The Cultiest Colleges in the United States

The Cultiest Colleges in the United States

Quiz: Have you ever trespassed in order to illegally paint an oversized letter on a hill? Do you find yourself traveling to your football opponent’s town so you can scream at midnight? Have you ever worn a temporary tattoo of your college mascot (or gotten a real one)? 

If you answered “yes,” you’re probably happy to attend a close-knit college full of rituals dating back generations. 

But some universities take it to another level. They go beyond school colors and face painting. They have secret societies. Chanting in unison. Hand gestures that look like gang signs. And your family might joke that they’ll disown you if you transfer to a rival school. 

These schools work to welcome students into their “family” dynamic, and often their tactics are so powerful that students are loyal to their chosen school from orientation until the day they bequeath their estate to their beloved alma mater. 

Some students call it “having a strong tradition.”

But for others, the pressure to participate can feel a little…fanatical. 

Potayto, potahto. If you’re looking for over-the-top community vibes, a near-religious fandom, and a strong alumni network, look no further. These are the cultiest colleges in America.

Big Takeaways

  • True Blue University of Michigan Ann Arbor is the country’s #1 cultiest college. Tops for football attendance, hashtagging their school and graduating students on time. #2 is University of Virginia, #3 University of Florida, #4 Texas A&M, and #5 UCLA. 

  • Southern Charm: 14 of the top 25 culty schools are clustered in the South. With strong Greek systems and community pride, these students are faithful fans.

  • Harvard loyalty lasts long after graduation. You can’t beat the Crimson for its LinkedIn alumni network's strength, coupled with high giving rates.

  • Social prestige rules at Wake Forest. 42.5% of students join a fraternity or sorority for an added sense of belonging.

  • For academic excellence, head to the windy city. The University of Chicago welcomes students into a very elite family, with top SAT and ACT scores in all subjects, and a 90% 4-year graduation rate.

  • ‘Bama gets loud on Instagram and at football games, with the highest school spirit score.

How We Found the Cultiest Colleges

To determine which universities entice students to say they bleed school colors, we made sure to include 2 public, 4-year universities from each state (except Wyoming, which only has one). Then we added the top 50 private universities in the U.S., and analyzed all 198 universities in the following categories:

Community Loyalty 

We scored universities according to their retention rates, the strength and volume of their LinkedIn networks, how much giving contributes to the university’s overall budget, and the average amount of total gifts. Beyond short-term parades and spring flings, this category shows whether a university has the long-term power to win over student hearts.

Social Prestige 

We analyzed the presence of fraternities, sororities, and secret societies, as well as the number of participating students. These in-clubs can promote school spirit. But add a couple of robes, chalices, and a hazing ritual, and you might find that your sense of belonging, as well as your university’s overall cultishness, skyrockets. 

Academic Excellence 

We looked at school graduation rates, SAT reading and writing scores, SAT math scores, and ACT scores. They point to the difficulty of getting accepted, the prestige of belonging, and ultimately, the sense of elitism that keeps students committed. 

School Spirit

Cultishness is most obvious on campus and among current students, not in secret society dungeons or LinkedIn groups. To measure it, we looked at the volume of Instagram engagement on top university hashtags and average football attendance.

Southern Hospitality (and Football) Makes Loyal Students

Here’s the top 25:

  1. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  2. University of Virginia-Main Campus
  3. University of Florida
  4. Texas A & M University-College Station
  5. University of California-Los Angeles
  6. Duke University
  7. Ohio State University-Main Campus
  8. Stanford University
  9. Harvard University
  10. University of Southern California
  11. Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
  12. The University of Alabama
  13. Yale University
  14. Vanderbilt University
  15. Boston University
  16. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  17. University of South Carolina-Columbia
  18. University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus
  19. Wake Forest University
  20. Syracuse University
  21. University of Arkansas
  22. The University of Texas at Austin
  23. Dartmouth College
  24. University of Mississippi
  25. Tulane University

When it comes to being as sweet as pie, Southern schools know how it’s done. Fourteen of the top 25 schools that embrace students and create a strong sense of belonging lie below the Mason-Dixon line. 

Is it geography? Maybe oak-lined walkways make for more appreciative students. For example, students have a lot to be proud of on #2 University of Virginia’s lush campus. Thomas Jefferson designed its rotunda, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

And at #21 University of Mississippi, a shady ten-acre park called The Grove is so appealing that it has become the kick-off point for game-day tailgating parties. As a result, it's been called “the mother and mistress of outdoor ritual mayhem.”

The least cultish college in America, the University of Alaska Anchorage, lies far from competitors, and with an average daily high temperature under 70 degrees in August, lush parks and tailgating parties are out. There’s no football team, anyway (though the indoor hockey arena packs in Division 1 spectators).

More than the weather, a tradition of football victories defines the top schools.

In the South, a strong football culture has translated into community pride not just among students, but for “dirt-road alumni” who never attended college, yet root for the local college team.

