NESCAC Schools Ranked Academically

The New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) is a Division III college athletic conference made up of academically elite small colleges in the Northeast. Many people view it as the Ivy League of liberal arts colleges.

The schools of the NESCAC all have low acceptance rates, high graduation rates, high incoming student stats, and prestigious reputations.

That said, the NESCAC schools aren’t all equal in terms of prestige and academic rigor. This guide lists the NESCAC schools ranked academically.

The eleven colleges of the NESCAC conference.
The eleven colleges of the NESCAC conference.

Table of Contents

NESCAC Schools Ranked Academically

There is no shortage of websites, magazines, and newspapers that rank colleges by academics. The most famous, of course, is U.S. News. Although its rankings are highly influential among students, parents, and guidance counselors, we believe its ranking factors aren’t all indicative of the quality of education a student receives.

For instance, colleges get a boost in the U.S. News rankings for factors such as having a large percentage of alumni who donate money to the school and having a high percentage of students on Pell grants. We don’t think these metrics have much direct correlation to educational quality.

That is why we use our own formula to rank colleges within a state or conference, focusing only on those factors we feel directly influences how good of an education students receive and what their outcomes look like when they graduate.

We rank colleges academically using the following factors:

  • Graduation rate: This tells us what percentage of students who matriculate as freshmen actually walk across the stage with their degree.
  • Endowment per student: This might seem irrelevant at first glance, but the more money a school has on a per-student basis, the better resources it can afford, including top professors, science labs, and career services.
  • Incoming student stats: You learn as much from your peers in college as you do from your professors. So, being surrounded by highly intelligent and talented students throughout your college career makes a difference in the quality of your education.
  • Program reputations: We heavily factor how many individual programs, departments, and majors within a particular college or university are highly ranked among their peers.
  • Acceptance rate: This stat can be a little misleading, especially with liberal arts colleges, as many are self-selective. But a low acceptance rate combined with high incoming student stats is a sign of academic prestige, which can raise the cachet of your degree.

With these factors in mind, here are the NESCAC schools ranked academically.

#1: Williams College

  • Location: Williamstown, MA
  • U.S. News ranking: #1 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $4.2 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 8%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,480-1,570
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 34-35
  • Graduation rate: 95%

Williams College is not just the most prestigious school in the NESCAC conference; it’s the top liberal arts college in the nation. It isn’t just U.S. News who believes so, either. Compared to every other LAC, Williams has the highest incoming student stats, highest endowment per student, and best student outcomes as measured by grad school acceptance rates and average post-graduation salary.

Amherst gives Williams a good push every year, but the school in Williamstown clings to the number-one spot and has for many years. If you can get into Williams, it’s a tough school to say no to.

#2: Amherst College

  • Location: Amherst, MA
  • U.S. News ranking: #2 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $3.8 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 7%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,410-1,550
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 32-35
  • Graduation rate: 94%
The campus of Amherst College in Amherst, MA.
The campus of Amherst College in Amherst, MA.

Amherst is the archrival school of Williams and the second-highest-ranked liberal arts college not just in the NESCAC but in the nation. In fact, the triumvirate of Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore (not a member of the NESCAC but of the Pennsylvania-based Centennial Conference) is generally regarded as the holy trinity of liberal arts colleges.

One benefit that Amherst offers over Williams is that rather than being located in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere, its campus is in a college town just a couple of miles from the state’s flagship public university, the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.

The two schools even operate as part of a consortium, and you can actually take classes at both campuses. This might be difficult, however, if you don’t have a car on campus, which freshmen aren’t allowed to at Amherst. Public transportation between the two schools is pretty anemic.

#3: Bowdoin College

  • Location: Brunswick, ME
  • U.S. News ranking: #9 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $1.8 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 9%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,460-1,560
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 33-35
  • Graduation rate: 95%

Bowdoin College nips right at the heels of Amherst and Williams, with a similar graduation rate and only slightly lower incoming student stats.

Interestingly, Bowdoin is the hardest school in the NESCAC to get into if you look at acceptance rate only. This is likely because the school has a small student body and has become popular in recent years.

It’s also possible that it draws more applicants because students see it as a safety school if they get rejected from Williams, Amherst, or Swarthmore. However, with an acceptance rate of less than 10% and an average ACT score of 34, Bowdoin is a safety for no one.

#4: Middlebury College

  • Location: Middlebury, VT
  • U.S. News ranking: #11 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $1.5 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 13%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,410-1,520
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 33-35
  • Graduation rate: 93%

Middlebury College is nestled in rural Vermont and has a reputation for blending intellectualism with top-notch preprofessional programs. It has high incoming student stats and a graduation rate only slightly lower than that of the three schools ahead of it.

The school picked up a bad reputation for viewpoint intolerance a few years ago when a group of students accosted and physically assaulted political scientist Charles Murray, who was on campus to give a speech. The students were angry about Murray’s right-leaning views, as well as about a book he wrote in the 1990s, The Bell Curve (link to Amazon), which they claimed promulgated racist viewpoints.

While what happened to Murray was despicable, it should be noted that it involved only a tiny group of Middlebury students, and these students were swiftly disciplined by the college. Aside from this one incident, Middlebury has always been a place where ideas are debated openly and critical thinking skills are fostered.

#5: Tufts University

  • Location: Medford, MA
  • U.S. News ranking: #40 in National Universities
  • Endowment value: $1.9 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 10%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,450-1,550
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 33-35
  • Graduation rate: 94%

Tufts University is a bit of an outlier within the NESCAC, as it’s the only member of the conference that isn’t a liberal arts college. Tufts is classified by U.S. News as a National University because it isn’t solely undergraduate-focused. It is also much larger than the other schools in the conference.

