Finding the best liberal arts college is the goal of many high school students looking to plan the next four years of their lives. After all, only at a liberal arts school can one receive a well-rounded education in which the natural sciences are emphasized just as much as literature. For those intent on receiving such a comprehensive education, searching amongst colleges in the Northeast makes perfect sense, as this region of the United States has a long history of academic excellence. Indeed, quite a few of the best schools in the country are located in the Northeast.
To come up with our list of the best liberal arts colleges, our editors began by making a comprehensive list of all liberal arts schools in the Northeast. We limited our search to Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. We then chose our final 30 schools based on the following criteria:
- comprehensive curriculum
- national and international rankings
- freshman retention rates
- notable faculty and alumni
- historical significance
- 20-year Return on Investment (ROI), as determined by PayScale
Amherst College is perhaps one of the best known liberal arts colleges in the country. Founded in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1821, it is the state’s third-oldest institution of higher education. Amherst College offers its students a whopping 850 course options in 36 different areas of study. While the vast majority of these subjects fall within the liberal arts, there are also plentiful options in mathematics and the natural sciences. Amherst has been ranked by Forbes as the 12th best college (of any kind) in the United States, while U.S. News & World Report has ranked Amherst America’s second best liberal arts school.
Annandale on Hudson, New York
New York’s Bard College is a selective private college and one of the best liberal arts schools in the Northeast. Besides its highly regarded liberal arts program, Bard is comprised of a conservatory, plus eight graduate programs. Undergraduate students can choose from a long list of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees in more than 40 majors and 12 interdisciplinary concentrations. Bard consistently ranks among the top schools in the nation on lists compiled by U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, Forbes, and Newsweek.
New York, New York
Located in New York City, Barnard has remained one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges for women since its founding in 1889. Students at Bernard have more than 50 Bachelor of Art programs from which to choose, though they also have the option of registering for courses at nearby Columbia University and to earn a dual Bachelor of Science degree. Regardless of major chosen, all Barnard students study one of the most comprehensive core curriculums of any liberal arts college. For all this, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Barnard the 29th best liberal arts school in the country, while Forbes has declared it the 37th best college overall.
At Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, students may choose to pursue either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in one of 36 different programs. Twenty-five secondary concentrations are also offered. Bates is an excellent choice of school for any student intent on receiving a well-rounded liberal arts education, but who is also interested in the field of engineering. Uniquely, Bates offers these types of students its Liberal Arts-Engineering Dual Degree Program, in which students participate in engineering courses at Washington University, Dartmouth College, or Columbia University.
Besides being one of the most beautiful colleges in the country, Bowdoin College is also one of the most prestigious. Located near Casco Bay and the Androscoggin River, Bowdoin College is an excellent choice of liberal arts school for those who prefer to study outdoors in some of the country’s most beautiful natural settings. Bowdoin’s core curriculum is very strong in the liberal arts. Once they’ve completed the core, students may then choose from 33 majors and four minors.
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
As is the case with a few of the schools to make our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, Bryn Mawr is an all-female college. Students have their choice of a whopping 331 (!) majors, nearly all of which are subjects pertaining to the liberal arts. Bryn Mawr’s core curriculum, however, is a well-rounded collection of courses which includes classes in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (including some lab classes). Students must also complete a minimum of one year studying a foreign language.
Situated in central Pennsylvania along the picturesque Susquehanna River, Bucknell University is a private liberal arts college made up of three departmental colleges: the School of Management, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the College of Engineering. Bucknell students have the option of 44 different majors and more than 70 minors, which they may choose after completing a well-rounded core curriculum. Uniquely, Bucknell University provides its students, regardless of major, to take part in research programs with university faculty and staff.
Colby College is well known around the world as a high-quality place to receive an education. Indeed, students from more than 60 different countries call Colby home. This top-ranked liberal arts school offers 54 different majors, plus the opportunity for students to design their own degree program based on their interests. No matter which degree program they choose to pursue, students are also encouraged to take part in a study abroad program at one of more than 200 international universities with which Colby has a relationship. Considering all of this, it’s no wonder U.S. News & World Report ranks Colby College the 12th best liberal arts college in the United States.
Hamilton, New York
Colgate University is a private liberal arts college located in Hamilton, New York. Students here may choose from 55 different undergraduate concentrations in which to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Like so many colleges to make our list of the best liberal arts schools in the Northeast, Colgate is no stranger to national rankings. The Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report, and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education have all ranked Colgate amongst the best colleges nationwide. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Colgate has been included on the list of “Hidden Ivies” released by Newsweek.