References to local heritage dominate many of the winning university teams. At #3 LSU, The “Geaux Tigers” cheer offers a nod to Louisiana’s French Cajun history. #25 Tulane students get time off to celebrate Mardi Gras. And #2 University of Florida students “gator chomp” the competition because the local freshwater predators scare outsiders who dare show up to play.

As the South has gained population and economic clout in recent years, the scope of their local pride has only grown. But they still can’t topple the #1 University of Michigan Ann Arbor. It boasts huge scores in academic excellence and school spirit, proving that Wolverines’ loyalty to the maize and blue runs deep. 

With the second-highest school spirit score, Michigan fans are great at showing up and showing off. Their average football attendance is technically higher than their stadium’s capacity (don’t even ask us how that’s possible). With a capacity of 107,601 fans, Michigan Stadium, also known as the Big House, makes it tough for any team to compete on a level playing field. 

Diverse Instagram posts also show that the entire community is excited to support Michigan. They come from existing students, but also newly accepted students, boasting of their acceptances, locals expressing their desire to beat Ohio State, and even the occasional dog sporting a Michigan bandana.

Loyalty Leaders

Top scores by “Community Loyalty”:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. California Institute of Technology
  4. Johns Hopkins University
  5. University of Florida
  6. Duke University
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  8. University of California-Berkeley
  9. University of Chicago
  10. University of Notre Dame

It’s not always about whether or not you’ve ever stolen a cow in the name of your school: it’s how long that loyalty lasts. 

This category analyzes which universities scored best at building strong and lasting communities that give back, whether handing out jobs to fellow alumni or gifting cash to their alma maters.

Just 4 of the top ten scores in this category make the top 25 overall—the University of Florida, Duke, Stanford, and Harvard. That’s likely because academically-minded schools are busy preparing students for heavy-hitting careers. As a result, they win more students excited to show off their degrees on LinkedIn and poised for higher earnings. That leads to more gifting to alma maters.

The first step to a long-lasting college community is getting students through freshman finals and back on campus for their sophomore year. Every school in the top ten clears that hurdle, retaining between 96 and 99% of freshmen.

For those who stay in the club and graduate, alumni give more, as a greater percentage of university revenue, from the University of Florida than any other school. The average gifts and contributions over the past 10 years total 32.8% of the total revenue. 

But when it comes to identifying as a grad, Harvard has the edge. With over half a million LinkedIn members claiming they attended, Harvard’s network vastly outstrips its current enrollment figures, suggesting that huge numbers of alumni are ready and waiting to help new grads climb the career ladder. As a bonus, that network is one of the highest-earning clubs around: 5% of the world’s ultra-high-net-worth individuals (with at least $30 million in assets) once called themselves Harvardians. If you’re not there yet, making use of Harvard’s proud alumni community can’t hurt.

Social Pressure Cookers

  1. Wake Forest University
  2. University of Mississippi
  3. Tulane University
  4. Duke University
  5. Vanderbilt University
  6. Syracuse University
  7. University of Oklahoma-Norman Campus
  8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  9. University of Arkansas
  10. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

Student societies, from fraternities and sororities to secret societies, have their benefits. You get access to a ready-made group of “brothers” or “sisters,” making membership a sort of club-within-a-club. You might enjoy academic course materials from members who came before. And they come with alumni networks to give you a head start after graduation.

Nowhere do more people find themselves more in these clubs than at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. 

With 28% of undergraduate men in frats, and 57% of women joining sororities, Wake Forest’s women rank #1 for sorority participation (men come in 10th). Though there are no known secret societies, the dominance of Greek life over social life pushes the competitive “Work Forest” to the top of the list. 

Interestingly, not one of the top-scoring universities had a known secret society adding to its score. In this category, a predominant Greek life can cast a wide net over the student body, with frat parties and outfit-of-the-day TikToks taking over many more undergraduate lives than the rare secret society meeting in the dean’s office by moonlight.

It’s also noteworthy that just one university in this category had a higher percentage of men in frats than women in sororities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With a higher male enrollment overall and a scant 1-3% female enrollment as recently as the 1950s, MIT has many more Greek options for men (there are 28 frats on campus) than women (with just 7 sororities). As a result, sororities are typically larger and less personal. With chapter membership lopsided, the benefits for men may outstrip those for women.

Overall, these high-obligation clubs regulate members' time, prioritizing their meetings and events. They compel fundraising, and can cost time and cash. They might increase a student’s sense of belonging, but at schools with high participation, it can also pressure students to join, leaving them on the outside of campus life if they decline.

Attached to Academics

  1. University of Chicago
  2. Princeton University
  3. Yale University
  4. Washington University in St. Louis
  5. Georgetown University
  6. University of Notre Dame
  7. Harvard University
  8. Vanderbilt University
  9. Duke University
  10. University of Pennsylvania

Whereas public universities topped every top-ten spot for school spirit, private institutions swept the top ten in academic elitism. At the #1 University of Chicago, you’ll find at least 25% of the student body averaging a perfect 800 on their math SATs, 780 for English, and 35 out of 36 on their ACTs.

