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Dr. Kat’s List: Top five schools to get a great academic and athletic experience

Dr. Kat's list of the top five schools to get a great academic and athletic experience.

Katherine L. Cohen, Phd

March 10, 2009

Dr. Kat’s List: Top five schools to get a great academic and athletic experience

It’s March Madness! As we fill in our brackets and enjoy buzzer beaters and Cinderella stories, it’s easy to forget that our favorite college basketball players are students first and foremost. Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of students looking for schools with a rigorous curriculum and successful sports teams. Colleges are often known for one or the other—rarely both—which is why I compiled my Top Five Academically-Inclined NCAA Division I Universities (outside of the Ivy League). At these schools, students have top-notch experiences not only in classroom, but also on the field.

University of North Carolina: While the Tar Heels dominate in men’s basketball (with the most valuable men’s basketball program in the country, worth $26 million) and women’s soccer, they have had great success in other sports too, winning a total of 34 NCAA team championships in six different sports. This ranks UNC #8 among all Division I programs. Since its inception in 1993, the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletic (NACDA) Directors’ Cup measures the most successful college athletic programs. Besides Stanford, UNC is the only school to win the Directors Cup, and has finished in the top ten in all but three years.

But UNC has great success in the academic world, too. Widely considered a public-Ivy, UNC was ranked the number one “best value” school by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Impressively, UNC also ranks #2 (behind Harvard) for the number of Luce Scholars, and #7 among public institutions in a 2006 survey on education quality and alumni achievement. Did you know that among public universities, UNC has the highest percentage of undergraduates studying abroad? Out-of-state students know that gaining admission is tough—state guidelines require that 82% of the incoming class be state-residents—but those that do are in for a unique college experience.

University of Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads the country in national football titles, and since joining the Big East Conference in 1995, ND’s well-rounded athletic prowess has only gotten stronger. Consistently the highest-ranking Big East program in year-end NACDA standings, ND’s national athletic reputation is growing in a variety of sports, including men’s basketball, women’s soccer, and ice hockey. In fact, the Fighting Irish men’s hockey team competed in 2008’s national championship (only to lose 4-1 to Boston College). What sets ND apart from most colleges, though, is its size. With only 8,000 undergraduates, ND is one of the few Bowl Championship Series schools where students can easily watch football games, feeding into the legendary Fighting Irish spirit.

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Recently, ND was named a “New Ivy” by the Wall Street Journal. ND also ranks first among U.S. Catholic colleges and universities in the number of undergraduates who have gone on to earn a doctorate since 1920. Notre Dame’s athletes have a 95% graduation rate (the 3rd best in the nation, behind Harvard and Princeton) and the school ranks #2 in the country for producing NCAA Academic All-Americans, making ND an ideal place for a student-athlete.

University of Michigan: Michael Phelps trained on campus before winning his eight gold medals in Beijing, which may be proof enough that there’s something special about playing sports in Ann Arbor. Michigan has won championships in a few surprising sports: men’s gymnastics (3), ice hockey (9), and its top sport, swimming and diving (11). With 26 varsity sports and impressive facilities to accommodate them (U of M has the second-largest football stadium in the country), Michigan fields strong teams in every possible sport. It has to—staying competitive in the Big Ten requires a well-rounded athletic program. In fact, in 2008, only four Wolverine teams did not compete for the national championship.

Michigan boasts 400,000 living alumni, more than any other university, so you’ll find Blue pride all around the globe. With more than $500 million in federal research funding for science and engineering (3rd behind Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington) and a library ranked the sixth largest by the Association of Research Libraries, students are guaranteed to have unbelievable resources at their disposal, regardless of their area of study. Because of these resources and a commitment to producing the next generation of scholars, it comes as no surprise that Michigan ranked #2 in 2006 for awarding the largest number of doctorates.

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University of Southern California: Although its cross-town rival, UCLA, leads all colleges with 103 NCAA championships, USC makes the list for acting as a national powerhouse both academically and athletically. At USC, campus traditions focus on their California PAC-10 rivals. In the fall, students prepare for The Weekender, where the Trojans travel to play Stanford or UC-Berkeley, and Troy Week, a series of campus events that culminate with the annual football game against the UCLA Bruins. However, like all colleges on this list, USC is more than just football. USC leads the nation with 73 national championships in men’s sports, with noteworthy success in track and field, swimming and diving, baseball, and tennis.
USC boasts a truly national student body (32% of USC students are from out of state, compared to 5% for UCLA, and USC’s campus in University Park is adjacent to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. As the only facility to host two Olympic Games, students have easy access to football games, unlike UCLA football fans, who have to drive 27 miles to watch home games at the Rose Bowl.

Academically, USC’s Core Curriculum ensures that all undergraduates get a well-rounded education, regardless of their major. With a variety of academic programs that include professional schools in pharmacy, architecture, music, gerontology and film, it is no surprise that USC was named College of the Year by Time and Princeton Review in 2000.

Stanford University Recognized as one of the world’s leading universities, Stanford is surprisingly young when compared to its peers. Founded in 1891, it is younger than every Ivy League institutions—255 years younger, to be exact, than its east coast academic rival, Harvard. Accepting less than 10% of all applicants in 2008, Stanford boasts 98 Rhodes Scholars, 78 Marshall Winners, and 53 Truman Scholars.

As impressive as those academic accomplishments are, Stanford’s athletic domination might even be more so. Let’s state the facts:

Stanford has also won 14 consecutive Directors' Cup titles, signifying its success in all aspects of college sports. Stanford’s athletic prowess is not just confined to intercollegiate competition, however. In the 2008, Stanford athletes brought home 25 Olympic medals, including eight gold. All things considered, Stanford may be the school where students are most likely to run into both Olympians and Nobel Prize winners.


If you’re looking for a great school and a winning sport team, these five universities are sure bets. They’re truly well-rounded—colleges where you’re as likely to spy the school’s star athlete at the library as you are on the court. And while sport’s fans and athletes are often consumed by the thrill of the game, it is truly a special school that can boast both academic and athletic pride.


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