Chapter 3

Liberal Arts Colleges

Liberal arts colleges, like universities, come in almost unlimited varieties. Some small liberal arts colleges are part of major universities. The undergraduate college at Johns Hopkins and at Rice each has less than 3,000 students. On the other hand, Brooklyn College alone has a larger enrollment of undergraduates than either of these universities has total students enrolled at all levels. Huge colleges have many of the same characteristics as huge universities. The special characteristics of liberal arts colleges show up most clearly in the smaller institutions.


The schools that epitomize the advantages and disadvantages of the liberal arts college are the independent institutions with a thousand or two thousand students, usually in a smaller town or a rural area. Here the student is less likely to be lost in a crowd on campus or distracted by the bright lights of off-campus activities. Anyone who has seen Walla Walla, Washington (where Whitman College is located) or Aurora, New York (home of Wells College) is likely to conclude that any mischief a student gets into there will probably be on-campus mischief. Many of these schools are often referred to as "safe" because of their small town or rural locations. Where drugs abound, however, this may be a misplaced term, but often physical safety from others is not a major concern in such places.

The classic small liberal arts college is more than a pleasant place where other people know you, though that is not a small consideration for a student living away from home for the first time—especially a shy student. Academically, the learning process can be far more manageable where professors are teachers first and foremost. One of the best taught introductory economics classes I ever saw was taught by the late Ben Rogge at Wabash College in Indiana. Few students at Harvard would ever get such a good foundation in the subject. Ben, rest his soul, had obviously thought through all the pitfalls of the subject and led the student safely around them. A history professor at Hillsdale College had a similar knack of engaging students in what could easily be a dry and tedious subject—and doing so, all the while casually sipping his morning coffee.

The importance of such teachers and the individual attention of a small college varies greatly with the student. For some students, such an environment is priceless and crucial to their social maturation as well as intellectual development. Some other students are going to master the subject and the situation, no matter where they are. These latter students may derive no great advantages from going to a liberal arts college, so for them it may be a questionable trade-off to pass up the resources of a university or of a larger community, if that is what they want.


Liberal arts colleges are not watered-down universities. They often provide not only a more stimulating undergraduate education but also a more solid foundation for graduate school. We have already noted the irony that many large universities, with some of the top Ph.D. programs in the nation, have very unimpressive proportions of their own undergraduates go on to receive Ph.D.'s, compared to the proportions among students from small liberal arts colleges. Being larger, universities of course generally have larger absolute numbers of their alumni go on to receive doctorates. But, size for size, the leading liberal arts colleges have no trouble holding their own with even the leading private universities. For example, among the institutions listed below, all with similar numbers of undergraduates and with composite SAT scores of 1200 or more, the following numbers of their graduates went on to earn doctorates during the decade 1977-1986:

Oberlin College 998
Johns Hopkins University 658
Brandeis University 649
Rice University 618
Smith College 605
Wesleyan University 448
Colgate University 334
Holy Cross College 283

Source: National Research Council

No doubt there are many reasons for the variations within this select group, so exact numbers and exact rankings are not crucial. But the point here is simply that graduates of liberal arts colleges certainly hold their own with graduates of universities. Indeed, some even smaller liberal arts colleges have enough doctorates among their alumni to be comparable to the institutions in this group—for example, Mount Holyoke (447) and Swarthmore (535).

This particular list was selected to get similar-sized institutions with academically similar entering freshmen-which is not easy to do, since universities tend to be larger than colleges. An even better comparison would be among all colleges and universities, using percentages of students continuing on to the Ph.D., to allow for differences in their respective sizes. On this basis, the liberal arts colleges outdo the universities decisively when it comes to the proportion of their graduates who go on to complete the doctorate. For a 30-year period beginning in 1951, the following institutions had more than one-eighth of their graduates go on to receive the Ph.D.:

1. Harvey Mudd College
2. California Institute of Technology
3. Reed College
4. University of Chicago
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
6. Swarthmore College
7. Haverford College
8. Oberlin College
9. Harvard University
10. New College of the University of South Florida
11. University of California at San Diego
12. * Amherst College
12. * Carleton College
12. * Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
12. * Pomona College
16. Rice University
17. Brandeis University
18. Eckerd College
19. Wabash College
20. Bryn Mawr College
*Tied in ranking.
Source: Change magazine, Nov./Dec., 1986

Liberal arts colleges outnumber universities 10 to 6 among these 20 institutions, with the other 4 being engineering schools (Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, M.I.T., Cooper Union). Such renowned universities as Yale, Stanford, and Princeton do not have as high a proportion of their alumni go on to receive Ph.D.'s as any of the colleges on this list.

