By Tracy Eisenberg
Published June 2016
As many colleges create distance from their religious foundations, the visibility of secularism among college students is ever-increasing. In compiling this list of 20 best colleges for secularists, we researched small, progressive-minded colleges with a net price relatively lower than other schools of this size and minimal religious ties. We awarded points based on the existence of secular student organizations, a low percentage of students who identify as religious, multiple financial aid and scholarship opportunities, diversity in faculty and student body, and any additional features that enhance the secularist student experience. The 20 colleges profiled here scored the highest among schools with maximum enrollment of 7,000 students and a net price (per College Navigator) of $32,000 USD or less.
The schools profiled below are ranked in order of points earned; in the event of a tie in points, the schools with the lower net price are ranked higher. The following serves as a guide for secularist students seeking the best deal for an education free of religious constructs.
#20 – St. Olaf College
Net Price: $28,019
Though identified as a school with Lutheran roots, St. Olaf College has established a way to welcome the secularist to campus. The Secular Student Alliance at St. Olaf (SSA-STO) is a group recently created to represent the non-religious student body on campus. SSA-STO encourages open discussion among its members and with the faith-based college community. In order to keep tuition affordable for all incoming students, St Olaf College offers financial aid packages in the form of scholarships, grants, merit-based and work-study arrangements.
#19 – Swarthmore College
Net Price: $22,557
Swarthmore College, located a few miles from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is greatly respected in the academic world and recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the third best liberal arts college in the nation. Though founded by Quakers, Swarthmore has evolved into a campus that is not religiously affiliated. One student-run organization that may appeal to secularists is the “Swarthmore Sitting Group,” a secular meditation group formed to bring meditation and practical self-awareness to students without the guidance of religion.
#18 – Middlebury College
Net Price: $20,903
Middlebury College of Vermont is a higher education institution with an expanding on-campus secularist population. Although the student body is largely non-religious, Middlebury has been described by students as a welcoming environment that is accepting of all backgrounds and belief systems. This college has ranked among Princeton Review‘s “Least Religious Colleges” due to its secular philosophies and lack of student organizations based in any organized religion. According to recent student surveys, Middlebury College has one of the highest satisfaction ratings in financial aid and return on tuition investment.
#17 – Ramapo College
Mahwah, New Jersey
Net Price: $15,771
Ramapo College of New Jersey is a progressive liberal arts institution once ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the “Best Regional Public Universities North.” Ramapo is unique in that it blends the affordability of a public college with the small student body and individual attention of a private one. One of the scholarships offered by Ramapo is the “Shader, Joyce Secular Humanist Scholarship”, which is awarded to academically strong, secular students who demonstrate a commitment to improving the world through science, ethics, and morals based only on rationalism and humanism.
#16 – Fayetteville State University
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Net Price: $6,848
Fayetteville State University is a liberal, diverse academic community with a growing secularist presence. Recently, FSU students took the initiative to begin a “Secular Student Alliance” (SSA), which is affiliated with the national organization of the same name. The SSA welcomes non-religious individuals to engage in open discussion and other activities celebrating the secular life. FSU has a top-notch education with low tuition, and scholarships based on academic excellence and need-based assistance available to all degree-seekers.
#15 – Berea College
Net Price: $1,990
Berea College of Kentucky is a “work-college”, where students commit to a designated amount of labor hours in exchange for full-tuition coverage. Berea is a strong choice for secularist students, and many may wish to join the recently established “Secular Students of Berea College” club. This student-run organization celebrates living outside the religious spectrum, welcoming humanist, agnostic, atheistic, and other like-minded individuals. A large percentage of Berea students consider themselves secularists working toward their life goals using reason, science, and non-religious means for problem-solving.
#14 – Nicholls State University
Net Price: $30,798
Founded in 1948 in southern Louisiana, Nicholls State University is on the growing list of colleges recognizing a non-traditional, secularist student presence on campus. The Nicholls “Secular Student Alliance” (SSA) chapter passionately advocates for secular values, promoting a strong non-religious identity. It encourages students to be leading voices in secular humanist living. The SSA is student-organized, but fully supported by college faculty and administration. Nicholls State University has nearly 20 scholarship opportunities and a variety of other ways to assist students with tuition affordability.
#13 – Trinity College
Net Price: $25,120
Trinity College, a small liberal arts school, has recently advanced its offerings to secularist students seeking to broaden their education. Trinity is proud to encourage an academic atmosphere of free will and independent thinking. The college’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) was founded to advance the understanding of secular values and non-faith living in today’s society. This institute conducts research and frequently presents its findings in public campus events.
#12 – Goddard College
Net Price: $24,562
Goddard College, a selective liberal arts institution in scenic Vermont, has a progressive academic atmosphere certain to appeal to the secularist student. With a student body of under 600, Goddard is able to work with both the academic and ethical goals of each individual. Secularists are increasingly present at this college, and the mission of the college is to develop a student’s intellect and ability to function responsibly in society. Goddard assists students with need-based grants, as well as awards to those who demonstrate rigorous learning and collaboration with others.
