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Best Southern Liberal Arts Colleges

By BVS Staff
July 2020

Each year, thousands of high school students apply to liberal arts colleges in hopes of receiving a well-rounded education that will prepare them for any choice of a career. Liberal arts colleges are often smaller than research universities, providing the perfect atmosphere in which an ambitious student can excel, form meaningful relationships, and pursue opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable. It is for students looking for just this type of college experience that we’ve found the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South.

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Top 10 Ranking Liberal Arts Colleges

Rank School Location
1 Washington and Lee University Lexington, VA
2 University of Richmond University of Richmond, VA
3 Furman University Greenville, SC
4 Southwestern University Georgetown, TX
5 Austin College Sherman, TX
6 Eckerd College Saint Petersburg, FL
7 Davidson College Davidson, NC
8 Wofford College Spartanburg, SC
9 Millsaps College Jackson, MS
10 Centre College Danville, KY

Ranking Methodology:

To find the 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South, we started by considering only those colleges in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are far more than 30 liberal arts colleges in the South, so we narrowed down our list by considering factors such as:

– National rankings (40%)
– Freshmen retention rates (20%)
– Unique curriculum (30%)
– Membership in a college consortium (5%)
– Historical significance (5%)

Though we didn’t directly consider the 4-year cost of attending these liberal arts colleges, we did order our 30 best liberal arts colleges in the South based on their average 20-year net return on investment, as decided by PayScale.

  1. Washington and Lee University

    Lexington, VA

    20-Year Net ROI: $542,000
    Washington and Lee University is named after two of the most respected Americans in history — George Washington and Robert E. Lee — so perhaps it's fitting that the university itself also happens to be one of the most respected in academics. W&L students can choose from 40 undergraduate majors ranging from Renaissance Studies to Neuroscience. Washington and Lee has been included on a number of "best of" lists including those by Forbes (28th best university in the nation), U.S. News & World Report (11th best liberal arts college), Washington Monthly (7th best liberal arts college), and The Princeton Review.

  2. University of Richmond

    University of Richmond, VA

    20-Year Net ROI: $409,000
    University of Richmond, located in Richmond, Virginia, is a private liberal arts college comprised of five schools: the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Professional & Continuing Studies, School of Business, School of Leadership Studies, and School of Law. Regardless of school or chosen major, all students must complete a liberal arts core curriculum which includes a freshman seminar, a foreign language, a wellness class, an expository writing class, and one class each in six specific fields of study. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks University of Richmond among the best liberal arts colleges in the country, as does Forbes, SmartMoney, BusinessWeek, and Time, among others.

  3. Furman University

    Greenville, SC

    20-Year Net ROI: $234,000
    Furman University is the top-ranked liberal arts college in all of South Carolina, the 5th best liberal arts college in the South, and the 51st best liberal arts college in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Mentioned in nearly every ranking is Furman's unique approach to a liberal arts education, an approach which promotes first-hand experiences and problem solving through project-oriented and experience-based education. Whatever the approach, it seems to be working. The Daily Beast called Furman the 2nd most rigorous college in America, while the Social Science Research Network named it as one of the top choices for high-achieving students.

  4. Southwestern University

    Georgetown, TX

    20-Year Net ROI: $230,000
    Texas's oldest university also happens to be one of the best liberal arts colleges in the South. Chartered in 1840 and founded in 1873, Southwestern University in Georgetown offers more than 40 degrees, plus a handful of pre-professional programs. In addition to a strong liberal arts curriculum, Southwestern students have plenty of opportunity to take part in research. In fact, the university hosts two academic exhibitions each year to show off student research projects, including a well-attended and prestigious Creative Works Symposium. Southwestern has been included on a number of "best of" lists, including Loren Pope's list of the Colleges That Change Lives.

  5. Austin College

    Sherman, TX

    20-Year Net ROI: $221,000
    Located about 60 miles north of Dallas, Austin College is a private liberal arts school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Students complete a humanities-heavy core curriculum before choosing from more than 35 majors and pre-professional programs. To supplement its students' liberal arts education, Austin encourages off-campus and study abroad opportunities, particularly during a special three-week January Term. Students are required to participate in at least three January Terms over the course of their undergraduate career, and can choose to take an on-campus intensive, study abroad, or study off-campus at a variety of pre-determined locations.

  6. Eckerd College

    Saint Petersburg, FL

    20-Year Net ROI: $186,000
    Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida is a great option for students looking for both a solid liberal arts curriculum and some of the "harder to find" majors like Marine Science, Environmental Studies, International Business, and Creative Writing, among many others. Eckerd prides itself on the quality experiences it provides its students. For example, Eckerd faculty members are themselves active scholars, and often include undergraduate students in research or other projects. Eckerd was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 127th best liberal arts college in the country, and was also included in Loren Pope's book "Colleges That Change Lives."

  7. Davidson College

    Davidson, NC

    20-Year Net ROI: $177,000
    "Let learning be cherished" is the motto of Davidson College, a perfect summary of what it means to pursue an education in the liberal arts. Davidson, a private school located in North Carolina, offers students the choice of 26 majors, plus a bevy of interdisciplinary studies and minors. Davidson has been included in a slew of university rankings by such publications as U.S. News & World Report (9th best liberal arts college in the nation), Forbes (25th best college in the nation; 1st best college in the South), and the Princeton Review ("Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates"), among others.

  8. Wofford College

    Spartanburg, SC

    20-Year Net ROI: $168,000
    Wofford College is a liberal arts college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Its top-notch curriculum is taught by an accomplished faculty, 92% of whom have a doctorate or higher in their chosen field. Students at Wofford can choose from more than 25 majors within the liberal arts, and are also encouraged to take part in unique study abroad opportunities. Wofford has steadily been climbing U.S. News & World Report's list of the best liberal arts colleges (it is currently ranked the 77th best), and is ranked by Forbes as the 58th best college in America.

  9. Millsaps College

    Jackson, MS

    20-Year Net ROI: $164,000
    Jackson, Mississippi is home to Millsaps College, a small liberal arts college loosely affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its secular curriculum requires students to take a variety of courses in the liberal arts, compile a portfolio of written work, and pass exams both oral and written before graduation. Millsaps is consistently ranked among the best colleges in America by publications like U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, and Fiske. Millsaps was also one of only 40 schools included in Loren Pope's book "Colleges That Change Lives."

  10. Centre College

    Danville, KY

    20-Year Net ROI: $159,000
    Centre College is a private liberal arts college located in Danville, Kentucky. This selective and top-ranked school has produced more than 70% of Rhodes Scholars to come out of Kentucky — a huge accomplishment considering the Bluegrass State is also home to powerhouses like University of Louisville and University of Kentucky. After completing a traditional and well-rounded core curriculum, Centre students can choose from 27 majors and 28 minors in which to pursue a degree. Centre has been included on numerous lists of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, including those lists by Forbes (81st best college), U.S. News & World Report (45th best liberal arts college), and Washington Monthly (38th best liberal arts college).

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