Several months ago I launched a series of feature articles about great American colleges and universities to address the many questions that I get from students, teachers, and parents during my regular visits to Kiwi secondary schools. The research and drafting for the series have been great fun. Higher education is one of my favorite topics, in part because I recognize just how influential my own university years were on the direction, content, and tenor of my life since then. I enjoy talking about that influence and helping generate enthusiasm for the best investment that a person, family, or society can ever make.

Click through for image source.

I am a particular advocate for American higher education because of the unmatched quality, quantity, and diversity of choices inherent in our system. There is literally something for everyone, and it is often the best available on Earth. However, that degree of choice – more than 4,500 accredited tertiary education institutions — makes it difficult to talk about the subject in abstract or general terms. So, I thought I’d try to make things tangible, real, and accessible by highlighting individual schools that might be of particular interest to Kiwis and Samoans.

Thus far, we’ve visited 12 schools from all over the country, starting with our oldest and arguably most esteemed, Harvard University. We’ve gone to intimate schools with fewer than 1,000 students and diversified behemoths with more than 50,000 students. We’ve talked about academically elite schools, sports juggernauts, and institutions with more research funding than most sovereign countries … universities that excel in the physical sciences or liberal arts, schools that rank highly in agriculture, and others renowned for producing great artists or entrepreneurs.

Third from the left, first row.

With my musical Tiger friends at uni, about 30 years ago. (Hint: front row.)

And we have not just focused on the academics and classrooms. We’ve talked about different kinds of student environments, campus cultures, extracurricular activities, sports programs, alumni networks, service commitments, and all the other elements important to producing creative, well rounded, successful, contributing members of global society. Studying is important, and grades do matter, but sometimes the most valuable life and career skills are learned after class, interacting with one’s peers. That was certainly true in my case.

To refresh your recollection of where we’ve been before we continue onward with our survey, below are brief summaries of our first dozen subjects — Harvard, Iowa, Southern California, Washington, Swarthmore, Hawaii, Texas, Kentucky, Rollins, Cooper Union, Missouri, and Stanford. Clicking on the heading of each will take you to the full original article.

*  *  *

Harvard University

In the 376 years since its founding, Harvard has grown into an unsurpassed educational powerhouse. Ivy League icon and the oldest school in America, it annually tops most global rankings of elite academic institutions as the best of the best. Times Higher Education magazine of London consistently ranks Harvard as having the best reputation for education on Earth. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the school is committed to small class sizes, vigorous classroom discussion, and intense student-faculty interaction. Every discipline and degree program in the institution sits at or near the top of league tables and “best” lists. The schools of business, law, medicine, government, and divinity are particularly legendary.

The heart of Harvard University, along the banks of the Charles River. Please click through for image source.

The heart of Harvard University, along the banks of the Charles River.

School tradition and student life are rich and vibrant with hundreds of different student activities including the Harvard Lampoon, the ‘scramble’ marching band, and a host of intramural and club sports (such as the famed rowing team which competes against Waikato regularly). The alumni network is particularly impressive, boasting more than 360,000 living graduates, many of whom hold positions of power and influence across virtually every country on Earth. For those of you who appreciate numbers, Harvard has produced more billionaires than any other university of Earth.

University of Iowa

The University of Iowa is a tremendous example of what a public school committed to academic excellence can achieve. Iowa has 21 graduate programs that place in the top 10 nationally according to U.S. News and World Report, and many undergraduate programs consistently rate in the top 25, with particular strengths in hydraulics, medicine, public health, genetic research, and the creative arts. Known as one of the “Public Ivies” because of the excellence of its academices, the school also houses the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a graduate degree program centered on creative writing which has produced 25 Pulitzer Prize winners.

The Adler Journalism Building’s courtyard contains a sculpture by James Sanborn, most famous for his work ‘Kryptos’ located outside the CIA’s offices in Langley, Virginia. The words being thrown from the statue are headlines.

Journalism faculty courtyard with a dynamic work by James “Kryptos” Sanborn.

