Amazing Schools on the Roads Less Traveled


Revised 23.01.2022

Looking for a great place to go to school for the next four years?  Go where everyone else isn’t.

Every town has some night spot where it’s hopping. Restaurants with ridiculously long lines to get in. The food may be GREAT, but you don’t want to wait two hours to eat it.  You recall that there’s this really great place, off the Ave., that has amazing food, and no wait. So you go there, and have a much better time, rather than struggling with the crowds, noise, and chaos.

The same is true of colleges.

When you have a ton of students, all applying to the obvious candidates, from in-state “free” universities, to the Harvards and Browns, the Stanfords and Cornells, it should not be a surprise that acceptance rates, out of the total applicant pool, crashed to record lows.

There are couple of hundred colleges that are “hidden gems,” though.  GREAT places to get an education, that are a little “off the Ave.” They are especially welcoming, if you’re not from around those parts.


You say: There are over 1,500 accredited schools outside of the McColleges that I know and trust. So how do I know these are good places to spend four years of my life?

You look for OUTCOMES, rather than superficials. 


The most important question, for any student trying to decide upon a college, in a time where AI & robotics are likely to unemploy up to 80% of the world, by mid-century:  

When I get out of this school, four years from now, what kinds of graduate schools, or entry points to my career, are available to me?


At the undergraduate level, your “mafia,” the full-time professors, and alumni, are the two most important commodities that any undergraduate school can offer to you.

If your field really requires graduate school, to become one of the top people in it, then your faculty mafia is hugely important.

You should always research the professors and curriculum, what they offer.  How many people go on to graduate school, from the undergrad? How many people get a “terminal” degree (Ph.D., MD, JD, etc.). Not just how many, but where?  Top grad schools, in the particular field? Which ones?

Do they offer capstone projects, the calling cards that help so many students get into good masters programs?

If your field offers little or no benefit from a masters, or a Ph.D., then your alumni association “mafia” is hugely important. How good are they at networking, in your part of the working world? Does belonging to that school give you any advantage in finding opportunities for work/career?


Look at both the graduation rates after four years, and the transfer out rates. High retention usually means happy students. We use a cut-off of about 72% because not every school is for everyone, and transfer rates can reach 20% in some schools over four years. Watch the drop-out rates, though, by asking your long-list schools for that number.  Many schools, especially state schools, pick up students from community colleges who are there two years. Over 10-12% of four-year students dropping out says a lot that isn’t good.

Any school with a high four-year graduation rate has its act together. A lot of “name” schools fail that test these days.


We’ve talked about cohorts, those things about students, beyond their grades and standardized test scores, that help a college fill out their “city” with the diverse people that it needs. They are one of the top reasons, right up there with your grades, and your test scores, that most colleges will want you.

One cohort is geographic diversity. Two kids. Same everything EXCEPT, one lives in another state, or country. If the school gets fewer students from a state or region in the world who is equally qualified to the locals, they often will take the student from farther away.

If you’re NOT from, say Indiana, a student from Florida, or Southern California can take advantage of Rose-Hulman’s US News ranking as a #1 best engineering schools.  Terre Haute may not seem as sexy at Boston and MIT, but the lower applicant pool opens the door to an equivalent undergraduate education to an MIT, Mudd, or Caltech, with a much higher likelihood of being accepted.


Being the “bigger fish in a smaller pond”  makes you desirable. That, along with the skills that you have as an artist, can often parlay into larger scholarship offers, and, at schools that offer merit scholarship, more money for those who are highly academically qualified to attend those “name” schools elsewhere.  Regional powerhouse schools know that they have to work a bit harder to draw students from outside of their area.


College searches turn into big cattle calls. Students and families, other than ours, do precious little research into the great schools beyond a quick look at a college ranking list.

The pool of students at these schools is both smaller, and usually more focused to the guidelines of the college.  Someone with a 3.0 may take a flyer at Harvard, but usually, to pick a school in less ‘destination’ cities that aren’t local, the student has done some homework about the school.


Money spent on nameplate schools for graduate work is usually better spent, with the exception of a handful of schools, like Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Brown, LATER. Many of the road-less-traveled schools offer you better pathways to graduate work at those nameplates because they offer capstone programs, lower costs of attendance, lower living costs, and, often, better financial aid.  Worth reading up on what those are, and why they’re SUPER valuable to you.


So where can you go to school?


TaDa RankSchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptUndergrad
1California Institute of Technology91%N/A9%1,001
2Harvey Mudd College91%3%13.0%812
3Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology78%18%58.0%2,231
4Case Western Reserve University81%N/A36.0%5,039
5Olin College of Engineering94%N/A11.0%333
6Stevens Institute of Technology82%N/A44.0%2,956
7Worcester Polytechnic Institute85%N/A49.0%4,177

Academically, none of these schools are a cakewalk. Some are better fits than others for particular students in special cohorts.

