The western United States may be best known for its large universities specializing in everything from STEM to basketball, but as it turns out, it also has some great options for anyone intent on studying the liberal arts. We’ve profiled the best of those schools below.
Ranking Methodology: To come up with the 30 best liberal arts colleges on the West Coast, we began by making a list of all of the relevant colleges in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. We then cut down our list to 30 schools based on the following criteria:
- Rankings, both national and international
- Notable faculty
- Student retention rates
- Comprehensive curriculum
- Historical Significance
- PayScale’s 20-year Return on Investment (ROI)
Claremont McKenna College
The esteemed Claremont Colleges consortium in southern California consists of seven private liberal arts colleges, one of which is Claremont McKenna College. Students at Claremont McKenna have the unique opportunity to customize their education by studying courses at any of the schools in the consortium. U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 rankings include Claremont McKenna College as the 9th best liberal arts college in America. Meanwhile, Forbes ranks Claremont as the 26th overall best college in the country.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Colorado College, a beautiful liberal arts college located in Colorado Springs, has been ranked the 27th best liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News & World Report. That same publication declared Colorado College the 2nd most innovative liberal arts college in recognition of the school’s “curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology, and facilities.” Speaking of curriculum, Colorado College follows a unique block plan in which students study only a single subject for an intensive three-and-a-half week period.
Concordia University — Irvine
Concordia University in Irvine, California is a private Christian college associated with the Lutheran Church. The university is comprised of five schools, including:
- a Christian seminary
- a School of Education
- a School of Arts and Sciences
Students can choose from 20 undergraduate majors, or 50 specializations that include three different nursing programs. The university has an especially strong master’s program, which The Chronicle of Higher Education hailed as “one of the fastest growing private nonprofit master’s universities” in the country.
The Evergreen State College
The Evergreen State College was founded in 1967 as an experiment in non-traditional education. Considering this public liberal arts college consistently ranks among the best in the nation in categories ranging from the best first-year experiences to the best master’s degree programs for teaching, we’d say the experiment has been a success.
Fresno Pacific University
Fresno Pacific University is a private liberal arts school associated with Christian education and founded by the Mennonite Brethren Churches. The university aims to develop “students for leadership and service through excellence in higher education.” It does this by offering bachelor’s degrees in 29 fields and 60 areas of study. Fresno Pacific University is currently ranked the 39th best school in the Western United States by U.S. News & World Report.
George Fox University
George Fox University is a private liberal arts college located in Newberg, Oregon. Founded in 1885 as a school for Quakers, the university now offers bachelor’s degrees in nearly 40 majors. Interestingly, George Fox participates in the Richter Scholars program, in which 15-25 students per year are chosen to conduct original research in an area of interest. The university has been included on a number of rankings, including U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best colleges in the West (#24), as well as Kiplinger’s Personal Finance’s lists of the top Christian schools and the “Best Value” schools in the country.
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Gonzaga University is one of the most selective and prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country, and especially in the West. U.S. News & World Report declared it the 4th best school in the Western United States. Gonzaga students study a liberal arts-rich core curriculum which includes courses in:
- the natural and social sciences
- religious studies
In addition to the aforementioned U.S. News & World Report ranking, Gonzaga has also been ranked as one of the best by Fiske, Forbes, and The Princeton Review.
Like Gutenberg College in Eugene, Oregon has a liberal arts curriculum focused on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. Rather than traditional classes, students study with tutors at a round table discussion — a method of learning similar to the Oxford style. To earn Gutenberg’s one degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, students complete two years each of:
- classical Greek
- mathematics (ancient and modern)
- Great Books of the Western Civilization
- Great Conversation
They also study four years of Microexegesis (reading of difficult texts) and a number of classes in art and the natural sciences.
Harvey Mudd College
Harvey Mudd College is a top liberal arts college that excels in science, engineering, and mathematics. As the school’s mission states, “Harvey Mudd College seeks to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematics well versed in […] the humanities and the social sciences. . . .” Such a mission is important to the school’s tradition of “science with a conscience.” Harvey Mudd has been included in a number of national rankings, including those by:
- Money magazine (79th best college in the country)
- Forbes (23rd best college in America)
- U.S. News & World Report (18th best liberal arts college).
