• U.S.

Education: Playing Hardball on Admissions

5 minute read
Ellie Mcgrath

Colleges adopt aggressive marketing to draw good students

Harry Chomsky would have been a good catch for any college. A top student at Lexington High School in Massachusetts, especially in mathematics and science, he scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of his Scholastic Aptitude Test. As the son of M.I.T. Linguistics Scholar Noam Chomsky, he could boast an impressive intellectual background. Swarthmore, one of the handful of colleges to which he applied, wrote to him periodically, pointing out the advantages of a small school. When Yale accepted him, the math department sent a congratulatory letter touting the university’s program. Harvard had invited him to a special two-day reception in February, at which he got an extensive tour of the science facilities from top professors. In the end, Chomsky chose Harvard.

Thousands of academically promising high school seniors have received similar wooing, much of it more aggressive than the polite blandishments used by Swarthmore and the Ivy League colleges. Reason: the baby-boom generation has graduated. The number of 18-year-olds in the U.S. declined by 6% this year, and will go down another 20% in the next ten years. Although applications were up this year, admissions officers concede that many high school seniors were merely shopping around at more places. Says Scott Healy, admissions director at Southern Methodist University in Dallas: “It’s really fierce out there. This is the hardest we’ve ever had to work to get a high-caliber freshman class.”

For colleges and universities, sophisticated marketing strategies are becoming the key to survival and prosperity. A number of institutions have commissioned marketing surveys by outside consultants to find their strongest selling points. Once they pinpoint their strengths, colleges are using everything from videotapes to toll-free 800 numbers to capture the attention of prospective students. Alumni have been out stumping for recruits, then manning phone banks to congratulate newly accepted ones. The University of Southern California held receptions in nine U.S. cities during April to lure candidates who had been accepted. Before each occasion, top student prospects (those with a minimum 3.7 grade-point average and 1200 combined SAT score) were invited to more intimate brunches or dinners. While the receptions stressed academics, school officers were usually available to make deals on aid or assign housing; sometimes an Olympic athlete was on hand to talk sports. Perhaps partly as a result, applicants for U.S.C.’s freshman class are up substantially over last year’s, and as of last week the number of accepted applicants making a commitment to enroll was running slightly higher.

Financial inducements are more and more common. Ohio’s Antioch College, recognizing that students now try to cut costs by attending college closer to home, is offering a $1,000 tuition rebate to any Ohio resident who qualifies for admission this year. Nearly 60% of colleges and universities today give financial aid to top students without regard to need. Southern Methodist University offers four years of free tuition (value: $30,000) to students who meet a series of criteria, including SAT scores of 1320 or higher. Trinity University in San Antonio offers as much as $20,000 over four years to National Merit scholars. Trinity attracted ten finalists in 1981, had 54 in 1983, and as of last week had promises from 124 out of a class of 600 for next fall. Is Trinity buying students? Says Admissions Dean Rudolph Gaedke: “We play hardball, but so does everyone else.”

That applies to the students as well. Lisa Yen, 19, a senior in Indianapolis last year, had her choice of Yale, Princeton, Indiana University and DePauw. Says she: “I really wanted to go to Yale, but DePauw gave me a big scholarship to enter their management fellows program.” The program, which combines liberal arts with a semester-long paid internship at a FORTUNE 500 company, is one reason that DePauw’s applications have gone up 30% in the past six years. At Tufts University, Admissions Dean Michael Behnke occasionally gets a call from a prospective student confessing that another college has offered a better package. Says Behnke: “Sometimes the student will be asked to send in copies of the financial arrangement offered by the competing college so Tufts can study it and meet the competition.” Smaller schools that cannot afford to give many merit scholarships tend to lose out in such contests. Says President Patsy Sampson of Stephens College, a Missouri women’s school with an enrollment of 1,100: “Many times we recruit outstanding students who have no financial need, but another college will offer them a substantial scholarship and literally buy them away from us.”

The new hard sell disturbs many administrators. The National Association of College Admissions Counselors has put together an ethics board to review college recruiting. Says Dan Saracino, a N.A.C.A.C. officer: “People are complaining that their colleagues are coming across like used-car salesmen. If we don’t look into this, a Ralph Nader group will.” Some educators believe that the growing student practice of “double booking” (paying deposits at more than one school) should be looked into as well. The practice forces colleges to play waiting-list roulette over the summer, not knowing until fall how many of their students will actually show up. To deal with the problem, some institutions have begun to trade lists of matriculants. Students who have double booked may soon be receiving a less welcome kind of attention from their prospective schools.

—By Ellie McGrath.

Reported by Bill Blanning/Boston and J. Madeleine Nash/Chicago, with other bureaus

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