The 25 Most Desirable Rural Schools


We scored our desirability ranking based on yield (the percentage of accepted students who enroll), admissions, test scores, endowment, student-to-faculty ratio, retention, as well as climate and the quality of facilities, housing, and dining.  When we adjusted our overall school desirability ranking to include only schools in rural areas, there were lots of schools that offered a quintessential New England college experience like Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst, and Bowdoin, all well-regarded bastions of the liberal arts. Less familiar? College of the Ozarks, Berea College, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, all of which rank among the top 10 most desirable rural schools. What makes these unsung institutions stand out? A number of factors, but all three are small and specialized and have remarkably competitive admissions. And Berea’s tuition is basically free.

Contributing editor Peter Bernstein and researcher Courtney Kennedy drew on dozens of sources to compile these rankings including information from the National Center for Education Statistics, The Washington Monthly, and College Prowler.   A portion of the data they used is represented in the following school profiles, but for the full methodologies, see our FAQ here.  And if you’re not a rankings fan, take a look at this piece by Colin Diver, the president of Reed College,  about why schools dislike rankings and how families can use them wisely as part of their college decision-making process.  

For more from College Prowler, visit their website.

dartmouth-ed02 Joseph Mehling / Courtesy of Dartmouth College

Ranking No. 1 on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural schools and the eighth most desirable school in the country, it’s no wonder that only about 15 percent of the applicants are invited to matriculate at this sought-after Hanover, New Hampshire, gem. The student population, totaling almost 6,000 students, more than 4,000 of which are undergraduates, is offered a low student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1, contributing to Dartmouth College’s No. 1 ranking on U.S. News & World Report’s list of schools with a “Strong Commitment to Teaching.”

With a student body that is 55 percent white, 14 percent Asian, 8 percent black and 7 percent Hispanic and an ongoing commitment to Native American education (in the past 40 years, more than 700 Native Americans have attended Dartmouth) this Ivy is the 24th most diverse school on Newsweek’s list.   

Influential alums earn Dartmouth 11th place for power brokers. Its nearly 25 percent participation in varsity sports positions the Big Green at No. 13 for athletics. With 3 Rhodes scholars in just the last decade or so, a sizable number of students going on to get Ph.D.s, an average incoming student scores of 34 on the ACT and 1550 on the SAT it’s not a surprise that Dartmouth ranks 13th on Newsweek’s brainiacs list.

Taking advantage of these accolades isn’t cheap, however. According to U.S. Department of Education estimates, tuition and fees were almost $39,000 for the 2009–2010 academic year, nearly five percent more than the previous year.

williams-college-ed02 Courtesy of Williams College

Along with Wesleyan University and Amherst College, Williams College is part of the “Little Three,” the small-liberal-arts-school version of the “Big Three” that consists of Harvard, Princeton and Yale.  And Williams shares the limelight with its Big and Little counterparts on several of Newsweek’s lists: It’s No. 17 for future power brokers, No. 16 on most desirable schools overall, No. 2 on most desirable rural schools, No. 4 on most desirable small schools and No. 10 for brainiacs.   

Undergraduate enrollment at Williams College is roughly 2,000, with the majority of students pursuing a degree in economics, followed by English. If that sounds like a student body of polar opposites, consider this: Approximately 50 percent of all Williams College students participate in varsity sports, putting it eighth on Newsweek’s list of colleges stocked with jocks.

Another unusual aspect of Williams College is an academic year that operates on two four-course semesters, plus a one-course January term. An all-male college until 1970, Williams began to phase out fraternities in 1962.

During the 2009–2010 school year, students paid $49,880 for tuition, fees, and room and board.

amherst-one-ed02 Courtesy of Amherst

Amherst, No. 5 on Newsweek’s list of most desirable small schools, can offer students a lot of individualized attention. With a faculty-to-student ratio of 1:8, this private liberal arts school in New England boasts an average class size of 16. In fact, 90 percent of Amherst courses have fewer than 30 students. “We believe in teaching as conversation because the best teaching is conversation,” Tom Gerety, the president of Amherst from 1994–2003, once said.