Imago Dei College
Oak Glen, California
Imago Dei College is a liberal arts school and an Evangelical Classical Christian institution. Like other schools on our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West, Imago Dei has a curriculum that focuses on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. As part of this unique core, students read — in chronological order — dozens of classic primary sources from the subjects of :
- language arts
- physical education
Students graduate from Imago Dei with a degree in Classical Liberal Arts as well as their choice of a degree in:
Linfield College, a private liberal arts school in McMinnville, Oregon, is known for its strong and well-rounded curriculum. No matter their choice of major, students take a variety of general education courses, and can even become involved in faculty-led research projects as undergraduates. Linfield College is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 108th best liberal arts college in the country.
Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, California
The Jesuit-affiliated Loyola Marymount University has long been a well-respected liberal arts school. Loyola Marymount is made up of seven schools, one of which is the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. All students, regardless of major, are required to complete a core curriculum comprised of science and humanities courses. Publications such as Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, and The Wall Street Journal all consistently rank Loyola Marymount University as one of the best colleges in America.
Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mills College is a women’s liberal arts school with a strong tradition in academic excellence. The college offers more than 60 majors and minors. Besides the usual liberal arts degrees in the humanities, students can choose to major in, among others:
Mills consistently ranks among the best schools in the country. Most recently, U.S. News & World Report included it on its lists of best universities in the West (#7) and Best Value Schools (#3).
Mount St. Mary’s University
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles-based Mount St. Mary’s University is a liberal arts college for female students. Mount St. Mary’s students study a well-organized core curriculum before ultimately choosing one of 30+ degree options. Interestingly, Mount St. Mary’s University — which has been declared by U.S. News & World Report as the 18th best school in the region — boasts a student population of which over 3/4 are minorities. The university is also proud to admit a large number of first-generation college students each year.
Los Angeles, California
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Occidental College makes our list of the best liberal arts colleges on the West Coast. After all, Occidental is one of the oldest liberal arts schools west of the Mississippi. Much of Occidental’s reputation for excellence has to do with its core curriculum. Students must successfully complete a series of classes in:
- foreign language
Then they pursue one of 33 choices of major. Occidental consistently ranks as one of the best colleges in the country. It includes among its many distinguished alumni 10 Rhodes Scholars.
Considered to be one of the “West Coast Ivy-League” equivalent schools, Pitzer College was an easy addition to our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West. As part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, Pitzer allows its students to cross-register in classes at:
- Claremont McKenna
- Harvey Mudd
All are liberal arts schools that are also included on our list. Pitzer excels in fields relating to social and behavioral sciences. It’s currently ranked #41 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the country’s best liberal arts colleges.
Point Loma Nazarene University
San Diego, California
Point Loma Nazarene University is a gorgeous liberal arts school situated beachside in San Diego. As a true liberal arts university, Point Loma Nazarene’s mission is to educate students “as whole people.” This includes a well-rounded core curriculum, plus more than 60 options for pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree. Point Loma Nazarene is currently included in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best universities in the West (#17).
Established in 1887 as one of the founding members of the Claremont Colleges consortium, Pomona College is today considered one of the best liberal arts schools in the country. Pomona itself offers more than 48 majors and 600 classes. Students are able to cross-register at any of the other schools in the consortium. Students can also choose to design their own major. Though the variety of classes included in Pomona’s core curriculum makes it a liberal arts college, it’s interesting to note that the college’s most popular majors include:
- computer science
In 2018, Forbes named Pomona College the 19th best college in the nation.
There is no other school quite like Prescott College on our list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West. Prescott boasts the motto “For the Liberal Arts, the Environment, and Social Justice,” and places an equal emphasis on each. Each of Prescott’s approximately 1,200 students has the option of earning a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies, or a Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual arts, creative writing, or interdisciplinary arts and letters.
