Small School, Big Ambitions

Rice, in Houston, offers outstanding science, engineering and music programs.

The coffee table in David Leebron’s office is piled high with books, including a tome on medieval Cairo, but none of them quite represents the point he wants to make. Leebron, the president of Rice University, racks his brain and then takes a crack at the Dr. Seuss title he’s searching for. "What is it? Horton Blows His Horn?" he says. "We have to blow our horn a little louder."

Leebron may be a bit rusty on his Seussology (it’s Horton Hears a Who!), but when it comes to Rice, in Houston, he has plenty to blow his horn about. This small, top-flight institution goes head-to-head with MIT for its science and engineering programs and with Juilliard for music. It boasts a student-faculty ratio of five to one, second only to Caltech. The campus, a mix of Mediterranean-Byzantine buildings (translation: lots of brick and archways), enjoys a prime location near several top medical centers and Houston’s world-class museum district. Rice draws -- and keeps -- outstanding students: 72% of this year’s freshmen ranked in the top 5% of their high school class, and 93% of students stick around to graduate.

Have we mentioned the price? Tuition-free until 1965, Rice remains a relative bargain. Its total annual cost -- $46,321 -- runs $6,000 to $7,000 less than that of many of its counterparts, including Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt. Rice knocks off more than half that amount, on average, for students who qualify for need-based aid. “We have a special, historic commitment to be an affordable university,” says Leebron.

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Unlike most of the Ivies, Rice also offers merit aid, a bonus for students who do not qualify for need-based aid. Lindsay Zhang of Shanghai zeroed in on Rice for its quality, but a merit scholarship covering half her tuition for all four years sealed the deal. "It worked out perfectly," says Zhang, a junior. David Evans, a freshman from Salt Lake City, also liked Rice for its academics, particularly a joint program with the Baylor College of Medicine that guarantees admission to the med school for selected students. A generous Trustee Distinguished Scholarship, plus an award with a $4,000 stipend and an opportunity to do research, gave him the final nudge to choose Rice over Harvard and Stanford. Says Evans, "With all these great things plus the financial aid, it made sense to come to Rice."

Rice acknowledges that it has a lower profile than comparable institutions, a circumstance Leebron would like to change. "We live in a very competitive world. We compete intensely for students and faculty. Being a hidden gem is not a strategy."

After arriving at Rice in 2004, he initiated a ten-point plan that included an $800-million construction program and a 30% increase in undergraduate enrollment. "We thought the student body needed to be more national and international," says Leebron. "It gives us a more dynamic environment, supports a more diverse atmosphere and gives us a bigger footprint in the world."

Six years later, Rice has completed most of the construction, including two new residential colleges, a spiffy glass pavilion and a new recreation center. And it is now within shouting distance of its planned undergraduate enrollment of 3,800. Meanwhile, says Chris Muñoz, vice-president for enrollment, "our acceptance rate is down and the quality of students is high. To achieve what Rice has achieved over the past few years takes commitment from a whole lot of people."

That said, "our conscious decision is to remain a small university," says Leebron. The stay-small approach stems in part from a desire to maintain Rice’s intimacy and close-knit community. But Leebron has another, more selfish reason. "At graduation, I shake the hands of close to 1,200 undergraduates and graduate students. I love commencement, but my hand pays a certain price."

Jane Bennett Clark
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
The late Jane Bennett Clark, who passed away in March 2017, covered all facets of retirement and wrote a bimonthly column that took a fresh, sometimes provocative look at ways to approach life after a career. She also oversaw the annual Kiplinger rankings for best values in public and private colleges and universities and spearheaded the annual "Best Cities" feature. Clark graduated from Northwestern University.