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STEM College Spotlight Series: Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)

Whether you’re an upcoming senior still finalizing your college application plans or a freshman looking to get ahead, summer is a great time to get acquainted with your options and figure out exactly what you want out of a college. Read more if you want to learn about the hidden gems of STEM at liberal arts colleges.


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Whether you’re an upcoming senior still finalizing your college application plans or a freshman looking to get ahead, summer is a great time to get acquainted with your options and figure out exactly what you want out of a college. However to those pursuing STEM, there is a lot of pressure to look exclusively at larger research-oriented institutions as opposed to smaller liberal arts colleges due to the belief that they are the best options for future career success (1). That’s not necessarily the case. Liberal arts colleges have been shown to be reliable institutions for STEM development, but are not always advertised (read my first article for further context.) As homage to these hidden gems, I have compiled a short, diverse list of liberal arts colleges that are great options for future STEM scientists.

Disclaimer: This list is not ranked. Every college is different for everyone and is used to inform readers about certain colleges. 


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Harvey Mudd College 

Location: Claremont, California

A member of the esteemed Claremont consortium, Harvey Mudd is one of the few liberal arts colleges that specialize in undergraduate STEM education. According to the National Science Foundation, Harvey Mudd is consistently one of the top science and engineering Ph.D. producers in the nation (2). The college aims to empower future scientists and engineers in the sciences as well as humanities and the social sciences in order to have a clear understanding on the societal impact of their work–calling on the ethos of liberal arts education (6).

Why It Is Great:

  • Claremont Consortium – Students have access to resources of other Claremont Colleges (ie. cross-registering classes, more library materials, student organizations, etc.) and get to experience a university-like setting while attending one college.
  • STEM-Heavy Core – Core curriculum revolves more around STEM disciplines (ie. required to take classes in math, science, chemistry, physics, and engineering with respective lab components) with integrated social sciences/humanities and writing courses (6).
  • Clinic Program – A unique opportunity for Harvey Mudd juniors and seniors to complete projects for domestic and global industry sponsors. Students occasionally get patents out of their projects–basically the kind of things you would want on your resume. (6)


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Swarthmore College

Location: Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

Just twenty minutes off of Philadelphia, Swarthmore prides itself on rigorous academics and the intellectual student culture.  Swarthmore is consistently among the top 5 science and engineering Ph.D producers in the nation, and is known for sending a majority of their graduates to top graduate schools (2). It is one of the few liberal arts colleges that has an accredited Engineering program.


Why It Is Great:

  • Honors Program: This is the heart of Swarthmore’s liberal arts credo. The Honors Program features small groups of accomplished students in each major and minor working with faculty with an emphasis on independent learning and an examination by outside scholars (7). This is graduate-level work at an undergraduate level.
  • Great Location: For those interested in biology or environmental science research, Crum Woods is a great site to do research as one student here did (7). Additionally, proximity to Philadelphia and cheap transportation costs allows ease of access to Washington DC, New Jersey, and New York City – great places for internships and job opportunities.
  • Unique Engineering Program: The degree itself is not specialized and doesn’t nearly have as many major requirements as other undergraduate institutions. However, the integrated liberal arts education allows engineers to be more flexible in their work–whether they pursue graduate school, go to the workforce, or star their own company.



Carleton College:

Location: Northfield, Minnesota

Over the past few years, Carleton College has consistently ranked as one of the top Ph. D producers in the nation and was ranked #1 among liberal arts colleges in faculty National Science Foundation grants (2). It is a liberal arts college that highly values mentored faculty research through their Interdisciplinary Science and Math initiatives (3).

Why It Is Great:

  • Comps Project Capstone: Required by every major, students are encouraged to work on a topic of their own choosing with guidance from faculty advisers. Great preparation for graduate level work.
  • Science Education: Known as an innovator in K-12 Science Education and has several summer outreach programs for high school students such as the Summer Science Institute, Summer Quantitative Reasoning Institute, and Summer Computer Science Institute. (3)
  • Strong Environmental Studies/Geology Departments: Carleton’s STEM departments have expanded over the years, but these departments have a multitude of unique off campus programs. Carleton particularly excels in producing Ph.D’s in Geoscience and Life Sciences (3).