Situated on a scenic 1,000-acre campus near the center of the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, the college also made the top 3 in Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural schools. Indeed, Amherst comes in as the 17th most desirable school overall. Along with Wesleyan University and Williams College, Amherst College is part of the “Little Three,” the small-liberal-arts-school version of the “Big Three” that consists of Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Despite its small size (roughly 1,700 undergraduates total), Amherst boasts many accomplished alumni, including U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, which lands the school the 20th rank in Newsweek’s list for future power brokers and 11th for brainiacs. And the $48,400 in comprehensive fees that students paid in the 2009–2010 school year just might turn out to be a good financial investment: Amherst has also produced two billionaires.

bowdoin-college-campus-ed02 Bob Handelman Images / Courtesy of Bowdoin College

Selective, athletic, intellectually rigorous and historic Bowdoin College is the 18th most desirable school in the country, according to Newsweek’s rankings. Located in scenic Brunswick, Maine, the school also finds itself fourth on the list for most desirable rural schools and the sixth most desirable small school.

The private school, with only 1800 undergraduates, is very selective, admitting less than one in five applicants. Those who attend scored high on both the SAT and ACT, averaging 1510 on the former and 33 on the latter. The school offers more than 40 majors, with the most popular majors in the social sciences, including economics and political science, which may account for Bowdoin’s 24th place on Newsweek’s list for future power brokers. The school also takes spot No. 25 for its service-minded culture  according to the Washington Monthly. *

The student body exercises their bodies as much as their minds, with 39 percent playing on one of 28 varsity teams. There are an additional 51 intramural sports on offer, making Bowdoin the fifth-ranked jock school.

Tuition for the 2009–2010 academic year averaged around $40,000, and about 45 percent of students received financial aid. The student body is 66 percent white, 12 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent African-American and 51 percent female. Eighty-three percent hail from out of state.

*For the complete college rankings from the Washington Monthly, visit their website at

middlebury-college-ed02 Courtesy of Middlebury College

Middlebury College rakes in several honors in Newsweek’s rankings, including the 23rd most desirable school in the country, the fifth most desirable rural school and the ninth most desirable small school. No wonder that its acceptance rate is a very selective 21 percent, with entrants averaging a 33 ACT score and 1490 SAT score.  

Fifty intramural and 25 varsity sports as well as one-third of its students on varsity teams help catapult the small school to No. 16 among schools for jocks.

Middlebury College is also renowned for its commitment to environmental stewardship through its curricular offerings and eco-friendly practices on campus. However, a Middlebury education extends well beyond its idyllic home in Vermont’s Green Mountains, with a robust study-abroad program that spans more than 40 countries and opportunities at more than 90 programs and universities worldwide.

college-of-ozark-ed02 Courtesy of College of the Ozarks

With a mission “to provide the advantages of a Christian education for youth of both sexes, especially those found worthy, but who are without sufficient means to procure such training,” the College of the Ozarks has been offering students a liberal arts education in an intimate, Christian setting since its founding by Presbyterian missionary James Forsythe in 1906. Located in Point Lookout, Missouri, (near the city of Branson) the College of the Ozarks ranks as the nation’s sixth most desirable rural school and the tenth most desirable small school by Newsweek.

Nicknamed “Hard Work U,” the College is able to waive tuition for full-time students through generous financial aid packages and a student-work program, in which undergraduates work on campus 15 hours a week during the semester and two 40-hour work weeks each year during breaks. While this arrangement contributes to the school’s desirability, it also makes for stiff competition—only 12 percent of applicants are accepted, adding up to a student body of just 1,500.

washingon-lee-university-ed02 Kevin Remington / Courtesy of Washington and Lee University

Founded in 1749 as Augusta Academy, Washington and Lee University has undergone several incarnations over the years: It gained the first half of its current moniker when it received a $20,000 stock endowment from George Washington in 1796 and the second half roughly a century later after General Robert E. Lee’s tenure as the university’s president.   

The private, four-year liberal arts college in Lexington, Virginia, ranks seventh on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural campuses and 11th among the 25 most desirable small colleges. It is divided into two divisions catering to its roughly 1,800 undergraduates: the College; and the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics.  It also offers a graduate school of law.  

The university boasts a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio, an average class size of 16 students, and professors who cannot push the work off to teaching assistants, because there are none!  Washington and Lee University also offers active participation in student government, athletics and campus life.

berea-college-ed02 Courtesy of Berea College

Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and co-ed school in the South, this Kentucky school named for the town in which it sits, strives to maintain its identity as a diverse college. With ethnic minorities representing nearly a third of its students and a remarkable 83% of students receiving Pell Grants (federal grants for students from low-income families), Berea College is No. 11 on Newsweek’s list of most diverse schools.  

Priding itself on what it calls an “inclusive Christian character,” the college offers free tuition to all of its roughly 1,500 students, each of whom, in exchange, work at least 10 hours per week on campus.  This, as well as the opportunity to earn a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree in more than 28 fields, positions Berea as the eighth most desirable rural school in the nation and the 16th most desirable small school.