CalTech, easily as tough, if not tougher, to get into as MIT, but a bit less well known in the Midwest and East, best known for being connected to Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), and being one of the leading schools in geological research, especially earthquakes, but the breadth of their disciplines, and the quality of the academics who teach there, are internationally recognizable. Their Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) means students do real, meaningful research every summer with major academics. This is a school that sophomores are best to start researching early, get to know, and try to make sure that they do a lot of the desirable things that CalTech likes that are a bit different.

Case Western Reserve, a capstone school offers more meaningful undergraduate research opportunities more often than many of the top colleges and universities in the world.  Its relationship with Cleveland Clinic, NASA Glenn Research Center, and dozens of other amazing, cutting-edge companies and schools around the glob offer huge opportunities, including Co-Op semester placements with major companies in all fields, and the opportunity to earn a 5th year masters degree.

Rose-Hulman offers one of the best faculties in the nation for general mechanical engineering and great pathways to the best graduate schools in the nation. Students can also try on the school for size by attending Operation Catapult in the summer between their junior and senior years in high school.

Olin College of Engineering may be tiny, but it is the place where other major schools are going to learn how to teach the next generation of STEM education. You’re 20 years ahead of the curve, not behind it.


The Mini-Ivies are schools so amazingly, life-changingly good that graduate schools actually covet their students like diamonds. These schools distinguish themselves in one other way. They all have high numbers of students who go on to get a higher degree, a majority with Ph.Ds, M.D.s, J.D.s, etc.

With student populations from 1,700 to 2,500, most give you a LOT of one-on-one time with your professors, small lecture hall and class sizes, encourage research, and have capstone programs that help you produce work that makes it much easier to attract a great graduate school, which most students will need in a world where automation is eliminating high-paying jobs in all fields, including law and medicine.

Usually undergrad-only, with killer “Mafia,” alumni and professors that have your back for a lifetime, they are often more worthwhile than larger Ivy schools like Harvard or Penn for undergrad.

TaDa! RankingSchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptanceUndergraduates
1Pomona College94% N/A10%1,640
2Williams College95%N/A18%2,070
3Reed College81%N/A35%1,396
4Swarthmore College94%6%12%1,566
5Bowdoin College93%N/A15%1,794
6Wesleyan University94%N/A22%2,819
7Middlebury College94%2%17%2,516
8Haverford College92%N/A25%1229
9Bates College88%7%22%1,792
10Hamilton College92%2%25%1,861
11Wellesley College92%N/A30%2,344
12Colby College92%5%23%1,857
13Vassar College91%6%26%2,414
14Oberlin College88%8%28%2895


Okay, if you’re male, you can scroll past, BUT, if you’re a woman, you really do not want to discount these schools.

Like Barnard? Scripps, in Pomona, California is Barnard on steroids: Smaller, with an outstanding faculty that may never see you leave its classrooms, like Barnard, with Columbia next door, Scripps is part of a five college consortium that all share the same physical space: Pomona College (Top Mini Ivy), Mudd College (Top Small Stem), Pitzer College, and Claremont-McKenna. All in walking distance. All where you can eat, go to guest lectures, party, take courses, and also NETWORK. You get a life-changing school AND five top “Mafia” for the price of one!

Smith and Mount Holyoke are both part of the Amherst College consortium. Amazing schools on their own,  Smith is great for students who feel the need for a bit more structure in their education, while Mount Holyoke caters well to the outside-the-box thinkers who like a bit more latitude in their choices. If you are looking to also have some coeducational experience as well,  at UMass Amherst, Amherst College, or experimental school, Hampshire College. The social life of a 20,000 school exists in the Pioneer Valley, with great restaurants and fun places to hang out in Northhampton, Amherst, and elsewhere.

Is there a large lesbian population at these schools? Yes. Does it impact you negatively if you don’t identify that way? No. In a world where women still do not enjoy universal equal pay and equal status in the workplace, women’s colleges of this calibre still serve their students very well.

TaDa! RankSchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptanceUndergraduates
1Scripps College89%N/A28.0%968
2Smith College87%9%38.0%2,471
3Mount Holyoke College83%10%50.0%2,099
4Bryn Mawr College83%N/A39%1,341


Shangri-La may be a mythical valley of earthly paradise, but, in the real world, these eighteen amazing schools are equally well hidden academic and social paradise.

TaDA! RankingSchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptanceUndergraduates
1Pitzer College87%N/A13.0%1,067
2Whitman College87%11%43.0%1,493
3Claremont McKenna College90%5%10.9%1,347
4Muhlenberg College86%7%48.0%2,330
5Hillsdale College85%6%45.0%1,486
6Centre College84%N/A71.0%1,355
7Soka University of America82%N/A46.0%432
8Sarah Lawrence College78%7%53.0%1,283
9Kalamazoo College82%N/A72.0%1,415
10Beloit College81%N/A69.0%1,271
11Thomas Aquinas College80%21%75.0%386
12Principia College80%N/A87.0%479
13Knox College79%N/A64.0%1,377
14Washington College74%N/A54.0%1,386
15Wabash College73%18%61.0%866
16Transylvania University72%N/A93.0%1,052
17Hampshire College66%N/A59.0%745
18New College of Florida64.8%N/A70%646

Four particularly notable colleges define the style:

Claremont-McKenna and Pitzer, in Pomona, would both be great academic schools if they were located in Outer Mongolia or Borneo.  Pitzer is both SAT/ACT test optional and a capstone school,  They’re both part of the Pomona College consortium, where you can take a few of your classes at any of the other schools. Geographically, they’re 15 minutes from Pasadena, about 20-30 from downtown Los Angeles. That offers big city opportunity to intern and work in a small town-feel kind of school setting.

