People often "make fun of us for being a cult," says Jeff Pickering, a member of the class of 2012 and former president of the Texas A&M University—College Station student body. It's true that Aggies tend to love their school, though they believe there are misconceptions.
"I guess [outsiders] think we ride around on horses and stuff, and that we're just like completely conservative," says Marquis Alexander, a senior from Houston. Alexander, the commander of A&M's Corps of Cadets, a fixture on campus since the school opened in 1876, allows that there's "some truth" to this.
Military service was a requirement for the all-white-male student population until the 1960s, when the school began admitting women (currently 47 percent of undergrads) and African-Americans. Today, the 2,100 student-strong uniformed Corps is voluntary and coed, but roughly 42 percent of Corps members still go on to pursue military careers.
Though the Texas Central Railroad no longer stops at College Station, the name stuck and the university of 40,000 dominates the city, which is roughly 90 miles from both Austin and Houston. A&M stands for Agricultural and Mechanical College, reflecting the school's emphasis when it was founded in 1871.
Today, A&M offers more than 120 undergraduate degrees in 10 colleges—including well regarded business, engineering, and education schools. Roughly 95 percent of students come from in-state. The overall acceptance rate is about 67 percent.
A&M is among the top 20 universities in research dollars spent, particularly in engineering and life and environmental sciences. This has opened up opportunities for undergrads, about 25 percent of whom pitch in on special research projects each year. The student-run journal Explorations keeps track of some of this work, publishing undergraduate articles on topics from astrophysics to cultural anthropology.
Outside the classrooms and labs, A&M offers some 800 student clubs and organizations meeting a wide range of tastes, like Texas Trophy Hunters, the Science Fiction Association, and Veterinarians Without Borders.
[Learn five reasons for getting involved in college.]
The student-faculty ratio is 19 to 1, but upperclassmen tend to see smaller classes. "I just signed up for my senior levels, and most of them were capped off at 20 people," says Grace Bell, a senior anthropology major from San Antonio.
A&M costs about $8,500 for in-state students and about $25,000 for those from out of state. Room and board on campus adds roughly $8,400 per year.
The 5,200-acre campus is a complex network of tree-lined quads, residence halls (coed and single sex), and honors dorms, and 85 percent of students have cars to get around.
Southside campus has two living-learning communities that allow freshmen to live with others who have common interests, like the Corps of Cadets, science, engineering, and leadership. Campus architecture, however, is not a strength: Critics have often called it Soviet-era and ugly.
[Check out other schools with notable learning communities.]
The 400,000 square-foot, newly renovated Memorial Student Center (MSC) serves as a campus hub, hosting some 300 events each year, including major speakers. The MSC also has three student-run galleries and brings Broadway shows to campus.
Most impressively, the center itself is student-run. Elizabeth Andrasi, who graduated in December 2011 and recently completed her term as MSC president, oversaw 1,100 employees and a $6.5 million budget.
The responsibility represented a big change for someone who came to A&M a shy girl from a small private high school. "I truly wouldn't be who I am today without the MSC," Andrasi says.
A&M competes in 20 Division I sports, a major attraction. Kyle Field (capacity 82,600), across the street from the MSC, is generally sold out for home football games.
Aggies take pride in their school spirit and sense of community. Lauren Santacroce, class of 2012, a Houston native who has bought her school ring, says that once you're an A&M student, "you can go anywhere in the world, and as soon as someone sees this Aggie ring, they just take you in. You're part of the family."