Top 25 Best Colleges in the Southwest: 2018 Rankings

The Southwest region of the United States is full of rich history, fascinating landscapes, and plenty of notable colleges and universities.

We analyzed hundreds of colleges in the region based on various measures, including campus diversity, student outcomes, selectivity, and more.

For the purposes of this list, we consider the following states to make up the Southwest region: Southern California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Hawaii.

25. Loyola Marymount University

Flickr user CampusGrotto

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 9,392
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Loyola Marymount is one of the largest Roman Catholic universities on the West Coast. Overlooking Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Rey, its scenic campus also serves as the parent school to Loyola Law School. Athletic teams at Marymount are known as Lions, and they compete in the West Coast Conference of NCAA Division I sporting events.

24. Texas A&M University–College Station

Wikimedia Commons user Oldag07

  • Location: College Station, TX
  • Student Enrollment: 63,813
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Texas A&M holds land, sea and space grants, and is the only university in Texas to do so. Its main campus is one of the largest campuses in the country, spanning nearly 5,200 acres.  Students are known as Aggies and they compete in 18 varsity sports as members of the Southeastern Conference.

23. University of California–Santa Cruz

Flickr user John Kannenberg

  • Location: Santa Cruz, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 17,868
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Meant to be a showcase for innovative, cross-disciplinary undergraduate education and modern architecture, UC Santa Cruz was founded in 1965. With a diverse variety of ten separate academic colleges, the top majors at Santa Cruz are Psychology, Business, Cell Biology, and Computer Science.

22. Southern Methodist University

Flickr user Roy Luck

  • Location: Dallas, TX
  • Student Enrollment: 11,643
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Chartered on April 17, 1911, SMU was created by the five Annual Conferences in Texas of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Besides its main campus in Dallas, SMU has campuses in Highland Park, University Park as well as its satellite campuses in Plano and Taos, New Mexico. The school’s Latin motto, “Veritas Liberabit Vos,” translates to “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”

21. Trinity University

Flickr user Mr.TinDC

  • Location: San Antonio, TX
  • Student Enrollment: 2,438
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Just north of downtown San Antonio, Trinity University is in the middle of the city’s Monte Vista Historic District. Despite its small student enrollment, its endowment of $1.1 billion allows it to provide the resources found at larger institutions. The most popular undergraduate courses of study are Biology, Marketing, and Accounting.

20. Colorado School of Mines

Flickr user Ken Lund

  • Location: Golden, CO
  • Student Enrollment: 6,054
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Often referred to as “Mines,” the Colorado School of Mines focuses on engineering, applied science and the development of natural resources. This focus is made evident by the school’s most popular majors, Petroleum Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Chemical Engineering. The school also has two mascots, Marvin the Miner and Blaster the Burro.

19. University of Denver

Wikimedia Commons user CW221

  • Location: Denver, CO
  • Student Enrollment: 11,797
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Founded in 1864, University of Denver is the oldest private university in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States. Its expansive 125 acre campus south of downtown Denver is a designated arboretum. The school’s athletic teams are part of the NCAA Division I Summit League and compete in crimson and gold as the Pioneers.

18. Pepperdine University

Wikimedia Commons user Marc Choquette – Graziadio

  • Location: Malibu, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 7,632
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Originally founded in Los Angeles by George Pepperdine in 1937, the University has since moved to Malibu. In addition its main campus, Pepperdine’s classes are taught at six graduate campuses in southern California and international campuses in Germany, England, Italy, Argentina, Switzerland, and China.

17. Pitzer College

Flickr user Charles Wohlers

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,067
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Just over 4,000 applications are sent to this school every year. Pitzer is very selective, with an acceptance rate of just 13.5% and boasts a 93% freshman retention rate. The most popular major on campus is a tie between Environmental Science and Psychology. Pitzer’s school colors are orange and white, and their mascot is Cecil the Sagehen.

16. Occidental College

Wikimedia Commons user User:Crewfan94

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 2,023
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Located in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, Occidental was founded in 1887 by clergy and members of the Presbyterian Church. Of the 5,900 applications Occidental receives each year, it accepts around 2,650. Incoming freshmen at this selective school typically have SAT scores between 1,230–1,380 and ACT scores between 27–31.

15. University of Texas at Austin

Flickr user Wally Gobetz

  • Location: Austin, TX
  • Student Enrollment: 50,950
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

UT Austin is a major research university with expenditures exceeding $550 million for the 2014-2015 school year. The school’s large campus includes seven museums and 17 libraries. Student athletes at UT Austin compete as the Longhorns in NCAA Division I athletics and are members of the Big 12 Conference.

14. Colorado College

Flickr user Ted Swedenburg

  • Location: Colorado Springs, CO
  • Student Enrollment: 2,131
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

The most popular majors at Colorado College are Economics, Sociology, Environmental Science, Political Science, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Molecular Biology. Most students attending this school come from Colorado and California. CC has a 10:1 student to faculty ratio and is most well known for their unique Block Plan academic schedule.

