by Jack Rieger
When I graduated high school, like most students, I applied to many different universities. I applied to reach schools — universities that I didn’t expect to get into and were way out of my budget. I applied to a few moderate schools, places I anticipated would accept me but were out of state. And finally I applied to a couple safety schools, in-state universities I was sure I could get into and pay for myself.
I ended up going to my safety school. In fact, most students do and it absolutely has its advantages (I’ll get to those later). But at the time, I sort of resented my friends who were capable of attending larger, nationally recognized universities like the University of Arizona, Oregon, TCU, Gonzaga, etc. This past weekend, I finally paid a visit to my friends in Tucson, Arizona for a basketball game in hopes of discovering the advantages or disadvantages of attending a prominent school like U of A.
Here’s the first thing I noticed: Arizona is sexier than Nevada. I’m sorry, but it is. It was 78 degrees in Tucson this weekend. The sun was out. It seemed like everyone subscribed to the same P90x diet. People wore bathing suits. As I’m writing this, there is close to a foot of snow piling up outside of my window in Reno. Are there downsides to having perfect weather? Skin cancer, air-conditioning bills and it provokes naps. But the biggest downside of great weather: it is expensive to enjoy.
Arizona’s out-of-state tuition hovers around $35,000 per year, while Nevada’s is about $19,000. Were Arizona’s infrastructure and facilities significantly better? Is it a remarkably better education? Not really. You could argue that the majority of the difference in tuition is due to weather, and for many people, that’s worth the price.
It’s not exactly fair to compare Arizona’s basketball program to Nevada’s. Countless students apply to Arizona primarily to experience 17 home games a year. Going into Thursday night’s game against Oregon, Arizona had won 49 home games in a row, the longest active streak in all of college basketball. That’s almost three consecutive seasons without losing at the McKale Center. It just so happened that I was in attendance for its first home loss in 35 months. As the kid sitting a few seats next to me put it, “I’ve never seen us lose in person.” For the sake of its basketball team, maybe it was a good thing I didn’t end up going to Arizona.
The McKale Center is an awesome place to watch a basketball game. It’s not really that large of an arena; in fact the Thomas and Mack holds 4,000 more people. But what makes the McKale Center great is the drama and chaos created by the fans, and specifically the student section, otherwise known as the “ZonaZoo.”
Two weeks ago at Lawlor, Nevada beat UNLV in front of a nearly sold-out crowd that had great energy and spontaneity that Reno had lacked for years. The McKale Center was like Lawlor Events Center injected with Peyton Manning’s alleged human growth hormones. And it didn’t happen overnight; it’s the product of 40 years of high-level success, including 32 NCAA appearances, four final fours and a National Championship. Basketball is Arizona’s single greatest sense of pride, and it was evident from the minute I stepped off the plane and saw the Arizona basketball signs hanging in the airport and the countless jerseys worn by fans.
Besides having a notoriously good basketball team, Arizona is also known for being a great party school, which I was able to confirm last weekend. Greek life has an enormous presence, with over 49 Greek organizations on campus (although many organizations have recently had their charter revoked). If you want to regularly attend parties and be plugged into Arizona’s social scene, your only choice is to go Greek, and incoming freshmen recognize this quickly.
The problem for many people is that these organizations place a premium on exclusivity; they don’t want to let just anyone in. They’re after a specific look: attractive, sociable, in-shape and white. This exclusivity and lack of diversity creates a disconnection between Greeks and non-Greeks, and with this disconnection comes resentment from people who are left out and entitlement from those who are included.
Greek life acts as an identifier in Tucson. Just like fans want to support a successful basketball team they can be proud of, students also want to identify with a Greek organization that is highly thought of. So what happens when your friend you grew up with is rejected from the high-profile fraternity or sorority that just accepted you?
At Arizona, if you accept, it probably means you’re headed down different paths, and I think that’s the primary difference between Arizona’s and Nevada’s culture. Greek life is relevant in Reno and has a presence, but it doesn’t have to dictate whom you spend your time with. Nevada does a better job of integrating Greek and non-Greek students and creating a tolerant landscape. Nevada has better balance.
So while Arizona has obvious advantages (basketball, weather and parties), going to Nevada presents an opportunity to graduate with minimal student loan debt, ski and snowboard four months a year, and experience a more diverse group of people.
That being said, it’s hard to beat pool parties in January.
Jack Rieger can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JackRieger.