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The 20 Best Undergraduate Colleges

The 20 Best Undergraduate Colleges
Rank School Location
1 Swarthmore College Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
2 ,

The Top 10 Undergraduate Colleges

  1. Swarthmore College
  2. Deep Springs College
  3. Harvey Mudd College
  4. Williams College
  5. Curtis Institute of Music
  6. William and Mary
  7. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
  8. West Point
  9. United States Air Force Academy
  10. Naval Academy

This ranking of the best Undergraduate Colleges is from the perspective of the student.

This includes how the students are educated and enriched by their college experience, and career prospects after graduation.See our Ranking Methodology

Rankings of the best colleges usually name Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Emory, Duke, etc., and will often include small elite liberal arts colleges to round out the list.

However, Successful Student goes farther—in this ranking of the 20 Best Undergraduate Colleges, colleges are ranked by factors such as diverse academics, fostering an environment for well-rounded student development with an emphasis on preparing students for vocational success after college, and of course low tuition and other college-related costs.

The large universities that focus on research tend to invest the lion's share of their resources into graduate as opposed to undergraduate education. This article aims at colleges that concentrate on undergraduates. As such, this is a ranking of schools whose primary degree is an associate's or bachelor's degree.

The Best Undergraduate Colleges


Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Swarthmore College is a private liberal arts college that is always ranked among the very best in every college of liberal arts' ranking in the United States.

Located close to Philadelphia and established in 1864, Swarthmore's heritage is Quaker, and it is dedicated to social responsibility and is known for wide intellectual inquiry. Among Swarthmore's alumni are five Nobel Prize winners—the second-highest number of winners on a per-graduate basis in the nation.

Swarthmore is a liberal arts and engineering college. Their first rate honors program contains about 1/3rd of the 1,545 student body. If students so desire they can design their own major to suit their academic ambitions.

The college is selective, with 14.1% of total applicants accepted. Around 33% of enrolled students are either valedictorians or salutatorians, with around 53% in the top 2% in high school.

  • SAT: Reading: 680/770. Math: 670/760. Writing: 680/770
  • 94% retention rate for first year, full-time students
  • 89% four year graduation rate
  • 19.9% of graduates earn a doctorate, which is the third largest in the U.S.
  • 8:1 student to faculty ratio
  • Graduates include James Michener, writer; Nancy Roman, 1st Chief of Astronomy (Office of Space Science, NASA); Michael Dukakis, Democrat presidential candidate in 1988
  • Median starting salary: $50,700
  • Median mid-career salary: 104,000 (#7 on PayScale's Top Liberal Arts Colleges by Salary Potential)


2. Deep Springs College (Deep Springs, California)

Located on a cattle-ranch and alfalfa farm in an isolated mountain valley in California's High Desert, Deep Springs College is a two-year liberal arts institution that was established in 1917. There is no tuition or other cost for students; all of Deep Spring's students receive a full scholarship valued at over $50,000.00 per year.

As such, Deep Springs selects some of the most promising students entering college each year. These students will experience and take responsibility for a largely self-sustaining community, cattle-ranch, and alfalfa farm, while engaging in the two-year liberal arts honors program.

Admissions officers at the nation's best colleges hold Deep Springs in very high esteem. Most graduates go on to complete their four-year degree at the most esteemed institutions in the world. Many of its students have preferred to attend Deep Springs right out of high school rather than attend some of the most prestigious colleges, including all ivy league schools.

Deep Springs' foundations are academics, labor, and self-governance, for the purpose of preparing students for service to humanity. The labor program is run by the students. Students also retain primary authority in making decisions pertaining to admissions, curriculum, and the hiring of faculty members.

Professors and students live in close proximity, and as such the professors are available for assistance with academic life and other subjects. Classes are conducted as a seminar discussion, and students can develop their own independent or directed curriculum.

  • SAT: Verbal: Upper 700; Math: approximately 700
  • 4:1 student to faculty ratio
  • Students maintain at least a 20 hour work week, either on the ranch, farm, college, or community
  • More than 2/3rds of graduates have earned a graduate degree
  • Graduates include Jim Olin, United States Congressman; Thomas E. Fairchild, politician and federal judge; Raymond Jeanloz, geophysicist and recipient of the MacArthur "Genius Grant"
  • Admission rates vary from 6% to 15%
  • Interview and essays are more highly valued than the SAT

3. Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, California)

Located in Claremont, California, Harvey Mudd College was established in 1955 and offers only undergraduate degrees. Harvey Mudd leads in engineering, math, and science, and is also a liberal arts college. There are nine math, science, and engineering programs and each include humanities and social science classes. Many engineering, science, and mathematics alumni are leaders in their respective fields.

