Colleges' bidding for stars of shrinking student pool gets ever tougher

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Dan Riches, a high school senior in Waukesha, Wis., is in a difficult spot. A straight-A student, he has been accepted by both the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University and cannot make up his mind.

"The guy from Georgetown called me last week and asked me if I had decided," said Mr. Riches, who drove to Philadelphia from Wisconsin with his father, Michael, to tour Penn this past weekend.


"When I told him I was going to visit Penn, he told me: 'You don't want to go there. It's filthy and it's in a rundown neighborhood.' "

His father added: "If you have ever been to Georgetown, you know the neighborhood around their campus is nothing to speak of."


So goes the sniping during the annual spring recruiting contest among colleges and universities, now lasting from mid-March, when many institutions send out letters of acceptance, to May 1, when students are required to respond. In recent years, the competition to snare the best students -- especially bright minority students -- has become more intense than ever as the number of high school graduates shrinks.

The number has been tumbling since 1977, when 3.15 million students graduated, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 1990, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number had fallen to 2.58 million. The center projects that the trend will continue through 1994.

As a result, colleges are using an array of recruiting tools. Faculty members and administrators write personal letters to students already accepted; many universities have students and faculty members call accepted students on the telephone to talk about their specific interests, and others send alumni on home visits to persuade undecided students.

Some, like Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., pay to fly accepted students to campus, particularly minority students, at a cost of $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

Like other Ivy League institutions, Dartmouth this year moved up its date for mailing acceptance letters to April 1 from April 15 to give the college more time to compete with other institutions.

"It's really a crazy period," said Karl Furstenberg, director of admissions for Dartmouth. "And it has become crazier the past several years as colleges do more and more to get students to accept their offers."

For example, financial aid awards, which are supposed to be used primarily to help needy students, are more often being used to entice the best students, without regard to need.

The reactions of the students at the center of this recruiting storm range from amazement at the extent of sales pitches to confusion. "It's amazing how much colleges and universities want us," said Iris Rosenberg, a student from Jericho, N.Y., who toured the Penn campus Saturday.


Miss Rosenberg, who has a perfect 4-point grade average, has been accepted at Penn, Haverford College, Cornell University and the University of Michigan. Penn is so eager to get her that some Penn alumni -- complete strangers to her family -- recently visited Miss Rosenberg's father in the hospital where he was recovering from surgery.

Most recruiting efforts pale in comparison with the campaign waged by a University of Southern California administrator for Daniel E. Johnson, a senior at a high school in Rolla, Mo., with a 4-point average,

At first Mr. Johnson did not even apply to USC. But then he received a personal letter from Tom King, the associate dean of admissions, who included his home phone number. The university had got Mr. Johnson's name from a list of students who had performed well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Mr. Johnson had a score of 1,260 out of a possible 1,600.

So Mr. Johnson called Mr. King at home, and a friendship blossomed. When the student decided to visit USC in Los Angeles, Mr. King took him on a tour of Universal Studios and on a day trip to Mexico. "I have a much better sense of Los Angeles now," said Mr. Johnson, who has added USC to his list of "maybes."

While none of these efforts are illegal, according to higher education associations, they can muddle a student's mind.

"I'm more confused now," said Christian Sowul, a student from Califon, N.J., who is torn between Bucknell University and Penn, where he took the tour Saturday. He said the cost of Penn -- $22,740 a year for tuition, room and board and fees -- might steer him to Bucknell, which charges about $2,000 a year less.


For the cost of Penn, Mr. Sowul said, "I expected to see a little more ivy on the walls."