There are many indications of the difference that size makes. Three of the top 10 institutions on the list have less than a thousand students each (Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, New College). Among the universities on the list, most have small undergraduate colleges and none has as many as 20,000 total students on campus. Even within the same state university system, the University of California at San Diego has a higher percentage of students go on to doctorates than the larger and more prestigious Berkeley and U.C.L.A. campuses. So do UC Riverside, UC Irvine, and UC Santa Cruz. It is hard to see what advantage any of these campuses has over Berkeley and UCLA, except that they are not as huge.


Because liberal arts colleges are not homogeneous, there is the same urgent need to match the individual to the institution that there is in the case of universities. But many fine liberal arts colleges are little known outside their home state or region. Someone living in California is more likley to have some idea how Duke University differs from the University of Alabama than to understand how Davidson College differs from Birmingham-Southern—though the latter schools are in the same two states as the former. By the same token, even a well-informed New Yorker may have no idea what the difference is between such west coast colleges as Pitzer and Whitman, even when there is some awareness of how Stanford differs from Berkeley. These difficulties in learning about small liberal arts colleges are reflected in the geographical origins of their students. Muhlenberg is a respectable college in Pennsylvania but 88 percent of its students come from just three states—New Jersey (38%), Pennsylvania (31%) and New York (19%). Only 2 percent are from outside the northeast quadrant. Similarly, 70 percent of Davidson College students come from the southeast and Knox College receives 70 percent of its students from Illinois alone. It is an exceptional liberal arts college that can draw more than half its students from out of state, and even so, the bulk of the students usually come from adjoining states. This is no problem if the kind of school you want is in your area. But if the combination of things you are looking for reduces your choices drastically, the perfect place for you may be hundreds of miles away and wholly unknown to you when you begin your search.

What this all means is that choosing the right liberal arts college can involve much more research than choosing a university or institute of technology, if only because there are more unknown gems to be discovered. You may never have heard of Gustavus Adolphus College, but when more than 60 percent of its alumni donate money annually, you know that some people have lasting gratitude for what they found there. You may never have heard of Davidson College, but it ranked above Amherst, Williams, Smith, and Wellesley in the total number of doctorates in mathematics received by its graduates over a decade—even though each of these better-known colleges has more students than Davidson.

College guides can be very helpful in the search for the right liberal arts college, especially those guides that sketch something of the flavor of each college, rather than simply inundate you with statistics. The Insiders Guide to the Colleges and Edward Fiske's Selective Guide to the Colleges can both be very useful and probably both should be read to get at least two views of each institution. Fiske's Best Buys in Colleges can also be useful, not just from a financial angle, but also because it goes further down the academic pecking order than the other two and turns up schools that may be well worth considering, especially by students of more modest academic achievement.

Most students go to college in their own state. This is especially true of community college students (94%), less true of 4-year college students (77%), and still less so of students attending top-level colleges and universities (less than one-fifth of the students at Amherst or Harvard are from Massachusetts). However, because geography is usually a factor in choosing a college, small liberal arts colleges will be listed regionally here, so that those who would prefer to remain in the same general area of the country can see what is available there, before looking farther away. These colleges will also be grouped according to the general level of their S.A.T. scores, so that you can begin your search among institutions whose students' academic capabilities are similar to your own. This obviously does not prevent your looking at institutions in more than one S.A.T. bracket. If your S.A.T. score is 1120, for example, this does not mean that you should disdain to consider a college whose median S.A.T. is 1080, or be afraid to think about going to a college whose median S.A.T. is an even 1200. But a composite S.A.T. difference of 200 points or more should make you think long and hard about the dangers of academic mismatching.

Liberal arts colleges with 3,000 students or less and combined SAT scores averaging 1200 or above are shown below, listed alphabetically within each region. This list includes both independent colleges and those that belong to universities. Those colleges and universities with asterisks alongside their names have had more than 7 percent of their graduates go on to receive Ph.D.'s, over a 30-year period.