Harvey Mudd produces the most science and engineering PhD's among all undergraduate colleges, and second most to all colleges and universities.

The internationally renowned Clinic Program, instituted in 1963, allows teams to solve problems given by sponsoring industries, government, and nonprofit organizations. In this regard the students obtain direct and practical experience in important research projects and must complete one year of study in the project.

Student conduct adheres to a student-led Honor Code.

  • 780 students
  • 42% women, 58% men
  • 96.6% in top 10% of class
  • 33% valedictorians or salutatorians in class of 2017
  • 9:1 student to faculty ratio
  • 99% of students live on campus
  • SAT: Reading: 690/770, Writing: 690/770, Math: 740/800
  • Average starting salary after graduation is between $75,000 and $80,000
  • Notable alumni: astronauts George Nelson and Stan Love; and diplomat Richard H. Jones

4. Williams College (Williamstown, Massachusetts)

Established in 1793, Williams College is a long-standing and respected private liberal arts college that consistently ranks highly among liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

Forbes listed Williams College as the best undergraduate college in the nation in 2010-2012. It ranked #6 on Newsweek's list of "Brainiac" institutions (which measures graduates who have won Marshall, Rhodes, or Truman scholarships). It has ranked #1 in the Wall Street Journal's list of institutions whose alumni have attended elite medical, business, and law schools.

Williams ranked #1 in percentage of undergraduates who participate in paid summer science research, and the faculty ranks 3rd among liberal arts colleges for the amount of National Science Foundation Grants.

The school has three academic divisions: Social Studies; Language and the Arts; and Science and Mathematics. The college uses Oxford-style tutorials. Experiential programs and courses challenge students to become more personally engaged in their learning via fieldwork from research, special projects, or placement in community organizations.

Williams College encourages students to connect their community interests to their academic learning via a broad range of curricular and extracurricular programming. Its students are enrolled in over 150 off-campus program worldwide.

  • Established in 1793
  • Location: Northwest corner of the state, adjacent to New York and Vermont
  • The college has about 2,000 undergraduates
  • SAT: Critical reading, 660/770; and math, 650/760
  • Acceptance rate 20%
  • 7-to-1 student to faculty ratio
  • The college meets 100% of every student's demonstrated financial need for four years
  • Notable alumni include A.R. Gurney, playwright and novelist; Stephen Birmingham, writer; and Michael Beschloss, historian.
  • Starting median salary: $51,800
    Mid-career median salary: $105,000 (#6 in the PayScale list of Top Liberal Arts Colleges by Salary Potential, 2011-2012)

5. Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

The Curtis Institute of Music is a leading music conservatory, which teaches and prepares gifted musicians in performing-arts vocations at the highest professional levels. The Curtis Institute offers full, hands-on musical training, and also offers liberal arts courses. Students will learn from some of the world's best and leading musicians.

Musicians trained at this college make up 16% of first chairs at the top 25 orchestras in the United States. Over 60 alumni have performed at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as been members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. The New York Philharmonic has had two music directors from the Curtis Institute.

Alumni are frequently recipients of very prestigious honors and awards in classical music, including prizes, competitions, and grants; among them Pulitzer Prizes, Grammy and Tony awards, and Guggenheim Fellowships. Enrollment is competitive, with only enough enrolled to keep a full symphony orchestra, an opera program, and select departments in guitar, piano, composition, conducting, harpsichord, and organ.

The Curtis Institute's degrees offered are Performance Diploma, Bachelor of Music, Master of Music in Opera, and a Professional Studies Certificate in Opera.

The students perform often. Each year, high-profile stage and music directors work with the Curtis Opera Theater on staged productions.

