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By Heidi Rivera
September 30, 2020
Courtesy of Washington and Lee University

Size does make a difference when choosing a college. While some students prefer the big campus experience, others may find it overwhelming to excel in a class next to a hundred of their peers.

Small colleges may have fewer facilities, clubs, or academic programs than larger universities, but they can also offer experiences that huge campuses cannot. Since classes are typically smaller, students get more personalized attention from professors and advisers. Research shows that opportunity for one-on-one attention can lead to better academic performance and overall career outcomes.

Most small colleges cater to different learning styles, with some allowing students to create their own curricula or design individualized majors. There’s also a stronger sense of community: fewer students mean that you can get to know your peers across different residence halls or academic programs.

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To find the country’s best small colleges, we used Money’s 2020 Best Colleges, which ranks more than 730 four-year institutions on measures of affordability, quality of education, and student success. We then narrowed down our choices by selecting colleges with a student body of 2,500 or less.

Our top picks have three things in common: low student to faculty ratios, financial aid policies that give awards to at least half of their respective student bodies, and early career earnings of $55,300 or more. You can check out our full list of small colleges here, or see other popular rankings here.

1. Washington and Lee University

Courtesy of Washington and Lee University
  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,820
  • Est. price with average grant: $22,900
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $58,800

Washington and Lee was one of the first colleges founded in the country, named after George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The school offers 36 undergraduate majors and 37 minors, and prides itself in offering unique programs not commonly found at other small colleges. The most recent addition to these “distinctive” programs — as the school likes to call them — is the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. This program combines courses in economics, education, law, and sociology, among other disciplines, to help students understand and address poverty. Although its tuition and fees are on the pricier side (around $56,000 for undergraduates), Washington and Lee meets 100% of its students’ demonstrated financial need through grants and employment.

2. California Institute of Technology

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  • Undergraduates enrolled: 950
  • Est. price with average grant: $27,500
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $81,600

Caltech is one of the smallest colleges on our list, with less than a thousand undergraduate students. But don’t let its small size fool you, Caltech is a big name in science fields, especially physics and astronomy. Caltech’s faculty founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system in the country. Students also have access to five NASA research facilities within the school, including a space observatory and an exoplanet science institute. The university has an impressive student to faculty ratio of 3-to-1 — the lowest one in our list, which may explain its high graduation rate of 92%.

3. Virginia Military Institute

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  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,690
  • Est. price with average grant: $15,500
  • % of financial need met: 80%
  • Early career earnings: $59,300

Nicknamed the West Point of the South, the Virginia Military Institute is the oldest state-supported military college in the nation. Some of the most popular majors at the school are civil engineering, economics and business, and international studies and political science. Classes are small, with an average of 11 students per course. VMI incorporates aspects of the military lifestyle into the students’ everyday lives, including the use of barracks instead of traditional dorms, wearing uniforms to class, and marching in formation. Students are encouraged to play a sport, whether as part of a team or at one of the school’s clubs. Some of the sports students can sign up for are lacrosse, rifle, water polo, jiu-jitsu, and fishing. But not every activity has to be athletic; VMI also has a theater club, a Glee club, and a ballroom dancing club.

4. Williams College

Courtesy of Williams College
  • Undergraduates enrolled: 2,030
  • Est. price with average grant: $19,800
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $57,900

Williams College is a private, liberal arts college that allows students to craft their own curriculum. However, all students must take at least three courses in each of the following subjects: science and math, social sciences, as well as arts and humanities, in addition to two writing-intensive courses, and one course in math and abstract thinking. The college uses a coeducational method in which students are paired to evaluate each other’s work, and meet weekly with a professor. The student to faculty ratio is 6-to-1. Athletics are a big part of campus life: more than one third of students compete in intercollegiate sports. The school’s mascot, the Purple Cow, was the first Division III mascot to appear in an ESPN College Football GameDay commercial. Williams College is the only college in the country that provides free textbooks and course materials for all students who receive financial aid.

5. Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Courtesy of Massachusetts Maritime Academy
  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,650
  • Est. price with average grant: $16,000
  • % of financial need met: 71%
  • Early career earnings: $63,700

Massachusetts Maritime Academy is structured like a military academy, but service after graduation isn’t mandatory. Undergraduates can major in seven programs, including maritime engineering, emergency management, and energy system engineering. Learning goes beyond the classroom: some courses require students to complete sea terms of at least 52 days in destinations like Panama, Costa Rica, Spain, and Italy. Other courses require students to complete cooperative education programs, which allow those in shore-side majors to acquire work experience during the winter and summer sessions. The academy is also rich in tradition. Each spring, juniors gather for the Ring Dance to mark the start of their senior year. Men wear the service dress white uniform, which has a high choker collar, while women wear a classic navy gown.

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6. Pomona College

Courtesy of Pomona College
  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,550
  • Est. price with average grant: $17,700
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $56,600

Pomona College is seriously selective, with an acceptance rate of just 8%. Almost all students live on campus during all four years. Many professors also live nearby, making it a close-knit community. Since Pomona is part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, students have access to over 2,000 courses, spread amongst the five member-institutions, including Harvey Mudd and Scripps. Over half of the students participate in the school’s research projects in areas such as anthropology, computer science, philosophy, and gender and women’s studies. Pomona meets the full demonstrated financial need of all students, and most students graduate without debt. Besides academics, the school boasts a long list of clubs and extracurricular activities. Students can enjoy cultivating their own plot at the school’s organic farm, join an improv club, or work at The Student Life, the school’s newspaper.

7. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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  • Undergraduates enrolled: 850
  • Est. price with average grant: $29,900
  • % of financial need met: 76%
  • Early career earnings: $68,100

Cooper Union’s main areas of education are architecture, art, and engineering. The school also offers courses in humanities and social sciences. It has three institutes and centers, including one dedicated to biomedicine research. Cooper Union’s Foundation Building is home to the Great Hall, a large gathering venue that has been the platform for many important events throughout history, including the birth of the NAACP, the women’s suffrage movement, and the American Red Cross. The school was also one of the first colleges to make all of its bathrooms gender neutral in 2016. Prior to 2014, Cooper Union was one of the few colleges that offered all its students a full scholarship to cover tuition costs. Today, it awards undergraduates a half-tuition scholarship of $22,275 per academic year.

8. Swarthmore College

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  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,540
  • Est. price with average grant: $20,300
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $61,000

Part of the Tri-College consortium, along with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, Swarthmore College offers a broad range of academic and social opportunities. The school was founded by Quakers in 1864, and is just a few minutes away from Center City in Philadelphia. Its most popular majors are economics, political science, biology, and computer science, among others. Although Swarthmore offers a breadth of traditional programs, students can also design their own. Some of the most recent student creations include ethnomusicology, health and social policy, and technology and the human experience. In normal times, roughly 40% of students participate in one of the school’s over 300 study abroad programs in countries like Costa Rica, South Africa and the Czech Republic.

9. Colby College

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  • Undergraduates enrolled: 2,000
  • Est. price with average grant: $21,600
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $55,300

Colby College offers students a wealth of opportunities through 56 majors and 35 minors, and plenty of undergraduate research and internship programs. One of the school’s unique academic experiences is its “Jan Plan.” During the exploratory term in January, students can concentrate on a single subject or experience, including a fly fishing program in California and a penguin rehabilitation program in South Africa. Colby also offers a pre-med program, in addition to dual engineering degree programs. The dual programs allow students to take classes at Dartmouth or Columbia, and graduate from Colby, as well as getting an engineering degree from either of the partner institutions. Students pride themselves on having close relationships with their professors that go beyond the classroom. Athletics is also an integral part of campus life, with more than 80% of the students participating in organized sports. Colby has 32 varsity teams, including an alpine ski team, a cross country ski team and a basketball team. The school also has club sports, which include an ultimate frisbee, sailing, and a woodsmen’s club.

10. Hamilton College

Nancy L. Ford
  • Undergraduates enrolled: 1,990
  • Est. price with average grant: $29,000
  • % of financial need met: 100%
  • Early career earnings: $59,000

Named after the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton College prides itself on teaching students how to think independently and communicate clearly. One of the school’s mottos is “study what you love” (with the official one being “know thyself”), so it’s not surprising that students can choose between pre-designed majors, as well as create their own through Hamilton’s open curriculum program. The college has a student-faculty ratio of 9-to-1, which means that students can work closely with advisers throughout their four years at the school to develop their educational goals. Hamilton is also a close-knit community, with all students living in one of the 28 residence halls across campus.

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