Whitman, in beautiful Walla-Walla, Washington, is a sleeper mini-ivy, with amazing faculty, and great curriculum for students in both STEM and humanities tracks.

Outside-of-the-box schools like New College of Florida, Soka  and Hampshire College are small, 21st century built and bred. They offer build-your-own majors, don’t believe in letter grades, relying on written reports, instead. If your parents think that’s “weird,”  grad professors respectfully disagree. They give a much clearer picture of you, as student, in class, over your time at one of these schools. 

Augustana is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Students from Southern and Western States looking for a great education and a positive college experience could also find that they’re highly attractive to a school that is generally much more local/regional draw.

Grinnell, Rollins and Washington & Lee are  powerhouse schools that are often, sadly overlooked outside of their home markets.


Want something a bit bigger, without losing the value of professor-mentoring, and maintaining your alumni “mafia?” Consider the medium-sized masterpieces, from 2500 to under 10,0000 students.

TaDa! RankingSchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptanceUndergraduates
1College of the Holy Cross92%4%37.0%2,698
3Brandeis University89%7%34.0%3,610
2Bentley University89%2%42.0%4,137
4Wake Forest University88%N/A29.0%4,866
5Skidmore College86%N/A37.0%2,619
14The College of New Jersey86%11%49.0%6,590
8Santa Clara University85%N/A49.0%5,344
11Pepperdine University84%N/A38.0%3,514
12Gonzaga University83%8%73.0%4,965
15Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute82%3%42.0%5,781
6Loyola University Maryland81%17%61.0%4,031
17Fairfield University81%17%65.0%3,863
13Fordham University80%15%48.0%8,701
18SUNY College at Geneseo80%18%73.0%5,512
7Emerson College80%15%49.0%3,783
10Marist College78%14%45.0%5,206
20Seattle University78%N/A73.0%4,587
19Siena College78%17%76.0%3,178
11Loyola Marymount University78%N/A51.0%6,162
24Chapman University77%N/A48.0%6,281
16University of Denver77%N/A73.0%5,758
21Drake University77%N/A67.0%3,269
23Ithaca College77%N/A67.0%6,279
22Quinnipiac University76%N/A74.0%6,931
25Texas Christian University76%14%43.0%8,851
26Manhattan College74%N/A67.0%3,576
27Endicott College72%N/A73.0%2,970
28Truman State University72%N/A79.0%5,290
29Saint Louis University72%N/A65.0%7,454
9Rollins College71%N/A60.0%2,678
30University of Redlands71%6%68.0%3,452
31Saint Mary's College of California70%N/A98.0%2,916
32Samford University70%N/A93.0%3,145
33Christopher Newport University69%N/A60.0%5,040
34University of San Francisco64%13%71.0%6,745

Interested in Film/TV, Theatre or Acting? Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles is a great sleeper school.

Politics or journalism? Quinnipiac, famed for its presidential polls, has a terrific department.

Rollins has been successful at taking above-average students to new heights. They boast a large collection of 3.0-range high school students who turned into Fulbright Scholars.

Students at Pepperdine perform amazingly well considering that their school directly overlooks one of the best surfing beaches in California.  Like your college rah-rah sports? Gonzaga and Wake Forest are both basketball powerhouses.

Skidmore, Marist, and University of Denver all provide great faculty and school experiences at a slightly larger size, and like diversity, AND, may be able to utilize your art skills, if you’re not majoring.


A few schools that do big well also find themselves in interesting places.

University of California (UC) schools have all been expanding like crazy over the last few years, but U.C. Santa Cruz, located on some of the most beautiful coastline in California, draws a few tactical advantages from its location. The environment is attractive to professors, including many from the Northeast a bit tired of the cold and snow. It’s about 30-40 minutes to the Silicon Valley, so huge internship opportunities abound without living in congested San Jose.  Students who live in California off-campus and hold a job for 366 days can file for residency, which lowers tuition cost greatly.

Loyola University of Chicago sits in a living lab of music and the arts, and also one of America’s greatest business hubs, with huge opportunities for those who are interested in Architecture, civil, or mechanical engineering.

SchoolGrad RateXfer OutAcceptanceUndergraduates
James Madison University83%N/A73.0%19,019
University of California at Santa Cruz78%4%50.0%16,231
University of Vermont76%N/A71.0%10,081
Loyola University Chicago74%N/A71.0%10,276


Whatever size, or place, that you choose, remember that education is mentoring. It’s always easier for a teacher to mentor a few, than many. What you know, not the piece of paper with a degree inscribed upon it, is going to carry a lot more weight as the workforce slims down.

Take the road less traveled!