The Best Colleges in the Southwest (2024)

Houston, Texas
April 11, 2024
7 min read


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 1/29/24

Considering schools in the southwest? Here is our guide to the best colleges in the Southwest and what to expect.  

If you want to continue your studies in the American Southwest, this comprehensive guide outlines a list of the best colleges you can find. With 301 colleges to choose from, it can be difficult to narrow down your choices. This guide will do the hard part and narrow your search to the 10 best colleges. 

While our choices include some of the largest institutions, we have also included the best small colleges in the Southwest. Below, we’ll inform you of each college and what to expect when attending their semesters as a student.

2024 Top Colleges in the Southwest

We have reviewed some of the best opportunities for a prestigious education, giving you a detailed look at our top schools. The table below shows the top colleges in the southwest, ranked by acceptance rates.

College Acceptance Rate Institution Type Location
Rice University 9% Private Houston, TX
Colorado College 14.3% Private Colorado Springs, CO
The University of Texas at Austin 32% Public Austin, TX
Trinity University 34% Private San Antonio, TX
Southern Methodist University 48% Private Dallas, TX
Southwestern University 49% Private Georgetown, TX
Texas Christian University 54% Private Fort Worth, TX
The University of Denver 59% Private Denver, CO
Texas A & M 63% Public College Station, TX
The University of Tulsa 69% Private Tulsa, OK

Sources: Rice University, Colorado College, Trinity University, Southern Methodist University, Southwestern University, Texas Christian University, The University of Denver, Texas A & M, The University of Tulsa

When evaluating the best colleges in the Southwest, our ranking criteria focus on factors that offer a perspective shaped by informed decision-making. Primarily, we consider the acceptance rates, which can indicate the selectivity and competitiveness of the institution, reflecting on its academic reputation. 

We also use student and alumni reviews, which provide real-world insights into campus life, academic rigor, and overall student experience. These reviews often reveal the essential aspects of a college, like student support services, campus culture, and post-graduation success.

1. Rice University

Rice University

Rice University is located near the museum district in the heart of Houston. It was founded 12 years after the death of its namesake, William Marsh Rice. Rice University is among the most competitive schools due to its low admission rate (9%)

The Rice Institute, as it was initially called, became a university in 1960. As of 2022, Rice has a QS World University Ranking of #94. QS rankings are global scores of colleges/ universities around the world. The QS ranking criteria included an impressive 93.1 score for citation per faculty, making Rice a leading research university.  

Rice University has a significant undergraduate focus. The college only has about 4000 students enrolled in undergraduate studies. However, it maintains a 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Therefore, it is also considered the top small college in the southwest. 

Though Rice is a small school, it doesn't have to feel like a small world. About half of the students enrolled in Rice come from outside of Texas. 37% of students are from all around the state, and 13% of the student population at Rice University are international students.  

If you’re interested in Rice University, look at our complete college guide to learn more about getting accepted.

2. Colorado College

Colorado College

Colorado College is one of the best small colleges in the Southwest, with a student population of about 2000. The private liberal arts college is located along the beautiful Rocky Mountain foothills. 

Established in 1874 in Colorado Springs, the college encourages students to take advantage of their location by engaging with their surroundings with Field Zoology and Sociology programs.  

The surroundings are not the only appeal of Colorado College; it is also home to The Block Plan. Depending on the student's learning preferences, The Block Plan makes Colorado College one of the best colleges in the southwest. The system allows students to focus on their studies while freeing their schedules.  

The Block Plan allows one class at a time, forgoing the traditional two-semester year. Students will take a single course per "block" period. A block is three-and-half weeks long. One block is equivalent to one semester at another college. Students complete four blocks per semester, totaling eight blocks per year.  

The Block Plan typically schedules classes from 9 am to noon, Monday through Friday. This class structure is no wonder why Colorado College received almost 11,000 applications for 2025. The admission rate for this class was 14.3%, making it slightly higher than usual.  

