Liberal arts rankings: In Money’s top 50, these are the standouts

Early career earnings and low cost after grants make these institutions competitive beyond their academic distinction.

The sticker price at Williams College is more than $68,000—not out of line with other highly selective liberal arts institutions though not inexpensive, either. Students can get a quality education at public four-year institutions and study in a variety of tech-driven, future-focused fields for less. And a lean toward the humanities and arts might seem risky given employer needs in 2022.

But if that student attends Williams or any of the 50 best liberal arts institutions in the U.S. named by Money magazine, they not only are getting an elite education but still getting noticed by companies and earning massive returns on investments early in their careers. For those grads of Williams, the top school on the list, they are bringing home on average $71,670 per year.

And its sticker price is just that. For more than half of students at the esteemed Williamstown, Mass., college who receive grants, they pay only $23,600. They also won’t incur debt starting this fall, as Williams promised to supplant student loans and campus work positions with grant money. If you are one of the 13% of applicants that can get in, regardless of need, the college has made it affordable.

“The school’s dual commitments to academic excellence and affordability are a model for ensuring access to an outstanding education,” Williams President Maud Mandel said. “All of our financial aid awards include free textbooks and course materials, health insurance, summer storage, funding for travel courses and internships and more. At a school graced with intellectually curious students, a superb program and generous alumni, the all-grant initiative combines these historic strengths in a way that equips our students to get the most out of their education.”

It helps that Williams, No. 2 Bowdoin College, No. 3 Wellesley College and No. 4 Hamilton College all have endowments that stretch into the billions thanks to very active donors, but they are all giving back to students in need. While the advertised costs may balloon to $80,500 (Wellesley), the highest average price tag for those who receive aid is $27,100 (Bowdoin). Early earnings all surpass $66,000, and each has a sterling graduation rate of more than 93%. Even though the cost at No. 5 College of the Holy Cross is nearly $34,000 per year with grants, students earn an astonishing $84,650 in their early work years.

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The outcomes are even better at Claremont McKenna College in California ($86,570), the best among all liberal arts institutions in the U.S., though only around 47% do get grant money to offset its $78,600 sticker price. Because of that difference, Money had it outside the top 20; however, it has appeared at the top or near the top of other lists, including this one from

Despite its students earning less than the remaining group of those in Money’s top 10, St. Olaf College in Minnesota came in at No. 6 because of several factors: Its acceptance rate is close to 50% and its graduation rate is still 86%, while it offers grant money to 96% of its students. “Our commitment to affordability provides students from all economic backgrounds with the opportunity to partake in a rigorous academic experience within an inclusive and vibrant residential community that prepares them to be successful,” St. Olaf Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Chris George said.

Another institution from the Gopher State, the University of Minnesota, Morris at No. 41 had the lowest cost of attendance of any in the Top 50 after grants at just $11,800. Students who attend see a great return of investment of more than $47,000 early in their careers. The rest of the top 10 included liberal arts powerhouses with stellar ROI: Bates College in Maine ($64,710), Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania ($72,640), Amherst College in Massachusetts ($71,570) and Trinity College in Connecticut ($68,320).

Another fantastic option for students looking for a quality liberal arts education but who need financial assistance is Centre College in Kentucky. Nearly all of those who apply will receive grant money that lowers the average cost from $60,000 to $24,000, and around 76% of students who apply get in. After they graduate, they are earning close to $58,000 in their early careers.

The full list of 50 best liberal institutions can be found here. Among those schools, here are the best in several categories:

Top institutions for early career earnings

  • Claremont McKenna College ($86,570)
  • Washington and Lee University ($86,020)
  • Lafayette College ($84,940)
  • College of the Holy Cross ($84,650)
  • Colgate University ($76,270)
  • Hamilton College ($74,340)
  • Swarthmore College ($72,640)
  • Virginia Military Institute ($71,910)
  • Barnard College ($71,680)
  • Davidson College ($71,670)

Lowest average full cost after grants

  • University of Minnesota-Morris ($11,800)
  • Colby College ($19,600)
  • Amherst College ($19,900)
  • Virginia Military Institute ($20,000)
  • St. Mary’s College of Maryland ($21,400)
  • Swarthmore College ($21,500)
  • Wellesley College ($22,800)
  • Ripon College ($22,800)
  • Claremont McKenna College ($23,200)
  • Williams College ($23,600)

Highest acceptance rate

  • Washington College (Md.) (92%)
  • St. Mary’s College of Maryland (84%)
  • Centre College (76%)
  • Kalamazoo College (76%)
  • Wheaton College (74%)
  • Ripon College (70%)
  • Knox College (68%)
  • University of the South (67%)
  • Hobart William Smith Colleges (66%)
  • Wabash College (64%)

Most selective institutions

  • Pomona College (7%)
  • Bowdoin College (9%)
  • Swarthmore College (9%)
  • Claremont McKenna (10%)
  • Colby College (10%)
  • Amherst College (11%)
  • Bates College (11%)
  • Barnard College (13%)
  • Williams College (15%)
  • Hamilton College (16%)
  • Haverford College (16%)

Percentage of students who receive grants

  • Wabash College (100%)
  • Kalamazoo College (99%)
  • Centre College (98%)
  • Wheaton College (98%)
  • Lawrence University (98%)
  • Ripon College (98%)
  • Hobart William Smith Colleges (97%)
  • St. Lawrence University (97%)
  • Knox College (96%)
  • St. Olaf College (96%)
  • Gettysburg College (96%)
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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