Students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon receive one of the best liberal arts educations in the western United States. As part of the core curriculum, each ‘Reedie’ completes a humanities program that consists of courses such as:
- Introduction to Western Humanities
- Early Modern Europe
- Modern Humanities
- Foundations of Chinese Civilizations
Reed College has produced more than:
- 90 Fulbright Scholars
- 67 Watson Fellows
- 3 MacArthur Fellows
- 32 Rhodes Scholars
The school is currently ranked the 91st best college in the country by Forbes, while Newsweek declared it to be one of the 25 “new Ivies” in 2006.
Scripps College is one of the seven schools making up the prestigious “Claremont Consortium.” The all-female liberal arts college consistently ranks as one of the best schools in the country by all the major outlets, including U.S. News & World Report, which declares Scripps the 30th best college of its kind in the U.S. Though Scripps students have a wide selection of options for their major, each student must complete a series of courses in the humanities.
Soka University of America
Aliso Viejo, California
Like its much larger sister university in Japan, Soka University of America emphasizes the co-existence of humans and nature, pacifism, and human rights. All students at Soka University of America work towards obtaining the same degree: a bachelor’s in the liberal arts. Students may, however, tailor their degree towards a focus in:
- social and behavioral sciences
- environmental studies
- international studies
- life sciences
All students are required to spend a semester of their Junior year in Study Abroad.
St. John’s College
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Like many other top liberal arts colleges, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico has a core curriculum that focuses on the Great Books of the Western Heritage. Like the 17th century King William’s School, students at this top liberal arts college work towards a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts by reading and discussing the most acclaimed works of western civilization. St. John’s is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 72nd best liberal arts college in the country.
St. Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, California
Students at St. Thomas Aquinas College spend four years in the beautiful hills of Santa Paula, California while receiving a top-notch liberal arts education. St. Thomas Aquinas College’s curriculum is based almost entirely on the Great Books of the Western Heritage, and students read only from primary sources in their entirety. These include works by people like:
- St. Augustine
Upon graduation, students receive a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts.
United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Some may be surprised to see the United States Air Force Academy on a list of the best liberal arts colleges in the West, but sure enough, this prestigious institution has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 30th best liberal arts college in the country. All cadets must complete the same humanities-heavy core curriculum, after which they can choose a specialized field of study from more than 30 majors. While pursuing academics, cadets also participate in four years of training and athletics.
University of San Diego
San Diego, California
Perched atop a hill in San Diego, California is the University of San Diego, a private liberal arts college associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The university offers more than 40 baccalaureate degrees. However, each student, whether majoring in nursing or the arts, receives an education solidly built on the core principles of the liberal arts and sciences. University of San Diego is consistently ranked among the best colleges and programs in the nation by publications such as:
- U.S. News & World Report (85th best college in America)
- The Princeton Review
- Bloomberg Businessweek,
- Forbes (140th best college in America), among others.
Walla Walla, Washington
At Washington’s Whitman College, students spend much of their time immersed in all things liberal arts. During a student’s freshman year, he or she will complete the Encounters course, a two-semester class meant to act as a solid introduction to the liberal arts. Students may then choose to design their own course of study or choose from over 48 options for their major. Forbes ranks Whitman College the 82nd best school in the country, while U.S. News & World Report declares it the 43rd best liberal arts college overall.
Whitworth University, in Spokane, Washington, is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian church. Students can choose from more than 100 undergraduate majors, each of which requires a number of classes anchored in the liberal arts. To complement their chosen program of study, students are encouraged to take part in experiences such as:
- studying abroad
- service learning
- research projects.
Since its establishment in 1842, Willamette University has been considered one of the top liberal arts colleges in the western United States. Students pursuing a degree in the university’s College of Liberal Arts receive a solid education in all things liberal learning. They’re even given the unique opportunity of designing their own courses of study, conducting their own research, and even potentially publishing their work. Willamette, the oldest university on the West Coast, ranks as the 76th best liberal arts college in the country, as declared by U.S. News & World Report.