Colleges That Change Lives: The List of 44, Comparisons, and How to Choose

College campus in the fall

Colleges That Change Lives: The List of 44, Comparisons, and How to Choose

Published October 10, 2023

College campus in the fall

The “colleges that change lives,” arising from a 1996 book with that title, are 44 small liberal arts colleges touted for their personal approach and lifelong impact. 

This article delves into the book’s historical significance, its widespread influence, and the distinctive attributes of these schools. Explore our chart of all 44 “Colleges That Change Lives” and zoom in on 15 featured colleges from various regions, each offering unique benefits, including small class sizes and personalized education.

Also, explore how to make an informed college decision, considering factors like location, majors, class size, campus community, and career prospects. It’s time to find the college that can truly change your life.

What Are ‘Colleges That Change Lives?’

“Colleges that change lives” don’t just impart knowledge, skills, and a degree. They also have a profound and lasting impact on their students, helping shape their thinking, values, careers and lives. 


The Influence of the ‘Colleges That Change Lives’ Books 

The original edition of “Colleges That Change Lives,” written by Loren Pope and published in 1996, represented a big shift in the narrative of college selection. It emphasized that an institution’s reputation doesn’t necessarily equate to the quality of education or the lifelong impact it can have. 

Pope and his associates initially identified 40 lesser-known, smaller liberal arts colleges in the United States that delivered transformative and enriching education.

Fast forward to the present, and there’s an updated edition of “Colleges That Change Lives” by education journalist Hilary Masell Oswald. Oswald’s comprehensive work involved campus visits and in-depth interviews with students, faculty, and alumni, creating an even richer resource for prospective college students and their families. Also, the list is now up to 44 colleges.

This revised edition enriches the profiles of each college, describes campus activities, introduces a chapter dedicated to students with learning disabilities, and provides additional resources. 

Since its initial publication, “Colleges That Change Lives” has had a profound influence in several ways:

  • Casting a wider net: The book has encouraged prospective students and their families to look beyond the traditional Ivy League or prestigious universities and shift the conversation to finding a college that best fits their needs and aspirations.
  • Valuing liberal arts education: The book highlights the value of a liberal arts education in fostering critical thinking, communication skills, and a broad-based intellectual foundation.
  • Taking a personal approach: It has drawn attention to the significance of close faculty-student relationships and a tight-knit campus community, which can transform a student’s life. 
  • Influencing high schools and colleges: “Colleges That Change Lives” has influenced high school counselors and college admissions professionals to consider a broader range of schools when advising students.

Traits of the Colleges

“Colleges that change lives” differ in many ways, but they also tend to share common traits. These include:

  • Individualized attention and custom programs
  • Small setting, small classes
  • Undergraduate focus
  • Strong sense of community
  • Value over prestige

Many families and students have found value in this sensibility and have selected these colleges instead of many other available options. The most important thing is to find the right fit for you.

Which Colleges Are on the List?

“Colleges That Change Lives” showcases smaller, student-centered liberal arts colleges across the United States. Most of these colleges are presently featured in the 2024 U.S. News & World Report list of the Best National Liberal Arts Colleges. Institutions like Denison University, Centre College, Rhodes College, and many others are recurring names in these rankings.

List of the 44 "Colleges That Change Lives"