Combined S.A.T. 1200+
Northeast: Amherst*, Barnard*, Bowdoin*, Brandeis*, Bryn Mawr*, Colgate, Columbia*, Haverford*, Johns Hopkins*, Lafayette, Middlebury, St. John's* (Maryland), Smith, Swarthmore*, Trinity College (Connecticut), Union (N.Y.), Vassar, Wellesley*, Wesleyan* (Connecticut), Williams*.
South: Davidson*, New College*, Rice*, Trinity University (Texas), University of Dallas, Washington & Lee, William & Mary.
West: Claremont-McKenna, Pomona*, Reed*.
Midwest: Carleton*, Oberlin*, University of Chicago*.

While these are all top-level schools in terms of the average test scores of their entering freshmen, they vary enormously in the academic reputation of their faculties, the nature of their curricula, their approaches to teaching, their libraries, science labs, and other resources, and the attitudes and behavior of their students. In none of these important respects do they necessarily outrank institutions with lower S.A.T. averages listed in the table below, or universities and colleges not listed at all. Many institutions are, after all, left off these particular lists simply because they have more than 3,000 undergraduates. More than half the Ivy League, together with Stanford, Duke, Northwestern and many others, are missing from these lists of small colleges for that reason.

In short, these groupings by SAT score are an important clue to the level of work to expect from fellow students and therefore the kinds of standards by which one's own work will be judged. They do not represent a ranking of institutions in any other sense, but are simply one way to begin narowing choices among small colleges, so as to look closely at a few schools to see which would be a good match for the particular student. Small colleges with test scores in the 1100-1199 range are shown below—again, listed alphabetically within each region:

Combined S.A.T. 1100-1199
Northeast: Albright, Allegheny, Bates*, Colby, Connecticut, Dickinson, Drew*, Fairfield, Franklin & Marshall*, Hamilton*, Hampshire, Hobart & William Smith, Holy, Cross, Mount Holyoke, St. Lawrence, Sarah Lawrence, Siena, Simon's Rock, Skidmore, Trinity (Connecticut), Union (N.Y.), Yeshiva*.
South: Furman, Millsaps, Oglethorpe, Rhodes*, Southwestern, (Tennessee), University of Richmond, University of the, South (Sewanee).
West: Colorado College, Occidental*, St. John's (New Mexico), Whitman*, Willamette.
Midwest: Albion, Case Western Reserve*, Denison, Earlham*, Grinnell*, Kalamazoo*, Kenyon*, Lawrence University, Macalester, St. Olaf, Wheaton* (Illinois).

At colleges whose average composite S.A.T.s are in the 1100s, there is a somewhat lower proportion of institutions with 7 percent or more of their graduates continuing on to the doctorate, compared to colleges and universities with composite S.A.T.s of 1200 and above. A sharper drop-off occurs as we move to colleges whose average S.A.T.s are in the range from 1000 to 1099. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that a significant minority of these institutions still send this many on to receive doctorates—which puts them ahead of Berkeley, Penn, U.C.L.A., Michigan, Wisconsion, Minnesota, Texas, Northwestern and many other large and highly-rated universities.

Combined S.A.T. 1000-1099
Northeast: Bard, Bennington, Canisius, Catholic University*, Clark, Gettysburg, Gordon, Goucher, Grove City, Hood, Houghton, Juniata, Le Moyne, Messiah, Muhlenberg, St. Joseph's (Pennsylvania), St. Mary's (Maryland), State University of New York (Purchase), Stonehill, Ursinus, Washington College (Md.), Washington and Jefferson, Wells, Wheaton (Massachusetts).
South: Agnes Scott, Austin, Birmingham-Southern*, Centre, Eckerd*, Hampden-Sydney, Hendrix, Hollins, Randolph-Macon, Randolph-Macon Women's College, Rollins, Southwestern University (Texas), Spring Hill, Stetson, Transylvania, Washington-Monroe.
West: Evergreen, Lewis & Clark, Mills, Pacific Lutheran, Pepperdine, Pitzer, Scripps, University of Tulsa, University of Puget Sound, Whittier.
Midwest: Alma, Antioch*, Beloit, Butler, Calvin, Depauw, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Hope*, Illinois College, John Carroll, Knox*, Lake Forest, Luther, Ohio Wesleyan, Ripon, St. Benedict, St. John's University (Minnesota), St. Mary's (Indiana), Wabash*, Westminster (Missouri), Wittenberg, Wooster*.