With such accolades, it’s no wonder competition is stiff, and only 22 percent of applicants are fortunate enough to be accepted.  The school says it admits “only academically promising students,” and entrants average a 25 on the ACTs and 1210 on the SATs.

Carleton_college-ed02 Tom Roster / Courtesy of Carleton College

Set in Northfield, a historic Minnesota river town, Carleton College has been providing what it calls “a true liberal arts education” since its founding in 1866. The school offers 37 majors in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences in a quaint Midwestern setting on a campus occupying 1,040 acres, including an 880-acre arboretum, which helps explain its ranking as the ninth most desirable rural school in the nation.

With fewer than 2,000 students—which the college describes as intellectually curious—Carleton is rated as the 18th most desirable small school in the country. The student-to-faculty ratio is 9:1, class sizes average 18 students and the school promises that professors—not teaching assistants—teach every class. On average, its students score 33 on the ACTs and 1490 on the SATs.

Only 27 percent of students who apply to Carleton College are accepted. Women comprise 53 percent of the student population.

new-mexico-technology-ed02 Courtesy of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

Though it has grown since it opened in 1893 with just one building, two professors and seven students, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology continues to keep things small, with 1,344 undergrads and a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio.  Newsweek ranks it the 19th most desirable small school in the nation.

Specializing in science and engineering, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (often referred to as New Mexico Tech) offers 30 bachelor degree programs and is regarded as one the best technical schools in the United States.   

Located in Socorro, New Mexico, about an hour south of Albuquerque, New Mexico Tech also ranks tenth on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural schools.

colgate-university-ed02 Courtesy of Colgate University

Ranked by Newsweek as the 11th most desirable rural school in the nation, Colgate University’s 500-acre campus in Hamilton, New York, is frequently cited for its pastoral setting.  Most of the campus buildings, at least one of which is on the National Register of Historic Places, are made of stone; the first was built by students and faculty from Colgate’s very own rock quarry.

Founded as a Baptist seminary in 1819, the school maintains its motto “For God and Truth,” but has grown into a secular, non-denominational university. The private school attracts the brightest of the bright, and accepts less than a quarter of its applicants. Fewer than 3,000 students attend, and the student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1; more than half of those students are women.  

Attendance at the private school cost students approximately $41,000 in tuition and fees for the 2009–2010 academic year, a nearly 4 percent increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

bucknell-university-ed02 Laurie Jackson / Courtesy of Bucknell University

Located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University is ranked 12th among the most desirable rural schools by Newsweek and calls itself “the nation’s largest private liberal arts university.”

Founded in 1846, Bucknell University’s campus occupies 450 acres in a rural, countryside setting along the Susquehanna River in Central Pennsylvania. The university is a focal point of the historic town it occupies, considering it has a student body of about 3,600 undergraduates, set against the fewer than 6,000 Lewisburg residents counted in the 2000 census.

The competitive school has a student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1 and admits less than a third of its applicants. Those who attend averaged a 31 on the ACT and 1390 on the SAT. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the annual expense for a full-time undergraduate student to attend Bucknell for the 2009–2010 academic year was just over $40,000.

colby-college-ed02 Courtesy of Colby College

Calling the educational experience it offers “challenging and uplifting, enlightening and provocative, dynamic and focused,” Colby College is 13th on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural schools and 23rd most desirable small school. The private liberal arts college in Waterville, Maine, strives to give its students “freedom to study, to think, to speak, and to learn in an environment that insists upon the free and open exchange of ideas and views.”

Colby students—93 percent of whom live on campus—engage in an active campus life with deep ties to the outlying community in Maine. And two-thirds of the school’s 1,800 students study abroad in the course of earning a four-year bachelors degree.

The school, founded in 1813, is one of the “little Ivies,” an informal collection of small schools whose academic rigor, selective acceptance policies and Northeastern locations parallel those of the Ivy League.  Less than a third of its applicants are accepted, and those who are average a 31 on the ACT and a 1430 on the SAT.

grinell-college-ed02 Courtesy of Grinnell College

With eight percent of its students Asian, five percent African-American, six percent Hispanic and 11 percent hailing from 50 countries outside of the U.S., Grinnell College—located in a town bearing its name in Iowa—is far more diverse than its home state, which is 94 percent white, according to U.S. Census information. That helps place Grinnell College 19th on Newsweek’s list of most diverse schools in the country. Its 1,500-strong student body, 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio and academically stringent curricula, meanwhile, put the school among the 25 best small colleges in the country and No. 14 on the Most Desirable Small Schools list.