These schools have been designated as "Colleges That Change Lives." Click on the featured college names to see details in the article below. Sort alphabetically by college, city or state.
Agnes Scott CollegeAtlantaGeorgia
Allegheny CollegeMeadvillePennsylvania
Antioch CollegeYellow SpringsOhio
Austin CollegeShermanTexas
Bard CollegeAnnandale-on-HudsonNew York
Beloit CollegeBeloitWisconsin
Birmingham-Southern CollegeBirminghamAlabama
Centre CollegeDanvilleKentucky
Clark UniversityWorcesterMassachusetts
Cornell CollegeMount VernonIowa
Denison UniversityGranvilleOhio
Earlham CollegeRichmondIndiana
Eckerd CollegeSt. PetersburgFlorida
Emory & Henry CollegeEmoryVirginia
The Evergreen State CollegeOlympiaWashington
Groucher CollegeBaltimoreMaryland
Guilford CollegeGreensboroNorth Carolina
Hampshire CollegeAmherstMassachusetts
Hendrix CollegeConwayArkansas
Hillsdale CollegeHillsdaleMichigan
Hiram CollegeHiramOhio
Hope CollegeHollandMichigan
Juniata CollegeHuntingdonPennsylvania
Kalamazoo CollegeKalamazooMichigan
Knox CollegeGalesburgIllinois
Lawrence UniversityAppletonWisconsin
McDaniel CollegeWestminsterMaryland
Millsaps CollegeJacksonMississippi
New College of FloridaSarasotaFlorida
Ohio Wesleyan UniversityDelawareOhio
Reed CollegePortlandOregon
Rhodes CollegeMemphisTennessee
Southwestern CollegeGeorgetownTexas
St. John's CollegeAnnapolisMaryland
St. Mary's College of CaliforniaMoragaCalifornia
St. Olaf CollegeNorthfieldMinnesota
University of LynchburgLynchburgVirginia
University of Puget SoundTacomaWashington
Ursinus CollegeCollegevillePennsylvania
Wabash CollegeCrawfordsvilleIndiana
Wheaton CollegeWheatonIllinois
St. Whitman CollegeWalla WallaWashington
Willamette CollegeSalemOregon
College of WoosterWoosterOhio

Featured Colleges That Change Lives

Here are more detailed descriptions of 15 selected “Colleges That Change Lives.” They provide a quick look at what sets these colleges apart. You’ll see that they’re broken down by region. This information comes from the colleges’ websites.

Northeast Colleges That Change Lives

Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania

Description: Allegheny College prioritizes experiential learning and civic engagement. Founded in 1815, the college is known for fostering critical thinkers and compassionate people who address global challenges.

What Makes It Unique: The college serves students with “unusual combinations” of interests, skills, and talents. For example, a neuroscience major may play in the orchestra.

Students It Serves: It draws students primarily from its home state and throughout the Northeast. In-state students can apply for the Commitment to Access Program (CAP), which extends full tuition if their family’s income is under $50,000. The school’s six departments are Interdisciplinary Studies; Languages, Literature, and Culture; Mathematics and Natural Sciences; Social and Behavioral Sciences; Values and Societies; and Visual and Performing Arts.

Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts

Description: Clark University, founded in 1887, prizes teaching, discovery, and innovation.

What Makes It Unique: Clark is known for its Model United Nations program, innovative Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) model, and emphasis on research. It encourages students to apply their classroom studies to real-world issues.

Students It Serves: Most students are from New England, though it also has students from around the world. It offers over 30 majors, 19 master’s degrees, and nine Ph.D. programs in psychology, international development, environmental science, and management.

St. Johns College, Annapolis, Maryland

Description: St. John’s College has two campuses — one in Annapolis, Maryland, and the other in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As the third-oldest college in the United States, it has earned a reputation as a forward-thinking school. 

What Makes It Unique: St. John’s is known for its interdisciplinary students based on groundbreaking books spanning 3,000 years. With the Great Books program, the curriculum delves into philosophy, literature, mathematics, and the sciences.

Students It Serves: Students come from all over the United States. The most common Bachelor’s Degree is in Liberal Arts & Sciences and Liberal Arts & Humanities.

Midwest Colleges That Change Lives

Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin

Description: Beloit College was founded in 1846 and is the state’s oldest continuously operated college. At the core of Beloit is its commitment to diversity and the strength of an inclusive community.

What Makes It Unique: The college’s career-preparedness programs, known as “Beloit Impact,” link community-based learning and career-readiness programs. This approach to education deepens students’ engagement with community organizations and businesses and expands their professional skills.

