The 12 Top College Rivalries in the Country

Rivalry? What Rivalry? Ask our most famous colleges about their feuds with celebrated adversaries and they brush them off as no longer relevant in an open-minded, caring age of national unity. "Sir, we do not consider ourselves rivals with our sister academies except on the fields of friendly strifes," says West Point spokesman Francis J. DeMaro Jr. Annapolis spokeswoman Deborah Goode has the same earnest message: "We support each other and our nation on the front lines of the global War on Terror."

And they're not the only ones. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame and others also don't want to talk about stolen school mascots, insults spray-painted on campus statues or anything else that smacks of the old grudges. In academia these days, such seeming hatreds of any kind are considered unfashionable and maybe even illegal in a few instances. But intense competition between high-quality institutions—what most people would call rivalry—still has importance in the college-admissions process. These rivals (OK, pick a friendlier word: competitors? counterparts? bosom buddies?) are continually trying to differentiate themselves for applicants who wonder which of two or three very similar and high-performing schools might be best for them.

We've picked 11 pairs and one trio of colleges whose strengths are so great and resemblances so compelling that careful comparison is necessary to sort out which schools work best for which applicants. It's also a bit of a guilty pleasure just to marvel at how deeply embedded many of the rivalries are. Some of the rivals have been associated in the public mind for more than a century, like Michigan and Ohio State, and some are as recent as digital movie cameras and multiplexes, like the film schools at USC and NYU.

But in every case, no matter what the schools' press releases say, students, faculty and alumni feel as if they're in competition with one another. Like most successful American institutions, that turns out to be one of their strengths. Herewith, the top 12 rivalries at U.S. colleges:

Old Ivies: Harvard vs. Yale
Gila Reinstein, spokeswoman for Yale, says "the Yale-Harvard rivalry is not substantial enough to merit attention." But many of the 6,600 undergraduates at Harvard and the 5,300 (set to grow to 6,000 by 2013) at Yale would disagree. There is a reason that Montgomery Burns, the most loathsome character on the TV comedy "The Simpsons," displays his Yale pedigree: many of the writers are graduates of The Harvard Lampoon humor magazine. There is a reason that many Yale graduates note, not bragging or anything, that every U.S. president since 1988 has had a degree from their New Haven, Conn., alma mater, and express some concern for the country since the last Bulldog candidate with a chance, Hillary Rodham Clinton, J.D. '73, pulled out of the race.

Harvard is the oldest and Yale the third oldest college in the country. Most years they are among the most difficult to get into, with acceptance rates around 8 percent. They rank first (Harvard's $35 billion) and second (Yale's $23 billion) in the size of their endowments, and have both made strides to remove costs for low-income students so that their lovely brick buildings won't look so much like bastions of the upper-middle class. But they also have world-class professors and students who thrive by challenging each other. Their residential houses were designed and funded by the same man, Yale graduate Edward Harkness, who discovered Harvard was quicker to accept his gift. His design is still envied as a model for undergraduate life.

The argument over which school is better thoroughly bores outsiders, but applicants have no such inhibitions, particularly when they have to choose between the two. Yale sophomore Abby West was turned off by Harvardian boasts that "the competition is incredibly intense" when she visited Cambridge, so she selected what she considers the more friendly Yale dynamic. Malcom Glenn, president of The Harvard Crimson, says he preferred Harvard because it is close to a big city, Boston, but "on the surface the two schools couldn't be more alike." He knows people at both campuses, and "many would have gone to the other if not for the fact they weren't accepted."

Bay Area Giants: UC Berkeley vs. Stanford
German Physicist Werner Heisenberg, famous for his Uncertainty Principle, was indeed uncertain when asked once about the location of Stanford University, but he knew of its rivalry with another northern California school. "They steal each other's axes," he said. That competition has escalated far beyond the annual football game that decides who gets the Stanford Axe. The two universities have become intellectual centers of the Internet boom, doing their best to attract the best science, math and engineering talent, and in the process attracting great wealth. In 2007, Cal (as UC Berkeley is often called) signed a $500 million contract with BP, the largest grant in the school's history, to develop alternative energy sources. Stanford is deep into the same explorations, and is nestled right in the heart of Silicon Valley, where corporate giants like Google, founded by two Stanford students, prosper.

