Kentucky DormsSo Kentucky is the #1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. That’s no surprise if you’ve been even a casual follower of college hoops. Coach John Calipari has created a new brand of college basketball, wherein he convinces the most talented high school players in the country to don the jerseys of a fine university for about six months before putting on a flat-brimmed hat with the name of the NBA team that drafts them in the first round and makes them instant millionaires. Ah, college and the joys of learning!

“Calipari-ball” worries me, but I’m not going to take shots at Kentucky as a university because: a) I fully recognize that a college and the athletic teams which bear its name are not one in the same; b) I’ve driven past Lexington, KY, on the interstate but haven’t ventured onto campus and frankly, know very little about it. So I’m taking this opportunity to learn more about what the University of Kentucky has to offer the 28,913 students who don’t happen to play basketball. And while I’m at it, I’ll share more about the other three #1 seeds: Villanova University, Duke University and our beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kentucky: The Sun Shines Bright on These New Kentucky Dorms 

Set amidst the rolling blue-grass hills of Kentucky (did I just swallow a Rick Stieves travel guide?), the University of Kentucky is a public co-educational land grant research university. (My next blog will help decipher what all that verbiage means.) With 200+ majors, Kentucky has something for everyone,  but business, engineering and the health sciences stand out. A top 5 College of Pharmacy and top 25 College of Public Health are standout programs. And in the “Horse Capital of the World” it’s no surprise to find the Gluck Equine Research Center.

Beyond the classroom, new freshmen get the royal (blue) treatment now that “America’s newest residence halls are ready for you”.  Swanky seems an appropriate adjective for the suite-style living options. And although Lexington wouldn’t pop up in most people’s minds as a ”college town”, great strides have been taken to become more “college town-y”, boosting itself to #9 in the small metro college town category of the American Institute for Economic Research. It’s also a hot spot for technology and a fine place for new grads to find work with an economy that’s booming. And yes, they have a basketball team.

Duke: Where Smart Kids Sleep in Tents (by choice) 

A very different kind of blue exists seven hours to the east in Durham, NC, on the campus of Duke University. As a private research university, Duke is considerably smaller in enrollment but casts a large shadow in terms of academic prowess. Just 6500 undergraduates and 8500 graduate students stroll this campus that looks, feels and almost smells like the elite Ivy League universities to the Northeast, although the Collegiate Gothic buildings of the Main Campus only date to the 1930’s. (The architecture most closely resembles Princeton.) Duke freshmen live on East Campus often traveling to classes via shuttle.

Academics at Duke are among the finest in the nation, with these majors as the most popular by enrollment: Economics, Public Policy Studies, Biology, Psychology and Biomedical Engineering. And while it’s never my intention to equate selectivity with quality, the numbers certainly are impressive: a mere 12% of applicants are admitted, and for those who are chosen, the middle 50% range of ACT scores is 31 to 34.

Krzyzewskiville SignI had the pleasure of visiting Duke last March and our tour guide was double majoring in Biomedical Science and something related to saving the world, she volunteered 10 hours a week at a hospital, and she was an admitted Cameron Crazy, a.k.a. a huge fan of Duke basketball. One of the first things she told our group was that she and her friends were second in line for tickets to the annual Duke vs. North Carolina basketball game. Second in line really means that she and her buddies had the second tent in line. Students camp out for weeks in a place called Krzyzewskiville .

My campus visit companion was my brother-in-law, Josh, who is a proud KU alum with a current Jayhawk daughter. As the tour approached Cameron Indoor Stadium we both began to shake uncontrollably realizing how close we were to this college hoops mecca. Undeterred by the fact that our tour didn’t include a stop inside Cameron, we quickly hiked post-tour back across campus and when the heavy, wooden doors opened easily to my touch, I knew we had struck gold. Like two stray dogs miraculously stumbling onto the Frozen Tundra, we walked into the arena and found ourselves watching a pickup game in this hallowed hall. Certain we’d be quickly tossed from the building, we tried to blend into the golden-toned wood of the bleachers. And when by luck or divine basketball intervention the game ended, we took those momentous steps onto the court. Had I not unknowingly walked into the Atlantic Ocean two days later with my iPhone in my pocket, you’d see the stupid grins on our selfie faces. But I digress…and wasn’t this supposed to be about everything but basketball?

Villanova: Augustinian Excellence

St. Thomas Monastery Augustinian Residence in Villanova UniversityLocated 12 miles outside Philadelphia and founded as an Augustinian institution, Villanova takes its heritage seriously as evidenced by the two choices for supplemental application essays:

Villanova Essay Question-Choice One:

One of the core values of Villanova, as an Augustinian university founded on the teachings of St. Augustine, is that student and faculty learn from each other. As you imagine yourself as a member of the Villanova community, what is one lesson that you have learned in your life that you will want to share with others?

Villanova Essay Question-Choice Two:

Emblazoned on our University Seal is a flaming heart which symbolizes St. Augustine’s passionate search to know God and love others.  What sets your heart on fire? I love that!!

It’s the fourth most selective Catholic university in the United States behind Georgetown, Notre Dame and Boston College. It most closely resembles Boston College in terms of student demographics. Famous Villanova alums include Jill Biden, the Second Lady of the United States.

Top programs at Villanova include engineering, finance, business, premed and nursing. Villanova is a university focused on undergraduate education. The total enrollment of just less than 8000 tips heavily in favor of the 6500 undergrads. A student I work with who recently visited Villanova told me she felt very welcomed and that the campus felt very tight-knit.

Wisconsin: When you say Wis-con-sin…

Most of those reading this have first-hand knowledge of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: as an alum, as a parent of a future alum, a frequent guest to the campus or simply as a citizen living in a sea of red. As a native of that state to the west that gets real cold, one of my first memories of UW was hearing my father, a former University of Minnesota professor, tell me that UW ranked third in federal dollars for research. In my mind I pictured rows and rows of labs churning out reams of research and gaggles of grad students.

Bascom Hall On The Campus Of The University Of Wisconsin-madisonThose early impressions are 100% accurate and will continue to be well past Frank Kaminsky’s days and without regard to whatever budgetary considerations may muddy the water. In Madison three things will always be true: 1) we will always love the Badgers, through good and bad times; 2) we will know exactly how to have a good time — no, a great time — in the best college town in America; and 3) those labs will continue to run at high capacity. And frankly that’s one of the reasons that this isn’t a great fit for all new freshmen, e.g. the focus isn’t undergraduate teaching. That’s a topic for a later date, however.

The role of athletics in choosing a college

As hard as I may try, my impressions of a particular college are at least partially influenced by college athletics. My rant about Duke basketball is all the proof you need. But never confuse what happens at Camp Randall or the Kohl Center with what you do as a student on a daily basis inside Grainger Hall or Humanities or Memorial Library. As I’ve said to countless students and families, college is really about what you do at 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in a classroom and 11:00 p.m. Thursday night in the library. Your choice — your University of You — should be based on which colleges present the best opportunities for you to grow and mature as a student at those times and in those places. The sunny afternoons in Section K at Camp Randall are a bonus.