  • Established in 1924
  • 165 students
  • All students receive the same training regardless of age
  • All students receive a full-tuition scholarship
  • Faculty boasts around 90 top-line musicians and very credentialed classroom lecturers
  • Every applicant must audition in person
  • Notable alumni include Leonard Bernstein, composer, conductor, and pianist; Samuel Barber, composer; Gian Carlo Menotti, composer; Jaime Laredo, violinist and conductor; Richard Goode, pianist; Hilary Hahn, violinist; and many others.

6. William and Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia)

The College of William and Mary dates back to February 8, 1693, when King William III and Queen Mary II chartered the institution. This makes it the second oldest school in the United States and one of the 9 colonial colleges.

William and Mary also founded Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's first academic honors society, and our first honor code. Its Sir Christopher Wren Building dates back to 1700 and is the oldest U.S. academic building still in use. Not surprisingly, a school with this much heritage retains its 18th century aesthetic.

In many ways the College of William and Mary feels like an elite private school. The school boasts an impressive 12:1 student-faculty ratio and 85% of its classes have under 40 students. Four different U.S. presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler studied here.

The college maintains strong ties to the capital with over 15,000 alumni in the D.C. area and substantial academic programs that allow hundreds of undergraduate students to live in the capital during any given year.

Yet, the College of William and Mary is a diverse state school with state school tuition and a vested interest in the surrounding region. Unlike the other colonial colleges which have all shifted their attention to graduate students, William and Mary remains focused on its undergrads. It provides them with a plethora of research opportunities and a heavy emphasis on community service. 30% of its students are people of color.

Undergraduate students looking for a place with a rich history, a beautiful campus, and opportunities for hands on research should seriously consider the College of William and Mary.

  • Its 25/75 percentile reading SAT scores run from 1270-1460
  • Average math scores run from 1260-1450
  • ACT scores run from 28-32
  • The over 8,000 member student body represents all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 54 foreign nations

7. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana)

Rose-Hulman is a private, coed college founded in 1874. Rose-Hulman offers 16 majors in a variety of science and math based fields ranging from lab based applied biology through data crunching economics or gear churning mechanical engineering. Rose-Hulman has set out to be the leading undergraduate center for science and engineering, and for years the rankings have agreed.

Rose-Hulman has over 165 million dollars to spread across a mere 2100 undergrads and consequently equips its students with everything they need to be on the forefront of new technology. This is why students can engage in ambitious engineering projects and competitions like the Eco Car, the Efficient Vehicles Team, and the Human Powered Vehicle Team.

The school also runs multiple summer programs for high school students interested in engineering such as Operation Catapult. This both furthers science at large and makes sure some of the best and brightest future engineering students are well acquainted with Rose-Hulman by the time they apply for college.

If your goal is to leave college with either an extremely marketable degree or the opportunity to research science at a world leading graduate institution you will be hard pressed to find a more reputable place to study.

  • 1:13 faculty-student ratio
  • Median high school class rank of 7%
  • English ACT 29, and Math 32
  • Around 1980 students, with 1875 being undergraduates
  • 89% retention rate of full-time freshman
  • Over 5,000 applicants compete to be one of the less than 600 entering freshmen

8. West Point (West Point, New York)

West Point is arguably the most American of all our centers for higher learning. Its significance dates back to the revolution itself when George Washington deemed it the most important location in the war. He had extensive fortifications built and despite Benedict Arnold's betrayal the fortress was never captured. It is now the longest continuously held military post in U.S. history.

Thomas Jefferson chartered a military college at West Point that would produce graduates worthy of a free society. Since then, the school has continuously guided pupil's intellectual, physical, military, and moral-ethical development. Its alumni include Stonewall Jackson, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Gaining entrance into this prestigious history requires more than just good grades. Students are expected to show leadership, physical fitness, and character. They are also required to give 5 years of their life to military service.

In return for their efforts they receive full tuition, free room and board, and advanced standing in the army when they graduate. More importantly cadets learn something that only a military academy can teach: the inherent discipline which drives the military mindset.

Graduates will have a potential career ahead of them should they pursue work as a lifetime solider. If they instead choose a civilian life they have a plethora of opportunities in a market which respects the army's efficiency and diligence.