Students seem happy to be at either Bay Area school, and the taunts between them are, according to Julie Yen, Stanford '07, "little more than lighthearted joking." She chose the smaller Stanford over Berkeley because she liked its quieter, grassier campus, a better place for a contemplative art-history major than the more raucous and urban Berkeley streets (just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco). But if she had gone to Cal, she adds, she says she would've found the instruction "of the same high caliber—they have a very good museum." She is aware of the good jobs available for graduates of either university, no matter what their degrees. She's just started as an investment-firm analyst in Menlo Park, just a few miles from Stanford.

American Warriors: Annapolis vs. West Point
Craig Meekins attended Chaminade High School in Mineola, N.Y., a Roman Catholic school that churns out applicants to two of the nation's oldest military academies. Meekins, who graduated from Annapolis in 2008, laughs at the notion that the two schools aren't fervent competitors. "It's an intense rivalry," he says. When he ran the 800 meters for the U.S. Naval Academy track team, "if the coach saw you talking to a West Point guy before the meet, it was bad news." But amid the teasing, he says, "there is still a strong sense of camaraderie, because we all know we're facing the same challenges." Both have a much longer list of required courses than civilian institutions do. Both require students to participate in team sports. Each has 4,300 students, about 23 percent minorities and 20 percent women. Students at both want to serve their country, and acquire academic and technical skills with no bills for tuition, room or board.

Many applicants apply to both, and make their final decisions based on atmospherics, family traditions and career inclinations, just as students applying to less-regimented campuses do. Daniel Mills, who graduated from a public high school in northern Virginia in 2008, says he liked the idea of a military education "because I thought I really needed structure." He visited Annapolis and thought of taking that route to becoming a Marine Corps officer, but decided that if he was drawn to ground combat, he might as well go Army. His father was a West Point graduate, the Academy's wrestling coach liked him and his overnight at the campus introduced him to cadets he found smart and thoughtful. Meekins, on the other hand, picked Annapolis because it was in a city and seemed to offer more career choices. He plans to become a Navy SEAL, and is happy that he can get such an unusual college education without "spending a ridiculous amount of money."

For Women Only: Smith vs. Wellesley
As two of the few colleges that still bar male undergraduates, Smith and Wellesley have similarities that are deeper than their differences. And not just because the two small schools are in Massachusetts. Smith celebrates its big group of undergraduates from low- income families; 23 percent receive Pell grants, the leading federal aid program for disadvantaged students. (Wellesley has 13 percent.) Sidnie Davis, class of '08, says her high-school counselor called it "Wellesley for working girls."

But that's not really fair. Consider the Archer twins, Kendra and Shenquia, both class of '08, who grew up poor in a single-parent home and say they both found Wellesley, Kendra's choice, as welcoming and engaging as Smith, where Shenquia decided to go. Kendra says she was particularly taken with Wellesley's motto, "Not to be served but to serve," as a sign the place was no haven for the spoiled rich. "We are continually aware of the outstanding accomplishments of alumnae such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright," Kendra says.

The Smith campus in Northampton lures students with its big, comfortable and friendly wood-frame and brick houses for undergraduates. An even bigger draw is the off-campus scene, which consists of restaurants, bars and clubs throbbing with music, in a western area of the state occupied by several other colleges. Café-crawling Smith students say of their school, "The coffee is strong and so are its women." In 2007 Smith enhanced its reputation for science and engineering—30 percent of Smith students major in the sciences—with the construction of Ford Hall, a $73 million science teaching and research facility. Wellesley has its own engineering focus, which allows students to cross-register at nearby MIT and the Olin College of Engineering. Wellesley also has one of the country's most beautiful campuses and, according to some calculations, has produced more female corporate leaders than any other college. The two schools do compete, the Archer twins admit, but they call it "a sisterly acknowledgment of mutual greatness."

