The Top 25 Best Rural Hidden Gem Colleges | 2021 Rankings

If you prefer space and a more relaxed atmosphere to the hustle and bustle of a big city, a rural college might be ideal for you. Many of the best college towns are located in rural settings and many of them have a strong sense of community among their students.

Additionally, given the current pandemic, many students and families are looking into colleges that are more isolated or even closer to home. For that reason, we wanted to highlight some amazing Hidden Gems in rural areas.

To qualify as a Hidden Gem, a school must meet the following requirements:

  • Receive fewer than 5,000 applications
  • Have fewer than 7,000 undergraduate students
  • Have an acceptance rate above 10%

The Top 25 Best Rural Hidden Gem Colleges

Thomas Aquinas College is quite unique. It offers only one major: Liberal Arts. The college also doesn’t accept direct funding from the government -- instead, the college primarily relies on private donations to give students financial aid. Only 407 students attend the college and the student-to-faculty ratio is 11 to 1. Thomas Aquinas College boasts a 91% first-year retention rate.
Location Santa Paula, CA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 407
Of the nearly 3,550 applications sent into the University of the South every year, the school will accept about 2,380 of them, giving the school an acceptance rate of 67%. Anyone applying to this university will be happy to know that there is no application fee. On average, the incoming class scores between 24 -- 30 on the ACT and 1200 -- 1380 on the SAT.
Location Sewanee, TN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,785
Located on Penobscot Bay, the Maine Maritime Academy offers a total of 7 major programs -- Naval Architecture & Marine Engineering, Marine Science, Engineering Technologies, International Business, Biological & Biomedical Science, Systems Engineering, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
Location Castine, ME
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 997
99% of the students who attend Principia College receive some form of institutional aid to help pay the cost of college. The school has a cozy 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio and an 88% first-year retention rate. Blue and gold are Principia’s school colors, which student athletes wear while competing as the Principia Panthers.
Location Elsah, IL
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 447
Saint John’s University is an all-male college and the brother school to the College of Saint Benedict -- an all women’s college. Of the entire student body, 94% are undergraduates and 6% are graduate students. Business Administration is the most popular major, followed by Accounting and Economics.
Location Collegeville, MN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,777
Houghton College actually started out as a high school. The school colors are purple and gold and the sports teams are known as the Highlanders. Popular sports include track, lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, and soccer. 92% of students at Houghton receive an institutional grant to help cover the costs.
Location Houghton, NY
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,001
Founded initially as Deaconess Sanitarium Training School for Nurses in 1909, the school underwent numerous name changes before settling on Bellin College in 2009. It is a private medical school that offers only three major programs -- Registered Nursing, Radiologic Technology, and Diagnostic Medical Sonography.
Location Green Bay, WI
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 477
Covenant College’s official school colors are blue and white. Located atop a mountain, the college’s main building was originally known as the Lookout Mountain Hotel. Nowadays, Covenant has a high acceptance rate of 98%. Of the incoming class, only 26% come from Georgia, many others come from nearby and neighboring states.
Location Lookout Mountain, GA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,046
This school has not one, but two official mottos. The Greek “Γνώσεσθε τὴν αλήθειαν” translates to mean “Ye Shall Know the Truth.” The Latin “Huc venite iuvenes ut exeatis viri” means “Come here as youths so you may leave as men.” Of the nearly 3,060 applications sent in every year, Hampden-Sydney will accept about 1,740 of them -- giving the school a 57% acceptance rate.
Location Hampden-Sydney, VA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,072
Liberal Arts and Sciences is the only major offered at the Sante Fe campus of St. John’s College. It should come as no surprise, then, that St. John’s has an extensive reading list for students that can include the Odyssey, Hamlet, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and Faust among many other famed pieces of literature.
Location Santa Fe, NM
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 371
“Fortitudo et Spes” is the official motto of this college, which translates to mean “Courage and Hope.” Saint Joseph’s College of Maine’s campus is located on Sebago Lake. 68% of the students study at the undergraduate level. Students applying to SJCM won’t have to pay an application fee.
Location Standish, ME
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,106
Also known as UMary or simply Mary, the campus is located near the Missouri River. Its athletic teams are known as the Marauders and play sports such as basketball, track, volleyball, wrestling, and soccer among others. UMary has a 14:1 student-to-faculty ratio and first-year retention rate of 82%.
Location Bismark, ND
