When she was a senior in high school, Ellie Norton toured about 15 college campuses with her mom. But the moment they drove up the hill at Kenyon College, in Ohio, she knew her search was over.
"It was so amazingly beautiful," says Norton, now 21, and a modern languages major at the school. "I just knew it was where I wanted to be."
What appealed to Norton about the tiny liberal arts college were the sweeping trees, the vast expanses of green and the way classic Gothic architecture blends in with the Midwestern-style houses on campus. "It's like the old part of campus has taken in its surroundings instead of alienating them," she says. "It feels like the campus is really part of Ohio."
Kenyon isn't just a looker compared to Midwestern neighbors. It's one of the best-looking campuses in the world, according to a panel of architects and campus designers interviewed by Forbes.
Architect Mike Evans, of the firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas in Norfolk, Va., which has worked on campuses worldwide, says it's easier for smaller campuses like Kenyon College or Scripps College to stay beautiful and charming "without the pressure of large-scale change."
For larger universities, a "clear diagram of organization" and "a continuity of materiality" are key to safeguarding their beauty, says Evans. Schools like Stanford University and the University of Virginia have painstakingly managed to maintain their distinct aesthetic and true sense of place, despite extensive growth.
Judge Natalie Shivers is currently overseeing the growth of another of our panel's favorite campuses, Princeton University. This classic American campus is "straight out of central casting," she says, pure collegiate Gothic, most of it executed in ivy-covered gray stone.
The University of Oxford made every architect's list, including that of David Mayernik, a professor at Notre Dame's School of Architecture. He calls the 11th Century campus, with its maze of cloisters, archways and pathways, "an architectural wonderland."
Kevin Lippert, publisher of the Princeton Architectural Press, which publishes the prestigious Campus Guide series, finds beauty outside of the Ivy Leagues.
Lippert put the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs high on his list, calling the campus, which was built in one fell swoop in the 1950s, "a tour de force of modern architecture." The Colorado Rockies as a backdrop doesn't hurt.
A powerful landscape can play a significant role in establishing a campus' character, says Aaron Schwartz, a principal at Perkins Eastman, a global architecture and urban design firm. The University of California at Santa Cruz, perched over the Pacific, is blessed with some good natural setting "genes," he says.
Sometimes a school benefits from its location in an urban environment, instead of mountains or ranch lands. The University of Bologna's campus is a city that dates back to the Roman Empire.
Most campuses deemed "beautiful" boast a "signature campus space," according to architect Mike Evans — an area that really defines the campus and its brand, like Thomas Jefferson's Lawn at the University of Virginia.
At Kenyon College, the signature space is a 10-foot-wide trail called The Middle Path, which doubles as central artery and village green for the campus. "In the fall," says Ellie Norton, "there's no place like it."