School Daze

Amazing But Overlooked: 25 Colleges You Haven't Considered But Should

There’s more to life than Harvard. In The Daily Beast’s first guide to overlooked colleges, we’ve chosen 25 worth considering, where you can hear the best music, stay emotionally healthy, and graduate without debt.

25 Most Overlooked Colleges

25 Most Overlooked Colleges

A college education is more expensive and in demand than ever before, and finding the best college has become an increasingly complicated decision for America’s future undergraduates and their families. While rankings offer an important perspective, they don’t tell the whole story. 

Here’s The Daily Beast’s rundown of 25 schools and programs that offer unique benefits that can be overlooked when the numbers are crunched.

Boston Globe

Olin College, Needham, Massachusetts

Overlooked Quality: Innovative engineering curriculum

Olin is a relatively new institution; it officially opened in 2002. Using a $460 million grant from the Frank W. Olin Foundation, the school is on a mission to overhaul undergraduate engineering education. The curriculum is project-based, culminating in the senior capstone SCOPE program, in which companies essentially hire teams of Olin students as consultants. Previous SCOPE projects include a tractor that sprays orchards automatically and a solar-powered house. Another outstanding aspect of Olin: the college pays half of the tuition for all students.

RICK O' QUINN

University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

Overlooked Merit: Music scene

The intense music curriculums of Berklee, Juilliard, and Curtis Institute may have merit, but Athens should be a beacon for students interested in a thriving live music scene outside the classroom. Home to the 40 Watt Club, the Melting Point, and the Georgia Theatre, Athens is known as one of the best places to catch live music in the country. The list of big-name bands that started on its stages is long, including REM, Drive-by Truckers, Indigo Girls, and Of Montreal. “What’s cool about the music scene here it that it’s so varied,” said Hilary Butschek, arts editor for the university’s paper, The Red & Black. “A lot of local band members say they came here because of the music scene.”

Reed College/Orin Bassoff

Reed College, Portland, Oregon

Overlooked Quality: Graduate-school feeder

Reed College may be best known as the alma mater of Steve Jobs, who dropped out in his freshman year but stuck around campus for a year and a half. But it should also be known as one of the preeminent liberal-arts colleges for preparing students for graduate-level education. While the Ivies may be top graduate feeders for business and law schools, Reed is the top liberal-arts school for producing undergraduates who go on to get Ph.D.s in social sciences, engineering, math, statistics, and literature, according to data compiled by the National Science Foundation and independent research.

University of Maryland, Baltimore

University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore

Overlooked Quality: Minorities in STEM

For 20 years, UMBC has been finding ways to get minorities involved in science, engineering, and related fields via the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. More than 50 percent of the current class of scholars are African-Americans, while 22 percent are Caucasian, 18 percent are Asian, and 6 percent are Hispanic. During their undergraduate studies, the students attend conferences, complete paid internships, and study abroad. Meyerhoff staff work closely with students to advise them on coursework and help with applications to graduate school. The model has proven successful: Meyerhoff students are five times more likely to pursue a master’s or doctorate in a STEM field than those who chose not to attend UMBC or not to enter the Meyerhoff program.

Kenneth C. Zirkel/Getty

Cornell, Ithaca, New York

Overlooked Quality: Emotional health

Mental health has become an increasingly important issue on college campuses, especially as high-profile suicides have attracted national attention. Cornell is no stranger to the unfortunate attention; for years it has been dubbed the “suicide school” thanks to very public incidences involving the campuses’ gorges. But for more than a decade the school has been working toward creating and implementing a model for student mental-health care. Dubbed Cornell Minds Matter, the program aims to destigmatize mental-health issues, raise awareness, and educate students through weekly events and presentations. “One of the major results is that students are much more sensitive to other students’ needs,” says Casey Carr, assistant dean of students. Carr says the university’s faculty and staff handbook for dealing with students in distress has served as a framework for other universities. Cornell also refined its approach to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to allow administrators and campus officials to warn parents of mental-health problems in some instances without student consent.

Philipp Scholz Rittermann

University of California, San Diego, San Diego

Overlooked Quality: Public art

Public art on the UCSD campus goes way beyond sculpture gardens and graffiti. For 30 years, the Stuart Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the university’s visual-arts department have been working together to integrate public art into the campus aesthetic. The Stuart Collection includes an glass installation in the entrance of main campus library by John Baldessari, neon words by Bruce Nauman atop the systems laboratory, and a 180-ton bear sculpture fashioned from boulders by Tim Hawkinson. The collection’s 18th and most recent addition is Do-Ho Suh’s Fallen Star, a permanent sculpture that looks as though a small home crash-landed onto the roof of the engineering building. And in the true spirit of public education, you don’t even have to visit the campus to take it all in—virtual tours are available via an iPhone app.

