Top 10 Brainiest Colleges

Smartest Colleges

By Brendan Mckenna

The top ten brainiest colleges, according to students' rankings on Unigo, range in size from small to super small, and are sprinkled throughout the United States, from Indiana to Oregon to Massachusetts. All but one have fewer than 3,000 students (University of Chicago, number three on our list, is by far the largest). Some are among the most expensive in the country, boasting high tuition bills due to relatively small endowments (one could argue just how brainy it is to pay high tuition). Another, however, has one of the largest endowments in the United States. All but one were founded in the 20th century, with two just now approaching middle age. Many have a more flexible approach to academics—some do not award grades, nor do they have structured degree programs. The question is: do these settings lead to more intense academia?

#10: Grinnell College

Located in Iowa, Grinnell has long been racially diverse and embraces its LGBTQ community. Self-governance is the pride of the college—students are tasked with resolving their own issues. It is also widely known an academic powerhouse: as a freshman notes, “studying takes up almost all of your time during the weekdays and most of the weekends—but professors’ commitment to their students keeps them engaged.” The college’s endowment is the third-largest among liberal arts colleges nationwide, which might also help explain this: “Every weekend there is a party at the Harris Concert Hall that is free and open to all students. The college also does a really good job of bringing musicians, lecturers, etc. to campus so that even though Grinnell is in the middle of nowhere, there are still a lot of interesting things to do and see on campus, and all of it is free.”

#9: Sarah Lawrence College

Just 15 miles from Manhattan, Sarah Lawrence College was founded in the 1920s as an all-women’s college, and remains 70% female to this day. As with Hampshire and Bennington, a lot of the academic planning falls on the student, which leads to comments like this: “This school is not the ideal place for someone who prefers the regular structure of a typical university or college. You think you have a lot of free time, but you really don’t. It’s important to know how to manage your time and to pace yourself.” Perhaps some of the focus on academics arises from the setting: “For a while," one student notes, "we had a problem with people from the local towns throwing beer bottles at us and yelling things like ‘faggot!’ It’s a very conservative town, and we’re a very liberal, out-there school.”

#8: Hampshire College

Hampshire College is located in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town titan that was already home to Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts by the time the college was born in the 1960s. The consensus seems to be that if you need a lot of guidance, this is not the place for you. “If you don’t like arguing, the general spirit of activism, the smell of marijuana, really smart people who do too many drugs and manage to write insanely good essays anyway, or woodland creatures, and if you do like a whole lot of direction in your academic work, you’ll be better off elsewhere.”

#7: Pitzer College

Pitzer College is part of California's Claremont Consortium, which also includes Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and the Claremont Graduate University. Founded in the 1960s as an all-women’s college, it went coed by 1970. While students routinely cite Pitzer's curricular rigor, one student wishes that academics were even more intense: “There are tons of stupid hippie classes like Native American Folk Tales, but in important subjects like math and economics there is a lot of room for improvement.”

#6: Bennington College

Bennington College of Vermont has just over 600 students. In the 1990s, it was a hotbed of academic discontent when dozens of professors were fired en masse due to curriculum changes. The number of students dipped as a result, and finances were tight. Now, however, things are looking up, giving students more time to focus on studies. “Whenever I think of my friends who are just in school to get a degree and get it over with, Bennington seems so refreshing, as everyone is interested in learning," one student raves. "However, this can also mean that students tend to be self-focused because they are so caught up in their work.”

#5: Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, a small Quaker liberal arts school on the Main Line in Pennsylvania, has long been known as an ultra-liberal kind of place, but the college has remained academically obsessed since its founding in 1864. And the school chooses substance over style, as this reviewer notes: “High emphasis on learning, understanding and hard work, low emphasis on superficial things like money and dress and showing you know how to party. Small community that is very invested in itself, usually in a good way, although sometimes people complain too much and forget their blessings.”

#4: Whitman College

Whitman, located in Washington, is another small school, and while it may be less known than its Pacific Northwest rival located in Portland, that doesn’t mean it’s courses are more lax. “As for academics," a student claims, "Whitman is a very good school with tough classes (and some not-so-tough classes), but there isn’t a really competitive atmosphere–it’s more laid back and less high strung.”

#3: University of Chicago

I can offer a personal attestation that the University of Chicago is academically obsessed. I once was sitting at a campus bar, surrounded by Chicago students debating minute details about environmental feminism. I was just a history major in college (at a perhaps less rigorous institution), so all of this was over my head—it was intense. Students seem to concur: “Studying does take up a good portion of your time, sometimes all of it and then some, but there are a lot of opportunities to get out and take a break from all that.”

#2: Wabash College

Wabash College, located in Indiana, only has 900 students—and is all-male (one of only four institutions left in the United States). Some comments about Wabash include: “Students are actively engaged with each other and with their professors, which provides a learning environment in which the student is constantly learning and questioning," and “between pledgeship, sports/intramurals, immersion trips, and the amazing atmosphere of learning all over campus, one learns just as much outside the classroom as within.”

#1: Reed College

While Reed has long been known for its eclectic student culture, according to reviews from over 15,000 college students nationwide, Reed also comes out on top for its academic atmosphere. As noted in our synopsis of the school, “There are no two ways about it: Reed is heaven for the academically obsessed. There are few other colleges in the country, Ivy League included, where the bar for academic excellence is set so high, and where students are as committed to meeting those standards.”

There you go: the top ten brainiest colleges and universities in America. Now get back to your studies!