HOUSTON -- Nature, doubtless with kindly intentions, placed pools of oil beneath Texas, so it became renowned more for refineries than refinement, more for crackling energy than for culture. Yet Houston has one of America's cultural jewels, perhaps the best bargain in higher education.

Rice University is celebrating its 75th birthday, and in three years will celebrate its centennial. Before ridiculing Rice's arithmetic, consider its knack for other numbers.

This is the seventh consecutive year in which college costs have risen faster than inflation. Next year, the cost of private higher education will rise 6 percent: tuition, room, board and fees will be above $18,000 at Brown and Dartmouth, above $14,000 at Syracuse. However, at Rice, they will be under $11,000.

In 1891, William Marsh Rice, a Massachusetts native who made a Texas fortune in cotton and real estate, set aside funds for building a university, but stipulated that nothing was to be done until he died. He was then murdered by his chauffeur, which created a legal tangle unraveled by the chairman of Rice's board of trustees, Capt. James A. Baker, grandfather of today's Treasury secretary.

The board then hired Rice's first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, a 36-year-old Princeton mathematician, astronomer and amateur classicist. His favorite Latin and Greek inscriptions adorn the buildings erected (designed by the architect who designed much of Princeton) during his tenure, which extended past World War II. The first head of Rice's biology department was Julian Huxley. Rice's tradition of excellence flows from what has grown to a $1 billion endowment, 11th largest among U.S. universities, public and private. In per-student endowment, Rice ranks above all but Harvard and Princeton.

Rice's reputation as a science and engineering school (actually, half of today's students are humanities majors) was recently revised by the selection of today's president, George Rupp, 45, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Today, Rice is a complex organism in a hell-for-leather city (Houston does not even believe in zoning laws) that is the capital of American individualism.

Restless 19th-century communities often saw in new colleges and universities a source of rootedness. As historian Daniel Boorstin notes, advocates of new institutions used many arguments, from an anticipated increase in property values to a predicted decline in drunkenness due to the moralizing influence of higher education.

By 1880, when England (population 23 million) had four degree-granting institutions, Ohio (population 3 million) had 37. As early as 1870, at least 11 colleges had been founded in Kentucky, 21 in Illinois, 13 in Iowa. But mortality rates were high. In southwestern and western states, 80 percent of the new colleges died. Even by 1860, 700 had died, nationally.

In the book of photographs published to commemorate Rice's 75th birthday, there are two touching photos that express so much of the American experience. One shows women in white dresses and men in black suits and academic gowns swarming across a dirt field in 1912, where a grove of academe was being commanded to flourish. The other photo shows the administration building at the time of the 1912 opening ceremonies. It is an elegant Italianate structure standing in a flat field in solitary splendor. Its solitariness expresses the confidence of the American West, the certainty that growth will fill in any gaps.

The gaps have long since been filled by some of America's finest collegiate architecture and shaded by the sort of stately trees that, even more than stone, give cities a sense of having a past and a permanence. Those who say Rice is Houston's Harvard should be told that Harvard is the Rice of the Northeast.

Inevitably, discussion of Rice comes to football and this question: What is a nice guy like Rice doing in a place like the Southwest Conference, matching muscles with the likes of Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M? Rice is small (2,600 undergraduates), rigorous (students successfully protested when administrators suggested lighter academic requirements for athletes) and law-abiding (Southwest schools are scofflaws regarding recruitment rules). Not surprisingly, it has been 23 years -- five years before today's freshmen were born -- since Rice has had a winning season.

Rice is resolved to give big-time football the ol' college try, but the stadium looks even sillier than most such structures do in academic settings. It used to be regularly filled to 75,000 capacity, but now often holds crowds of just 15,000. But Rice students, who have been known to try to rhyme ''Rice U.'' with ''slide rule,'' are cheerfully resigned to being what they are. Their football repertoire includes an ''Existential Cheer'':

We're from Rice

Ain't that nice?

Who are you?

Do you know?

Rice knows what it is, and more and more of the world does too.