Big colleges get a lot of attention. Many have nationally recognizable athletics programs and world-renowned academics. But there are thousands of smaller colleges in the United States, and many of them have a lot to offer. Indeed, in terms of return on investment and graduation rate, both indicative of success, many small colleges hold their own against the biggest household names. Small colleges offer students a number of benefits; among these are tight-knit communities, a higher percentages of the budget going to financial aid, and more specialized focus on certain areas of specialty. Small colleges can be a great choice for any number of reasons, and they can be found in every setting, from idyllic rural campuses with lots of room to breathe, to small colleges nestled in the hearts of the biggest cities in the United States. While big colleges in small towns tend to define the towns they are part of, small colleges in the same setting are often more a part of the greater community. This article is focused on spotlighting the best-value small colleges in the state of New York. Some are located in New York City, while others dot the state’s beautiful countryside. We’ll explore the differences between big and small colleges in the FAQ at the end of the article, and present our argument as to why you might want to consider one of these colleges over the big-name ones.
For the purposes of this article we have defined “small” colleges as being colleges with an undergraduate student population under 3,000. Our ranking system weights the categories of 20-year net return on investment, graduation rate, and national/regional ranking positions as being worth 30% each of the total score. Tuition is weighted at 10%. The schools are ranked by comparing the data on them to the data of other schools in the cohort “small colleges in New York.” This means that the scores of schools in other articles about schools in different states aren’t directly comparable. This is why we provide the data we take into consideration and not just the overall score. If you want to compare schools from different states against each other, you can compare the raw data on each school and make your decisions based on that.
#1. United States Merchant Marine Academy
The United States Merchant Marine Academy is a federal service academy that trains professionals to work as mariners in federally owned civilian shipping and privately owned civilian shipping that is closely affiliated with the federal government. Graduates also often go into the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard as commissioned officers. Academic departments at the academy include naval science, mathematics and science, marine engineering, and marine transportation.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #3
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $1,126,000
- Tuition: $1,095
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 100%
#2. Colgate University
This private liberal arts university is located in Hamilton, New York and is one of the top 20 liberal arts universities in the United States. Colgate was founded as a Baptist school, but it is no longer affiliated with any religious organization directly. There are religious student groups for Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant students. There is also the Secular Association of Skeptical Students for non-religious students.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #20
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $792,000
- Tuition: $59,655
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 98%
#3. SUNY Maritime College
SUNY Maritime College was the first maritime college federally approved to offer commercial nautical instruction in the United States (founded in 1874). If you are interested in a seafaring-related degree that isn’t as closely tied to the federal government or military, SUNY Maritime offers a quality alternative to the Merchant Marine Academy. While the school is a bit more to the civilian side, students can still take programs that qualify them to become a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer, and there is definitely a heavy military aesthetic in the first year or two of attendance, with a higher focus on discipline than you will find in most other colleges and universities.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #56
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $998,000
- Tuition: $18,432
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 93%
#4. Barnard College
Barnard College is one of four official undergraduate colleges under the Columbia University umbrella. The college is a distinct, independent college with legal and financial autonomy. However, it shares resources, some buildings, and more with Columbia University, and graduates receive a Columbia diploma signed by the presidents of both Barnard College and Columbia University. Barnard is a women’s college that was founded in 1889 because, at that time, Columbia refused to admit women.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #22
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $482,000
- Tuition: $57,479
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 95%
#5. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Since its founding, The Cooper Union has made its reputation offering quality education in art, architecture, and engineering. These days, the school also has highly respected programs in the humanities and social sciences. The founder, Peter Cooper, was a major ally of Abraham Lincoln, and he was a staunch abolitionist and supporter of Native American rights. He opened the school’s great hall for addresses given by Lakota Sioux and Arapaho chiefs. He was also a supporter of women’s rights and hosted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The school is proud of its progressive heritage and continues to support progressive social activism to this day.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #2
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $822,000
- Tuition: $46,820
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 79%
#6. Vassar College
Vassar College was founded in 1861 and was one of the first degree-granting colleges for women in the country. The school has a close historic relationship with Yale, and the two colleges almost merged at one point. Vassar is now a co-educational liberal arts college (one of the top 20 in the United States) with a gender ratio in line with the national average. The college has 51 undergraduate majors, two accelerated and dual degree programs, and 13 multidisciplinary programs.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #13
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $402,000
- Tuition: $60,930
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 96%
#7. Skidmore College
Skidmore College is another of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges. The school has around 2,500 students, from 40 states and 70 countries. Students can choose from 43 majors and more than 100 student clubs. The school also offers 118 study-abroad programs, and it offers students funded research and internship opportunities. Like many liberal arts colleges, Skidmore has its roots in women’s education and was founded in 1903 as The Young Women’s Industrial Club. The school began admitting men in 1971.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #36
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $446,000
- Tuition: $58,278
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 87%
#8. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is home to The Ranger School, which aims to train students who want to become park rangers or work in a field related to forest technology, land surveying technology, and environmental and natural resources conservation. Ranger School leads to an associate degree, and up to one year of credits can be transferred into the program. Of course, bachelor degrees are also offered in areas like bioprocess engineering, biochemistry, environmental and natural resources conservation, environmental resources engineering, natural resources management, forest health, and forest ecosystem science, among many others. If you’re looking for an environment- or forestry-related degree, this school is perfect for you.