Intense student loyalty and spirit, a wide range of extracurriculars, and excellent athletic teams help drive the University of Iowa to top rankings in quality of student life, including being consistently ranked in the top 10 “party schools” in the country by Princeton Review and Playboy Magazine. Located in the American agricultural heartland, the University benefits greatly from the warm, friendly, small town feel of Iowa City, whose people have a particular focus on creative writing. In recognition of the town’s “quality, quantity, and diversity” of publishing, UNESCO has recognized Iowa City as one of its six world “Cities of Literature.”

University of Southern California

I know firsthand just how dynamic and impressive the University of Southern California is. The school ranks in the Top 25 universities in the U.S. and in the Top 50 worldwide. Standout programs include the high-ranking business school, law school, school of public policy, school of engineering, and school of social work. In 2009 USC topped Newsweek’s list of “The Decade’s Hottest Schools.” Both Time and The Princeton Review have named USC “College of the Year” for its “extensive community engagement programs and increased global presence.” USC is also a sports powerhouse of the first magnitude, boasting a huge number of national titles and 135 Olympic gold medals, more than most sovereign nations.

USC is a wonderful mix of traditional and cutting-edge, just one “subway” stop from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown Los Angeles.

USC campus with Los Angeles skyline in the background.

USC established the first school of international relations in the U.S. almost a century ago and has built a strong commitment to international education, enrolling more international students than any other American tertiary school and offering extensive opportunities for study and internships abroad. This year there are more than 8,600 international students from 120 countries at USC. Open Doors (an annual report compiled by the Institute of International Education) has named USC the leader in international enrollment 10 years in a row. Of course, another great strength is its location in the heart of the dynamic, wildly diverse world city of Los Angeles.

University of Washington

Located in the trend-setting, entrepreneurial, beautiful city of Seattle, the University of Washington is a large public school with more than 30,000 students. Ranked by Times Higher Education in the Top 25 worldwide, the school is one of the very best research institutions in the United States. UW (pronounced “U Dub” by locals and alumni) has received the largest amount of federal research funding of any public university in America since 1974, and it places second when public and private schools are combined in one category. The school spent more than US$1 billion on scientific research in the last full year for which I could access data. 

The reading room of the University's Suzzallo Library . Click through for image source.

The reading room of the University’s Suzzallo Library .

UW’s schools of nursing and social work are among  the most highly ranked such programs in America, while the business school is regularly honored for sheer quantity and quality of research it produces. The school has a strong tradition of volunteerism as well as a strong international culture. Outside the classroom, UW students can participate in hundreds of extracurriculars, watch or participate in Huskies sports, explore Seattle, or enjoy some of best hiking, kayaking, and camping in America, all close at hand. And the weather and dress will remind many Kiwis of home.

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore is a very special little private school in Pennsylvania with 1,500 students, a strong sense of community, vibrant student life, and world-class academics. The intimate, personal approach is reflected in a very low 8:1 student-faculty ratio. Despite its small size and pure undergraduate focus, the school regularly places near the top of most academic rankings. Forbes recently Swarthmore as #7 nationally for undergraduate programs (ahead of Harvard and Yale), and in 2010 the Princeton Review named Swarthmore the “best value school” in America. The campus is pastoral yet only about 30 minutes from the dynamic cultural and historical center of Philadelphia.

Parrish Hall.

Parrish Hall, Swarthmore’s oldest building.

If your plan includes professional or graduate school, note that the Wall Street Journal rated Swarthmore in the top ten nationally for successfully sending its students on to the most elite law, business, medical, and graduate schools. If you are committed to public service, Swarthmore strongly facilitates, encourages, and supports activism and entrepreneurship through extracurriculars, public lectures and seminars, and direct capacity building (for example, Swarthmore student Mark Hanis founded Save Darfur). This little giant with a focus on admitting interesting and unique individuals is one of the best liberal arts schools in the world.

University of Hawaii

The University of Hawai’i is an excellent example of the American phenomenon known as a “university system,” which is an integrated set of separately accredited tertiary education institutions within a particular geographic jurisdiction that share a name and an overall governing body. Spread across the tropical island paradise, UH poses great opportunities for students because of its size and location. Particularly notable is UH’s flagship campus at Manoa, walking distance from the iconic Waikiki Beach. The student population and faculty are extremely diverse and Pacific focused. The school’s college of business is nationally ranked in the top 20 in America, as are its geriatric and rural medicine programs.