Source: Colorado College

Colorado College has a US News Ranking of #26 in the National Liberal Arts Colleges category. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have put a freeze on the standardized testing criteria for college. Colorado College's admission statistics show that 50% of the Class of 2025 were admitted without submitting any standardized testing. 

3. The University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas at Austin

One of the largest schools on our list is the University of Texas at Austin. It boasts a student population of 52,000, where 40,916 are undergraduate students. 

Established in 1883, the University of Texas at Austin was established to be "a university of the first class." The university has grown from its first class of 221 students. The University of Texas at Austin now accommodates its student population with 18 colleges across 156 undergraduate programs.  

The University of Texas at Austin's current admission rate is 31%. The school’s size is primarily due to the admission policies in Texas. The college automatically accepts all Texas high school graduates in the top 6% of their class. This policy follows the 1997 Texas House Bill 588, or the "Top 10 Percent Law."  

Since 2009, the college has followed Senate Bill 175, which states that at least 75% of in-state students must be automatically admitted. As a state school, UT Austin must adhere to the policy that roughly 90% of incoming students are Texas residents. 

The policy leads to disproportionate student residency statistics that would be more varied at a typical private college. 

Source: The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin is not only one of the largest colleges in the country. It also ranks #32 among National Universities by US News & World Report. It is also one of the top 10 public schools in the country. 

If that is not enough to convince you that UT Austin is one of the best colleges in the Southwest, it also has a QS World University Ranking of 67. It has a QS rank of 93.6 in Academic Reputation, making UT Austin one of the best public colleges in the country.

4. Trinity College

Trinity College

Source: Trinity College

Established in 1869, Trinity College is 3 miles from downtown San Antonio, Texas. Though the campus has a student population of just over 2,500 students, it offers 60 majors. For this and other reasons, Trinity College is one of the best small colleges in the Southwest. 

Trinity College is a private college with roots in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, by which it was initially founded. The college keeps ties to the community through lectures and visiting scholars, freely accessible to the public.  

The college does not only encourage community involvement but students are also encouraged to participate in campus life. At Trinity College, 80% of undergraduate students participate in research studies or internships. An astounding 70% participate in athletics at Trinity.  

Trinity College is #1 in Regional Universities West by US News & World Report. The class of 2025 had an admission rate of 34%. Many students are attracted to the college for its mix of liberal arts and science programs, referred to as "liberal arts, plus."

5. Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist University

Southern Methodist University is a private college in Dallas, Texas. The school has a total student population of 12,000 students, just under 7000 of which are undergraduates. Given that the college keeps a student-faculty ratio of 12-1, Southern Methodist qualifies as one of the best small colleges in the Southwest.  

In 1911, Southern Methodist was initially founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church. The college has been operating as a nonsectarian institution for many years. As of Fall 2021, out of the students who chose to disclose their religious beliefs, only 13% were Methodist.  

Southern Methodist is a liberal arts college with an emphasis on research. The college's Office of Engaged Learning. Students begin their studies with a standard curriculum. This program allows incoming undergraduates to take a wide array of courses. 

Undergraduates also begin their studies as SMU pre-majors and are not required to declare a major until they have gained academic experience at the university. 

With an admissions rate of 53%, Southern Methodist University scores #68 on the US News & World Report for National Universities.

6. Southwestern University

Georgetown, TX

Southwestern University is sixth on our list. The campus is indeed a small college with 1,505 undergraduate students. Southwestern has a 13:1 student-faculty ratio. The average class size in undergraduate studies is 18. Students can expect more guidance and participation in their education.   

Southwestern University was founded in 1840 by Methodist missionaries. Texas was known as the Republic of Texas at the time, where Southwestern was the first institute of higher learning. The private college has a 49% acceptance rate.  

An environment like Southwestern's opens the door to student-faculty collaboration. Given the small class sizes and the caliber of the faculty, it would not be unusual for students to participate in their educators' research. The college aims to promote "active learning" through undergraduate research.  