Students It Serves: While it has a strong presence in Wisconsin and the Midwest, Beloit attracts students from across the United States and worldwide. The college offers over 50 majors, innovative programs, campus resources, and an advanced mentoring program.   

Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Description: Denison University, located in Granville near Columbus, Ohio, is a small liberal arts school founded in 1831. The “Denison Advantage” provides challenging academics, athletics, the arts, and pragmatic skills for future generations and career opportunities.

What Makes It Unique: The university offers special programs in journalism, research, politics, writing, and a study abroad program included in tuition. Students also have access to four well-resourced centers focused on professional development. The Knowlton Center for Career Exploration starts working with students in their first semester on campus through graduation and beyond to assist in building a resume, landing an internship, getting into graduate school, or finding a first job out of college.

Students It Serves: Denison Universities attracts students from within the contiguous United States and abroad. More than 17% of the student body are international students. Denison offers Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), and Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degrees.

St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota

Description: St. Olaf College was founded in 1874 by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants and is a nationally ranked liberal arts college. The college focuses on faith, values, and a meaningful vocation. 

What Makes It Unique: The college provides opportunities for integrative study through various interdisciplinary majors and concentrations. The Smith Center offers students global engagement in more than 40 countries through the Study Abroad/Away program and local community engagement through the Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) program.

Students It Serves: St. Olaf attracts students from the Midwest and internationally. In 2021-2022, St. Olaf welcomed students from more than 90 countries. St. Olaf offers Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Music (BM), and Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Music double degrees.

Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois

Description: Wheaton College was founded as a liberal arts school deeply rooted in a Christian worldview with more than 150 years of dynamic history and culture. The college is located in Wheaton, Illinois, 25 miles west of Chicago.

What Makes It Unique: Wheaton provides rigorous academics in a Christian community with an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. The college has 15 centers, including the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and Center for Applied Christian Ethics, the Wheaton College Museums & Collections, and a Global Programs and Studies initiative.

Students It Serves: Wheaton College attracts students from all over the world, with students from over 90 countries. Wheaton offers 43 undergraduate majors, including six in the Conservatory of Music and 18 graduate and Ph.D. programs.

Western Colleges That Change Lives

Reed College, Portland, Oregon

Description: Reed College, founded in 1908, is often called one of the most intellectual colleges in the country. It’s known for its high standards of scholarly practice, creative thinking, and engaged citizenship.

What Makes It Unique: The college has small conference-style classes with a 9:1 student-faculty ratio that encourages mentoring and individual discussions. The curriculum includes a yearlong humanities course and a senior thesis. 

Students It Serves: In 2022, students came to Reed from 44 states and 13 countries. The colleges offers over 40 majors and programs, as well as a graduate program in liberal studies.   

Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California

Description: Saint Mary’s College of California is a Catholic college operated by the Christian Brothers in Moraga, near San Francisco. The college’s principles reflect the teachings of St. John Baptist de La Salle, who established schools for poor children.

What Makes It Unique: The Lasallian tradition fuels the college’s perspective on teaching and learning: “Education is powerful and comes with a deep responsibility to improve the world.” The college focuses on four areas: Habits of Mind, Pathways to Knowledge, Theological Understanding, and Engaging the World.

Students It Serves: About 87 percent of students are in-state, and about half are ethnic minorities. The college offers over 40 majors and minors.

Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington

Description: Whitman College is located at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Walla Walla. It’s a  top-tier liberal arts school that prizes friendliness, passion, and curiosity.

What Makes It Unique: Whitman offers small classroom sizes with a 9:1 faculty-student ratio and multiple areas of study, including a Center for Global Studies and seven areas of concentration. It also has the STEM Hub in the Hall of Science for students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Students It Serves: It attracts students from the U.S. and internationally, offering over 60 majors. The college’s Global Whitties program helps new international students acclimate.  

Willamette University, Salem and Portland campuses, Oregon

Description: Willamette University was founded in 1842. The Salem campus is next to the Oregon State Capitol. Willamette’s Pacific Northwest College of Art is in downtown Portland, with a vibrant art scene.

