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Published: Aug 08, 2022 10 min read
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Want a college experience where you’ll be given the freedom to explore whatever academic areas pique your interest?

Studying the liberal arts can prepare students to be critical thinkers and persuasive communicators. Instead of training students for a specific path into the job market, a liberal arts education is designed to get grads ready to succeed in a variety of careers.

It’s hard to sum up the typical experience in a field that consists of dozens of academic areas, ranging from physics to philosophy. But in general, undergraduate education is the star of the show at liberal arts colleges. Translation: You can expect small classes taught by professors, not assistants, and plenty of chances for personalized attention on everything from research projects to recommendation letters.

Despite persistent skepticism about the financial value of a liberal arts degree, several studies have found a liberal arts education can provide a solid return on investment. One analysis, from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, found that the median return on investment for the 200-plus liberal arts colleges in the U.S. was nearly $200,000 more than the median for all colleges. (ROI was measured as career earnings after subtracting the cost of attending a college.)

Still, the cost and payoff of liberal arts colleges vary widely. To help students find a campus where they can explore the arts and humanities while getting a high-value education, we’ve pulled out the top-scoring liberal arts schools in Money’s latest college ranking, which analyzed the quality, affordability and outcomes of more than 600 four-year colleges.

We started with institutions that the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education defined as baccalaureate colleges with an arts and sciences focus. Then we ranked the schools based on what share of their recent graduates earned a degree in the liberal arts and how they scored on our overall analysis of affordability and outcomes.

Read on to see the top 10, then see the full list of 50 Best Liberal Arts Colleges here.

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1. Williams College

Roman Iwasiwka / Williams College
  • Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts
  • Estimated price with average grant: $23,600
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $71,600

Williams College, located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, has plenty of typical liberal arts college characteristics, including small classes taught by professors. It also offers students opportunities unique to Williams — like its tutorial system, modeled after a ? at Oxford University. In tutorials, two students conduct advanced work together and meet weekly with their professor to analyze and debate. Recent Williams tutorial topics include colonialism in South Asia, American poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and skills for a modern economy.

2. Bowdoin College

Courtesy of Bowdoin College
  • Location: Brunswick, Maine
  • Estimated price with average grant: $27,100
  • Graduation rate: 95%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $66,900

Students at Bowdoin spend their first two years completing a required writing seminar and taking at least one course in each of five areas: mathematical, statistical or computational reasoning; inquiry in the natural sciences; difference, power and inequity; international perspectives; and visual and performing arts. Then, in the spring of their sophomore year, they start to narrow their focus by declaring a major (but only after talking with a faculty in that academic area).

3. Wellesley College

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  • Location: Wellesley, Massachusetts
  • Estimated price with average grant: $22,800
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $66,500

Wellesley College is one of the Seven Sisters, the prestigious consortium of East Coast women's colleges once seen as the female equivalent of the predominantly male Ivy League. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the college prides itself on educating female leaders in a variety of fields, from former Secretary of State Madeline Albright to trailblazing author and filmmaker Nora Ephron. Current students can join one of 180 organizations, including the Shakespeare Society, the oldest continuous club on campus. Each year, in a popular campus tradition, “Shakes” members read the playwright's complete works out loud in various public campus locations over a 24-hour span.

4. Hamilton College

Nancy L. Ford / Hamilton College
  • Location: Clinton, New York
  • Estimated price with average grant: $25,300
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $74,300

Students at Hamilton, as the liberal arts school loves to point out, study whatever interests them individually. Thanks to an open curriculum, students aren't forced to follow a strict track of prerequisites, though everyone has to to complete three writing courses. They also work one-on-one with advisers to develop personal education goals, a task made possible by the college's high faculty-to-student ratio.

5. College of the Holy Cross

Courtesy of The College of The Holy Cross
  • Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Estimated price with average grant: $33,900
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $84,650

Popular majors at Holy Cross include economics, political science and psychology, and the college has an active classics department. The department hosts study abroad programs in Athens and Rome, and while students are stateside, they can participate in the college’s Manuscripts, Inscriptions and Documents (MID) Club, where members work on a variety of texts from the ancient world. Each year, the college hosts Classics Day, when hundreds of high schoolers come to the New England campus to learn about Roman culture.

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6. St. Olaf College

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  • Location: Northfield, Minnesota
  • Estimated price with average grant: $29,400
  • Graduation rate: 86%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $60,240

St. Olaf College is particularly well-known for its music department, but the college offers a broad range of majors. (Aside from music, popular ones in recent years include biology, economics, psychology and chemistry.) More than 6 in 10 undergrads study abroad, while about a quarter of students participate in the college’s Conversations program, a team-taught interdisciplinary experience that comes with heavy reading and encourages academic debate. Topics include “American Conversations,” “Enduring Questions” and “Race Matters.”

7. Bates College

Courtesy of Bates College
  • Location: Lewiston, Maine
  • Estimated price with average grant: $27,900
  • Graduation rate: 89%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $64,700

Bates — the first coeducational college in New England — offers students about three dozen majors, including all the typical liberal arts characters, plus some STEM programs like engineering and neuroscience. One of the most important components of the Bates curriculum is the senior thesis, which typically involves a semester or two of original research and writing and a final paper on a topic of the student’s choosing. Most academic departments require a thesis, and 96% of each graduating class completes one.

8. Swarthmore College

Courtesy of Swarthmore College
  • Location: Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
  • Estimated price with average grant: $21,500
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $72,460

If Swarthmore students can’t fulfill all their academic curiosity on their own campus, they also have the option to take classes at nearby Bryn Mawr, Haverford or the University of Pennsylvania. While on campus, Swatties, as students there are known, have the chance to work closely with their professors: About two-thirds of undergraduates participate in research or independent creative projects under the mentorship of a faculty member.

9. Amherst College

Courtesy of Amherst College
  • Location: Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Estimated price with average grant: $19,000
  • Graduation rate: 93%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $71,600

Aside from a first-year seminar, Amherst has no required courses. That gives students plenty of freedom to choose from more than 850 courses in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. And if there’s a topic of interest that’s not covered in the Amherst course catalog, students are allowed to cross-register for courses at the University of Massachusetts or Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges (officially known as the Five College Consortium).

10. Trinity College

Courtesy of Trinity College
  • Location: Hartford, Connecticut
  • Estimated price with average grant: $27,700
  • Graduation rate: 85%
  • Median earnings for recent graduates: $68,300

While many liberal arts colleges tend to be in small, more rural areas, Trinity calls Connecticut's capital its home. The location gives students in the college’s large social sciences division access to real-world learning experiences in both local and state government. Trinity’s long-standing Legislative Internship program helps facilitate that. So does its CityTerm, through which students earn course credit for working in a Hartford-based nonprofit organization.

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money/Witlytic calculations and Peterson’s. Graduation rates include first-time and transfer students. Median earnings for recent graduates are the earnings 10 years after enrolling, as reported in the federal College Scorecard.

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