Liberal arts colleges with S.A.T. scores below this level are not to be written off. Some that may be well worth checking into include Hillsdale, Rockford, and Berea colleges. They would be of special interest for those seeking a more traditional education in a more conservative social environment. Nevertheless, a line had to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn just above their current S.A.T. levels.


While each of the above listings might suggest that there are large numbers of suitable colleges available, covering a wide range of student capabilities, each list represents only a "first cut" in the process of weeding out possibilities to get to promising matches between individual and institutions. Merely looking for a school in your own geographic region shrinks each list substantially. Whether you are looking for a college with educational and social structure or one with a do-your-own-thing philosophy, either characteristic will eliminate still more of the possibilities. Depending on how many requirements you have, even the national list may shrink very quickly. This is no reason to panic. After all, you need only one college. But it is important to understand at the outset that it may take considerable time and thought to find even a few good possibilities by the time for application.

The task is by no means overwhelming, however. The longest list of small liberal arts colleges for any region and S.A.T. level is that of 25 northeastern institutions in the 1000-1199 range. If you pick up a general descriptive guide like Fiske's Selective Guide to the Colleges and begin reading his descriptions of their academic and social environments, you will undoubtedly begin to cross some of these 25 colleges off your list for various reasons, and perhaps take a special interest in some of those remaining. You may have only a dozen or so on the list when you turn to another guide for second opinions, or to look up colleges not covered in Fiske's guide. This process will probably further shrink the number of institutions remaining, while perhaps adding new interest or curiosity about some of the others. Whether you are looking for an experimental academic and social environment or a conservative one, an emphasis or a de-emphasis on varsity athletics, a place where fraternities and sororities abound or don't exist at all, many colleges will fall by the wayside as you go down your list.

This may sound like a lot of reading but it isn't, and of course it need not all be done at one sitting. Even if you go through three or four guides, reading only about the colleges on your list, the reading will probably amount to fewer total pages than you usually find in a single book. Knowing what you are looking for makes the task much easier.

Even those who begin with a long list of colleges extending beyond their region will probably end up with a very manageable list of a dozen or so. Those who begin with a more modest-sized list may well find themselves with too few colleges of the sort they want in their region and have to look at some more from other regions. The goal at this first stage is to end up with a list of a dozen or so institutions from which you can request brochures and catalogues for a closer look, with perhaps a few campus visits later on for those that seem especially promising after going through their literature.


One of the problems common to small liberal arts colleges in general, their limited number of courses, is dealt with differently in different institutions. A college with many pre-med students may have a sizeable and strong chemistry department and biology department, skimping on drama, music, or art, or perhaps eliminating them entirely. Another small college, with a different kind of student body, may be heavy in drama, music, and art, and light in scientific and pre-professional fields. Such differing emphases will often be apparent in descriptions in the college guides or can be discovered in their catalogues and brochures, or by talking to people in their admissions offices. Franklin & Marshall College is not Bennington, as both will undoubtedly be anxious to make clear. Their strengths are in different areas and their goals lie in radically different directions, though both are called liberal arts colleges. The future physician or chemist at Franklin & Marshall is not looking for what the future artist or writer is seeking at Bennington.

The proportion of undergraduate degrees received in different fields is one rough indicator of where a college's strengths and weaknesses lie, but the mere granting of numerous degrees in a particular subject says little about how solidly prepared the students are in that subject. A better indicator of how well prepared the students are in different academic areas is how many are able to continue on to the doctorate in those areas. It is not just a question of the number or proportions of Ph.D.'s received by a college's graduates, but also a question of the kind of fields in which these doctorates are concentrated.

Bennington and other colleges with a reputation for a "free floating" philosophy tend generally to have small proportions of their alumni doctorates in fields like mathematics, the physical sciences or engineering. Only 7 percent of Bennington's alumni doctorates were in any of these three fields in 1977-86 and the proportions were similarly modest at Bard College (10%), Sarah Lawrence (1%), and Evergreen State (11%). This contrasts with proportions two or three times as high at more traditional colleges such as Amherst (23%) or the University of Chicago (23%). Proportions are even higher at some colleges with a scientific or technological orientation, such as Franklin & Marshall (30%), Union College (34%) or Lafayette College (40%).

