WALTHAM, Mass. -- Like pirates boldly attacking a well-defended coastline, 33 college recruiters armed with brochures descended on Boston recently to deliver a brazen message right in Harvard's back yard: Choose us instead.
The pitch came from a group of small colleges -- Western Maryland, Goucher and St. John's in Maryland among them -- on a mission to distinguish themselves in the free-for-all of college recruiting and acquire some nationwide visibility.
At specially marketed fairs around the country, representatives from these colleges try to convince students and parents that the brand of education their close-knit communities offer is worth considering.
It is too early for a verdict, but the schools, which were traditionally appreciated by mostly people in their regions, are gaining interest from students who may not have considered them in the past.
"I would never have seen Goucher," said Edward S. Shmookler of Foster City, Calif., a freshman at Goucher who spoke to the college's representatives at a fair in San Francisco last year. "Everyone at home had never heard of it. They couldn't even spell it."
Adam Motenko, a senior at Brookline High School near Boston, was planning to choose from Boston-area colleges.
He visited the Goucher and Western Maryland tables at the fair here several weeks ago.
"I got a totally different perspective," he said, adding that he is turned off by the mystique of places such as Harvard. "I don't want to go to a place just because of its name."
A college guidebook, "Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even if You're Not a Straight-A Student," published in 1996, led to the fairs.
In the book, former New York Times education editor Loren Pope singles out several dozen schools.
They are distinct, he says, because they are small, friendly places where students develop close relationships with faculty, enjoy enormous flexibility in shaping their courses of study, and grow as individuals as much outside the classroom as in.
Pope argues that neither renowned research institutions such as Harvard nor top-rated liberal arts schools such as Swarthmore can offer such life-changing undergraduate experiences because either they are too large or their atmosphere is too competitive.
"This is a message of assurance for the 98 percent of the college population who do not get into the 20 or 30 most selective schools," Pope said.
"These students may not have the SATs or grades to go to the Ivies, but by the time they're seniors, they will do just as well or better."
Pope acknowledges his is a dissenting voice.
After all, few of his schools rank near the top of the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings. But the author complains that those rankings judge institutions based on selectivity rather than on the abilities of their graduates. He compares it to judging hospitals based solely on how sick patients are when they arrive.
A scholarly looking man with snowy white hair and thick-rimmed glasses who speaks on a panel at each fair, Pope runs the Washington-based College Placement Bureau, where he advises college applicants.
To research "Colleges That Change Lives", his third book, he spent months canvassing college campuses, knocking on the doors of students and faculty to chat.
Robert J. Morse, deputy director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, who attended a fair in Chevy Chase and spoke informally with college representatives, defended his magazine's rankings.
He stressed that readers are urged to look beyond the numbers in deciding on a college that fits.
"The evidence is people aren't using the ranking as the only factor," he said. "Parents are not drawing a line at No. 7 and telling their children to apply to one through six."
Most students at the fairs said they hadn't heard of the schools included in Pope's book, and were happy to find alternatives to either more prestigious or better-known state schools they were considering.
"There were a bunch of schools in there that I didn't ever see in the every-college-in-the-world guidebooks," said Brendan Butler, a high school senior from Bethesda at the Chevy Chase fair. "It should have been titled 'The Book of Schools Brendan Wants to Go to.' "
Schools mentioned by Pope saw the book as a boon, and their representatives began traveling on recruiting trips as a group last year. They recently offered "Colleges That Change Lives" fairs in a swing through Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and Atlanta.
At the fair in Boston, which has 65 colleges within or near its borders, they were especially tickled to draw students such as Nia Murrell, a 15-year-old junior at Boston Latin School, often referred to as one of the country's best public schools. Murrell said she was at first hesitant to explore schools too far from home because they might be too rural for a city girl.
"I live in the middle of Boston," she said.
She became enticed by Goucher's courses in management and decided Towson was close enough to a big city. Goucher is her first choice.
At Goucher, 56 applicants for this fall's freshman class said the fairs were a reason they applied. Five of the 325 freshmen said the fairs were how they first learned of Goucher.
A new student at St. John's this year came through the program.
And Western Maryland enrolled four students this fall who either read Pope's book or attended a fair.
One of those students is Laurel Pendleton of Palo Alto, Calif., who came for the school's program that trains teachers to work with deaf children. She loves her course in sign language. But being from outside a region that a school mostly draws from brings some hurdles, too. Friends have nicknamed her "California."
"People will say 'I'm from P.G. County,' and I'll say 'That's good but I don't know where that is,' " Pendleton said.
The fairs, usually held in hotel ballrooms, attract about 120 students, who have received fliers from the schools. These have all the ingredients of any other college fair. Bubbly admissions officers talk about class size. Tables are covered with brochures. And high school students -- dressed in anything from jackets and ties to their school volleyball uniforms -- duck away from their parents to avoid their embarrassing questions.
Admissions officers said students coming to the fairs have done their research -- mostly in Pope's book -- and don't ask where a school is or whether it has a Division I football team.
David Murphy, a senior at Washington Waldorf School of Bethesda, was more interested in finding out whether St. John's could offer him computer training, even though the curriculum is more focused on the "Great Books."
Murphy is applying early to Harvard but thinking seriously of St. John's.
"You have in-depth conversations with people who come to your table," said Martha O'Connell, dean of admissions at Western Maryland College. "You develop a relationship. You can pick up the phone and call them, or they can call you. It's much more personal."
Not everyone at the fair was convinced.
Linda Frey, a mother wandering the booths at the Chevy Chase fair, said she would prefer that her son go to a more prestigious school.
"Maybe this is snobby, but I worry some of the kids who could not get into top schools won't have as much to offer," she said. "The name, the prestige of a school attracts students with a greater seriousness of purpose."
, Raising profiles
Admissions directors from the schools at the fairs said they are just trying to get on students' radar screens.
"There are students out there looking for us," said John Christensen, director of admissions at St. John's. "But they don't know we exist."
Pub Date: 9/28/99