Students at Hamilton College, as the liberal arts school loves to point out, study whatever interests them individually. Thanks to an open curriculum, the roughly 2,000 students — all of whom live on the hilltop campus in Clinton, New York — aren't bound by a strict track of courses and prerequisites.

That doesn't mean there aren't specific requirements to earn a degree in one of the more than 40 majors (referred to as “concentrations”) offered at Hamilton, though. The 230-year-old college emphasizes strong critical thinking and communication skills, so all students have to complete three writing courses. Students also work with advisers to develop personal education goals, a task made possible by the college's high faculty-to-student ratio.

Hamilton is one of a limited number of colleges that pledge to meet all of a student's demonstrated financial need. The college has increased its financial aid budget significantly in recent years to its current level of $55 million.

Despite Hamilton's small size, students can participate in more than 200 student groups, encompassing interests from bees to boffers (read: foam-weapon battles). Every spring, students participate alone or on relay teams at HamTrek, a triathlon that calls for swimming 21 lengths in the pool, biking nine miles and running five kilometers.