Founded in 1846, the liberal arts college is no stranger to “best of” roundups, having gained praise from U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review in addition to being named the “Best All-Around” college by Newsweek magazine in 2004.

The school accepts 43 percent of its applicants and, on average, students earned a 32 on the ACTs and 1450 on the SATs.

kenyon-college-ed02 Jeff Corwin / Courtesy of Kenyon College

Kenyon College’s 1,000-acre campus—situated on a hilltop in Gambier, Ohio, about 45 minutes from Columbus—includes a 380-acre nature preserve and was named by Forbes as one of the nation’s most beautiful college campuses. Newsweek ranks it 15 on its list of most desirable rural schools.

The private college calls itself “highly selective” and admits less than a third of students who apply, generally fewer than 500 freshmen per year. Those who do are academically accomplished, averaging a 32 on the ACTs and 1430 on the SATs. The liberal arts college offers 31 majors to roughly 1,600 students.

The school’s student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1 and Kenyon keeps class sizes small, typically only 15 students. “Our greatest strength is our faculty, outstanding scholars who place the highest value on teaching,” the school says. “Close interaction with students is the rule here: professors become mentors and friends.”

ava-maria-university-ed02 Joe Raedle / Courtesy of Ave Maria University

Established in 2003 by the founder of Domino’s Pizza as “a Catholic liberal arts institution designed to prepare students for leadership in academics, professional occupations, and service to the greater community,” Ave Maria University is counted as the 16th most desirable school in a rural setting by Newsweek.     

Located near Naples in southwestern Florida, the private Roman Catholic university remains small and close-knit, with just 700 undergrads. Only 37 percent of applicants are admitted, and they average a 29 on the ACT and 1370 on the SAT. The school offers an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
The school also gives students the chance to study at a branch campus in Nicaragua called the Ave Maria University-Latin American Campus.

whitman-college-ed02 Greg Lehman / Courtesy of Whitman College

Located in Walla Walla, a remote city of 30,000 people in southern Washington State, Whitman College is No. 17 on Newsweek’s Most Desirable Rural Schools list.   

The school, which was founded in 1882, has fewer than 1,500 undergraduates, 55 percent of whom are female. Just over 40 percent of applicants are admitted, and more than 90 percent graduate. Students averaged a 31 on the ACT and 1410 on the SAT. Nearly half of the school’s juniors participate in a study-abroad program for one semester, thanks to Whitman’s partnership with 38 other educational organizations spanning 23 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.   

Whitman has a student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1 and tuition for the 2009–2010 academic year averaged around $37,000, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.

gettysburg-college-ed02 Alexander Armster-Wikoff / Courtesy of Gettysburg College

Set in a town of the same name and near that famous Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania, Gettysburg College is 18th on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural schools.

Additionally, founded in 1832, its Evangelical Lutheran Church affiliation places it among Newsweek’s best “religious and smart” schools. Gettysburg students averaged a 30 on the ACT and 1380 on the SAT. The school’s roughly 2,500 undergraduates enjoy a student-to-faculty ratio of 11:1.

Tuition and fees to attend the private liberal arts school for the 2009–2010 academic year were a little more than $39,000 and about 70 percent of students received financial aid. The student body is 53 percent female.

kansas-state-university-ed02 Courtesy of Kansas State University

It may be located in a place called Manhattan, but Kansas State University is as rural as it gets, securing its place as Number 19 on Newsweek’s list of top 25 rural schools. Though located in a small town—the “Little Apple,” as it is sometimes called—K State has a big student body, with 23,500 students, (18,000 of them undergraduates) and lands at No. 16 on Newsweek’s list of most desirable large schools.

Founded in 1858 as Bluemont Central College, the school accepts 56 percent of its applicants, and those who attend averaged a 26 on the ACT and 1280 on the SAT. The Big 12 participates in the NCAA Division I.

Tuition and fees for in-state students for the 2009–2010 academic year was nearly $7,000, while out-of-state students paid more than $17,500. At least 90 percent of the student body received financial aid.

dickinson-college-ed02 Pierce Bounds / Courtesy of Dickinson College

Dickinson College is the 16th-oldest college in the United States. Its country locale in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, helps place it among the most desirable rural schools in the country at No. 20.

