Best Liberal Arts Colleges for STEM Students
March 3, 2020
Best Liberal Arts Colleges for STEM Students
As a STEM student, building the perfect school list can be an overwhelming process. You surely have heard lots of good things about the resources at MIT, CalTech, and Georgia Tech, but you may also be on the lookout for smaller colleges that offer more opportunities catered specifically towards undergraduates. This is where the list of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students can help you.
At a smaller liberal arts campus, you’re granted access to close collaboration with researchers, faculty, and fellow students. There are also options to take classes at larger universities nearby, giving you access to both a close knit college community and the resources of a research institution. Some STEM undergrads even transfer through a 3-2 program to a STEM specialty elsewhere. To help you explore the options, I have included a list of ten of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students, explained how each can help you attain your scientific goals, and finally, provided a discussion on the value of a liberal arts education with a focus in the sciences.
List of the Best Liberal Arts Colleges for STEM Students
The following schools go beyond just providing its undergraduate students with great math or biology programs. They present specialized facilities and resources that might expand your research prospects, support your underrepresented identity, or teach you how to combine what you learn in your required humanities courses and apply it to STEM fields. Without further ado, let’s take a look at ten of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students.
Amherst is one of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students, as it highly emphasizes student-faculty collaboration in the sciences. Many of the professors are renowned scientists - 40% of Amherst students conduct independent honors work that is on par with graduate-level work. Amherst undergraduates often get to co-author scientific articles that are published in peer-reviewed journals and present research at national conferences. All of the usual STEM majors are available at Amherst, including geology, statistics, astronomy, and math (which is the most popular major among students at this school).
Amherst also prides itself on the “Being Human in STEM” initiative, which aims to foster more inclusivity and diversity in the sciences. Students, faculty, and staff collaborate to navigate diverse aspects of their identities, both inside and outside classrooms and labs. This project-based course model allows students to investigate various issues of diversity in STEM by combining academics with community engagement on campus.
Bowdoin supports its science-leaning students by providing strong financial backing when it comes to research, with awards per semester or monthly from the institution. Bowdoin also helps students pursue fellowships, and prides itself in connecting students to merit-based opportunities, from national fellowships to summer fellowships. This support would allow you to personalize your study and supports independent study and honors projects. Fellowships have led to students co-authoring papers with their faculty mentor or presenting their findings at professional meetings.
Bowdoin students frequently take advantage of its partnership with the University of Maine at Orono, the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University, the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, and the California Institute of Technology. To qualify for the 3-2 engineering programs, students complete particular required courses at Bowdoin during the first three years of college and then apply to transfer for two years at their chosen university’s engineering program.
If you’re looking for the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students that will help you in your engineering endeavors, consider applying to Bucknell University. Unlike a lot of other liberal arts institutions, Bucknell is equipped with its own undergraduate engineering school and allows 4-year bachelor's degrees in eight engineering fields:
- Biomedical Engineering
- Chemical Engineering
- Civil Engineering
- Computer Engineering
- Computer Science & Engineering
- Electrical Engineering
- Environmental Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
You can also pursue an integrated five-year liberal arts/engineering program which leads to either a combination of Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees or a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Management for Engineers degree, depending on your focus. Computer science enthusiasts have multiple options: a Bachelor of Science in computer science and engineering, or a Bachelor of Arts in computer science. Bucknell also has niche STEM majors outside engineering, such as Animal Studies, Environmental Geosciences, and Mathematical Economics.
Ranked number one among U.S. liberal arts colleges that produce Ph.D.s per capita across science disciplines, Carleton College highly values ingraining skills in the STEM field among its students. Close student-professor research collaboration is regular at Carleton - 46% of its students are involved in mentored research to some extent. Carleton has received 37 grants from the National Science Foundation that amount to more than $6.3 million over the past 6 years!
All Carleton seniors complete a capstone project in their majors, known as the Comprehensive Senior Integrated Exercise, or Comps. As part of Comps, students can conduct research projects and write a corresponding paper, deliver lectures, or present posters. Carleton pushes STEM students to be innovative and expand their boundaries beyond what’s typically expected of undergraduates.
