The Byzantine-style brick buildings and cloisters on Rice University's nearly 300-acre campus near downtown Houston are so Zen and picturesque that wedding parties are seen frequently.
Students invariably cite the residential college system, which they compare to Hogwarts of Harry Potter fame, as Rice's most unique feature.
The university randomly assigns all undergrads (for the duration of their Rice tenure) to one of 11 residential coed colleges, each of which has its own student government, dining facilities, dorms, and common areas.
About 75 percent of the private university's roughly 3,500 students live on campus. Though there are no sororities or fraternities, "we have social life for everybody," says Ryan Gupta, a senior from New Orleans and coeditor-in-chief of the student newspaper.
Rice students, or Owls, participate in nearly 200 clubs and organizations that range from water polo to light opera. The campus robotics club earned second place in the 2009 VEX Robotics World Championships by building a cube-stacking robot.
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The Rice Memorial Center is a popular gathering point, housing two student-run businesses, a chapel, a radio station, and the student-run Program Council. The campus recreation center, a two-story, three-year-old environmentally friendly complex, has an Olympic-size pool, and racquetball, squash, and basketball courts, as well as an "outdoor adventure center" that offers off-campus trips and rents equipment to students.
Though Houston has had some crime problems, students like Charlie Dai of Columbia, Md., a 2012 graduate, feel off-campus housing is "actually relatively safe" and cheap. To get around, about 42 percent of students have cars; they can also use free passes for the Metro light rail system to get to Reliant Stadium (home of the Houston Texans football team) and to concerts, restaurants, and art museums throughout the city.
"Houston itself is just as diverse as New York City," says Dallas native Becca Isaac, a senior who transferred from New York University. Isaac cites Houston's restaurant scene, its lack of conformity to Texas stereotypes, and welcoming personality as major pluses.
On the academic front, Rice is highly competitive: Only 19 percent of applicants were accepted in 2011. The school offers some 50 undergraduate majors, of which bioengineering, political science, psychology, and biochemistry/cell biology are the most popular.
The student-faculty ratio is an impressive 6 to 1, and nearly 70 percent of classes have fewer than 20 students. That means Rice students get a lot of face time with faculty, says Matt Sawyer, a Houston native and member of the class of 2012. They also can work with professors on a multitude of research projects for credit (or even for pay during breaks) on topics from the Arab Spring to biomedicine.
Tuition runs about $36,600, and room and board costs roughly $12,600.
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Rice is known for the pranks (or "jacks") that the residential colleges play on one another. One college, Hanszen, for example, traditionally orchestrates massive pranks on rival Wiess, whose steel architecture and outdoor balconies invite irreverent references to prison architecture. Hanszenites recently woke their sleeping rivals at 4 a.m. with the sounds of sirens, signifying a jailbreak.
Houston does get notoriously hot, particularly in the summer, but the heat is manageable, says Kenneth Misner, a junior who grew up just north of Houston in The Woodlands. Students can also keep cool by stopping at various popular campus hangouts, including the Rice University Art Gallery and a 475-seat theater that hosts performances of the Visual & Dramatics Arts Department.
There's also the Rice Coffeehouse, which Gupta says reflects the school's quirkiness (its workers are called Keepers of the Coffee). So too does Rice's annual Beer Bike race, which was founded in 1957, though most students just chug water.