The student population of less than 2,500 is composed of entirely undergraduates, who, on average, scored a 31 on the ACT and 1390 on the SAT. Less than 50 percent of applicants are accepted, and the student-to-faculty ratio is 10:1

Students spent just more than $40,000 on tuition and fees to attend the private school in 2009–2010, an increase of about 5 percent from the previous academic year.

suny-geneseo-ed02 Courtesy of SUNY - Geneseo

Landing at No. 21 on Newsweek’s list of best rural colleges, the State University of New York at Geneseo is located in Upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, famous for its mountains and wineries. Of course, students do more than hike and sip wine. “The campus is small and walking is the best way to get around,” writes one student on “If you want to go to Wal-Mart or any other off-campus location, the bus is a simple way to get there.”
The public liberal arts college offers its students 42 areas of study and 20 NCAA Division III teams. SUNY Geneseo enrolls just under 5,000 undergraduates each year, 62 percent of who live on campus. At 57 percent, the university consists of mostly women. SUNY Geneseo’s student-to-faculty ratio is 19 to 1, with an average class size of 26. Tuition, room and board, and fees for the 2009–2010 school year totaled $15,845.

st-olaf-college-ed02 Courtesy of St. Olaf College

With its 300-acre campus along the banks of the Cannon River in Northfield, Minnesota, St. Olaf College lands on Newsweek’s list of most desirable rural colleges at No. 22. About 96 percent of students live on campus in one of 11 residence halls or 18 academic and special-interest group houses.
Founded in 1874, St. Olaf is a private liberal arts college in the Lutheran tradition, with a mission of developing “the whole person in mind, body and spirit.” Enrollment in the fall of 2009 was 3,099 and consisted of 55 percent women. St. Olaf reports that 87 percent of its student body graduates within six years.
Tuition for the 2010–2011 school year is $45,300, and in the 2008–2009 school year, the most recent year data was available, 83 percent of St. Olaf’s students received financial aid.

clemson-university-ed02 Patrick D. Wright / Courtesy of Clemson University

Clemson University gains several distinctions from Newsweek. Its small-town location places it among the most desirable rural schools at No. 23, while its nearly 20,000-strong student body makes it No. 21 on the list of most desirable large schools. Meanwhile, with four percent of its students participating in one of 15 varsity NCAA Division I sports, an additional 61 intramural sports offered, and about a third of the school’s expenditures allocated to athletics, Clemson is considered one of the top colleges for jocks at No. 20.   

Academic brawn remains a priority however as only half of Clemson’s applicants are admitted. Those who attend average a 30 on the ACT and 1320 on the SAT. The school boasts a 15:1 student-to-faculty ratio.  

In-state students paid just over $11,000 in tuition and fees to attend for the 2009–2010 academic year, while out-of-state students paid $25,388. No surprise, then, that more than 60 percent of its students hail from its home state of South Carolina.

university-central-arkansas-ed02 Danny Johnston / Courtesy of University of Central Arkansas

The University of Central Arkansas lands on two Newsweek lists: It is No. 23 among the most desirable large campuses and the 24th most desirable rural school. One student on sums up why students love the public school’s location in Conway, Arkansas: “Our town is swarming with college students because University of Central Arkansas is not the only college around. We have two other college campuses, Hendrix and Central Baptist College.”

The school has an undergraduate enrollment of just over 11,000, 56 percent of who are women. At 71 percent, Caucasians make up the majority of the student body, followed by African-Americans at 15 percent, Hispanics at 2 percent and Asian-Americans at 2 percent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the school retains 72 percent of its first-year students and the overall graduation rate is 41 percent.

Tuition, including room and board, for the 2009–2010 school year was $18,038 for in-state students and $23,243 for non-Arkansas residents. That year, 86 percent of students received some form of financial aid.

saint-marys-maryland-ed02 Nicholas McIntosh / Courtesy of St. Mary's College of Maryland

St. Mary’s College of Maryland offers a public liberal arts education and is the state’s only public honors college, a designation that promises an intellectually inclusive community. First founded as an all-girls boarding school in 1840, the school officially became a four-year institution of higher learning in 1964.

The school has just over 1,994 undergraduates, and a student-to-faculty ratio of 11 to 1. Women make up roughly 56 percent of the population and 85 percent of students live on campus. The school proudly claims a fifth of its students are first-generation college students.  A 319-acre waterfront campus 75 miles from Washington, D.C., St. Mary’s College of Maryland is among Newsweek’s 25 most desirable rural schools.

Tuition at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is $23,174 for Maryland residents and $34,567 for out-of-state students, with 82 percent of students receiving financial aid.


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