- U.S. News Ranking: National #118
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $311,000
- Tuition: $19,040
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 96%
#9. SUNY Polytechnic Institute
SUNY Polytechnic Institute is a STEM-focused public research university. Students can study on campus or take advantage of one of the school’s six online undergraduate programs, or one of the thirty-plus programs offered face to face. Majors include applied computing, applied mathematics, civil engineering, communication and information design, computer information science, computer engineering technology, electrical and computer engineering, and nanoscale science, among many others.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #12
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $364,000
- Tuition: $18,337
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 86%
#10. Bard College
If you want to attend a small liberal arts college, but you don’t want to be tied down to one place, Bard could be a good choice for you. The school has a network of over 35 affiliated programs, institutes, and centers across 12 cities, which are spread throughout five states, seven countries, and four different continents. This represents a massive opportunity for students who want to travel the world while earning their degree.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #54
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $254,000
- Tuition: $56,036
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 89%
#11. Elmira College
While Elmira College is currently co-educational, it was among the first women’s colleges to grant degrees in the United States. The school offers around 35 undergraduate majors. Elmira is the guardian of Quarry Farm, where Mark Twain spent many of his summers. The school also houses the Center for Mark Twain Studies, which is a research center that serves visiting Twain scholars.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #6
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $208,000
- Tuition: $36,228
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 100%
#12. Sarah Lawrence College
Sarah Laurence College was founded in 1926. Its educational model follows the Oxford/Cambridge system, which employs one-on-one student-faculty tutorials. The student-to-faculty ratio is 9:1, and the one-on-one tutorials take the form of bi-weekly conferences with each of your professors where you get individual attention and a partnership the likes of which you are almost never able to find at the undergraduate level.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #63
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $244,000
- Tuition: $57,520
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 92%
#13. Manhattanville College
Manhattanville College is a private liberal arts college with a 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio. This small New York college offers 90 areas of study, including 45 distinct majors and minors in programs designed to combine a classical liberal arts education with hands-on experiences. Among the many majors, students can study art (studio), sport studies, biochemistry, economics, education, environmental science, finance, history, mathematics, and global and international studies.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional North #81
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $403,000
- Tuition: $40,330
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 93%
#14. St. Bonaventure University
St. Bonaventure University is a private Roman Catholic university that is affiliated with the Franciscan order. The university offers majors in broadcast journalism, computer science, engineering physics, international studies, literary publishing and editing, mathematics-adolescence education, military science (ROTC), physics-adolescence education, and strategic communication.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #19
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $232,000
- Tuition: $36,515
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 94%
#15. Dominican College
Dominican College (formerly Dominican College of Blauvelt) is a Roman Catholic university of the Dominican order. The school was founded in 1952 by the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt. The school offers roughly 28 majors, five of which are offered online. Some of the available degrees are in business management, psychology, criminal justice, communication studies, social sciences, computer information systems, and an RN-to-BSN nursing program.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #136
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $318,000
- Tuition: $30,720
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 81%
#16. Alfred University
This is another small college with very high-quality programs and unique options. Alfred University’s school of art and design and Inamori school of engineering are housed in its New York State College of Ceramics, a public/private partnership that has been in place for over 100 years. The New York State College of Ceramics is host to some of the most widely renowned artists and scientists in ceramics, glass, and other materials. It’s rare to see an engineering school and art and design school so closely affiliated within a university. The programs in this college alone have produced world-class alumni in both engineering and art.