College of the Holy Cross
As you’ve likely guessed by its name, College of the Holy Cross is a Jesuit-associated liberal arts college located in Worcester, Massachusetts. Approximately 2,800 students call the College of the Holy Cross home, each of which is pursuing one of the school’s 28 Bachelor of Arts degrees. College of the Holy Cross is an especially appealing choice of school for those interested in the Classics, as it is home to the second largest Classics program of any liberal arts school in America. The program actively participates in Classics projects throughout the world, including as a major editor of the Homer Multi-Text Project, and as a main contributor to the Perseus Project, a huge online database of Greek antiquity.
New London, Connecticut
Forbes, The Princeton Review, and U.S. News & World Report have all included Connecticut College on their rankings of the best colleges. Located in New London, Connecticut College is home to approximately 2,000 students. The college offers 41 different degree programs, but also allows students to design their own course of study if appropriate. Perhaps not surprising for a top-ranked liberal arts college, Connecticut College’s most popular majors include anthropology, art, English, and history.
Although it was founded in 1773, Dickinson College didn’t become a chartered college until 1783 — only six days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Fun fact: that makes Dickinson College the very first institution of higher education to be founded after the official formation of the United States. These days, Dickinson is better known as a top-ranked liberal arts college. A unique and innovative core curriculum is offered to every student, as are 40 different options of major. Students who intend to study both the liberal arts and engineering also have the option of spending two years studying at either Case Western Reserve University, Columbia University, or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Franklin and Marshall College
Franklin and Marshall College, a private liberal arts school located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is often included on lists ranking the best colleges. For example, Forbes has named Franklin and Marshall the 36th best school in the nation, while U.S. News & World Report declared it the 37th best liberal arts college. Interestingly, the college was named the 26th most “economically diverse top college” by The New York Times, and The Princeton Review has said that Franklin and Marshall has the “most accessible professors” of any college in America.
Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg College is no stranger to prestigious rankings. Besides making the typical “best of” lists, this liberal arts college located near the famous Civil War battle site bas been ranked by The Princeton Review as one of the four best liberal arts colleges for matching students with great internship programs. Surely, Gettysburg students’ success with internships stems from the fact they study an excellent core curriculum steeped in classical studies, foreign language, history, and art, among other subjects important to the liberal arts.
Clinton, New York
Hamilton College is a private liberal arts college situated amongst the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. Hamilton students have more than 50 areas of study from which to choose for their major and/or minor(s). Among this plethora of options is a dual-degree engineering program in which students ultimately earn degrees from both Hamilton and Dartmouth College or Columbia University. Hamilton consistently ranks amongst the best of the best. Forbes has ranked Hamilton the 50th best college in the United States, while U.S. News & World Report has declared it the 12th best liberal arts school.
Hampshire College is a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Like its neighbor, Amherst College (also on our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northeast), Hampshire is a member of the Five Colleges, and therefore students can cross-enroll in classes at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hampshire has a unique curriculum that focuses on building portfolios and “grading” not with letter grades, but with narrative evaluations. This method may be different from so many others, but it must be doing something right as a whopping 56% of Hampshire grads go on to achieve at least one graduate degree.
Haverford College was founded in 1833 by Quakers. Located in a Philadelphia suburb, Haverford seeks to provide students with a flexible and well-rounded liberal arts education. To accomplish this, Haverford offers students 31 majors spanning the humanities and sciences. Students are also allowed to register for courses at nearby Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania, or Bryn Mawr College. Whatever Haverford’s process, it’s working. This top-ranked liberal arts school has produced six Pulitzer Prize winners, three Nobel Prize laureates, 20 Rhodes Scholars, and 104 Fulbright Scholars.
Lafayette College is located in the beautiful Lehigh Valley, and a short drive from New York City. Students here have more than 50 choices of major, including biology, English, and psychology, three of the most popular. Lafayette consistently ranks amongst the top schools in the country. Indeed, Kiplinger, Forbes, BusinessInsider, and U.S. News & World Report have all included Lafayette on their lists of the best.
Middlebury College was the first school in Vermont to open its doors to students in 1800. Today, this private liberal arts college is one of the best in not only Vermont, but in the entire country! Students have more than 40 departments from which to choose their courses, and ultimately, their major. As is common amongst liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, Middlebury offers a 4-1-4 schedule consisting of two four-course semesters in the fall and spring, plus a one-class winter term during which students focus on either an intensive class, an internship, or a research program.