  • SAT Verbal 627, Math 646
  • ACT English and Math 29, Science 28, Reading 30
  • About 4,600 students
  • Oldest of the military academies (founded in 1802)
  • Tuition and room and board paid
  • 5 years of military service required upon graduation

9. United States Air Force Academy (El Paso County, Colorado)

The United States Air Force Academy has everything that one would want in an elite undergraduate institution. Its freshmen produce impressive figures that would alone distinguish the school as an elite undergraduate college.

Add a scholarship that pays for tuition and housing and there is little which this school lacks. No wonder a letter of recommendation from a U.S. congressional representative is a standard part of the application process.

Much like their naval and army kin, the Air Force Academy grants students a rigorous physical and psychological training that complements their academic pursuits. Most students leave this school as 2nd lieutenants as they begin their military career.

This head start will serve them well should they choose to continue to tread the difficult path of a warrior. However, a graduate from the Air Force Academy can easily switch to a civilian career later in life where he or she can reap the full benefits of military experience and prestige.

  • 15% acceptance rate
  • Verbal SAT 642, Math 669
  • ACT English, Reading, Math, and Science 30
  • Average high school class rank of 3%
  • About 4,500 students
  • Student teacher ratio 8:1
  • Tuition and room and board paid for
  • 5 years of military service required upon graduation

West Point possesses historic ties with the Army. Likewise, the Air Force Academy trains students for service in the Air Force. But the Naval Academy is connected to two different branches of the U.S. armed forces. Graduates from this school can become an Ensign in the Navy or a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps.

Either route puts a student on the fast track to success. The over 4,500 Academy students graduate with no debt as tuition and lodging are provided. They already represent considerable academic potential when arriving, for they survived the school's grueling 7% acceptance rate.

While attending the Naval Academy students are expected to develop their fitness through athletic training alongside of their studies. Even more important than physique is honor. All students are expected to adhere to the strict standards of the Honor Concept.

From climbing the Herndon Monument to ringing the Bancroft Hall Bell for each victory over the Army in the Army-Navy Game, the Naval Academy passes on a heritage to its students that translates into a noble way of life and a first class education.

  • SAT Verbal 580-670, Math 620-700
  • 56% of students graduated in the top 10% of their high school
  • About 4,500 students
  • Tuition and room and board paid
  • Graduation Rate 88%
  • 5 years of military service required upon graduation

11. Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, Michigan)

Anyone can talk the talk, but you know someone really walks the walk when doing so starts costing money. Hillsdale College is committed to two philosophical ideals. The first of these is academic success, at which Hillsdale excels.

But all schools are committed to academic excellence. What makes this institution truly unique is its commitment to institutional independence. Hillsdale does not accept any government subsides, whether state or federal. It is a truly private school seeking unhindered intellectual expression.

In keeping with this vision is a thoroughgoing respect for the Constitution and the jurisprudence underlying the American founding. Hillsdale is one of the few non-military schools which requires all students to study constitutional law, and has a long history of excellence in political theory, classics, intellectual history, and the ideas underlying the Western legal tradition.

  • SAT 1980
  • ACT 29
  • Over half of the students graduated in the top 50% of their high school with a 3.8 GPA
  • Average class size of 15
  • 96% freshmen retention rate
  • 76% graduation rate
  • 10/1 student to faculty ratio
  • The school's 1,400 students come from 48 states and 8 foreign nations

12. Rhode Island School of Design (Providence, Rhode Island)

We often exalt the arts as one of the noblest endeavors driving high culture. However, those who pursue them are so often devoid of financial compensation or recognition, (at least during their lifetime), that most family and friends warn aspiring students away from full time study of the arts.

It is generally assumed that anyone wishing to make a living via creativity must either acquire the best credentials possible, or marry their interests to more practical exploits. The Rhode Island School of Design will let you do both.

Each year the school's 2400 students study 19 different fields ranging from graphic design to jewelry and metal working. The school is geographically well situated for the work it does in between the economic capital of America in New York City and the academic capital in Boston.

It also takes full advantage of its close proximity to Brown University. Students from either school can take courses at the other, and Rhode Island students can earn a joint degree from both schools. The college also runs a substantial art museum with over 80,000 pieces. The school's 9:1 student to faculty ratio also contributes to interactive learning.