Davidson students take advantage of the school's friendly relations with larger affiliated universities. At Davidson, students can partake in a 4-2 or 3-2 dual engineering program partnered with Washington University in St. Louis or Columbia University. Davidson undergrads who complete the prerequisite courses and meet the required GPA are guaranteed admission to these institutions.
Davidson is highly supportive of its undergraduates in STEM. Last year, the college launched the Fostering Inclusivity & Respect in Science Together (FIRST) Action Team, which hopes to develop more inclusivity within its STEM courses. Alongside the usual Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics majors, students at Davidson can also concentrate in Pre-Veterinary Medicine, Genomics, and Applied Math.
Harvey Mudd College
Not only is Harvey Mudd College standard on lists featuring the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students, but it is also hands-down one of the most reputable institutions for the sciences in general. Unlike most liberal arts colleges, almost every major at Harvey Mudd has some connection to STEM. The list of majors constitutes Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, and Social Sciences and the Arts. Clearly, HMC is very STEM heavy.
At the heart of Harvey Mudd is its Common Core curriculum, which allows STEM-focused students to gain strong foundational knowledge to help expand their repertoire as they take on more advanced coursework in the sciences. Alongside taking courses in computer science, engineering, biology, math, and chemistry, every student at HMC is required to take a semester of writing classes as well as a course in Humanities, Social Sciences, and Arts. This knowledge can help students explore the more human side of STEM.
Attending a historically women’s college has its perks, one of which includes more attention and encouragement when it comes to supporting women who want to venture into a career in the sciences. 40% of Smith students are STEM majors, and 50% of STEM professors are women. The school has 18 different science concentrations, including a BS in Engineering (which isn’t commonly found at liberal arts schools), plus more quirky options such as Exercise and Sport Studies, Landscape Studies, and Marine Science and Policy. Smith also boasts over 15 research labs on campus, where, under the guidance of various professors, you can explore topics ranging from hydrology and water resources to condensed matter and atomic physics.
Smith is a place where STEM majors can thrive, thanks to the abundance of support the school provides, from the Lazarus Center for Career Development specifically designed to help STEM students explore career options to AEMES (Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) which promotes the presence of underrepresented groups in the sciences. The AEMES program also allows peer mentoring, a summer bridge program, and leadership opportunities for aspiring scientists.
Swarthmore is another top name to keep in mind as you seek the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students. The school urges students to incorporate research into undergraduate study. Unlike most institutions, many of Swarthmore’s upper-level STEM courses are taught as seminars, which allows active participation and the exchange of ideas between students and faculty. Swarthmore is also known for its engineering program, which integrates the understanding of society and economics, as well as culture and tradition into its engineering syllabi. Students gain a broader understanding of the role engineering plays in various aspects of society while tailoring their education to fit their individual technical interests.
Swarthmore continues its work towards fostering growth among STEM students, using its largest gift in history to initiate its biggest building project yet - the Maxine Frank Singer Hall. This will house its STEM departments and aim to create closer bonds between students and science faculty. As for graduate prospects, Swarthmore stands among the top five highest producers of doctorate recipients in the humanities, life sciences, and all sciences combined; 20% of Swarthmore graduates go on to earn a doctorate degree.
Union College supports its students in research initiatives across all fields at the various faculty research labs housed in the Peter Irving World Center, Bioengineering Center, and the Center for Neuroscience. Approximately 80% of students at the college conduct original research through the Sophomore Research Seminar, Senior Thesis, or the Capstone Project. Every year, students present their work and findings at the Steinmetz Symposium. Aside from the usual STEM majors, Union College also has the option for you to minor in Digital Media, Energy Studies, Environmental Engineering, and Nanotechnology.
Union is one of the few liberal arts colleges with a combined BS/MD program. The Leadership in Medicine Program at Union includes guaranteed admission to Albany Medical College if students meet Union’s requirements for academic performance and extracurricular involvement. This path enables a direct entry into medical school without requiring the MCAT, and you can finish both your BS and your MD in a total of eight years!