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #45
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $319,000
- Tuition: $34,960
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 87%
#17. Hartwick College
Hartwick College has a small but diverse student population of 1,200 undergraduate students from 30 states and 22 countries. The college has its roots in a seminary founded in 1797 by a Lutheran minister from Germany. While the school has religious roots, it ended its affiliation with the Lutheran Church in the 1960s. The top five majors at the school are nursing, business administration, psychology, biology, and criminal justice.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #149
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $371,000
- Tuition: $48,364
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 90%
#18. Concordia College (New York)
There are a lot of Concordia colleges and universities around the country in various locations and most of them (if not all of them) are affiliated with the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. The same is true for this particular Concordia College. The many programs offered by Concordia College are offered through their schools of accelerated professional studies, business, education, health sciences and nursing, and humanities.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #130
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $276,000
- Tuition: $36,000
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 82%
#19. Wagner College
Wagner College is a liberal arts college. It was founded in 1883, is located in Staten Island, and is home to around 2,200 students. Almost all the classes at Wagner have fewer than 30 students and the overall student-to-faculty ratio is 14:1. All students at Wagner do some form of internship or practicum. The first year of courses at Wagner is designed to lay a foundation and give students the chance to explore intellectually before declaring a major (which normally happens no later than the end of their sophomore year).
- U.S. News Ranking: Regional #26
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $443,000
- Tuition: $50,010
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 73%
#20. Marymount Manhattan College
Marymount Manhattan College was founded by the Roman Catholic Church as a two-year women’s college. The college is no longer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. While the school has since become co-educational, the student population at Marymount is around 80% women and 20% men. The student-to-faculty ratio is 11:1 and the school offers 32 majors and 40+ minors.
- U.S. News Ranking: National Liberal Arts #171
- 20yr Net Return on Investment: $218,000
- Tuition: $37,410
- Graduation/Transfer Rate: 87%
Frequently Asked Questions
What advantages can a smaller college offer me?
There are many answers to this question, and they don’t all apply to every college to university comparison you might do. As you probably noticed while reading through the ranking, there are a great number of small colleges featured here which are highly focused on specific areas of interest. Whether that focus be on maritime studies, forestry and the environment, multidisciplinary education, or utilizing different methods of instruction that may be more suitable to some students than others, there is a lot of variety. This means that if you have a good idea of what you want to do, you can select a smaller college that is focused on meeting the needs of students with the same interests. This, combined with low student-to-faculty ratios, means it is often the case that more specialized individual attention will be available to you.
A smaller overall student population also means that if you are interested in leading student organizations or seeking a leadership position in student government or the school newspaper, you will be competing with fewer students for those positions. A school with 50,000 students still only needs one student body president, for instance, the same as a school with 1,000 students. Just based on the raw probability, if you want to be involved in leadership in some capacity at the school you plan to attend, you have more opportunity at a smaller college.
Sports are another area where students will often find more opportunity at small colleges. Large colleges have sports programs with a very high barrier to entry. Most people can’t become professional athletes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be involved with sports and play on their college team! Sports are about much more than just becoming a professional. They help develop discipline, character, and physical ability. The way that college sports divisions and organizations are structured is designed to give students at every level the chance to compete in college.
Research is another area where smaller colleges can offer an advantage. Small colleges tend to have fewer areas of research than bigger universities. But if you pick a small college that focuses on your area of interest, there is a much higher chance of securing even an undergraduate research role at the school than there is at a school with a much higher student population. This is because the size of a research project scales only according to the project’s needs, rather than the size of the student population.
These are just a few of the reasons someone might want to consider a smaller college over a larger one.
What about social activities? Do smaller colleges offer as much as larger ones do?
When considering campus society, social activities, and the like, smaller colleges offer quality over quantity. A smaller, closer-knit community means you are more likely to know more people at any given social event at a smaller school than a larger one. While there are many tools available to people to allow them to connect with others who share their interests, even at a big college, a smaller college makes it more likely that you will run into the people who share your interests by chance.
Are smaller colleges more or less expensive than larger colleges?
There are incredibly affordable colleges and incredibly expensive colleges in small, medium, and large colleges and universities. However, smaller colleges typically spend more of their budget on financial aid per student than larger ones. This is because smaller colleges typically spend a higher percentage of their budget on student aid in general. So in some cases, you can end up spending less money to go to an expensive small college, than an expensive large college. The exception to this, generally, are ivy-league schools. Ivy-league schools tend to meet 100% of student financial need (note, this is not the same as 100% tuition coverage).
Will I be able to find scholarships if I go to a smaller college?
Yes! Most private scholarships are either available to students attending select colleges, or available to students attending any college. Of course the largest scholarships usually come from a college itself, and in the case of smaller colleges, the same probability logic applies to this that does to things like student government and research. Fewer students means less competition for the school’s best scholarships. For instance, if a 1,000-person school offers one full-ride scholarship, and a 50,000 student school offers 25 full-ride scholarships, you have a much higher chance at the one scholarship at the small school than one of the 25 scholarships at the larger school. The nice thing is, if you have a specific small college and specific large college in mind that you are deciding between, a little research, and maybe a phone call to each school’s financial aid office, can get you the information you need to make an informed choice. Using this kind of data to inform your choices can be a massive advantage to you when picking out a college.
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