Undergraduate students at Southwestern can receive publication credit for their research before graduating. The college is known for its regular student-faculty collaborative research. US News & World Report ranks Southwestern #89 in National Liberal Arts Colleges. 

This makes Southwestern University one of the best small colleges in the Southwest.

7. Texas Christian University

Texas Christian University

Source: Texas Christian University

Texas Christian University is a private research college in Fort Worth, Texas. The university boasts quite unusual origins for the area at the time. 

Brothers Addison and Randolph Clark founded the college with only 13 students in its first year. The brothers were of the Protestant Christian faith and founded the school to establish a place where students could be educated and establish character.  

The school was slightly unusual for the time and area as it was initially founded as a co-ed college. It was one of the first in the area when it was established in 1873. Within five years, enrollment had gone up to 450 students. At this time, the small private college began its affiliation with the Protestant Christian Church to help manage its growth.  

The college did not adopt its current name until the year 1902. As it is now called, Texas Christian University is one of the best colleges in the southwest, ranking #158 in the Forbes list of the Best Private Colleges. It also ranked #98 by US News & World Report among the best national universities.  

The college has over 9,000 undergraduate students and an average class size of 26. Students have the opportunity to participate in campus life and their education. Many students at TCU participate in sports as it is a Division I college. The Wall Street Journal ranked Texas Christian University #16 in the category of Best Student Engagement.  

8. University of Denver

Denver, CO

Established in 1864, the University of Denver is one of the oldest private universities in the US Rocky Mountains area. The University of Denver has nearly 100 undergraduate majors that students can choose from, with many dual offerings.  

The University of Denver is also home to the Colorado Women's College. Initially established in 1909, the women's college merged with the University of Denver in 1982. Denver U students can take classes and participate in the women's college.  

The University of Denver encourages student participation in the community and research on and off campus. For this reason and many others, the University of Denver makes our list of the best colleges in the Southwest. US News & World Report has ranked the University of Denver #124 in National Universities.  

The University of Denver has an undergraduate class size of 5,699, making it one of the best small colleges in the Southwest. The college takes what they call a four-dimensional approach to education.

The Four Dimensions 

1. Advancing Intellectual Growth 

2. Promoting Well-being 

3. Exploring Character 

4. Pursuing Careers & Lives with Purpose 

As a part of this 4-D philosophy, the University of Denver has achieved an R1 classification, meaning it is a top research university according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. 

This prestigious classification comes from DU's culture of encouraging research and engagement among students and faculty.

9. Texas A&M 

Texas A&M

Texas A&M is number nine on our list of the best colleges in the Southwest. Texas A&M was one of the first public institutions of higher learning in Texas when it was established in 1876. 

Texas's Agricultural and Mechanical College was developed initially under the Morrill Act (1862). This act approved funding for the express purpose of opening a public institution of higher learning. Public land was donated for this purpose.  

Texas A&M has grown through the years; it has campuses and labs worldwide, but the main campus remains in College Station, Texas. The main College Station campus has over 69,000 students. There are 53,876 undergraduate students on this campus alone. There are over 1000 student organizations to accommodate student interests. 

US News & World ranks Texas A&M #47 in the US Universities category. Texas A&M is a "research-intensive" institution of higher learning. The college has over 133 undergraduate programs for students to choose from.

10. University of Tulsa

Tulsa, OK

The University of Tulsa is last on our list of the top schools in the Southwest, but it is not the least. The University of Tulsa was established in 1894 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The college has 2,647 undergraduate students and only 3,769 students, making it one of the best small colleges in the Southwest.  

The average class size at the University of Tulsa is 16. The small colleges have an excellent student-faculty ratio of 11:1. US News & World Report ranks Tulsa U as #195 among National Universities.  

