Southern California College Road Trip: Pomona College

Michael Morella

Conceived by its founders to be "a college of the New England type" in the Golden State, Pomona College outshines many of its Northeast peers as the No. 4-ranked liberal arts institution in the nation in the 2014 Best Colleges rankings - tied with Bowdoin College and Middlebury College - attracting undergrads from 46 states, the District of Columbia and 22 countries.

East Coast-style arches and classical white columns blend with California palm trees and terra-cotta roofs at the 140-acre campus in quiet suburban Claremont, about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

And Pomona benefits from some smart neighbors: Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College, Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College.

These five elite liberal arts institutions, all within a few blocks, comprise the Claremont consortium, an academic compact in which the 7,000-plus students share a library, health center and some other services; can enroll in classes at the other institutions; and come together for many clubs, activities and social events.

[See the Best National Liberal Arts Colleges in photos.]

Highly selective, Pomona offers admission to only about 13 percent of those who apply. Academics are rigorous, but "there's not so much the culture here of wearing your stress as a badge of honor," says recent grad Nick Murphy.

Students can select from majors and some 2,500 classes, including the options available at the other "5-C" schools.

First-year students must take a Critical Inquiry seminar, partly designed to shore up student writing, and all students must fulfill foreign language and "breadth of studies" requirements, meaning at least one course in a range of broad subject areas like creative expression or the physical and biological sciences.

Undergrads enjoy an 8-to-1 student-faculty ratio and an average class size of 15 students. About two-thirds of faculty members also work with one or more students on research projects.

The community is close-knit, students say, and this is due, in part, to each first-year hall being linked up with several sophomore "sponsors," who act as mentors and guides to life at Pomona.

Faculty members, too, take an active role. "I've spent Thanksgiving with my professors," says second-year student Donald Abram.

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Pomona and Pitzer have combined NCAA Division III athletic teams, the Sagehens. The annual Pomona-Pitzer vs. also-combined Claremont McKenna-Mudd-Scripps football game is a popular event, though "in general, there's not a ton of rivalry or competition" between the schools, says recent graduate Sarah Appelbaum.

Students do jokingly classify the other schools as the less desirable Hogwarts houses from "Harry Potter."

About 98 percent of Pomona students live on campus in one of 16 residence halls, where more than two-thirds of the rooms are singles. Housing gets high marks, as do the eating options at Pomona's three dining halls - plus those at the other 5-Cs.

On the other hand, the place can feel insular, and the "Claremont bubble" can make students "forget what the real world is like," says sophomore Bri Berrios. To break out, Sagehens occasionally head to LA or nearby Claremont Village, with its range of restaurants, boutiques, theaters and other shops.

In addition, "within an hour we have access to as many outdoor spots as you could think of," says David Rosas, class of 2016. The popular student-run outdoors club On The Loose, one of 200-plus student groups available, organizes trips across California and the Southwest.

Mostly, it's "learning for the sake of learning," says Joseph Reynolds, a junior. "You can tell that that's what people are focused on."

More From the Southern California College Road Trip:

--Occidental College

--Pepperdine University

--University of California--Los Angeles

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.