Keeping The Best And The Brightest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stacey Shedaker is every college admissions officer's dream. Ms. Shedaker, a senior at James Bennett High School in Wicomico County, is a three-sport varsity athlete with a grade point average above an A-plus. Her Scholastic Assessment Test score sits at 1420. She volunteers at a home for the elderly. She's co-president of the Bennett High chapter of the National Honor Society.

She has been courted by some of Maryland's finest schools. But she's headed to the University of Richmond, which has given her an Oldham Scholarship, a full free ride plus the promise of a year of study abroad. "I just like the idea of the private education," said Ms. Shedaker, who lives in Hebron, just outside Salisbury. "I feel like most of the students there are on the same academic level as myself."

It is this thinking that leads many of Maryland's young stars out of state to private colleges such as Princeton, Wellesley and Emory and public schools like North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. Even less well-known schools like James Madison University in Virginia, Drexel University in Pennsylvania and Drew University in New Jersey hold more cachet for many Marylanders than schools in their own back yard.

It is this thinking that drives state officials like University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski batty.

"A disproportionately large number of very high ability Maryland residents either do not consider going to Maryland public universities or simply end up going out of state," Dr. Hrabowski said. "We're paying our taxes to support these institutions. Maryland should take pride in that which is ours."

But Maryland has never paid as much money or attention to its public universities as states like Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin, whose flagship schools command as much respect as the ivy-encrusted campuses of New England. And state officials worry about a "brain drain."

"Every state wants to keep its most agile minds in-state if it can for economic, cultural and social reasons," said Maynard Mack Jr., director of the University of Maryland College Park honors program.

Ms. Shedaker was accepted everywhere she applied, and Maryland colleges want her. Badly. She was offered full scholarships to UMBC, Towson State University and Salisbury State University, and partial scholarships to Loyola College and University of Maryland College Park.

In addition, UMBC and UMCP accepted her into their honors programs. And with the Maryland Distinguished Scholars program, the state would give her an additional $3,000 each year for four years -- no strings attached -- as long as she decided to attend college somewhere in the Free State.

Money looms large in Ms. Shedaker's decision, a fact that led her to drop Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Wake Forest University in North Carolina, her first choice. This might appear to tip the scales toward UMBC, a school she finds appealing where tuition stands at a fraction of Wake Forest's cost. No such luck. Richmond trumped UMBC with an all-expenses-paid scholarship.

In Virginia and North Carolina, many top high school seniors yearn to attend the major state universities. In Maryland, the public campuses are often the fall-back choice for the brightest students.

"It's hard to say you want to go to [the University of] Maryland when everyone in your class is going to the Ivies or schools like that," said Rachel Lerner, a senior at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. Her first choice is the University of Pennsylvania. But she says that concerns over costs may lead her to enroll at the University of Maryland, where she has been accepted into the honors program.

"My daughters grew up on the College Park campus and they respected it, but they sure weren't going to college there," said Washington College acting president John Toll, the former president of the old University of Maryland system. "Generally, it's true that good students are going to want to go away from home."

Of 20 National Merit Scholarship finalists from Towson High School in the past five years, college guidance officials could only identify one who attended College Park. Not one Towson High merit scholar finalist attended any other Maryland public campus in that time.

Prestige plays a big part in that dynamic.

"We will always get a couple of kids who want to go to Duke," said Benjamin Petrilli, head of the college guidance department at Towson High. "They could get full rides at a place like Loyola -- above an 1100 on the SATs, and a 3.0 [grade point average] or higher -- but the kid will choose to go down to Duke. If that's where you want to go and you're willing to pay the extra money, fine."

In interviews, Maryland students said the prestige of their alma maters may determine what doors open for them in the job market or graduate and professional schools.

That feeling is not peculiar to Maryland students. A comprehensive fall 1994 survey conducted by researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles asked American college freshmen for the "very important reasons" why they selected their colleges. Only 21 percent of students said they wanted to live near home, while another 21.7 percent said the school had a good social reputation.

By contrast, 48.8 percent cited their schools' "good academic reputation," and 42.3 percent said it was very important that the school's "graduates get good jobs." Because of long-held perceptions, all of this points many students out of state, particularly to private schools or high-profile public campuses elsewhere.

But it doesn't have to work that way.

In 1987, Deborah Thompson was second in her high school class Huntingdown in Calvert County, the first in her family to go on to college. Only with a slew of partial scholarships could she afford to attend UMBC and enroll in its honors program. At first, she doubted her decision, thinking it would limit her horizons. But she took advantage of the school's offerings, taking an intership at the state legislature and volunteering at the House of Ruth for battered women.