Social Activists: Guilford vs. Oberlin
Founded in 1833, Oberlin is the oldest coeducational college in the country. Guilford, founded in 1837, is the third oldest. Both were established by religious idealists who opposed slavery. Both were stops on the Underground Railroad. Both have about 2,800 students, although half of Guilford's are older, nontraditional undergraduates.

Guilford, lesser known for many years, has enjoyed a rising reputation through raves from high-school counselors and major play in Loren Pope's best-selling guide "Colleges That Change Lives." But Oberlin, in Ohio, is still the bigger name. At 38,000, it has double the number of alumni; at $735 million, it has 10 times the endowment. Ninety-one percent of Oberlin students are from out of state, a sign of its significant national reputation, compared with 63 percent at Guilford.

Still, a shared tradition of political activism has been noticed by applicants. Some have applied to both, knowing that Oberlin is harder to get into but happy to find any school bucking what, until the 2008 presidential election season, appeared to be a politically apathetic trend on U.S. campuses. Mary Ann Willis, a college counselor at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., says despite their many differences, Oberlin and Guilford attract the same sensibility, "not just politically aware, but also politically engaged."

Kriddie Whitmore, Guilford '11, applied to both schools because, she says, "I like to be around people who are conscious of what is going on." Both colleges accepted her. She says she chose the central North Carolina school because it was warmer, less secluded and gave her a better financial-aid package. Whitmore is now majoring in environmental studies while she searches for just the right cause to take on.

Catholic Powers: Boston College vs. Notre Dame
Few college rivals are as similar to each other—or as competitive—as the Eagles of Boston College and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Both are large schools with rich traditions, shared faith and splendid professors. In football, where there were once several Division I Roman Catholic schools, there are now just these two. In 17 football clashes, the South Bend school has a 9-to-8 edge. When they played each other for the 2008 NCAA national ice-hockey championship, Boston won 4-1, further intensifying the rivalry.

The schools are so well matched that a bit of gridiron magic can make a difference. Chris Hine, Notre Dame '09, applied to both BC and Notre Dame, and saw much to love. They both had outstanding academic reputations grounded in Catholic theology, which was important to him. They both had committed alumni and attractive campuses. But Hine went with the South Bend, Ind., school because of his memories of watching football with his grandfather, a huge fan of the Irish. "He passed away just weeks before I got my acceptance letter to Notre Dame, but I knew he'd be proud if I went to school there," says Hine, now editor in chief of the campus newspaper, The Observer.

One of every seven students accepted to BC also applies to Notre Dame. Their shared traditions can create tension when someone is thinking of trying the option that kinfolk have rejected. An article in the Boston College newspaper, the Chronicle, told the story of the Camacho family of Lenexa, Kans., with four children enrolled as undergraduates at BC at the same time. The third to enroll, Michael, insisted on also looking at Notre Dame. "That almost tore our family apart," says his older brother Paul, seemingly joking—but maybe not.

Consortium Jewels: Amherst vs. Pomona
The tree-filled campuses, 2,884 miles apart, sit at or near the top of nearly everyone's list of liberal-arts gems. They attract the smartest students, the best teaching professors and the envy of the vast majority of their applicants who didn't get in. But what puts them in a different category from other small schools are the unusual partnerships they have forged with their closest neighbors. Allied with Amherst in its woody section of western Massachusetts are Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and University of Massachusetts Amherst—the Five Colleges group. Tied firmly to Pomona, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles, are the other Claremont Colleges: Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer and Scripps.

At each school, students may take courses at any of the other nearby four colleges. Students regularly eat at each other's dining halls and attend their social events. The Claremont Colleges are right next door to each other, while Smith and Mount Holyoke are a bike or shuttle-bus ride from the others in the Massachusetts cluster. The combination of small-college atmosphere and big-college choices has been a winning strategy for both schools.

The two biggest differences between them are that more people have heard of Amherst, and that Pomona has more sunshine. "There are moments when I really lose out on the ability to sound all obnoxious and snooty about my education," says David Lydon, who chose Pomona despite being accepted by Amherst, which was better known to his friends and family in Connecticut. Now studying law at Stanford, Lydon says the crucial moment was his overnight visit to Claremont: "It was late January, so the weather really beat the crap out of New England."