Veronica Garbutt/Getty

New York University, New York, New York

Overlooked Quality: Emotional health

Like Cornell, NYU developed a strong mental-health program while dealing with a string of very public suicides in 2003 and 2004, as well as one in 2009. The university nearly doubled the number of mental-health clinicians, opened a 24-hour hotline, and expanded the hours of its walk-in clinic. The school also offers low-cost appointments with staff psychiatrists and has trained employees in high-stress campus locales (such as the financial-aid office and the registrar’s office) to identify symptoms of mental-health illness and properly respond.

Wesley Hitt

Texas A&M, College Station, Texas

Overlooked Quality: School social spirit

Texas A&M is a huge school, with 50,000 students and 5,200 acres. To unite the student body, as well as promote the university to wannabe students, the university has become adept at social media. Two years ago it launched a campuswide scavenger hunt using Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, and Facebook to grow its audience. Now, it has one of the most-followed Twitter feeds and record engagement on its Facebook pages and is only of the few schools with a Pinterest presence. The online following has allowed the school to create excitement around campus developments, such as its entrance into the SEC last summer. Of course, the University also offers a Ph.D. or master’s in marketing.

Toby Talbot

Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont

Overlooked Quality: Languages

Middlebury, a small liberal-arts school in rural Vermont, is well-known for its quality of life and alumni network, but there’s one area in which Middlebury is entirely unique: language education. The school hosts renowned summer immersion sessions, held on the school’s main campus as well as a new campus in Oakland, California, that offer courses in 10 languages. Plus, Middlebury is the only school that offers a doctorate in modern languages—a mix of research, literature, and cultural studies.

Bob Handelman/Hendrix College

Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas

Overlooked Quality: Food (also: general liberal arts)

When it comes to award-winning campus food, there are the stalwarts: Virginia Tech, Bowdoin, Harvard, and Washington University in St. Louis. But a smaller school with a stellar record for taking home prizes from the National Association of College and University Food Services is Hendrix. The liberal-arts college with a student body of around 1,500 is known as one of the rising stars of liberal-arts education, and it also offers students a culinary flexibility, with woks and blenders available in the cafeteria for students to make their own recipes. Plus, students get a cake and staff serenade on their birthdays.

Chuck Burton

Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina

Overlooked Quality: A debtless degree

In 2007 Davidson became the first liberal-arts school to add its name to the list of institutions that got rid of loans as part of its student-aid package, replacing the debt with grants and work-study aid. Since then, the percentage of students admitted who receive need-based financial aid has increased from 33 percent to 45 percent. While several schools have rescinded or modified their programs since the recession began, Davidson has kept its commitment.

Reed Saxon

Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California

Overlooked Quality: A debtless degree

Like Davidson, Claremont is another outstanding liberal-arts college with a penchant for helping in-need students. It was the third small school (with an endowment below $600 million) to make the no-loan pledge to students. Princeton started the policy in the late ’90s, and currently about two fifths of schools with billion-dollar-range endowments have followed suit, according to FinAid. Claremont’s admission process is need-blind, so a student’s wealth isn’t taken into account, and all students who require financial aid are eligible for the grants.

Scott C. Soderberg

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Overlooked Quality: Luxurious dorms (North Quad)

Campus housing at state schools is getting fancy. Home to 450 undergraduate upperclassmen who have an interest in global culture, the University of Michigan’s North Quad is a new complex on campus with an international-themed dining hall, a coffee shop, an art gallery, a television production studio, and a lounge on each floor. Nicknamed “North Hog” after Hogwarts, the building also houses high-tech classrooms and computer labs. Plus, students can check washer and dryer availability online.

Carolyn Kaster

University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio

Overlooked Quality: Tuition guarantee

Students at Dayton are offered something rare: a tally of their full cost for four-years and a guarantee. The university was the first schools to offer a net-tuition lock, meaning that students would be accountable for a constant tuition obligation, after the total of student grant aid is deducted, for four years, effectively protecting them from tuition increases once they’re enrolled. The lock includes not just tuition, but also the fees that many schools use as a backdoor way to increase revenue without upping their “sticker price.” As a result of the new policy, announced this January, student applications increased 6 percent.

LSU University Relations

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Overlooked Quality: STEM Mentoring

The need for qualified scientists and engineers is expected to multiply in coming years, but two thirds of high-school students interested in STEM education change their minds before graduating college. At Louisiana State, Isiah Warner, a former professor and research chemist and the current vice chancellor of the Office of Strategic Initiatives, has created a remarkable mentoring program that identifies underperforming students in the first year of college and supports them throughout the rest of their undergraduate education with peer mentoring and courses designed to make students succeed. The results so far have been promising: LA-STEM participants perform better academically than STEM students not in the program.

Rollins

Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida

Overlooked Quality: Regional party school

When it comes to party schools, the big state schools like WVU, Penn State, and Ole Miss usually claim all the glory. But, Rollins, a college with 1,800 undergrads that’s 15 minutes from Orlando, boasts a decent club scene with 18-plus admissions and about 25 percent participation in fraternities and sororities. It’s consistently ranked as a top regional university in the South, but it’s also known for its drug scene. “Coke is huge,” one student reportedly revealed to a college-guidebook reporter.