And Ms. Thompson went on to Yale Law School, often considered the country's best, where she earned a spot on the prestigious Yale Law Journal. She is now an associate in civil and commercial litigation at the Baltimore law firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver. "If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't change my decision," Ms. Thompson said. "I have a $70,000 debt to Yale. I can't imagine having any more debt. I'm living paycheck to paycheck."

Dr. Hrabowski can rattle off the resumes of other similarly successful recent UMBC graduates -- students accepted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, to University of North Carolina law school, to graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And Ms. Thompson's story fits in perfectly with Dr. Hrabowski's finely honed sales pitch: "Listen, we gave you a good scholarship to come here, we'll give you a great education, and we promise you we'll get you into a big-name school."

The 1994 UCLA study showed that 29.6 percent of students said it was "very important" in selecting their colleges that they were offered financial aid, about twice as many who said so in 1981, the first year the survey was conducted. Total annual costs at UMBC, for example, reach $8,000 a year, while they are climbing toward $30,000 a year at the University of Pennsylvania and other Ivy League universities.

In that sense, the recession which hit the state in 1990 has been the public campus' strongest selling point for many Maryland families. But many lesser-known private colleges, like the University of Richmond, have used merit scholarships as a way to offer deep discounts to attract elite students.

Maryland is a net exporter of college students. In 1992, Maryland had 3,102 more students leave the state than enter it for college, the fifth largest such gap in the nation. To look at it another way, consider that 35 percent of 1992 Maryland high school graduates who were attending four-year colleges had enrolled at campuses out of state.

Those who leave are more likely to be high-achieving students, some state officials contend, which they find disturbing. The numbers supporting this contention are not definitive, and no state agency tracks the so-called "high achievement" seniors to see where they apply to college or where they attend. But concern lingers.

The Maryland Distinguished Scholars program offers $3,000 ,X annually for four years to 360 top-flight high school seniors such as Ms. Shedaker if they go to college in Maryland. Yet of the finalists for the program last year, 70 percent indicated they would go to college elsewhere, although they had actively sought the Maryland scholarship.

Even so, Maryland academic officials like to say they are turning the corner on the problem.

At College Park, administrators have consciously worked to make the campus more attractive to strong students. The school woos merit scholars under the Banneker-Key scholarship program more aggressively than ever before. And students offered the Banneker and Key merit scholarships at College Park last fall accepted at significantly higher rates than in years past.

In 1990, the school cut back its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent -- a move that angered many Maryland high school principals but meant that entry is now seen as more of an accomplishment than a right.

What the university offers to students is also stronger, despite a sharp decline in state funding five years ago, faculty members said. Last fall, College Park opened its College Park Scholars program, which appealed to high-ranked students who fall just under those in the honors initiative. It promises immediate access to smaller classes, with an intense focus on selected majors or areas of study. It shares the philosophy of the honors program -- to "make the big store small," in Dr. Mack's words.

Slightly less than one-fifth -- 19.3 percent -- of all students admitted in 1993 to College Park who would have qualified for the College Park Scholars decided to enroll at the campus; last fall, the first year of the program, the percentage soared to 36.3 percent, according to Nancy Shapiro, director of the program.

"If my next son decided to go to College Park, I'd be very happy, because I know he could get a great education," said Iva Turner, the Bryn Mawr School's director of college guidance.

UMBC has taken quantum leaps in its three decades of existence to carve out a niche as a center of excellence within the University of Maryland system. That move has been accentuated in the past five years with its designated emphasis on science and engineering. The Meyerhoff Scholarship program has not only attracted top black students in those fields, but it has garnered the Catonsville campus national attention. UMBC has also initiated other scholarships for high-flying young scholars of all races in the arts and in the humanities as a counterpart for their peers in science.

And for those who do not seek the big-school environment of College Park, UMBC has become a first choice among in-state campuses for many students.

But for many top students, Maryland remains a tough sell.

At the Gilman School, a private all-boys school in northern Baltimore, 15 students from the past four graduating classes enrolled at College Park and 11 at Johns Hopkins University. Another 11 students in the past four years enrolled at Loyola, Goucher, UMBC and Washington College combined. But 16 enrolled at Princeton, 15 at the University of Pennsylvania, 11 at the University of Virginia, 11 at Vanderbilt, 11 at Duke -- and these students are, in general, the highest academic performers.

Dr. Hrabowski expressed frustration that public perception does not grant enough respect to Maryland campuses. But neither the state's history nor its recent past supports the notion that Maryland government officials give top priority to higher education.

In the past 16 years, Maryland's funding of higher education per student has declined 13 percent once inflation is taken into account, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The national average, which reflects both a general decline in governmental support and several recessions, dropped 10.8 percent in that time. But North Carolina, a state to which Maryland often compares itself,

increased funding adjusted for inflation 10.7 percent.

"We're twisting our priorities around," said Robert Sweeney, a research analyst for the state colleges association who is a Maryland resident.

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