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 3,796
Upon receiving 775 applications, William Jessup University will accept about 500 of them, giving the school an acceptance rate of 65%. Though the undergraduate application fee will cost $45, the graduate application is free to submit. 90% of the students will receive an institutional grant to help cover the cost of college.
Location Rocklin, CA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,695
Blue and gold are the colors of the Embry-Riddle Eagles, whose mascot’s name is Ernie. Aerospace Engineering, Aerospace Science and Technology, International Relations, Mechanical Engineering, and Business are the top 5 most popular majors on campus. Alumni of Embry-Riddle have gone on to become astronauts, politicians, pro athletes, and more.
Location Prescott, AZ
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,776
“Pro Discendo, Pro Vivendo” or “For Learning, For Living” is the motto of Stevenson University. Until 2008, the school was known as Villa Julie College. Green and white are the colors of the Stevenson Mustangs. Ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and track are a few of the sports played on campus. Stevenson has about 640 student-athletes.
Location Stevenson, MD
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 3,615
Like the other schools in the Pennsylvania State University systems, the Wilkes-Barre mascot is the Nittany Lion. 98% of the students on the Wilkes-Barre campus study at the undergraduate level. There is a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio and an 84% first-year retention rate. Business is the most popular major.
Location Lehman, PA
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 438
As the bachelor’s degree is the highest education level, you’ll only find undergraduates on the Penn State New Kensington campus. The school has an 80% acceptance rate and 75% of the students receive institutional aid to help cover the cost of college. Registered Nursing, Electromechanical Technology, and Criminal Justice are the most popular majors.
Location New Kensington, PA
Institution Type Public
Student Enrollment 585
Though the school is coeducational, there are significantly more women on campus than men. In fact, 69% are women and the remaining 31% are men. Colby-Sawyer does not require an application fee. The school has a 73% first-year retention rate and a student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1. 35% of the first-year students come from New Hampshire.
Location New London, NH
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 860
This university has two sets of school colors, one for academics and one for athletics. The academic colors are tanzanite blue and gold. The athletic colors are navy blue and kelly green. Ave Maria University’s campus is surrounded by small bodies of water. 99% of students on campus receive institutional aid.
Location Ave Maria, FL
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,122
Johnson University has two physical campuses, the main in Tennessee and another in Florida. The Tennessee branch competes athletically as the Royals. Track, tennis, soccer, golf, and basketball are a few of the sports played. JUTN, as it’s also called, has an acceptance rate of 53% and a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
Location Knoxville, TN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,088
“Habere et dispertire” is the Latin motto of Wells College, which means “To have and to share.” The campus is located right on Cayuga Lake. Wells does not require an application fee for their prospective students. There is a cozy 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio. 71% of the first-year class come from the state of New York.
Location Knoxville, TN
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 471
E&H, as it’s commonly called, has over 25 majors for students to choose from. The most popular of which include Psychology, Business, Biology, Sociology, and Sport & Fitness Administration. Speaking of sports, student-athletes compete as the E&H Wasps, wearing blue and gold uniforms.
Location Emory, VA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 1,246
Sterling College is a place that takes hands-on education seriously. In fact, their motto is “Working Hands - Working Minds.” Their 4 majors are likewise involved -- Agroecology, Ecology, Liberal Arts & Sciences, and Outdoor Education. Additionally, Sterling has a few unique minors available, including Draft Horse Management.
Location Craftsbury Commons, VT
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 136
Initially a high school, this university then transitioned into an academy, then a junior college, before finally becoming a full-fledged university in 2006. North Greenville University, or simply NGU, has an acceptance rate of 63%. 98% of the students there receive an institutional grant that helps cover the cost of college.
Location Tigerville, SC
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 2,578
"Be Who You Are and Be That Well" is the motto of DeSales University. While there is not an application fee for undergraduate students, there is a $50 charge for graduate submissions. DeSales has a 14:1 student-to-faculty ratio and a first-year retention rate of 83%. 67% of the incoming class comes from Pennsylvania, though many others come from neighboring states.
Location Center Valley, PA
Institution Type Private
Student Enrollment 3,438

Interested in a rural college like these? Check out College Raptor’s free match tool to see if they’re a good fit for you!

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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