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Davidson College:

Location: Davidson, North Carolina

Even though Davidson College offers pre professional tracks, the institution doesn’t sacrifice the depth of a liberal arts education and service in an individual’s development. Drawing on it’s Presbyterian roots, it is an institution that seeks to empower the intellectual and moral development of their students.

Why It Is Great:

  • Dual Engineering Program: Students can attend first two years at Davidson and (if accepted) attend engineering school at either Columbia University or Washington University in St. Louis. At the end of the program, students receive bachelor degrees from Davidson and the engineering school. (5)
  • Genomics Program: Davidson has one of the few Genomics programs in the nation, allowing students to participate in group research projects like bioinformatics, genome annotation, and neurogenomics. There are plenty of research and publication opportunities in this program. (5)
  • Pre Professional Specialization Tracks: Unlike other liberal arts colleges, Davidson offers pre-medicine and military science as specialized tracks to provide specific resources to students. (5)


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Colorado College:

Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado

Known for its beautiful hiking trails, Colorado College emphasizes the importance student independence and freedom through the Block Plan. Instead of taking 4 classes each semester, students take one class–or block–at a time for three weeks with 4 day breaks between classes (4). Although not as academically recognized as some of the other schools on this list, Colorado College exemplifies freedom of academic innovation at certain colleges.

Why It Is Great:

  • Block Plan: Instead of a semester, the Block Plan functions like a series of Maymesters throughout the year. Despite the intensive 3-week coursework demanded by STEM courses, having extra time to pursue extra activities, conduct research, and possibly do internships during the school year is valuable. Even with that said, this style is not for everyone and prospective students should figure out if they are okay with this system. Time management especially at this school would be key. (This is bullet points one and two because of how ingrained it is to Colorado College culture.)
  • Amazing Location: Hands down, Colorado is one of the best places to be for college with all the mountain resorts and hiking trails. For those interested in pursuing environmental studies and geology, Colorado is an ideal location for research and observational study.


Perhaps a takeaway from this long, detailed list is that liberal arts colleges aren’t as sparse in resources as one would expect. In fact, having unique features like Swarthmore’s Honors Program and membership of a consortium like the Claremont Colleges grant students access to university resources while reaping benefits from a liberal arts college. Even though not all liberal arts colleges offer this degree of resources, financial aid policies and diversity initiatives have attracted different kinds of students from all over the nation. Hopefully, someday that might be you.


  1. Breau, Walter. “Small Liberal Arts Colleges and the STEM Pipeline.” ACADEME BLOG, Academe Magazine, 31 Mar. 2014,
  2. Burelli, Joan, et al. “Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients.” InfoBriefs: Science Resources Statistics, July 2008, pp. 1–8. National Science Foundation,
  3. “Carleton College: A Leading Liberal Arts College in Northfield, Minnesota.” Carleton College, Pages Used: Math and Science at Carleton
  4. “Colorado College – Home.” Colorado College, Pages Used: The Block Plan
  5. Davidson College. “Davidson College – Davidson, NC.” Davidson College, Pages Used: Engineering Double Degree, Genomics, Fast Facts
  6. “Harvey Mudd College – Home.” Harvey Mudd College, Pages Used: Common Core Curriculum, Our Mission and Strategic Vision, and Clinic Program
  7. “Swarthmore College – Home.” Swarthmore College, Pages Used: Ongoing Research, Engineering and Liberal Arts: Why Choose Swarthmore Engineering?, and Honors Program

3 comments on “STEM College Spotlight Series: Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)

  1. Merrina Lan

    I participated in Carleton’s Summer Science Institute two years ago! Highly recommended!


  2. Shanni Lam

    I can second this as an incoming Harvey Mudd student! HMC has cool joint degrees too like Computer Science-Math and Mathematical and Computational Biology. Also check out that spicy #1 salary after graduation ranking of a median $85000 salary.
    Another great, underrated STEM college is the Olin College of Engineering, which has a very hands-on approach to engineering and has a small size of only 350 students!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: STEM College Spotlight Series: Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 2) – The Student Scientist

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