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, Massachusetts
Mount Holyoke College students enjoy lots of options for obtaining a liberal arts education. Located in South Hadley, Massachusetts, this top-rated college offers 50 majors, not counting the option to design one’s own degree program based on specific interests. But all students, regardless of major, are required to complete 128 credits beyond courses from their major department. Applicable courses form a healthy variety of science, mathematics, social sciences, and of course, the humanities. As an added bonus, Mount Holyoke College students are also able to enroll in classes at nearby schools such as University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith College, Hampshire College, and Amherst College.
Saratoga Springs, New York
Students who love the arts even more than the average liberal arts person would do well to consider Skidmore College. Located in Saratoga Springs, New York, Skidmore has a core curriculum rich in the humanities. Students may choose to pursue either a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science in over 60 different majors of study. Skidmore College is well represented by the rankings of U.S. News & World Report. The national ranking publication lists Skidmore as the 29th best college as chosen by high school counselors, the 38th best liberal arts college, and the 53rd best college overall.
Located in Northampton, MA, Smith College is an all-female liberal arts college. The ladies of Smith have a variety of options for classes and majors, and since Smith is a member of both the Seven Sisters and the Five Colleges Consortium, students may also take classes at other top-ranked schools. Smith has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 12th best liberal arts college in the country.
St. John’s College
St. John’s College is unique to our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. Located in Annapolis, Maryland, St. John’s offers a curriculum designed entirely around Western Civilization’s “Great Books.” Over the course of their undergraduate career, students read and discuss the Western heritage’s most important texts, beginning with The Iliad and The Odyssey, and ending with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. All students attending St. John’s receive a Bachelor of Arts in the Liberal Arts.
About 11 miles outside of Philadelphia is Swarthmore College. Though this top-ranked liberal arts college was initially established by Quakers, it is today entirely non-religious. Swarthmore has long been considered an excellent university from which to graduate. Indeed, quite a few notable figures in the arts, science, politics, law, and business have call it their alma mater. Interestingly, Swarthmore students have access to courses taught at nearby (and also formerly Quaker) Haverford College, Bryn Mawr College, and University of Pennsylvania.
As the second oldest college in Connecticut, Trinity College has a long history of academic excellence. Trinity students may choose from 38 majors and more than 25 minors, but are also encouraged to supplement their chosen degree program with internships, research, and study abroad opportunities. U.S. News & World Report ranks Trinity College the 38th best liberal arts college in America.
Schenectady, New York
Located in Schenectady, New York, Union College has a long history of academic excellence. First established in 1795, Union remained a college exclusively for men for nearly 200 years. Today, Union College is co-ed and unique amongst liberal arts colleges in the Northeast. For example, Union’s core curriculum covers a wide variety of classes typical for liberal arts schools. And while students have 21 liberal arts-themed academic departments from which to choose their major, they are also encouraged to take courses in engineering.
Poughkeepsie, New York
Today, Vassar College is known as one of the best liberal arts colleges in not only the Northeast, but the entire country. However, when it was founded in 1861, Vassar was the only college in the United States to grant degrees to women. More than 50 major options are offered to Vassar students, though they are also given the opportunity of a flexible curriculum by which they can experience a wide breadth of knowledge and experiences. U.S. News & World Report has ranked Vassar as the 12th best liberal arts college in America.
While many of the colleges on our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northeast used to be single sex, Wellesley is one of the few institutions in the United States which remains an all-women’s school. The ladies of Wellesley have nearly 60 degree programs from which to choose, but may also register for classes at Brandeis University, Babson College, or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), all of which are located nearby. Wellesley College has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the third best liberal arts college in the country, while Forbes has ranked it the 26th best college overall.
Wesleyan University is a top-ranked liberal arts school located in Middletown, Connecticut. Like so many of the best liberal arts colleges, Wesleyan’s strong core curriculum includes both the arts and the sciences. Students have upwards of 900 courses and 45 majors from which to choose, though they may also customize their academic experience and degree program to suit their personal interests. Interestingly, a little more than half of Wesleyan students take part in an independent study program which allows them to complete their chosen degree program at their own pace.
U.S. News & World Report has ranked Williams College the best liberal arts school in the country for an impressive 15 straight years! Williams offers its students a variety of courses in humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. Unique amongst American schools, the college’s core curriculum is based on the tutorial system of Cambridge and Oxford, in which students work one-on-one, or in small groups, with a professor or “tutor.” Students have 33 majors to choose from for their degree.
By GVC Staff