  • SAT Reading 632, Math 642, Writing 636
  • 27.3% acceptance rate
  • 2,406 students total, with 1,975 undergraduate students
  • 88% graduate within six years of enrollment
  • 9/1 student to faculty ratio
  • 95% freshman retention rate
  • 55 foreign nations represented

13. Colorado School of Mines (Golden, Colorado)

Typically higher education in America breaks down into two broad categories. On one side of the line stand the schools typical of our current list: namely small undergraduate liberal arts colleges. These schools have the advantage of providing a solid, 4 year college degree.

They have a strong reputation for equipping students with the drive necessary to begin research, but usually lack the resources necessary to finish what they start. Then there are research universities that have billions of dollars to spend on incredible laboratories that only graduate students ever get to see.

The Colorado School of Mines gives students the best of both worlds, which is why over 11,000 applicants compete for 875 spots every year. The school has 38 research centers on campus and is home to the top ranked Society of Women Engineers chapter. Both its Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and the Unconventional Natural Gas and Oil Institute are leading the way in sustainable energy research.

  • ACT 27 to 31, average of 30
  • Around 5,200 students
  • High school GPA 3.7
  • All freshmen are minimally expected to know trigonometry
  • Calculus is preferred
  • 38 Research Centers of Campus
  • 88% of Bachelor's students placed upon graduation

14. Reed College (Portland, Oregon)

It is hard to argue with success. But how does one measure the success of a school? Any number of criteria from test scores to endowment are relevant, but perhaps the most important indicator of success for any school is how successful its students are. Few schools can brag more about their students then Reed.

Reed College students enter as formerly elite high school students. But they go on to to do far greater things as they develop and mature. A higher percentage of Reed College alumni will earn doctorates than any other U.S. school save 3.

As if graduate placements were not enough, Reed College also ranks 2nd amongst liberal arts schools producing Rhodes scholars, (they have currently produced 31). Over 80 Fulbright recipients and 3 MacArthur Fellows have graduated from Reed. Their alumni includes Apple founder Steve Jobs and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

So how does Reed produce such a consistent supply of academic excellence? Their robust curriculum includes an extensive senior thesis, a wide range of distribution requirements, and a required yearlong study of the humanities. The Princeton Review named Reed the "Best Classroom Experience". Students from a wide variety of backgrounds interact amidst a 10:1 student to faculty ratio.

Reed places tremendous confidence in its students, so much so that it is the only school in the world which runs a nuclear reactor through undergraduates! These unique experiences and many more go on to produce one of the most successful alumni networks in the nation.

  • SAT 2,051
  • ACT 31
  • High school GPA of 3.8
  • Test scores are less important than high school curriculum rigor, GPA, and admissions essay
  • 59% in top 1oth of high school class
  • 10:1 student to faculty ratio
  • Runs dual institution degree programs with the University of Washington, Caltech, Columbia, Duke, and others

15. Smith College (North Hampton, Massachusetts)

Smith College is a small undergraduate college with a commitment to an older, more focused style of education. Located near Amherst, Smith College is a historic all-girls school, and one of the original Seven Sisters colleges that have remained so. Students here are freed from the many distractions which often plague standard undergraduate studies. Instead, young women focus on over 50 distinct areas of study.

But the student body is encouraged to grow in more ways than just book knowledge. The school also utilizes an extensive study abroad program. Over half of the juniors travel to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin American via study abroad programs.

Smith College also works in tandem with several notable institutions in the surrounding area, including Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire College, and MIT.

Opportunities for joint study with these schools give students expanded academic potential without sacrificing Smith's small college feel. In an era where women have more flexibility and life choices than ever before Smith College continues to prepare them for successful, enriching lives.

  • SAT verbal 600/710, math 570/680, and writing 590/700
  • 3,000 students
  • 47% acceptance rate
  • Around 2500 students on-campus, and 250 studying abroad
  • 9:1 student to faculty ratio
  • One out of four students go directly to graduate school
  • Notable alumni include poet Sylvia Plath and Gloria Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine

16. Berea College (Berea, Kentucky)

In the ideal world no one would have to pay for college. Somehow tuition would magically appear without draining the individual or the state. At the very least, those who could not afford an education would not be barred from the halls of knowledge. Berea College is as close to this ideal as any school can come.

Located south of Lexington, Berea College does not charge tuition. In fact, it explicitly seeks out promising students from underprivileged backgrounds. It was founded in 1855 in a humble one room school house by Rev. John G. Fee as the first coeducational and interracial college in the south.

