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The 9 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in California

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It’s important to choose a college that matches your needs both academically and socially. Offering an exceptional education, liberal arts schools are a great option for students seeking a smaller, more intimate college setting. The good news is that the Golden State offers a plethora of top institutions, including plenty of liberal arts schools. Keep reading to learn about the many high-ranking liberal arts colleges in California. 


How Are Liberal Arts Colleges Different?


Dating back to classical times, a liberal arts education used to focus on those academic subjects considered liberales, or worthy of a free individual. Once consisting of just grammar, logic, and rhetoric, liberal arts degree has since expanded to feature a wide range of topics, including literature, science, math, and arts. The diverse curriculum is designed to prepare graduates to be critical thinkers and global citizens, rather than prepare them for a particular career. 


In an effort to provide students with the best possible education, liberal arts schools tend to feature smaller class sizes. In fact, many LACs boast that a large majority of their courses feature 30 students or fewer. It’s not uncommon to take a course with fewer than even 10 students, and the “large” lectures are those with 50-100 people. As a result, undergraduates enjoy more personal interactions with professors (especially since the focus of LACs is teaching, so profs will teach their own classes and hold frequent office hours). Rather than simply listening to the professor, students have the chance to ask questions and help shape the conversation. The small class sizes can be especially helpful for students interested in graduate school (such as those who are pre-med and pre-law), as these closer relationships with professors can lead to better mentorship and especially strong letters of recommendation.


The intimate experience offered by a liberal arts college extends beyond the academic. Most of the top liberal arts colleges in California have class sizes below 2,000, so students have the opportunity to develop close ties with peers. You’ll feel like you’re part of a community when you see the same people around campus week after week. 


To learn more about liberal arts colleges, see our post What is a Liberal Arts College, and How Are They Different?


Best Liberal Arts Colleges in California


Home to Stanford University, Caltech, and UCLA, California has long been a top educational destination among high-performing high schoolers. However, you might not realize that the liberal arts colleges in California are some of the best in the nation. Here are nine schools to consider if you want to pursue a well-rounded education while enjoying everything the Golden State has to offer.


1. Pomona College

Location: Claremont, CA
Acceptance rate: 8%

U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, # 5
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1400-1540 SAT, 31-34 ACT
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,679


One of seven schools that make up the Claremont Colleges, Pomona is a top liberal arts college with a focus on sciences. In fact, the most popular majors at this illustrious institution include economics, neuroscience, and mathematics. With an enrollment of under 1,700, Pomona offers all the advantages of a smaller school, including small class sizes and opportunities to help professors with research. However, students also enjoy larger-school benefits, as they can take classes at and participate in social activities through the other Claremont schools. In this sense, Pomona is a great choice for students looking for the best of both worlds. 


2. Claremont McKenna College

Location: Claremont, CA
Acceptance rate: 9%

U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, # 7
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1350-1500 SAT, 31-34 ACT
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,324


Located just east of Los Angeles, CMC is the Claremont College member that specializes in business affairs. Along with highly rated major programs in econometrics and political science, students have access to the renowned Keck Centre for International and Strategic Studies, which strives to offer a deeper understanding of the geopolitical landscape. As a bonus, Claremont undergraduates have the opportunity to expand their education through Sequences, which are interdisciplinary courses they can take after completing a major.


3. Harvey Mudd College

Location: Claremont, CA
Acceptance rate: 14%

U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, # 23
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1490-1560 SAT, 34-35 ACT
Undergraduate enrollment: 889


Another member of the Claremont College, Harvey Mudd is known for its strength in math and science. It also offers a unique HSA program, where students take 25 percent of their courses in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. The end result is that they have the chance to deepen non-technical interests while leaving college with a broader range of knowledge. While the school offers hundreds of student organizations and clubs, the campus doesn’t recognize fraternities or sororities. If you want to avoid Greek life while receiving a rigorous education in STEM and liberal arts, HMC might be an ideal option.