In years past, Tufts was known as a top safety school for students gunning for Harvard and other Ivies. It also had a reputation for protecting its yield (the percentage of admitted students who choose to attend) by rejecting students with too-high stats, believing they’ll end up at higher-ranked schools. This even gave rise to a name: Tufts syndrome.

But if you look at Tufts’s incoming stats now, it’s pretty clear that the only students they’re letting in are ones with top grades and SAT scores. Tufts also can’t be considered an Ivy League safety school anymore, as a school with only a 10% acceptance rate is not a “safe” admit for anyone.

#6: Hamilton College

  • Location: Clinton, NY
  • U.S. News ranking: #16 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $1.5 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 12%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,420-1,540
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 33-34
  • Graduation rate: 92%
An aerial shot of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
An aerial shot of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.

Hamilton College has similar incoming student stats to Tufts and is about as difficult to get into. It also has a higher endowment on a per-student basis. (Remember, Tufts is much larger than Hamilton and every other NESCAC school.)

We ranked it just below Tufts on our list simply because it doesn’t have the same name recognition or the same national (or even regional) cachet. It also has a remote, out-of-the-way location that makes it more difficult to network for internships and jobs, whereas Tufts is located not too far out of Boston and right on the train line.

That said, Hamilton is known as an especially good school for aspiring writers. Its humanities programs are top of the line, and students in all majors have exorbitantly high admissions rates to law, medical, and other graduate schools.

#7: Wesleyan University

  • Location: Middletown, CT
  • U.S. News ranking: #11 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $1.7 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 14%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,440-1,550
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 33-35
  • Graduation rate: 92%

Wesleyan University is the only school in the NESCAC that, if you look at admissions trends over recent years, has actually become a little less selective. If we’d made this list five years ago, Wesleyan would likely have been ranked higher than Hamilton and maybe even Tufts — and in fact, U.S. News, as of 2024, still ranks it above several NESCACs that we have it lower than on our list.

Its incoming student stats are still high, but its acceptance rate hasn’t fallen at the same pace as its peers, in part because it simply isn’t seeing the same growth in applicants as other NESCAC schools.

There’s no one answer for why Wesleyan isn’t currently a “hot” school like Bowdoin and Hamilton. It could be the school’s extreme left-wing reputation, which makes it popular among liberal applicants but turns off those who are more moderate or conservative. It also could be the school’s “quirky” vibe and lack of a traditional Greek and party scene.

Whatever the reason, Wesleyan has fallen a bit in the NESCAC hierarchy, but make no mistake, it’s still one of the most elite LACs in the country.

#8: Colby College

  • Location: Waterville, ME
  • U.S. News ranking: #25 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $1.3 billion
  • Acceptance rate: 8%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,430-1,540
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 32-34
  • Graduation rate: 89%

Colby College is a small school in Maine with a huge endowment and a talented student body, as evidenced by its median SAT score of 1,485 and ACT score of 33. It is tied with Williams the second-lowest acceptance rate in the NESCAC at 8% — only Amherst admits a lower percentage of its applicants.

Colby still lags behind some of its peers when it comes to graduation rate, sitting just below 90%. Its rural Maine location and small size also hold it back a bit from having a bigger national reputation.

#9: Bates College

  • Location: Lewiston, ME
  • U.S. News ranking: #24 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $466 million
  • Acceptance rate: 14%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,310-1,505
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 31-33
  • Graduation rate: 92%

Bates College has a similar vibe to Colby and as of 2024 ranks one spot higher in U.S. News and also has a slightly higher graduation rate. However, it’s located in a town that’s a little more run-down, and its incoming student stats are a bit lower. Bates also has a much lower endowment, the effects of which are noticeable if you drive through both campuses. The facilities at Colby are more extensive and more lavish.

#10: Trinity College

  • Location: Hartford, CT
  • U.S. News ranking: #39 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $783 million
  • Acceptance rate: 36%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,300-1,470
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 30-32
  • Graduation rate: 84%
Trinity's campus with the Hartford skyline in the background.
Trinity’s campus with the Hartford skyline in the background.

Trinity College in Hartford, along with Connecticut College in New London, CT, have a bit of a reputation as the black sheep of the NESCAC. Both are great liberal arts colleges — world class, one might even argue — but they simply don’t have the cachet or the elite reputation of the nine other schools in the conference.

These two schools have notably higher acceptance rates than the rest of the NESCAC, and although their middle 50% SAT and ACT ranges are strong, the numbers are a bit misleading, as both schools are test-optional and only about 10% of applicants even submit their scores. So, the ranges you’re seeing above likely represent the top 10% of test-takers in the most recent freshman class and not the class as a whole.

#11: Connecticut College

  • Location: New London, CT
  • U.S. News ranking: #46 in National Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Endowment value: $420 million
  • Acceptance rate: 40%
  • Middle 50% SAT range: 1,360-1,490
  • Middle 50% ACT range: 30-33
  • Graduation rate: 83%

We put Connecticut College last on this list even though it’s comparable in many ways to Trinity. Academically, at least — the two schools couldn’t be any more different socially. Trinity has more of a conservative, “bro” vibe and is heavy on Greek life, whereas ConnColl has no fraternities or sororities, is more liberal, and has community bathrooms in the freshman dorms that are shared by both genders.

The reason Trinity got the nod over ConnColl was its slightly loftier reputation in certain fields such as finance and economics, and its substantially larger endowment value.

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