Virginia College Road Trip: Washington and Lee University

Learn what it's like to attend college in Lexington.

The Johnson Scholarship Program has helped Washington and Lee improve campus economic and ethnic diversity.

The Johnson Scholarship Program has helped Washington and Lee improve campus economic and ethnic diversity.

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Walking onto the campus of Washington and Lee University, you can't help but be drawn to the national historic landmarks at its heart – Lee Chapel and the five academic buildings that comprise the Colonnade.

Set in the small historic town of Lexington, Va., the school is named after two of America's most famous generals, George Washington, the school's benefactor, and Robert E. Lee, its 11th president, who is buried at the chapel.

The Generals, as the school is nicknamed, boasts a student-faculty ratio of just 9-to-1, and students develop close relationships with professors.

"You can call your professors at home. You can go out to dinner with them," says Kahena Joubert, a May graduate in business and politics. There's a strong "sense of community," says Joubert.

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Students choose from 40 majors; Washington and Lee claims the only fully accredited business school and journalism program among the nation's top liberal arts colleges.

Traditions dear to students include "speaking," the practice of greeting even strangers on campus. It's instilled during orientation week, when freshmen are given a T-shirt that says "Speak."

The honor system, too, is "such a way of life," says Camie Carlock, a 2013 grad in politics. Students take unproctored exams, for example. "I trust my students completely," says politics professor William F. Connelly Jr.

While the university is making a big push to broaden students' horizons – offering robust study-abroad opportunities, bringing in faculty from abroad and wooing international students – only 4 percent of students are foreign, and 84 percent of undergrads are white.

The Johnson Scholarship Program, which fully funds the education of 161 students, has helped to bring more economic and ethnic diversity to campus.

And the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, which integrates academic study and service to disadvantaged communities, helps Washington and Lee shake its elitist reputation.

Still, is the school's culture preppy? "There is truth in it," admits Carlock. "W&L students do get dressed up for class."

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For a popular four-week term at the end of each spring, students immerse themselves in one of more than 200 courses on such topics as the physics of music, mathematics of cryptography and the geology of Hawaii.

Spring term is "a main draw to W&L," says Mary Jennings Van Sant, a journalism and mass communications major who especially liked a sociology class about the Dakota Nation.

The university fields 24 NCAA Division III teams, and the social scene revolves around fraternity and sorority life; 80 percent of students belong to one or the other.

At the Lexington Coffee Shop, notes Carlock, students can enjoy bluegrass on Wednesday mornings. "Living in Lexington," she says, "has its quirks." 

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