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The Alt-Ivies: 15 Top U.S. Colleges With Blue-Chip Reputations

With skyrocketing application rates, these schools-once safeties-are now at the top of valedictorians' lists.
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With skyrocketing application rates, these schools—once safeties—are now at the top of valedictorians' lists.

Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania


Because Swarthmore is part of the Quaker Consortium, students can cross-register at Penn, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford. So even though undergraduate enrollment is around 1,600, there are more than 600 courses to choose from, including an engineering program that grants a B.S. degree after four years—a rarity for a liberal arts college. Another unusual aspect is the honors program, which lets students design their own courses of study, work in very small seminars, and fulfill requirements by taking exams conducted by outside experts.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 15.7%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 9%

Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota


Located 40 miles outside the Twin Cities, this small liberal arts school owns more than 1,000 acres of land, including the sprawling Cowling Arboretum, a haven of ora, fauna, and miles of trails. Classes in subjects from biology to art are taught there. As for student life, diversity and acceptance are greatly valued; there are more than 250 clubs, including a variety of LGBT-oriented groups. And because of the rates at which its female grads go on to get PhDs in the sciences, Carleton has become known as a “hot-house for female scientists.”

2008 Acceptance Rate: 27.4%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 19.4%

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh


This is the rare school that is renowned for both its technical offerings and its arts programs. The School of Computer Science, which is housed in a building funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of the best in the world. Carnegie Mellon is also where the world’s first WiFi network and the first artificial intelligence programs were created. Meanwhile, the School of Drama has produced such A-listers as Ted Danson, Judith Light, Sutton Foster, and Leslie Odom Jr.

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2008 Acceptance Rate: 37.9%
2017 Acceptance Rate: 22%

Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts


For more than two decades U.S. News has ranked Babson the number one undergraduate school for entrepreneurship. All first-year students take “Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship,” in which they are given startup money to create, launch, and manage their own companies. A B.S. in business administration is the only degree granted, but students can choose from 27 concentrations on which to focus their study. Plus, traditional liberal arts courses are incorporated into the curriculum, for a well-rounded education.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 35%
2017 Acceptance Rate: 24%

Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois


With nine different schools for undergrads, three campuses (Evanston, Chicago, and Qatar), and additional facilities in Miami, San Francisco, NYC, and Washington, DC, students have access to a multitude of courses, programs, and majors. Despite its large size and many resources, Northwestern maintains a student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1 and offers more than 150 specialized research facilities, like the Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics, the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, and the Institute for Policy Research. Also, beware the Meghan Markle effect. The newly minted Duchess of Sussex got her degree here in 2003.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 26.2%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 8.4%

Vanderbilt University, Nashville


What used to be a last resort for students who were underqualified for the Ivies is now just as competitive and at the top of many a college wish list. In 2018, applications exceeded 30,000 but only 2,199 got in. That’s an acceptance rate lower than Penn’s or Cornell’s. Its location in the heart of Music City is part of the appeal, but so are the academics and campus life. Undergraduate research opportunities are plentiful, and they’re integrated into every field of study, and the university is currently pending more than $600 million to convert its dorms into LEED-certified residential colleges. According to the Princeton Review, Vanderbilt also has the happiest students.

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2008 Acceptance Rate: 25%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 7.3%

Duke University, Durham, North Carolina


Like Harvard, Duke saw an 8 percent increase in applications this year. Although most famous for its Division 1 sports teams (the men’s basketball squad has won the NCAA title five times), the school also has offerings in creative writing, visual art, theater, film, and dance. Then there is the Nasher Museum of Art, designed by Rafael Vinoly, which has a collection of 13,000 items, including works by Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Andy Warhol. For public service–minded students, DukeEngage hosts immersion service programs around the world, from teaching ecotourism in Brazil to advocating for female entrepreneurship in Kenya.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 22.4%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 8%

Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts


Leadership is at the core of the educational experience at this liberal arts college, which has produced VIPs like former AOL CEO Steve Case, legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, and Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski. Since 1997, leadership studies has even been offered as its own concentration, blending political science, anthropology, and history. On the current syllabus are such courses as “Dangerous Leadership in American Politics” and “The Black Radical Tradition.” Williams goes by a 4-1-4 schedule, meaning all students participate in monthlong winter programs that can be used for research, internships, or studying abroad.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 16.9%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 12%

Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine


Philanthropy and community service are deeply embedded in the culture at this small liberal arts school, which partners with hundreds of organizations locally and internationally to provide opportunities for students to give back. They might include mentoring kids, spending winter break volunteering at a rehab center for veterans in Hanoi, or doing work-study as a tutor in local schools. Public engagement themes are also incorporated into the curriculum—for example, a recent course on citizenship and religion in America took place at the Maine Correctional Center and was made up of both inmates and Bowdoin students.

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2008 Acceptance Rate: 18.5%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 10.3%

Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina


Davidson has all the hallmarks of a liberal arts college (picturesque campus, core curriculum), along with offerings you find at larger schools, like Division 1 sports. Basketball is a big part of the culture here—NBA superstar Steph Curry played for the Wildcats before he was drafted by the Golden State Warriors after his junior year. In both academics and campus life, students are bound by a strict honor code. Exams are self-scheduled and unproctored, or take-home; doors to college buildings remain unlocked, and announcements are posted around the school to help people find lost belongings.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 26%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 20%

Rice University, Houston


Athletics are such a major part of campus life that 70 percent of the students participate in some capacity. Along with Rice’s 14 NCAA Division 1 teams, there is a state-of-the-art recreation center and a wide variety of club and intramural sports, from jujitsu to water polo. Rice also features a residential college system, which is very popular with students for its community-building benefits and is one of the reasons the Princeton Review ranked the university number one in quality of life. Another reason could be its fantastic location in the heart of Houston’s Museum District.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 23%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 11%

Pomona College, Claremont, California


The founding member of the Claremont Colleges (which comprise five undergrad and two graduate institutions) received a record-breaking 10,245 applications this year. Only 713 kids were admitted. The best part is that students can take classes at any school in the consortium, which includes Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Scripps, and Claremont McKenna. That means access to more than 2,000 courses and a combined 2 million–volume library. Pomona also has 61 study abroad programs, with options on every continent except Antarctica, and is a top producer of Fulbright scholars.

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2008 Acceptance Rate: 15.5%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 6.9%

University of California, Berkeley


Along with its Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning alumni, Fulbright scholars, and entrepreneurs like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Google boss Eric Schmidt, the nation’s top public school is also the number one producer of Peace Corps volunteers. Community service plays a big role on campus, with 270 organizations to help students do good. Traditions like the big rally before the Stanford game also foster a sense of community at this big school, which received 89,000 applications this year.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 21.6%
2017* Acceptance Rate: 18.3%

California Institute of Technology, Pasadena


Caltech is the aspiring scientist’s dream, with facilities like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center that the school manages for NASA, and several large-scale facilities such as the Seismological Laboratory and the Palomar Observatory. Competition to get in is fierce—98 percent of undergraduates were in the top tenth of their high school class—but there is very little competition once they’re actually on campus. Students are encouraged to collaborate on homework, and take-home tests are administered on an honor code. It’s not all work and no play, though: Caltech is notorious for its pranks.

2008 Acceptance Rate: 17%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 8%

Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri


Home to one of the best medical schools in the country, it offers interested students access to a variety of pre-med tracks and research opportunities. For those who don’t want to become doctors, there are more than 80 other majors to choose from, plus the option to design an individualized study program. In terms of student life, the Midwestern school puts a heavy emphasis on community and leadership. More than half the undergraduate population participates in public service projects, while leadership skills are taught through the LeaderShape Institute, an intensive interactive six-day retreat.

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2011 Acceptance Rate: 21%
2018 Acceptance Rate: 15%

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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