What Makes It Unique: It offers a selection of undergraduate degrees and professional graduate programs. These offerings include Oregon’s top-ranked MBA program, the Northwest’s oldest law school, MA and MFA programs available at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and master’s degrees in data science and computer science. 

Students It Serves: It attracts students from the U.S., with most students coming from California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. The school offers over 75 academic programs, about half of the undergrads engage in international study or research. The school also is affiliated with Tokyo International University.

Southern Colleges That Change Lives

Centre College, Danville, Kentucky

Description: Centre College was founded in Danville by Presbyterian leaders and officially chartered by the Kentucky Legislature in 1819. Centre prizes an intensely personal education with guaranteed opportunities for all students to explore the world, gain on-the-job experience, and conduct research alongside their professors.

What Makes It Unique: It offers small classes with a 10:1 student-teach radio. It allows students to design their own major in consultation with an advisor. Students can access over 85 clubs and organizations, 25 NCAA Division III athletics teams, and more than 2,000 events yearly.

Students It Serves: Over 45 percent of Centre College students come from out of state, and 6.5 percent come from out of the country. Centre offers over 50 majors, with the most popular in Economics, Biology/Biological Sciences, International/Globalization Studies, Behavioral Neuroscience History, Political Science and Government, Psychology, English Language and Literature, Mathematics, and Sociology and Anthropology.

Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia

Description: Emory & Henry College dates back to 1836. The college emphasizes individualized learning and a close-knit campus community characterized by its small class sizes and accessible faculty. Students who appreciate individualized attention and mentorship tend to thrive in their environment.

What Makes It Unique: The college’s “Voyages” curriculum offers a unique approach to education emphasizing critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and interdisciplinary study. The college strongly emphasizes civic engagement and community service through programs like “Service Plunge” and the “E&H Connect” initiative. 

Students It Serves: The college has a regional presence with students from Virginia and the Appalachian region, but also attracts students from across the United States. The college offers a variety of academic programs, including programs in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts.

Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida

Description: Eckerd College was established in 1958 under the name Florida Presbyterian College. Part of the campus is on the waterfront along Boca Ciega Bay and is considered a “beach school” with its own student volunteer maritime search and rescue team.

What Makes It Unique: Eckerd has an 11:1 student-teacher ratio and emphasizes a combination of study, travel, research, and internships. At the heart of Eckerd’s study-abroad program is the London Study Centre, created in 1970. The study-abroad program offers over 300 destinations and was ranked No. 2 among U.S. colleges for short-term study-abroad by the Institute for International Education.

Students It Serves: Students travel from about 48 states and 35 countries to attend Eckerd. Eckerd offers over 40 majors and 53 minors to students. The most popular majors include Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, Biology/Biological Sciences, Environmental Studies, Psychology, Development and Child Psychology.

Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee

Description: Rhodes College offers a rigorous approach to liberal arts and sciences. The Rhodes mission is to prepare students for life and career.

What Makes It Unique: The school has an average class size of 15 and a 9:1 student-faculty ratio. Students can design their own majors to suit their goals, and the college provides advising for careers in healthcare, law, engineering, ministry, and education. Through partnerships with other universities, Rhodes also offers dual-degree engineering, education, and nursing programs.

Students It Serves: Most students come from out of state, with about 30 percent in-state. Rhodes offers about 70 majors, interdisciplinary majors, minors, and academic programs.

Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas

Description: Southwestern University was established in 1840 as a Methodist presence in the new Republic of Texas. It now comprises the Brown College of Arts and Sciences, the Garey School of Natural Sciences, and the Sarofim School of Fine Arts.

What Makes It Unique: The school offers an interdisciplinary curriculum incorporating the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. It has an 11:1 student–to–faculty ratio and an average class size of 18. 

