the Religious Society of Friends in the mid-19th century, Earlham maintains its strong Quaker roots even today. The college is well known for graduating students who go on to pursue Ph.D.s, specifically within the fields of biological science. Earlham is also included in Loren Pope’s bestselling book, Colleges That Change Lives.
Interestingly, Finlandia University is the only private institution located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — a gorgeous region that seems remarkably appropriate for studying the liberal arts and all things good, true, and beautiful. Officially affiliated with the Lutheran Church, Finlandia’s faith is ever present in its core curriculum, campus vibe, and college-sponsored events.
Grinnell College is a private school in Iowa. Social and personal responsibility and stewardship are major tenets of life at Grinnell College, a fact which is reflected in the school’s overall culture. Grinnell is widely known for its challenging academics, and students are required to help steward their undergraduate career. For example, one of the few courses required of all freshmen is a writing and research seminar. Once students have completed the seminar, they may then work with an advisor to choose the remainder of their classes.
Since Hillsdale College’s founding in 1844, it has been widely respected as one of the best liberal arts schools in the United States. Students come from all over the world to attend Hillsdale, many of whom are no doubt drawn to the college’s rigorous classical curriculum. At Hillsdale, all students are required to take courses on the Constitution, western civilization, and great literature, regardless of their intended major.
Not only is Hope College one of the most beautiful colleges in the country, it is also one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Students at Hope study a solidly Christian core curriculum, then have approximately 100 majors and minors from which to choose. Hope students also have a wide variety of options for extra-curricular activities, and may even choose to study off-campus in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, or Washington, D.C.
Illinois Wesleyan University
Illinois Wesleyan University offers its students an entire College of Liberal Arts (along with colleges of fine arts and nursing) through which they can obtain a liberal arts education. In that college are 17 different departments and classes, each with an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. Students wishing to pursue the liberal arts at Illinois Wesleyan can be sure that they are a part of the university’s mission to “foster the traditional liberal arts of creativity, character, and knowledge,” as stated on the university’s website.
Yet another Midwestern liberal arts college featured in Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives is Kalamazoo College, a private school in Michigan. Affectionately referred to as “K,” the college ranks among the top schools for producing graduates who go on to pursue doctorate degrees. It has also been ranked by Forbes as one of “America’s Best Colleges,” and in 2012 was called the best private college in all of Michigan.
Prestigious Kenyon College is so serious about the liberal arts, students are required to complete a series of classes in:
- the fine arts
- natural sciences
- social sciences
Kenyon was recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 27th best liberal arts college in the country, while Forbes and Newsweek also included it on their lists of the best American colleges.
Lawrence University, located in Appleton, Wisconsin, has the unique distinction of being both a liberal arts college and a music conservatory. While cooperative degree programs in engineering, environmental studies, and health sciences are offered, most Lawrence students choose to major in a liberal arts discipline. Students even have the opportunity to design their own majors. Regardless of their ultimate degree, every Lawrence freshman is required to take a series of core classes focusing on the Great Books.
Luther College in Iowa is a private liberal arts school which was founded as a Lutheran seminary. Today it’s associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The college is home to just under 2,500 students, each of whom can choose from an impressive list of liberal arts majors. The college also has an impressive music program, with various student organizations that tour and sell their recordings worldwide.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, has been providing students with a quality liberal arts education since it was founded in 1874. Its approximately 2,000 students come from all over the world to enjoy the top-notch curriculum. Indeed, Macalester was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 23rd best liberal arts college in America. Forbes called it the 68th best college in the country. Macalester has also been included on “best of” lists by Washington Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among others.
North Central College
Another excellent liberal arts college located in the Midwest is North Central College. Undergraduates at North Central may choose from approximately 70 majors and minors, though the school also offers a School of Graduate and Professional Studies for those who have completed their undergraduate work. All students, regardless of major, are required to complete a comprehensive core curriculum which includes courses on:
Also worth noting is the fact that North Central College routinely ranks amongst the country’s top schools for producing Fulbright Scholars.
Founded in 1833, Oberlin College in Ohio happens to be the oldest co-ed liberal arts school in the country. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it makes our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Oberlin students can choose from upward of 50 majors, plus myriad options for minors and concentrations. There is also an impressive music conservatory at Oberlin.
Kansas City, Missouri
Rockhurst University is a private liberal arts college which aims to provide its students with “Learning, Leadership, and Service in the Jesuit Tradition.” Rockhurst consistently makes the rankings of the best colleges in the country, including those done by Forbes and U.S. News & World Report. Rockhurst’s reputation as one of the best liberal arts colleges in America has to do in large part with its rigorous academics. Before choosing from more than 50 degree programs, students must complete a well-designed core curriculum meant to expose them to a variety of subjects.
St Olaf College
St Olaf College, one of the Midwest’s top-ranked liberal arts schools, was established in 1874 by immigrants from Norway. The college credits its core curriculum for much of its success and reputation. Students at St Olaf begin their undergraduate careers with courses in:
- mathematical reasoning
- Biblical studies
- a foreign language
Then they go on to complete classes towards a chosen major. Washington Monthly has declared St Olaf College to be the 88th best liberal arts college in the country. U.S. News & World Report has ranked it as the 53rd best.
Truman State University
Most of the schools to make our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Midwest are private schools. One exception to this is Truman State University, which is public. Students at Truman follow a thoughtfully designed core curriculum which includes courses in:
- critical thinking
- modes of inquiry
- other tenets of the liberal arts
After completing the core, students then have 48 different undergraduate degree programs to choose from.
University of Evansville
University of Evansville is a small private university of about 2,500 students. This unique institution is perhaps best known for its prestigious theater department. Its poetry and literature programs are also known internationally, and have each produced various books and anthologies. Interestingly, University of Evansville also has a sister school in Grantham, England called Harlaxton College, where many of Evansville’s students take the opportunity to study abroad.
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
Prestigious Washington University in St. Louis is a great option for students who want both an urban college experience and a liberal arts education. Seven undergraduate and graduate schools offer students an impressive number of degree choices, many of which are in areas directly relating to the liberal arts. Impressively, Washington University in St. Louis has produced 25 Nobel laureates. It’s ranked #36 on the 2019 Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Wheaton College, located in Wheaton, Illinois, has a long and impressive history that includes being, at one time, a time stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, it’s one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, and has been recognized for its two traditions of academics and faith. Time magazine ranked it the 20th best liberal arts college, while U.S. News & World Report and Forbes also include Wheaton on their respective lists. Wheaton College is also one of the schools included in Loren Pope’s book Colleges That Change Lives.
William Jewell College
William Jewell College is a small liberal arts college with a population of just under 1,000 students. Though originally established by the Missouri Baptist Convention, the college is entirely independent of religious affiliation, and one of the top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Honors students at William Jewell have the unique opportunity to take part in the Oxbridge Honors Program. In this program they take English-style tutorials throughout their degree program, study abroad at either Oxford or Cambridge, and complete their senior year after passing comprehensive exams.