4. Scripps College

Location: Claremont, CA

Acceptance Rate: 24%

U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #33

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1300-1480 SAT, 30-33 ACT

Enrollment: 990


The only women’s school among the prestigious Claremont Colleges, Scripps invites talented female students to join its “community of scholars.” In the tradition of other liberal arts colleges in California, the school has an extensive core curriculum, requiring students to take classes in gender studies, letters, foreign languages, and the arts. Additionally, students have to complete a senior project or thesis prior to graduation. Fortunately, the school also offers plenty of opportunities for fun, including regular community dinners, outdoor movie screenings, and trips to Claremont village.

5. Pitzer College

Location: Claremont, CA
Acceptance rate: 13%
U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #35
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1340-1490 SAT, 30-33 ACT
Enrollment: 1,106


Although Pitzer is the Claremont college that focuses on the social and behavioral sciences, the prestigious institution requires students to pursue a broad curriculum that also includes the arts and humanities. Additionally, Pitzer emphasizes political activism, encouraging participation in local projects and policy debates. Student activities also reflect this commitment to community, with popular clubs including A Cleaner Tomorrow (ACT) and EcoCenter. As a bonus, the school is a great choice for foodies; the farm-to-fork dining hall is often ranked among the best in the nation.


6. Soka University of America

Location: Aliso Viejo, CA

Acceptance Rate: 39%
U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #27

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1180-1410 SAT, 25-30 ACT
Enrollment: 412


Like its sister school Soka University of Japan, this liberal arts college in California is dedicated to promoting pacifism and human rights. To that end, Soka mandates that all of its undergraduates earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts that’s designed to produce global citizens. While students can choose their own concentration — options include humanities, life sciences, and international studies — all coursework has a multi-disciplinary focus. Additionally, Soka requires its junior class to spend a semester studying abroad, the cost of which is included in the school’s tuition. 


7. Thomas Aquinas College

Location: Santa Paula, CA and Northfield, MA

Acceptance Rate: 78%
U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #35

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1220-1400 SAT, 25-30 ACT
Enrollment: 407


Along with being one of the top liberal arts colleges in California, Thomas Aquinas is also one of the best Catholic schools in the state. The school strives to provide a broad liberal arts curriculum within a community that’s rooted in faith. Additionally, the school is celebrated for its Great Books curriculum, whereby students learn from some of Western Civilization’s most influential authors, such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Homer. Classes feature less than 20 students, so there’s plenty of opportunity for discussion with professors and peers. 


8. Occidental College

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Acceptance rate: 37%
U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #39
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1270-1450 SAT, 28-32 ACT
Enrollment: 2,036


One of the oldest liberal arts colleges in California, Occidental is famous for graduating 10 Rhodes Scholars. Additionally, many students choose this school for its robust core curriculum. Along with their major courses, Occidental undergrads are required to take courses in writing, geography, language, math, science, and history. While the rigorous academic requirements keep students busy, they still have time for recreation. Popular extracurriculars at this school include the Film Club and Dance Production, a 70-year-old student-led, choreographed, and organized institution. 


9. Whittier College

Location: Whittier, CA
Acceptance rate: 76%
U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts Colleges, #105
Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1030-1213 SAT, 20-25 ACT
Enrollment: 1,732


The odds are good that you’ve heard of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier without knowing that there’s a school named for him. This California college celebrates its namesake’s Quaker heritage with a focus on community involvement; popular clubs include the Food Recovery Network, which aims to fight food waste and stop hunger. While the top majors at Whittier include social sciences, business, and marketing, the school is also known for its scientific endeavors. In fact, many Whittier students have published papers and participated in national conferences while earning their degrees. 


If you’re thinking of applying to some of the many liberal arts colleges in California, it pays to do your homework. At CollegeVine, we created our free chancing engine to help students determine their odds of being admitted to schools around the country. Using actual data from past applicants, we can show you how likely you are to get into thousands of institutions and even offer tips on improving your chances. To learn more, sign up for a CollegeVine account today and get started on achieving your dreams.

Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.