13. Scripps College

Flickr user CampusGrotto

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 989
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Scripps is dedicated to educating women for lives of commitment and engagement and is located in the center of the five Claremont Colleges. Its campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is often described as one of the most beautiful campuses in the U.S. One of Scripps’ unique traditions is the Graffiti Wall.  

12. University of California — Irvine

  • Location: Irvine, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 30,836
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This public research university was founded in 1965 to help accommodate the growing number of students in the UC school system. Since then, the have become an institution with cutting edge research and dedicated to public service. Offering nearly 100 undergraduate majors, professors are dedicated to innovation. The Anteaters have earned 28 national titles in nine different sports.  

11. University of California — San Diego

Flickr user O Palsson.

  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 32,906
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Founded in 1960, UCSD has quickly become one of the top research universities in the U.S. Although it is a large university, each of their six undergraduate colleges offers their own residence halls, student services, and even graduation ceremonies. CONNECT, UCSD’s innovation-business accelerator, has helped develop over 3,000 companies in the San Diego region. Nearly 90,000 students applied for admission in 2017.

10. Soka University of America

Flickr user Mark Weston

  • Location: Aliso Viejo, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 444
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Located in sunny southern California, SUA’s mission is to “foster a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life.” With campus buildings designed to resemble a hillside village in Tuscany, this institution has a much larger and older sister school, Soka University of Japan. With educational elements rooted in pacifism, human rights, and the coexistence between nature and humanity, it has one of the highest first-year student retention rates.   

9. University of California — Santa Barbara

  • Location: Santa Barbara, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 23,497
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

This palm tree lined campus is one of the largest in the UC school system. With over 70,000 applications received last year, this research university is a top destination for students interested in Psychology, Sociology, and Economics. UCSB operates 8 research centers which are funded by grants through the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Gauchos compete in 10 men and 9 women sporting events.  

8. University of Southern California

Flickr user Ting Chen

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 43,401
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Well known for their business and film schools, USC has a slew of successful and famous alumni: astronaut Neil Armstrong, actor/director Clint Eastwood, architect Frank Gehry, comedian Will Ferrell, and legendary filmmakers Robert Zemeckis, Bryan Singer, and George Lucas. The mighty USC Trojans sport the colors cardinal and gold.

7. Claremont McKenna College

Flickr user Daniel Crowley

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,349
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Claremont McKenna College was originally a men’s only institution but opened their doors to women in 1976. Interestingly, their men’s athletic programs play as the Stags, while the women play as the Athenas, but both sport the colors maroon and black. They receive upwards of 7,000 applications each year with only around 600 being accepted.

6. United States Air Force Academy

Flickr user Wally Gobetz.

  • Location: USAFA, CO
  • Student Enrollment: 4,111
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

In addition to rigorous military training, all cadets at the Academy participate in intercollegiate or intramural athletics as well as a specialized leadership curriculum. The Academy’s mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.”

5. Harvey Mudd College

Flickr user CampusGrotto

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 800
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4 year or above

Founded in 1955, Harvey Mudd’s mission is to educate engineers, scientists, and mathematicians within a liberal arts construct. The integration of research opportunities are central to their educational mission as can been seen through their world-renowned Clinic Program. As a member of the contiguous Claremont Colleges, it shares campus facilities with five other undergraduate institutions and two graduate schools.  

4. Rice University

Flickr user Jill Ellwanger

  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Student Enrollment: 6,719
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

Of the 18,000 applications Rice receives each year, the selective university only accepts 2,900 on average. With this competitive acceptance rate and its 6:1 student-faculty ratio, Rice takes academics very seriously. Outside of the classroom, Rice participates in 14 NCAA Division I sports and offers a wide variety of club and intramural sports.

3. University of California–Los Angeles

Flickr user Andy Dietler

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 41,908
  • College Type: Public, 4-year or above

Political Science is the most popular major at this powerhouse school, followed by Psychology, Economics, and Sociology. Their freshman retention rate is an impressive 96%. UCLA’s alumni have gone on to win numerable awards including: 105 Academy awards, 278 Emmy awards, 3 Pulitzers, and 3 Grammy awards.

2. Pomona College

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 1,663
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

With a small class size and a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio, Pomona College puts an emphasis on community. The top 5 most popular majors on this campus are: Economics, Mathematics, Biology/Biological Sciences, Neuroscience, and Computer Science. Academics are priority, with the average ACT scores ranging between 30-34 and SAT 1,350-1,520.

1. California Institute of Technology

Flickr user Eric Chan

  • Location: Pasadena, CA
  • Student Enrollment: 2,255
  • College Type: Private not-for-profit, 4-year or above

In addition to their reputation as academic brainiacs, the students at this institute are notorious pranksters. They once even changed the Hollywood sign to read “CalTech.” Orange and white are the school colors, and their mascot is a beaver—an homage to nature’s best engineer. 34 Nobel prize winners have graduated from CalTech.


About our methodology

Colleges are ranked based on a combination of factors, including graduation rates, campus diversity, endowment per student, and other data as reported via the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the most recently-available enrollment year. Some colleges may have been excluded from rankings based on certain criteria, including specialization and classification. Learn about our full methodology.

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