Ranked number one on US News’ ranking of the Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the country for 17 years in a row, Williams is a strong institution when it comes to supporting students interested in STEM. Nearly 15% of graduates go on to enter Ph.D. programs in math and science each year. Moreover, Williams is one of the top undergraduate institutions whose students receive National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowships. 33% of Williams students are STEM majors and 70-80 seniors closely work on a thesis project in the sciences with their faculty advisor annually, often resulting in co-authored journal articles.
Besides the usual science majors, Williams also boasts a History of Science program, which enables students to explore STEM through a more humanities lens, if that’s one of your interests. Williams consistently urges students to pursue research early on in their undergraduate careers. During the semester, regardless of whether they’re a freshman or a senior, undergrads spend 5-10 hours per week in labs as paid research assistants. During the Winter Study session in January, they also have the option of independent research on campus, doing fieldwork, or collaborating with faculty members and other students. Each summer, about 200 students work with faculty on campus as fully funded research fellows. Often, many of them travel abroad to conduct research projects as well.
Value of Attending a Liberal Arts College as a STEM Student
Now that you’ve seen some of the strongest liberal arts schools with alluring science offerings, you might be thinking about the value of this type of education as compared to attending a larger university. Liberal arts schools come with their own advantages - for example, at a smaller campus, you’ll have more one-on-one time with your professors because the student to faculty ratio is low. So, at a college like Harvey Mudd or Smith, you’re likely to receive more concentrated support from your instructors, get to know them well, and in the future, these professors can write specific letters of recommendation on your behalf.
The distribution requirements at most liberal arts schools also allow you to supplement your STEM courses with humanities classes. Since you have to take a certain number of courses in the humanities, social sciences, and art, you might find unique ways to combine your interests or understand your science curricula. For example, picking up skills in studio art courses may come in handy if you’re pursuing an engineering degree. Economics is an example of a department where you would apply your math skills to real-world issues.
While it’s true that a disadvantage of studying science, math, or engineering at a smaller school is that you have less access to resources such as state-of-the-art labs or hospitals, that’s where cross-registration comes into play. Many liberal arts schools are part of larger consortia that allow students from one school to take classes at another, as you saw with Bowdoin and Davidson. Other examples include Amherst and Harvey Mudd.
If you attend Amherst, you can take classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has its own medical school. If you go to Harvey Mudd, you can take advantage of one of the other Claremont options such as the Keck Graduate Institute, which is the first U.S. graduate school dedicated to the emerging field of applied life sciences. So, if you believe that liberal arts colleges are the right fit for you, you can still make STEM ambitions work thanks to cross-registration and 3-2 routes. In fact, liberal arts colleges are likely to be able to financially support more students in their STEM research endeavors, as all students are undergrads.
Prospects After Graduation
If you’re stressed out regarding whether attending one of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students would put you at a disadvantage for applying to graduate school, don’t worry. In fact, because there are so many more focused opportunities reserved solely for undergraduates at liberal arts colleges, you’ll be able to get a substantial amount of time gaining hands-on research experience. Liberal arts schools actually dominate the list of top 10 institutions that produce the most number of students earning doctorates.
Liberal arts graduates are also twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. in science than grads of larger institutions. Swarthmore, for example, has produced the same number of computer science graduates who went on to receive doctorates as larger research universities such as the University of Houston and the University of Tennessee. Career services at liberal arts schools are also highly dedicated to supporting undergraduates as they navigate the internship and job search scene. Plus, employers will find your degree valuable, as they know that alums from liberal arts colleges bring a wide range of skills and knowledge.
If you’re looking for schools that allow you to explore STEM through a variety of lenses but also provide you with individualized mentorship for research, one of the best liberal arts colleges for STEM students might be right for you. Of course, where you apply depends on which field within STEM interests you, as not all schools are equally strong in every STEM subject. But you can use our list as a starting point to navigate the facilities available at these institutions and consider whether they might provide you with an environment that can help you grow and reach your goals. Happy searching!
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