There’s a bright side—the university supports its hardworking students, making sure that 90% graduate in 4 years. That’s not the case across the top ten. Six universities fall below the 90th percentile, with just Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame joining Chicago above that mark. Getting out on time is likely a big boost to student morale and good feelings post-graduation. At $61,179 tuition per year, graduates who spend extra time on campus probably have less opportunity to give back.

All ten category winners give students a coveted spot in an exclusive club. Those who succeed are truly “the chosen.” The University of Chicago accepted just 5.4% of applicants for the 2022-2023 academic year. For Harvard and MIT, that rate is under 4%. 

It all makes a perfect storm for students feeling they have no choice but to stick it out, even when they’re miserable. After all, who gets into their dream college and then walks away? 

Harvard’s residence system compounds the problems of a cloistered life in an academically prestigious university. Almost all undergraduates reside in one of a handful of “houses” where they won’t meet outsiders, but where they will study, eat, and even attend dances within their small house community. Final clubs, which also limit social interaction to a limited in-group, contribute to the problem. 

With so much studying to do, getting support from the outside, or breaking free altogether, can seem impossible. Academic elitism doesn’t simply mean a great education. It creates a sense of belonging that can turn cultish as students struggle to stay insiders to an institution they may have discovered doesn’t support them back.

Feverish Fans

  1. The University of Alabama
  2. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  3. Texas A & M University-College Station
  4. Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College
  5. Ohio State University-Main Campus
  6. University of California-Los Angeles
  7. The Pennsylvania State University
  8. University of Virginia-Main Campus
  9. Florida International University
  10. Auburn University

If you’ve ever used the hashtag, #rolltide, you know you have a lot of company. At #1, The University of Alabama boasts the highest overall school spirit score, and its top hashtags boast over 2 million posts. That’s 369,651 more than the University of Michigan’s top hashtags, and the only school to clear the 2 million tag mark. Posts go beyond game day, too. They include arts festivals, local restaurants, incoming students, and scenes from the Million Dollar Band’s performances. 

Almost as many students are excited to attend games as are showing off their wins on Instagram. With over 100,000 in average attendance at football games over the past 5 years, the University of Alabama comes in 4th in the country.

Looking to really up the cultiness factor? Don’t just root for the home team. Be sure to don your signature houndstooth hat, just like the team’s charismatic leader, Coach “Bear” Bryant. Do it while roasting the other team with the “Rammer Jammer” song.

It’s no surprise that the country’s largest-capacity stadiums nearly overlap with the highest-spirit universities. Did they build the stadium because of their die-hard fanbase or the other way around? Regardless, powerhouse football culture has led to big crowds and enthusiastic Instagrammers at all these schools.  

**Show your school spirit and shop with the latest Fanatics coupons**

Loyal Fan or Crazy Cult? The Line is Where You Draw It

Different universities come with their own brands of “cult”-like loyalty. Academically-minded universities may subtly remove students from their everyday support systems, wrapping them in an insular study hall for four years and making them feel so privileged to be there that leaving can feel like failure. If they transfer, they lose the prestige of an elite degree and all their hard work.

Other universities are easier to leave. Yet they keep students in the fold with a mix of local pride and the promise of belonging. While tailgating, festivals, and face painting seem like more fun ways to be coerced into a chanting mass than 15 hours of studying per day, the result is the same: students feel themselves becoming part of the school community as their past priorities, friends, and family drift away.

Being proud of your school’s academic traditions can feel amazing. It should go without saying that getting into an elite school is a privilege and an opportunity. And joining Greek life can mean instant friends and a smoother ride through college.

But losing yourself and prioritizing any group over your own well-being should be where you reassess how far you’re willing to go to belong.

And if you’re about to steal a cow, maybe it’s time to banish the groupthink and follow that voice inside your own head instead.


We started with 148 public 4-year universities topping the U.S. News college rankings, then added 28 additional universities manually to ensure every state had 2 public, 4-year universities included (except for Wyoming, which only has one public university). Finally, we added the top 50 private universities according to U.S. News, for a total count of 198 universities.

Community Loyalty  

  • Retention rates (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021)

  • Strength of LinkedIn Alumni (Alumni/undergrad population, 2023)

  • Volume of LinkedIn Alumni (LinkedIn)

  • Giving as a percent of university revenue for the past 10 years (National Center for Education Statistics)

  • Average annual monetary value of giving over the past 10 years (National Center for Education Statistics)

Social Prestige 

  • Greek Life presence on campus (College Transitions, U.S. News, and additional research via university websites)

  • Percentage of their undergraduate population participating in Greek life (College Transitions, U.S. News, and additional research via university websites)

  • “Known” secret societies (Wikipedia)

Academic Excellence

  • Graduation Rate (National Center for Education Statistics)

  • SAT R&W Score (National Center for Education Statistics)

  • SAT Math Score (National Center for Education Statistics)

  • ACT Score (National Center for Education Statistics)

Dr. Jessica Share

Author: Dr. Jessica Share

Featured Contributor

Dr. Jessica Share is a former academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy who loves researching issues in higher education and economics. Her writing specializes in data-driven storytelling for studies that bring new insights to the world.