Students It Serves: About 84 percent are in-state, with the rest from 41 other states and 16 countries. The university offers over 35 majors, certification programs in Education, and pre-professional pathways in Pre-Dentistry, Pre-Engineering, Pre-Law, Pre-Medicine, Pre-Ministry, Pre-Physical Therapy, and Pre-Veterinary Medicine. The most popular majors include Business/Commerce, Biology/Biological Sciences, Psychology, and Exercise Science and Kinesiology.

Are Colleges That Change Lives ‘Good Schools?’

Should we consider these to be “good schools?” The quick answer is yes – if one is a good fit for you as an individual. 

To determine whether “Colleges That Change Lives” are indeed “good schools,” it’s crucial to understand the book’s primary objective. The book shines a spotlight on colleges that may be less selective but offer education with comparable benefits and outcomes to their more renowned counterparts. While the criteria for inclusion are somewhat subjective, with interviews playing a significant role, it’s important to note that the original author believed that small liberal arts colleges provided an enriching undergraduate experience.

Stuart Nachbar, a college and graduate school advisor, established his own evaluation criteria, including a key benchmark of whether a college could successfully graduate a freshman class within four years. However, this assessment remains one perspective, and it’s essential not to solely rely on it when evaluating colleges.

Instead, students and parents should explore a range of options, considering their own criteria for what makes a good school. It’s vital to avoid limiting choices to institutions recommended in just one book. Keep in mind that while colleges can offer opportunities for growth and transformation, the extent of this transformation largely depends on the individual’s efforts and contributions during their time at the institution.

Potential Drawbacks of Colleges That Change Lives

“Colleges That Change Lives” may have limitations such as fewer majors, lower sports divisions and narrower extracurricular activities, depending on the school and its town.  

Deciding to Attend One of the Colleges

Choosing one of the “Colleges That Change Lives” will influence all aspects of a student’s academic and social life. Acknowledging the gravity of this decision, families and prospective students should thoroughly assess all dimensions of the school.

For some, arriving at this decision may prove complex, especially if they didn’t secure admission to their favored college or are grappling with familial expectations. 

To navigate this process effectively, consider the following factors when visiting campuses and making an informed college decision:

  • Location and access to amenities
  • Enrollment size and class size
  • Majors and programs
  • Campus Community
  • Extracurricular opportunities
  • Cost
  • Career prospects and industry connections

How to Build Your College List With R2C Insights

Students and families need a way to compare colleges and decide which should make their list of possibilities. That’s exactly what Road2College offers with its R2C Insights tool

To get started, you input some basic info and then R2C Insights provides you with personalized recommendations. Save the ones you want to your brand-new college list and then search on your own for others – like these “Colleges That Change Lives.” We provide dozens of data points for comparison, such as class size, majors, average GPA and test scores, cost of attendance, and financial aid opportunities.

Try R2C Insights for free today.

Other Articles You Might Like:

10 Reasons to Consider Smaller Colleges with High Acceptance Rates

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back

Here’s Why You May Want to Keep Your College List to Yourself




In this article:

Upcoming Events

Similar Articles for You

Dear Roadie, My Son Struggles in AP Courses. Is The Stress Worth It for College?


Dear Roadie, My Son Struggles in AP Courses. Is The Stress Worth It for College?

Dear Roadie, My son wants to load up on AP classes his senior year because he thinks it will impress...

Top 30 Colleges With the Best Merit Scholarships

College List Building

Top 30 Colleges With the Best Merit Scholarships

If you’re a family that won’t qualify for need-based aid, it’s time to start looking for colleges with the best...

6 Types of Insurance for College Students and How to Save on Them

College Life

6 Types of Insurance for College Students and How to Save on Them

Navigating insurance options is essential for college students to protect their health, belongings, and finances. However, many people aren’t aware...

Become a Member

At Road2College you’ll find everything you need to make the admissions and paying for college process less stressful and more transparent.


Explore R2C Insights™ — your source for finding affordable colleges and merit scholarships.


Get coaching on admissions and college financing.


Join Road2College where parents and experts work together to inform and inspire college-bound families.