Tommy LaVergne/Rice University

Rice University, Houston, Texas

Overlooked Quality: Diversity

Rutgers University in New Jersey is often championed as having the most diverse student body in the nation. But 93 percent of Rutgers students come from New Jersey, and only 2 percent come from abroad. Instead, consider Rice, a university with around 3,700 undergraduates. Less than half of the students come from Texas, and more than 10 percent are foreign. Plus, Rice is racially and ethnically diverse as well: a fifth of students are Asian, a fifth are African American or Hispanic, and 5 percent are of two or more races.

Doug Pensinger/Getty

Colorado State University, Global Campus

Overlooked Quality: Online education

The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has been complicated. Most recently led by Silicon Valley startup Coursera, there are now more than 200 courses available online from 33 universities. The problem: schools don’t credit for the large majority of these courses. But Colorado State’s Global Campus, geared toward adult learners, has been an early adopter when it comes to MOOC, most recently allowing credit for students that complete a computer science course given by the Stanford-created Udacity. The CSU has been offering online bachelor’s degrees in more than 10 majors since 2007. U.S. News and World Report ranked the program at No. 7 on its list of the top online bachelor’s programs last year, but CSU offers the least expensive per-credit tuition and one of the largest teaching staffs of all the programs ranked.

Chris Carlson

Arizona State University, Phoenix

Overlooked Quality: Large-scale innovation

ASU is a middleweight national university with an outstanding size of more than 58,000 undergrads. In recent years it’s been making bold strides to become a destination for a wide swath of students. Outspoken president Michael M. Crow, who’s been at the university since 2002, has championed a “New American University” model that challenges the idea that tiny class sizes and intimate campuses are the only way to achieve student engagement. Under his watch, research spending has doubled, the number of minority and low-income students has grown exponentially, and the number of undergrad students enrolled in STEM fields has grown 48 percent.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

University of California campuses

Overlooked Quality: Digital library

University rankings have long considered the number of books in a university’s library as a distinguishing characteristic. But as big and beautiful as some campus libraries are, the availability of digital texts and online research resources is increasingly important. The California Digital Library is one of the largest online catalogs in the country, giving students at all 10 UC schools access to more than 10 million volumes. In 2008 its collection helped to launch the HathiTrust, a consortium of 60 digital libraries.

Andrew M. Daddio

Colgate University, Hamilton, New York

Overlooked Quality: Rural party school

With an undergraduate population that nearly matches that of the surrounding small town of Hamilton, Colgate can be a little isolated for students. The academic rigor is well known—Colgate is one of the top liberal-arts schools in the nation—but so is the attitude that Colgate students work hard and play hard. According to student reviews, house parties are centered on drinking and hooking up. Nearly all students live in university-operated housing, including frats and sororities. 

Todd Pearson/Getty

Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Overlooked Quality: Individual empowerment

Liberal-arts schools without a core curriculum usually get credit for having the most free-thinking students (think Amherst, Hamilton, and Brown), but Grinnell empowers students in a novel way. The college is self-governed, meaning students are encouraged to solve all problems on their own, without invoking the administration or campus police. As part of this, students sit on university committees that oversee curriculum, budget, and residence-life decisions, as well as professor evaluations and student disciplinary actions.

Howard Korn/Denison University

Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Overlooked Quality: Student engagement

Denison is a small college in rural Ohio where nearly all students live on campus and the nightlife is known as lackluster. But what it lacks in livelihood it makes up for in professorial attention. The school gets consistently high marks from students about the care and attention of professors, and the school boasts a 10-to-1 student-to-faculty faculty ratio. “The best thing about Denison is the opportunity to develop close, meaningful relationships with professors who truly care about your success,” commented one student in Unigo, a leading source for student reviews.

University of Maryland, University College, Adelphi, Maryland

Overlooked Quality: Adult education

Most college rankings concentrate on the traditional college experience: four years immediately following college on a residential campus. But what about colleges that cater to continuing education and adult students? University of Maryland has long been a leader in this sector with its University College program, one of the largest distance-learning programs in the U.S. The majority of students work full time, and the college offers nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate programs that can be taken on nights and weekends or entirely online. As well, the college offers classes at 130 military bases around the world.

Bard College at Simon's Rock

Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Overlooked Quality: Alternative college

A high-school diploma is not necessarily needed for a top-notch post-secondary education. For students ready to experience college life and academics before completing the traditional four years of high school, there’s Bard College at Simon’s Rock. The college operates the only accredited program that caters to young students, offering associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to a student body of 350. Based on results from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a standardized assessment given to students, Simon’s Rock excels at motivating students to work hard and focus on academics, as well as having a supportive and sympathetic faculty.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Nominate an Overlooked College!

Now it's your turn!

To make sure we haven’t overlooked any schools in compiling our overlooked list, we’re calling on you, our readers, to submit your own ideas. Click here to nominate an amazing but overlooked school, and include a brief argument about what it’s got that makes it stand out. Include your name, location, and email address if you'd like—or remain anonymous. Then check back on The Daily Beast in a few days for our reader-curated list of overlooked colleges.