It remains one of the most racially diverse schools in the nation. Many of its students are the first generation in their family to attend college. Despite its focus on the local Appalachian region in Kentucky it still draws students from 40 states and 60 countries.

Berea College is one of 7 federally recognized work colleges. Every student works 10-12 hours a week in various occupations essential to the school's operation. This simultaneously shares the responsibility of running the school with the students, teaches valuable skills that go beyond the classroom, and helps mitigate the strains of giving away a nearly $90 thousand dollar education to every single student for free.

Underlying this staunch commitment to diversity lays the school's self-consciously "inclusive Christian character". Their school motto proclaims, "God has made of one blood all people of the Earth".

Berea thus seeks to unite talented students from as many backgrounds as possible. 57% of the over 1600 incoming freshman ranked in the top fifth of their high school class. 53% come from first generation college students. 25% of the students come from minority homes and over 7% are international.

  • SAT 1707
  • ACT 24
  • 17% acceptance rate
  • 79% freshman retention rate
  • Around 1500 undergraduates
  • 43% graduation rate
  • 57% of freshman were in top 5% of high school class
  • student to faculty ratio 11:1

17. Babson College (Babson Park, Massachusetts)

For years teachers have endured the, "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach" adage. Well, at Babson College students learn by doing. Babson was founded in 1919, and is located west of Boston. The school's 3200 students represent over 70 countries. Babson College is one of the world's premier business schools.

Babson achieved this financial dominance through direct hands on learning. In their first year alone students are required to work with peers to both create and terminate their own business. But Babson does not limit its entrepreneurial spirit to making money.

Here students learn how to apply business methodology in all walks of life, whether that be humanitarian social projects, creative endeavors, ministry, or any number of other occupations. The end result is a pragmatic school that empowers its students to change the world.

  • SAT 1850-2140
  • ACT 28-31
  • Acceptance rate 28%
  • 94% retention rate
  • 87% graduation rate
  • Around 3,300 students, with around 2000 undergraduates

18. St. John's College (Annapolis, Maryland/Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Scholarship divides source material into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary sources are typically more valuable since they are the direct object of study, whereas secondary material is commentary by scholarship about the primary material. Many colleges inundate students with this secondary material and leave the original sources to the experts, but St. John's unique curriculum forces students to constantly engage the origins of great ideas.

St. John's uses a great books approach to learning. Every teacher teaches every class. Students begin with the great texts of classical Greece and slowly advance through the ages until they reach the present. All classes are small, about 13 to 18 students, and taught in a discussion based environment that encourages critical thinking and debate.

By graduation students have studied the seminal works in the western tradition. In language they leave with translation knowledge of ancient Greek and modern French, as well as ample exposure to English poetry. Additionally, students read the major mathematical texts from Euclid through Lobachevski and Einstein.

If you are looking for an interactive education that teaches through discussion and critical examination of history's most important thinkers then St. John's impressive graduate placement record, flexible curriculum, and nuanced pedagogy may be right for you. Princeton Review included both campuses, the original Annapolis campus and the newer Santa Fe campus, in its list of 20 colleges with the "happiest students".

  • SAT Verbal 590-730, Math 570-700
  • Charter in 1784
  • Nearly 70% of students pursue graduate degrees
  • Ranks in top 2% of alumni earning PhD's in the humanities
  • Ranks in top 4% for alumni earning PhD's in the sciences
  • 8/1 student to faculty ratio
  • 83% retention rate
  • Two campuses: one in Annapolis, Maryland and another in Santa Fe, New Mexico

19. Patrick Henry College (Purcellville, Virginia)

At first glance this tiny college founded with the help of the Home School Legal Defense Association might seem too small and too young to make our top 20 college list. The institution was only founded in 2000, and with just over 300 hundred students is significantly smaller than most high schools.

But there is a reason why they call Patrick Henry College "God's Harvard". The school was established with a very clear vision in mind. Patrick Henry wants to transform American culture by reestablishing traditional Christian values and classical education in education and government. It pursues this goal through the rigorous study of rhetoric and has become one of the best schools in the country for jurisprudence and political theory.