Stephanie Brown grew up in southern California and, though impressed by Pomona, decided Amherst was the place for her. She liked the changing of the seasons and the different cuisines and accents of the East. "It was like studying abroad without the passport issues," she says. Amherst was particularly active in reaching out to black students like her, she says, with a students-of-color weekend for visiting applicants. She graduated in 2007 and plans to return to California to pursue a career in mental-health care.

About 100 students in 2008 were admitted to both Amherst and Pomona, a competition likely to continue. Amherst changed all of its student loans to grants in July 2007 and Pomona did the same five months later. Each has small classes, with student-faculty ratios of about 8 to 1. Both are going after what Amherst spokeswoman Carolina Hanna calls "the same high-achieving, academically promising applicants regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds."

Science Magnets: Caltech vs. MIT
The pranks never end. MIT still celebrates the 2006 theft of Caltech's Fleming Cannon and its transport to what a press release from MIT itself called "sunny Cambridge, Mass.," where 21 MIT women in bathing suits, looking uncomfortable, and one bare-chested male posed with the catch. Caltech got its revenge in 2008, when participants in the annual MIT Mystery Hunt discovered the puzzle they were working on was a fraud, fooling them into calling a number that announced it was the Caltech admissions office, welcoming all MIT students who wished to transfer to its sunny campus. Who would've thought hardworking geeks and wonks at both had such time on their hands?

The two schools don't have to worry about their reputations. Little Caltech with 900 students and bigger MIT with about 4,000 are both known throughout the world as research meccas that may be producing scientists who someday will solve the energy crisis, explore space and kill off spam in our time. But such minds can't be as creative without some fun. So applicants like to check out the practical jokes—called "hacking" at MIT and "pranking" at Caltech—as inspiration for getting us all to Tomorrowland.

Tim Black, Caltech '11 and one of the perpetrators of the Mystery Hunt hack, was going to such puzzle-gatherings when he was still in high school in Madison, Wis. Some of them lasted two days and had hundreds of puzzles, many of which lacked instructions. He met some Caltech students, saw the campus and decided that was for him. His friend Paul Hlebowitsh, from Iowa City, picked MIT instead. He decided he liked to see the leaves change and concluded the Cambridge school had a bigger and stronger hacker bench. "I don't think Caltech will ever get to our level," he says. But the fake admissions-office phone number, he concedes, "was an amazing hack."

Big Hoosiers: Indiana vs. Purdue
"My grandmother will hate me for this," says Indiana University senior Ben Homrig, "but I have never really liked Purdue." It is not just Grandma, but most of his family are proud Purdue grads, a serious dilemma in what is probably the most deeply divided state in college loyalties. Indiana higher-education officials purposely designed their two major universities to be complementary, not competitive. Purdue focuses on engineering, agriculture and veterinary medicine. Indiana specializes in liberal arts, medicine and music. But that has only aggravated the desire to crush the rival. Homes throughout Indiana have flags that say HOUSE DIVIDED, meaning the family has both IU and Purdue people. "Marriage counselors' eyes light up when they drive past those signs," says IU spokesman Ryan Piurek.

The number of applicants to both schools is huge. About 8,000 students who sent IU their SAT scores in 2007 also sent their scores to Purdue (about a third of total applicants). Hoosiers take pride in the other school's heroes, such as Neil Armstrong, the Purdue grad who walked on the moon, or three-time national champion basketball coach Bob Knight, of IU. But that gets into the ticklish subject of sports, and sparks cries from Purdue fans that over the years the schools have played each other about even in basketball, a religion they all share. In football season, not so big a deal, the two play for the Old Oaken Bucket, a competition that began in 1925 with a scoreless tie and where Purdue leads in victories, 54 to 26.