Hawaii Hall, at the heart of campus. Click through for image source.

The heritage Hawaii Hall, at the heart of campus in paradise.

UH is perhaps more well-known for its intensive research in oceanography, astronomy, tropical agriculture, and marine biology. The university ranks highly in terms of research funding in engineering and science fields. The offerings for students interested in regional and international studies are also extensive and highly regarded, with a large number of courses and degree programs from which to choose, as well as the esteemed East-West Center and separate academic centers for Japanese, Philippine, Korean, Chinese, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Studies. And, again, you would be in Hawaii, at the heart of the Pacific.

University of Texas

The University of Texas is one of the largest schools in America, with 51,000 students. Located in Austin – the unique, quirky, funky capital of Texas – the university has a rich tradition of academic excellence, vibrant student life, and athletic achievement. It is considered one of the original “Public Ivies” for the overall quality of the education provided, and its alumni are fiercely passionate about the school, sometimes appearing almost cult-like to outsiders. UT has a particularly active Greek system which enriches and enlivens campus life, with more than 5,200 students in 60 on-campus fraternity and sorority chapters. And there’s a championship rugby program.

101,000 fans pack Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, home of the Longhorns. Click through for image source.

101,000 fans rock the Longhorn home stadium.

In the classroom, UT excels in a wide variety of academic fields. The schools of business, pharmacology, law, architecture and design, accounting, and petroleum are world-renowned. No less than 43 of UT’s graduate programs are ranked in the top 10 nationally, with a further 51 placing in the top 25. The school’s tight-knit community and strong sense of tradition translate into a very close alumni network, known as the Texas-Exes. Students are Longhorns for life, which provides a wide variety of benefits. When you need a break from studying, Austin’s funky precincts and frequent festivals are just beyond the gates, as is the glorious Texas Hill Country.

University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky is an excellent example of a “land-grant university,” founded after Congressional action in the 1860s authorized the federal government to gift federally controlled land to the States for them to establish colleges to educate their citizens on agricultural and mechanical sciences. Many land-grant universities are now among the largest and most highly regarded schools in the United States (including the Ivy League’s Cornell University), and their curriculums have expanded to include all subjects. Located in the historical, genteel city of Lexington, along the Bourbon Trail, UK has nationally ranked agriculture, plant science, pharmacology, and public policy schools, and a tight-knit, dynamic student culture.

Click through for image source. The Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center is the epicenter of the equine science, research, and management programs.

The Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center is the epicenter of the equine science, research, and management programs.

Among UK’s mostly highly regarded degree offerings is its equine science and management curriculum, one of only two such specialized programs in the United States. There are two divisions available, depending on your particular interest – an equine science concentration that covers equine research, veterinary care, and breeding, and an equine management concentration that covers the business and marketing of horses and horseracing. Coupled with surrounding horse breeding and racing industries for which Kentucky is world renown, this degree program offers students a truly unique, world-class oppotunity to launch an exciting career.

Rollins College

With 2,700 students, Rollins College is an intimate gem of a school in Orlando, Florida. The oldest tertiary education institution in the State, Rollins is well known for its rigorous academics, strong sense of community and emphasis on social entrepreneurship. For the past nine years U.S. News & World Report has ranked Rollins as the best regional education institution in the American South. The campus has been rated as one of the “most amazing” in America, and it is surrounded by the excitement of Orlando and the great beauty and recreational opportunity of Florida.

Knowles Memorial Chapel and the Annie Russell Theatre, two historic landmarks on the Rollins campus. Click through for image source.

Heritage landmarks at the center of campus. At right, Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Rollins is renowned for the great flexibility accorded students in creating customized fields of study, as well as for moving the process of education from the classroom out into the wider world. The school has extensive internship programs, a great array of community service-learning courses, significant off-campus field study opportunities, and one of the most comprehensive study-abroad programs in the United States. Rollins has been named a “Changemaker Campus” by the Ashoka social entrepreneur network for “driving social change through transformative educational experiences.”

