Founded 160 years ago, this Catholic liberal arts school in the rolling hills east of San Francisco is one of the oldest colleges in the West. The school’s curriculum — spanning 70-some academic programs — stems from the teachings of Christian Brothers founder Saint John Baptist de La Salle.

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All students must take four required small-group discussion courses in which they discuss and explore the major texts and philosophies that have influenced Western civilization. Known as the “Collegiate Seminar,” these courses are the beating heart of the school’s educational ethos.

Also integral to its curriculum is the “Jan Term” each year: a month-long, in-depth study of an array of engaging, fun subjects ranging from meditation to J.R.R. Tolkien. Studies aren’t limited to the campus, either. Jan Term classes are also available online or overseas.

As for more traditional studies, Saint Mary’s offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in four areas — education, economics, liberal arts and sciences. With a student body of just under 2,800, the college boasts an intimate student-faculty ratio of 9:1, and more than 90% of students receive financial aid.

The 60,000-square-foot Joseph L. Alioto Recreation Center is a hub of student life and includes a 35-foot rock-climbing wall, fitness center, exercise studios and café. Home of the Gaels, Saint Mary’s provides 18 NCAA Division I teams for students to cheer on.