Sam Killermann, Purdue '09, thinks his school has "more of a scholarly reputation." Homrig of Indiana plans a career in journalism and thinks the IU business connections are superb. Michelle Keesling, Purdue '08, says it is a matter of taste. Do you like Purdue's buildings close together in the urban setting of Lafayette or IU's wide green spaces in Bloomington? Casual Purdue or dressy Indiana? She says it's fun to argue. "When Indiana plays Purdue in a sport, you better believe I'm texting or calling my best friend at IU to let her know if Purdue is winning," Keesling says. "We didn't create that rivalry, but we sure as hell won't let it die."

Midwest Stars: Michigan vs. Ohio State
These two public behemoths do not shrink from the R word. Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and first-year experience at Ohio State, calls her university's relationship with the University of Michigan "the best rivalry in the entire country." U-M spokeswoman Deborah Meyers Greene responds: "Go Blue! Go Buckeyes!"

It starts early for incoming Ohio State freshmen: at orientation, anyone from the state of Michigan is asked to stand for a round of applause. For non-Midwesterners who want a big-school, big-sport environment, it's hard to make a choice between the two. Michigan is usually higher rated academically and more selective, but Ohio State has a strong graduation rate and the advantage, to many applicants, of being in the heart of Ohio's largest city, Columbus, with good shopping and dining and other recreational pursuits.

Partisans of the two schools' athletic glory have difficulty agreeing who has better football. Ohio State has been ranked No. 1 in recent years, but has not won the title in a while. Michigan, less of a contender, evokes the past, as well as other sports. "Michigan remains the winningest football program in the nation, and has more Big Ten titles in all sports than any other conference school," says Greene.

Like most colleges whose endowments soared in the 1990s, the schools have been using the money to put up more facilities. In 2009, Michigan will open a 53,000-square-foot expansion of its Museum of Art. Ohio State has opened a child-care and community center connected to a public school in its neighborhood. But they are also counting down to the next Big Game.

Historically Black: Howard vs. Morehouse and Spelman
Students interested in an education that focuses on African-American culture often give these three schools a close look. Coed Howard in Washington, D.C., has about 7,300 undergraduates. If they were one school, all-male Morehouse and its Atlanta next-door neighbor, all-female Spelman, each with about 3,000 students, would come close to Howard's size. For all three, their prominence in American higher education derives in part from their active and famous alumni. Nobel laureate Martin Luther King Jr. went to Morehouse; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker, Spelman, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, Howard. Many other intellectual, social and economic luminaries attended the schools, and those alums are quick to network with the latest crop of graduates.

The sense of competition is there, but undergraduates at all three schools say they're bound by a respect for the power of the social and political organizations that unite them. Howard sophomore Natasha Metts, walking quickly across the Yard to get to a Spanish class, mentions her work with the Alpha Phi Omega national service fraternity. Morehouse student-government president Chad Mance says his and his college's success "stands on pillars of community service and academic excellence." Former Spelman student-body president Adeola Adejobi, who is now at Cornell's law school, says she gained much from her school's insistence on developing her sense of the world through community service.

Travers Johnson, former managing editor of the Morehouse student paper The Maroon Tiger, credits that emphasis on real-world connections for his internship at the Clinton Foundation and his new job in New York with Random House. All three schools, he says, leave their students with "a consciousness about black issues and a sense of pride," something to share even while they argue over which college is best.

Cinematic Enclaves: NYU Tisch vs. USC Film School
These institutions, both part of larger universities, are formally known as the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. But people in the business usually just say they went to NYU or the SC film school. Both have lists of graduates that feed the fantasies of applicants yearning for shelves full of Oscars. USC claims George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, among others. NYU includes Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese.

Recent graduates say the differences between the schools are clear. USC is bigger and more commercial, a Hollywood blockbuster. NYU is smaller and grittier, an indie film. Jason Shuman, class of '96, loved the opportunity to work while he studied at USC. "If I had class three days a week, I spent the other two days interning at Warner Brothers," he says. He worked for big-time filmmakers and began to accumulate a string of his own producer credits, including "Darkness Falls" and "Daddy Day Camp." Jane Renaud graduated from NYU in 2005, and is where she wants to be, in New York producing news features on education for PBS, while directing a short film in her spare time. Shuman has friends from NYU. Renaud knows USC people. In the end, rivals get along just fine.

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