Cooper Union

With 1,000 undergraduate and 100 graduate students, Cooper Union is defined in many respects by its intimate size and strong sense of community. The school is also widely acknowledged for academic strength, on par with America’s more well-known elite universities. Newsweek magazine recently named Cooper Union the “#1 Most Desirable Small School” in the U.S. (as well as the #7 most desirable overall). U.S. News & World Report ranked it as the best college in the northern U.S., Business Week praised it as one of the best design schools for creative talent, and Princeton Review named it one of the “best value” colleges based on academic quality and cost.

The Cooper Union Flag over Manhattan. Click through for image source.

The Cooper Union flag flies over the school in the heart of Manhattan.

Every undergraduate student admitted to Cooper Union receives a full tuition scholarship. The school and its students have long been known for political engagement and social activism, starting with a thundering anti-slavery appearance by Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln just months after the school’s founding. And it sits in the heart of Manhattan’s iconic, funky East Village, short minutes by foot, subway, or taxi from Times Square, Central Park, Broadway, more than 90 museums, hundreds of live performances, more than 25,000 restaurants, and millions of potential job opportunities and potential new friends.

University of Missouri

The University of Missouri, the flagship of the State’s public university system, is one of the most well-regarded tertiary education institutions in the Midwest. It has grown rapidly beyond its initial focus on agriculture and engineering, and now comprises 19 individual schools and colleges. It was the first school in the world to offer a degree in journalism, and U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks it in the Top 100 of America’s thousands of universities and colleges. Particularly well regarded programs include journalism, engineering, accounting, veterinary medicine, agriculture, medicine, and nursing.

The old center of campus, Francis Quadrangle, is a well-kept gem. Students are forbidden from walking across the lawn to save time, but are welcome to lounge, play on or otherwise enjoy the lush paradise. Image from

The old center of campus, Francis Quadrangle, is a beautiful gem.

Mizzou is know for its close-knit, friendly campus atmosphere and for its intense sporting tradition. The school benefits greatly from its location. Columbia is a vibrant college town of approximately 110,000 residents with rich history, vibrant nightlife, and a friendly, small-community atmosphere, surrounded by a sea of corn fields, forests, and beautiful hills and valleys. The friendly country atmosphere of rural Missouri permeates and enriches the quality of life at the university.

Stanford University

Located in (and in fact the catalyst of) Silicon Valley, Stanford consistently rivals Harvard for the top slot in rankings of the “best” or “most prestigious” universities on Earth. Almost all of its degree programs rank in the top 5 nationally and/or globally, with particular strengths in computer science, particle physics, nanotechnology, stem cell research, and psychology. The campus is a spacious heritage gem. Palo Alto is a vibrant, culturally rich college town. The cities of San Francisco and San Jose are just minutes away. And the great natural beauty of California’s coast, mountains, and wilderness are close at hand.

Click through for image source. The main campus of Stanford, although there are now campuses all over the world.

At the heart of the main campus.

In addition to world-leading academics and comfortable environs, Stanford exhibits a unique, intense entrepreneurial ethos catalyzed by the frontier self-sufficiency and enterprise of the old American West. For those of you who like numbers, Stanford has produced more billionaires than any school other than Harvard. If aggregated, the annual revenue of the companies founded by Stanford graduates would constitute the 10th largest economy on Earth, ahead of Russia and Australia. That’s quite an accomplishment for a young school with small student enrollments, relatively speaking.

* * *

Extraordinary as these 12 schools are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are another 7 Ivies, many dozens of world-leading research universities, hundreds of intimate liberal arts colleges, a vast array of professional schools, and a blizzard of institutions focused on design, performing arts, agriculture, technology, and other specialized fields.

Click through for image source. The Tuba-Euphonium folks at work.

More to come.

I won’t be able to profile all 4,500+ of them, so I could use your continued help in prioritizing. Six of the first 12 were chosen by readers, as were a couple in the queue ahead. If you send me more suggestions, we’ll select and draft to suit your interests, whether those interests are geographic, academic, extracurricular, or cultural.

And as always, please feel free to contact my Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, if you have questions or need help with applications. Drew travels around New Zealand and Samoa regularly, and he would be happy to drop by your school to make a presentation, conduct a workshop, or hold a Q&A session if invited by a teacher or guidance counselor.