The University of Tulsa began as a Presbyterian school for Native American girls in 1882. The school was originally in Native Muskogee territory. The school went through several changes to keep its doors open. In 1907, it moved to Tulsa and now functions as independent and non-denominational.

What It's Like to Go to School In the Southwest 

Students considering where to continue their education choose the top schools in the southwest. This area of the United States offers some fantastic institutions, including some of the best small colleges in the country. 

The southwest offers excellent weather, rich traditions, and the perfect balance of city life with a small-town feel.  


Temperatures in the American Southwest are typically warm, with clear skies year-round. It is no wonder it attracts thousands of students each year. The climate is typically dry, especially in summer. Consider that most southwestern colleges are in or near a desert region. 

Some of the best colleges in the southwest are in Colorado. These are typically located along the American Rocky Mountains. Schools like Colorado College and the University of Denver integrate their programs with the natural surroundings. Students can enjoy the weather while studying courses like wildlife and conservation all year round. 


Higher education can be costly. Higher education is the first significant expense of many students' adult lives. Colleges in the southwest are typically more cost-effective. 

Not only do colleges in the Southwest offer lower tuition costs, including some of the best small colleges in the Southwest, but they are also located in more economical cities.  

Some of the best colleges in the southwest, like Texas A&M, the University of Texas Austin, and Southern Methodist, are great college towns. A college town is a city or area with typically more than one institute of higher learning. 

The area will commonly cater to businesses and events for students. This can mean student discounts, low-cost amenities, and events.  

Networking and Connections

Private colleges often admit elite students from around the world. Students can expect to meet people worldwide and in the United States in such environments. 

However, some of the best colleges in the southwest area are public institutions. Specifically, in Texas, where the "top 10 rule" is in effect, students can expect to be surrounded by Texas natives.  

Public universities in Texas must automatically accept any student who graduates from any Texas high school in the top 10% of their class. So, if you are attending a publicly-funded college in Texas, you can expect to meet a lot of Texans.  

Private institutions and those outside of Texas may not be the same. A school like Colorado College, on our list of the best small colleges in the Southwest, has a relatively even distribution of students.  


The people that you meet are critical to your future. It is essential to meet new people of all different backgrounds. Students should consider what environment they hope to be in for college. 

Best Colleges in the Southwest: FAQs 

If you have more questions about the Southwest’s top colleges, you'll find the answers below. 

1. Are Schools in the Southwest Hard to Get Into? 

The school on our list with the lowest acceptance rate is Rice U, which has a 9% acceptance rate. Most schools in the southwest have acceptance rates over 30%. 

2. Are Private Colleges as Prestigious as Ivy League Schools? 

Non-Ivy League schools have a lot to offer students. Research opportunities, education, faculty, resources, and more can enrich the college experience. Name recognition is not everything.  

3. Are Degrees From Small Colleges in the Southwest Look Down On?

Some of the best colleges in the Southwest are small colleges. The ones on our list, and many others, are very prestigious and allow students to be more involved with their campuses and education. 

4. Do Small Colleges Have As Many Resources or Opportunities As Public Ones?

The best small colleges in the southwest have excellent resources for students during their studies and post-graduation. Students have opportunities to work closely with professors and can enjoy the benefits of smaller student-to-faculty ratios. 

5. How Can I Get Into a Southwest School?

From schools in Phoenix to colleges in Texas, we’re here to help! Our experts will guide you through every phase of the college application journey.

Final Thoughts 

The American Southwest is an excellent region to look at when considering colleges. Our list of the top colleges in the southwest will help you begin searching for the right school. Consider all your options, prioritizing the factors that matter most to you. 

Be sure to look into as many schools as possible; your priority is finding the right fit for you. Remember that, depending on your preferences, a large college in the Southwest may not be a good fit. If that is the case, one of the small colleges in the Southwest listed in this article or another area like the Northeast or Southern region can be perfect for you. 

We hope our guide to the best colleges in the Southwest helps you narrow your search! 

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