Again, specific numbers are not crucial. What is important is to recognize that colleges differ radically in where their strengths lie. Because some of the smaller liberal arts colleges may not be able to cover all the fields equally well, it is important to be sure that their strengths match your interests. Bryn Mawr College, for example, is number one in the nation in the percentage of its students who continue on to Ph.D.s in the humanities, but it is not even among the top 50 in the percentage receiving Ph.D.s in mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering. By the same token, none of the technical institutes like Harvey Mudd, Cal Tech, or M.I.T. is among the top 50 in percentage of students going on to receive humanities doctorates- nor, for that matter, are such strong scientific liberal arts colleges as Lafayette, Union, and Franklin & Marshall.

The fact that some liberal arts colleges are far stronger in some areas than in others—as some universities are as well—does not imply that liberal arts colleges in general are lopsided. Many small liberal arts colleges are strong simultaneously in the humanities, the social sciences, mathematics, and the physical and biological sciences. Indeed, among 17 institutions with the highest proportions of their graduates receiving doctorates in all these fields simultaneously, 14 are small liberal arts colleges. In alphabetical order, these 17 institutions are: Amherst, Antioch, Carleton, Chicago, Grinnell, Harvard, Haverford, Kalamazoo, New College, Oberlin, Pomona, Reed, UC Riverside, Swarthmore, Wesleyan (Connecticut), and Wooster.

Like all the other lists, this is not intended to be a ranking of the "best." It is intended to convey some important information that may be useful to you in trying to match your interests and talents with the right college for you. If you are not sure whether your main interests will be in the humanities, the sciences, or elsewhere, then colleges with top-quality programs across the board may be of special interest to you. Even if you do have some idea where your general interests are concentrated, you may still want a college that is very strong in the other fields as well. On the other hand, if your interests are wholly in the humanities, Bryn Mawr may be perfect for you (assuming many other things match), just as Union or Lafayette may be tailor-made for someone whose interests are strongly focussed on science and technology.

Some liberal arts colleges located in the vicinity of other colleges and universities make up for the limited range of courses at one institution by allowing students from one college to take some courses at neighboring institutions. In Massachusetts, for example, Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts have such a cooperative arrangement with one another. In California, Pomona, Claremont-McKenna, Pitzer, Scripps, and Harvey Mudd colleges not only have a similar arrangement but are also located within walking distance of each other. Smaller groups of colleges elsewhere have such reciprocal arrangements, including pairs of colleges like St. Olaf's and Carleton, both located in Northfield, Minnesota. Some of the institutions that do this are strong across the board, and cooperate simply to make more options available to their own students and those of neighboring institutions. In other cases, however, a cooperative arrangement enables a college (or university or engineering school) to cover an area in which it might otherwise be weak.

Where a college is located far from any comparable institution, like Whitman College in southeastern Washington state or Wabash College in rural Indiana, it must be judged by its own resources alone. Seldom will these resources match those of a large university in absolute terms. However, what matters is whether these resources are adequate—or ample—for the number of students they serve. In terms of endowment per student, for example, both Whitman and Wabash have more than Columbia University, and so have the money to offer strong programs on their own. Obviously, endowment is not the only consideration, even financially. But the point is that the basis of whatever comparison is made must be per student. More important, the things that you are interested in need to be checked out specifically for each institution, whether it is computers, biology labs, or anything else.

Some liberal arts colleges are in financial straits and it shows in their equipment, libraries, and faculty. Others are in robust financial health. The same wide variations occur among universities. The big universities of course have the largest endowments in absolute amounts. However, in terms of college endowment per student, only 4 of the top 10 belong to colleges at universities (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford) and 6 belong to independent liberal arts colleges (Swarthmore, Wabash, Williams, Dartmouth, Carleton, and Oberlin). Whether measured by resources or results, liberal arts colleges more than hold their own with universities at all academic levels when it comes to educating undergraduates. Universities of course often have larger goals, including major research and the training of graduate students, physicians, and lawyers. However, undergraduate education is what matters when you are choosing a college.

Copyright 1989 by Thomas Sowell
Reprinted with permission