Private schools heed call of South

The Baltimore Sun

Five years ago, a kid from Reisterstown might have felt out of place at Sewanee, The University of the South, an isolated redoubt of southern gentility where young men wear bow ties to class and young ladies pearls, and professors lecture in academic gowns in the manner of Oxbridge dons.

Today, Matthew Lafferman is just one of many guys who gather Sundays at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house on the rural Tennessee campus to watch the Ravens on television.

"The Baltimore kids are all in SAE," the 2005 McDonogh School graduate said. He's one of 23 Baltimoreans enrolled at the small private college - up from one in 2002.

The enrollment surge in Ravens fans is not accidental, but rather the fruits of Sewanee's five-year initiative to shed its parochial image by seeding word-of-mouth campaigns in a handful of communities outside its core region - among them Baltimore-area private schools.

"This is the way you do it now," said Richard Hesel, a Baltimore-based consultant to universities, of the niche-marketing trend. The strategy is increasingly employed by small Southern colleges that recognize an opportunity to attract students - particularly the coveted "full payers" whose parents can afford skyrocketing tuition - who have traditionally aspired to elite mid-Atlantic and New England campuses.

"If you don't think you can get into that crowded northeast school, looking south is considered a viable option these days," said David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Students are especially receptive, area high school guidance counselors say, to those farther-flung liberal arts schools that offer the clubby trappings of New England academia: a picturesque campus, time-honored traditions, and doting faculty.

One hundred and fifty years after a consortium of Episcopalian dioceses decided to establish a miniature Oxford on 10,000 acres in southern Tennessee, Sewanee had all the right ingredients.

When David Lesesne became admissions dean in 2001, he embarked on an ambitious plan to tap into a select group of what he calls "aspirant markets," among them Greenwich, Conn., the North Shore of Chicago and North Baltimore.

Sewanee was looking for applicants who fit its student profile: smart, but with a grade average (3.4) and SAT scores (1160 to 1330) that are well below what Ivy League and other top-tier schools demand today.

It is in Baltimore where Sewanee has had its greatest success, particularly at the exclusive Gilman School in Roland Park, where it has created a student pipeline that rivals Gilman's vaunted "feeder" relationship with Princeton University. Today there are 14 Gilman graduates at Princeton and 11 at Sewanee, whose student body of 1,450 is about a quarter of the size of Princeton's.

Sewanee identified Baltimore as a desirable market because it contained a happy confluence of what Lesesne calls "market fundamentals:" a cluster of private schools whose tight-knit networks facilitate word of mouth; an enthusiastic alumnus willing to host receptions for prospective freshmen; and frequent non-stop flights to Nashville.

"Baltimore is a smaller market compared to D.C.," Lesesne said. "A kid from Potomac doesn't know a kid from Arlington. But kids from Baltimore know each other, so your word of mouth travels a little better."

To expedite that word of mouth, Lesesne enlisted the help of Charles J. Nabit, a health care entrepreneur and irrepressible Sewanee booster who offered the use of his 40-room North Charles Street mansion for receptions where prospective students could meet Sewanee recruiters.

The mansion helps assuage any concerns of Baltimore parents about sending their children to the Deep South, said Lesesne. "They come in and say, 'Well, someone's doing pretty well from that institution.'"

Even more important, said Lesesne, is Nabit's gushing enthusiasm. "It's the most incredible place on Earth to go to school," said Nabit, a Richmond, Va., native who graduated from the school in 1977, when its formal name was University of the South. (Sewanee, it's longtime nickname, was added to the title a few years ago.)

Nabit's financial generosity to his alma mater is memorialized in a campus building named after him and his wife, but he said his greatest joy is "to cultivate high school students and their families here to learn about it."

The most delicate part of Lesesne's marketing strategy was to finesse the first link in a word-of-mouth chain that would make Baltimore preps feel like they had discovered Sewanee, rather than the other way around.

Enter the "good-kid-cowbell" theory.

"Good kids beget good kids," Lesesne explained. "If you get a couple out of high school, they turn into the 'cowbell' kids. You put the bell on the lead cow and it makes a noise and the rest of the kids follow. And that happened at Gilman."

As luck had it, the assistant headmaster's son, John Schmick, had attended Sewanee in the late 1990s and was teaching history at Gilman in 2002. He became the cowbell.

"So Gilman was the school we broke into," said Lesesne. "And the boys from Gilman know the girls from Roland Park [Country School] and the word of mouth spread like that."

Today, with about two dozen Baltimoreans at Sewanee, there appears to be a whole chorus of cowbells.

Students and their parents are effusive with praise when talking about the place.

"It's really indescribable just how friendly everybody is," said Matthew Councill, Lafferman's roommate and a 2005 Gilman graduate.

"It's absolutely beautiful," said Richard Councill, his father, also a Gilman graduate. "I think it's one of the most beautiful colleges in the United States."

"I'm obsessed with it," said Elizabeth Rogers, a sophomore who graduated from the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. "If I even hear about a girl who's looking at Sewanee, I'll send them a Facebook message and say, 'Come stay with me,'" she said. "I really want people to come here."

Students describe a campus culture that jealously guards its traditions. Members of the Sewanee community call their mountaintop campus "the Domain," and dare not sully its misty air with cell phones or risk incurring the ritual cry from a passer-by: "Save Sewanee!"

Though they don't have to, Sewanee undergraduates "dress" for class, which students say means coat and tie for men, pearls and sundresses for women. Unless, that is, they have a high grade point average and are inducted into the Order of Gownsmen, which earns them the privilege of wearing academic gowns to class, like their professors.

The genteel atmosphere seems to appeal to the prep-school crowd Sewanee draws from in Maryland.

Of the 43 Maryland students currently enrolled at Sewanee, only one attended a public high school. "We haven't been as successful into breaking into some of the public schools," Lesesne acknowledged. "But this is the set right now that we're finding most successful. And when you travel, you have a limited amount of time, so you're going to fish in those places where you've had some success."

Sewanee's focus on private school students is logical, Hesel said, because such students are more likely to be able to afford Sewanee's cost, roughly $37,000 a year. But the college's recruitment success isn't just lopsided in its socioeconomic draw; its seduction of area students is also heavily skewed to just two schools, with 16 out of 23 Baltimore students coming from Gilman and Roland Park Country School.

That makes some people wonder whether North Baltimore's love-affair with Tennessee isn't just a schoolboy crush. The good-kid theory hasn't yet rung any cowbells, for instance, at the all-girls Bryn Mawr School, which shares classes with Gilman across the street.

"Our girls are looking more toward urban schools, or schools in places that have some community outside the school," said Patricia Whalen, director of college counseling there. "I think Sewanee is a fabulous, wonderful school, but it's a really rarified place. Kids who go there have to really want to buy into that very, very Southern traditional thing."

Joan Mudge, the head college counselor at Garrison Forest for more than 25 years, said she suspects Sewanee's success in Baltimore is likely a "wave," not a permanent pipeline.

But Gilman college-counselor Larry Malkus said Sewanee and similar small southern colleges that have been aggressively recruiting here are beginning to establish a legacy in the area, one that will pay off when the baby-boom echo generation passes its college years and the current enrollment boom becomes a trough. "I don't think you're going to see them dip down to where they were pre-boom, said Malkus.

Matthew Councill thinks Sewanee will become even more popular with Baltimore kids when next fall brings another comfort of home: a varsity lacrosse team.

"They're just using that as another tool to recruit people from Baltimore," said Councill, who believes the gambit will work.

"Lacrosse is gonna be a big sport down here," he said. "The other teams in the area aren't very good, and with all the Baltimore people that are coming in, it'll be a winning team."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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