The school is heavily involved with the National Forensic Association, National Parliamentary Debate Association, and American Collegiate Moot Court Association. Whereas other schools take pride in their football team, Patrick Henry rallies behind its orators.

This has translated into a disproportionate influence in conservative think tanks, top notch law schools, and the Republican Party, which in turn has led to no end of controversy. Critics accuse the school's strict doctrinal requirements of failing to challenge its students with a diverse spectrum of ideas, while supporters claim its heavy emphasis on debate does the exact opposite.

Either way, Patrick Henry College has done something truly unique. Overnight this fledgling school transformed itself into a powerful political training ground for future leaders. Whether one loves it or hates it, Patrick Henry College will be at the forefront of the culture wars and its graduates are on the fast track to prominent positions in government and law.

  • SAT combined 1800-2060, Verbal 640-750, Math 560-670, and Writing 590-690
  • Uses substantial 63 credit core curriculum plus foreign language proficiency
  • Uses a three-part emphasis on knowledge (grammar), understanding (logic), and application (rhetoric), in line with classical education
  • Campus is within an hour of Washington D.C. and grants ample internship opportunities
  • Around 371 undergraduates

20. High Point University (High Point, North Carolina)

High Point University's was established in 1924 and affiliated with the United Methodists. In the past few years the university has seen remarkable growth. Undergraduate enrollment has increased from 1,500 to 4,000 students, the number of faculty has increased from 108 to 260, and 49 new on-campus modern buildings have been constructed with a total investment of one billion dollars, and more growth is planned with an additional billion dollars to be invested by 2020.

College life on High Point's pristine neoclassical campus is like living on a resort. Students enjoy watching new releases for free in the university's movie theater with complimentary snacks. There is a free ice cream truck that makes the rounds on campus.

If students want more substantial meals there is a steakhouse on campus. Swimming pools and hot tubs are plentiful. The university offers massages. There is an arcade which doesn't require coins, and for sports fans there is a sports bar. Students can study or just hang out in the lavish Victorian-style community building next to a warm fireplace.

Electronic signs reserve prospective students' parking spaces who've scheduled a tour. Students awarded a scholarship are notified with a letter accompanied by a box of Godiva chocolate. Flat-screen plasma televisions adorn the walls of their dorm rooms.

The Slane Student Center is the center of student activity with fitness and recreation facilities, a climbing wall, putting green, food court, outdoor swimming pool, sand volleyball courts, and a manicured atrium with sitting areas and billiard tables.

  • Mean SAT 1100
  • Mean composite ACT 24
  • Mean GPA 3.3
  • 15/1 student faculty ratio
  • #1 Best Regional College in the South (second consecutive year).
  • #1 Up and Coming School in Regional Colleges in the South (second consecutive year).
  • #1 for Best Undergraduate Teaching in Regional Colleges in the South.
  • # 4 private school in North Carolina for the best return on investment

Ranking Methodology

Academic Diversity

Many rankings put high weight on colleges in the sciences and liberal arts categories. While these are of course important, life and education is more varied than that. Successful Student believes that music, engineering, business, architecture, visual arts, aviation, etc., are legitimate fields of study, and therefore a ranking of top universities should reflect such educational diversity.

Student Development

College should be an experience as well as a place to become educated. The experience of college should mold and make the student into a well-rounded individual that is savvy and knows how to thrive in the world with a wide and varied perspective on life. In short, college should foster an environment for students to grow in and nurture personal enrichment with intrinsic rewards.

Vocational Prospects

Earning a degree from a top university should not mean being relegated to living at home with parents due to unemployment. It should mean having a useful, acquired knowledge or specialized skill-set translatable to gainful employment.

Unique Experience

There are hundreds upon hundreds of schools all across the nation which can give you a degree in biology, economics, psychology, or any one of the other, "standard" majors. Studying anyone of these subjects at a typical school is a fine investment. However, any school which can equip students with a unique background and skill set will give its graduates an advantage in the increasingly difficult job market. We value educations which put a unique spin on learning without sacrificing traditional curriculum.


A college education is an investment, and like all sound investments it should yield a return that can be seen even in the short-term after graduation. Leaving college with massive debt is unproductive and hinders its graduates, who will start their adult lives burdened. Ideally college tuition should be as low as possible, and indeed some colleges do have tuition-free cost (read further because these colleges do exist.