#11 – Colorado College
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Net Price: $24,141
Founded in 1874, Colorado College is continuously ranked among the best liberal arts institutions in the country. Nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, this college considers its academic perspective entirely secular, and non-religious students will feel comfortable learning in this environment. Additionally, Colorado College has a small percentage of students who consider themselves part of organized religion, and only a handful of its 144 campus organizations have ties with theism. Colorado College has a generous list of merit-based, athletic, and science scholarships available for incoming freshman.
#10 – State University of New York at Purchase
Purchase, New York
Net Price: $17,325
State University of New York at Purchase is an affordable liberal arts option for students who wish to be part of a highly cultured, independent, free-thinking campus. SUNY Purchase’s school motto is “Think Wide Open” and is ideal for a secularist student pursuing a degree in a non-religious, multi-disciplinary arts setting. Students identify themselves as eccentric intellectuals, and the college administration is highly encouraging of expression of secular, unconventional values. SUNY Purchase provides multiple scholarships opportunities with the aid of private donors, corporate sponsorship, and the college foundation.
#9 – University of New Haven
West Haven, Connecticut
Net Price: $30,798
Connecticut’s University of New Haven is a forward-thinking academic community respected for its campus diversity and progressive mission in education. UNH Students have begun a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance, a group that gathers non-religious students in education, service, and activism. Secularists who attend this college have ongoing opportunities to contribute to society through a growing community of nontheists. The University of New Haven has a dedicated financial aid staff that helps students get loans, scholarships, work-study programs, and more. More than 85% of incoming undergraduates receive financial assistance.
#8 – Elizabethtown College
Net Price: $27,681
Located just east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Elizabethtown College is a small, competitive liberal arts school with a stimulating academic environment. Secularist students are an increasing part of the campus population, and Elizabethtown has established its own Secular Student Alliance (SSA). The organization welcomes both the religious and non-religious, and members discuss how living a secular life differs differs from a life following organized religion. 95% of undergraduates receive financial assistance from Elizabethtown. In the 2014-2015 school year alone, the college awarded students over $33 million in scholarships and grants.
#7 – Albion College
Net Price: $24,906
Albion College, a selective and well-respected liberal arts institution in Michigan, has a rigorous academic program and hands-on learning approach that encourages independence. The secularist student will find a comfortable place here, both because of its understated religious identity and low percentage of students who identify as being part of organized religion. Albion has a growing and active “Secular Humanist” group, which is open to all students who wish to be supported as non-believers. Members of the Secular Humanist group share ideas and discuss the meaning of living a secular life in a religious society.
#6 – Pitzer College
Net Price: $26,082
Pitzer College, a quaint liberal arts school in Southern California, is a selective higher education institute that embraces the individual backgrounds of all incoming students. The core values at Pitzer are rooted in humanist concepts that include community, diversity, dialogue, inquiry, and action. In response to growing student interest in secularism, the college recently added courses in secular studies to its curriculum. Led by scholar-level professors, the secular studies program has proven increasingly popular among undergraduates seeking to broaden their education in a secular manner.
#5 – Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Net Price: $25,275
Bard College, a prestigious school in upstate New York, was established by the Episcopalian Church in 1860, but since 1944 has considered itself a secular institution. Bard is well known for its progressive, liberal academic atmosphere and non-traditional student body. Secularists find a comfortable place on this campus, and of the more than 150 student-run organizations, only five are affiliated with organized religious practice. Bard is able to provide need-based scholarships or grants to over 88% of the student body.
#4 – State University of New York at Oneonta
Oneonta, New York
Net Price: $15,097
The SUNY Oneonta, a public college in scenic upstate New York, is a tight-knit academic community that embraces individuality and independent thinking. A secularist student would feel comfortable at SUNY Oneonta due to its progressive philosophies and largely non-religious student body. This college is one of the many schools establishing a Secular Student Society, an engaged organization of humanists, secularists, agnostics, atheists, and other students who don’t associate with an organized religion.
#3 – Amherst College
Net Price: $14,687
Amherst College, founded in 1821 in Amherst, Massachusetts, is one of the finest higher education institutions in the nation. This college actively encourages diversity both in culture and belief systems. Amherst’s secularist population is increasing on campus, and the Amherst College Humanists (ACH) club has been established to provide a welcoming place for the non-religious. ACH is a highly active group that hosts multiple events throughout the year, including guest speakers who address the topic of secularist living.
#2 – Reed College
Net Price: $18,671
Recently ranked at the top of the Princeton Review’s “Least Religious Colleges” list, Reed College should appeal to secularist applicants. This college has a long history of student-run organizations based in non-religious life. The Reed Secular Alliance, founded in 2005, is an organization of individuals committed to advocating Church-State separation, sharing common philosophies, and spreading word of life without religious affiliation. Reed provides comprehensive financial aid packages to 100% of its accepted students.
#1 – Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York
Net Price: $19,661
Vassar College, in the beautiful Hudson Valley, New York, is famous for its progressive academics and liberal student population. Secular students will find a wide spectrum of joining opportunities, as only five of the college’s 150 student-run organizations identify as religiously affiliated. Vassar ranked 2nd in the Princeton Review’s Least Religious Colleges list, in particular due to its low percentage of students who consider themselves committed to organized religion. Vassar College has the financial resources to assist all levels of need, and has consistently reduced loans for students of low-income families.
The preceding is a ranked list of the 20 Best Deals on Small Colleges for Secularists.