Competing for Students
Contributed by: Jocelyn Bowie, Susan Green, and Geoff Pollock


   How does a university attract and keep good faculty? One answer is by providing excellent students who push faculty creativity, work in their laboratories, energize other students, and simply make teaching and learning together more fun.

   There's the rub: recruiting excellent students. How do we attract those students in a state-assisted university that is mandated to
Students take advantage of the College of Arts and Sciences Freshman Expo, August 2001.
Students take advantage of the College of Arts and Sciences Freshman Expo, August 2001.
accept all applicants in the upper half of their high school graduating class, where we take pride in a lack of elitism? How successful are we at recruiting high potential/high achievers?

      A whopping 70 percent of U.S. high school students say they plan to go to college - an all-time high. Even with so many college-bound students and increasing data available, recruiting may be more art than science.

      Either way, IU Bloomington is lucky. Bloomington is perceived as a progressive, safe, and attractive community. The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5, 2001, listed IU Bloomington on its "This Fall's Hot Schools" list because of the quality of our academic programs, the safety of the campus, and our Midwestern setting. The campus itself is beautiful and, in the words of many parents and students, "It looks like a college is supposed to look." We have the advantage of Big Ten sports - a huge draw - as well as a large and loyal body of alumni who talk about the joy of going to school here to anyone who will listen. The surrounding forests and hills of Brown County are gorgeous. We truthfully tell prospective students that their dorm rooms are wired for the Internet, that cutting-edge exercise sports facilities are available, and that the world-famous School of Music, IU Theatre, and Art Museum make campus life rich and varied.

      But the driving force that brings undergraduate students to any campus is the range and quality of the academic programs, and here the campus is particularly blessed. Our schools of business, music, education, and public and environmental affairsare ranked in the top tier. Colleges of arts and sciences are too big and diverse across universities to have national rankings, but 28 individual programs and departments in IU's College of Arts and Sciences are ranked in the top 25 in the United States. We offer academic alternatives for all ranges of student achievement. We spend time, energy, and resources to make a large university feel smaller and more personal. Time magazine (Sept. 10, 2001), recognized IU's innovative approach that includes small Intensive Freshmen Seminars as one of the components that improved our retention rate from 80 percent in 1994 to 85 percent this year. Retention of African-American and Latino students has jumped even higher - from 64 percent in 1994 to 82 percent in 2001.

Armies march on their stomachs, and so do students. Dean Subbaswamy takes a break from "Food for Thought" to do a little physics tutoring. From left, Carlo Rouse, Dean Subbaswamy, Tamera Alexander, and Nefertiti Pace.
Armies march on their stomachs, and so do students. Dean Subbaswamy takes a break from "Food for Thought" to do a little physics tutoring. From left, Carlo Rouse, Dean Subbaswamy, Tamera Alexander, and Nefertiti Pace.
   Students look at universities through their own frame of reference, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the very top level students - those with SAT scores of 1,500 or better out of a possible 1,600, the highest class rankings from excellent high school; and strong academic preparation; including Advanced Placement credit - operate in a different world. Bidding wars between institutions can put these students in the enviable position of deciding between several offers of full-ride four-year scholarships.
      How does IU do when recruiting students at this level? It is easier and less expensive, it turns out, to recruit in-state highly qualified students than out-of-state students with equivalent credentials. This is also true in the College, where the following specialized programs attract the best students in the country:

  • Wells Scholars Program offers four-year full scholarship and spending money, including the junior year abroad;
  • STARS (Science, Technology, and Research Program)offers highly qualified and motivated freshmen the opportunity to work in the laboratories of science faculty and be mentored by them beginning the first semester of their freshman year; yearly stipends for research supplies or travel to scientific conferences;
  • LAMP (Liberal Arts and Management Program) combines a major in the College with significant course work and seminars in the Kelley School of Business;
  • MAP (Minority Achievers Program) provides $1,000 to $6,000 a year for highly motivated and well-qualified students from under-represented minorities on campus; and
  • MASS (Mathematics and Science Scholarships) offers $2,000 to $7,000 a year for minority students who pursue majors in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, or physics.

          Indiana University and the College have enjoyed a higher level of success in recruiting "excellent" students - those with SAT scores of 1,300 or ACTs of 30. These students graduate in the top 10 percent of their high schools and, upon acceptance to IU, qualify immediately for the Honors Program. STARS, LAMP, MAP, MASS, and the Direct Admit programs also appeal to excellent students, and they compete successfully for acceptance into all of them.

          As data refines and improves experience, it is tempting to accept theories like: "Once students see the campus, they almost always come here," or, "Offering a scholarship early in the recruiting process makes such a positive impression on students that it almost doesn't matter what the amount of the scholarship is," or the corollary to that, "For out-of-state students, the amount of the scholarship and the timing matter," or, "Minority and international students particularly react positively to early and aggressive contacts by universities."

          Theories, hypotheses, rules, and corollaries aside, the recruiting algorithm for undergraduates seems to be a combination of reputation, the perceived value of the degree compared to the cost, and the look and feel of the campus, including an assessment of the other students.

       Is recruiting at the graduate level a similar story? Michael McGerr, associate dean for graduate education, describes the process this way: "At the graduate level, potential applicants focus on the particular department or interdisciplinary program in their field of interest more than they do on the College or the university as a whole.

       So graduate recruitment becomes mostly the responsibility of the faculty, who rely on the academic reputation of their unit, promotional fliers, Web sites, recruiting trips, and especially recommendations from colleagues at other schools to attract students.

    Dean Subbaswamy and a freshman review College of Arts and Sciences literature.
    Dean Subbaswamy and a freshman review College of Arts and Sciences literature.
    Often a department or program's own PhD graduates encourage their promising undergraduate students to consider IU for graduate school. The evaluation of graduate applicants is not a simple matter. While an applicant's Graduate Record Exam scores and grade point averages are helpful indicators, our faculty rely heavily on the written recommendations from undergraduate teachers, and in some fields, on writing samples from students. Once high-potential graduate candidates are identified, the process becomes intense, time-consuming, and expensive. It is a courtship that takes place among the university, the department, the faculty mentor/major adviser, and the student.

          The stakes are high. McGerr says, "Excellent graduate students are a key sign of the health and strength of any university, and they are absolutely critical to its success as a teaching and research institution." IU Bloomington has traditionally recruited from three pools: Indiana and contiguous Midwestern states, the east and west coasts, and from foreign countries. We have particularly strong relationships with in-state liberal arts colleges, for, as McGerr states, "We provide their faculty; they provide our students." One-third of our graduate students are in-state, two-thirds are out-of-state or out-of-the-country, the reverse of undergraduate statistics. This geographical and ethnic diversity brings strength to the university and to the educational process.

          The costs are also high. The competition for the best graduate students is even more intense than for undergraduates. As in undergraduate recruiting, graduate programs compete by offering candidates financial aid, and the value of aid packages can be very high indeed. A PhD in most fields takes at least five years, and the best candidates receive at least five years of support, including tuition and fees, health insurance, teaching and research assistantships, and at least one year free of teaching to write the thesis. At a well-funded private university, the value of this package, depending on the department or program offering it, could be in the range of $50,000 a year. The most competitive fellowship the College offers is the Chancellor's Fellowship, also a five-year package that covers tuition and fees, insurance, and a stipend, with only the first year free from the obligation to teach. Again depending on the department and program, the IU package will be in the $32,000 to $40,000 range. And IU's packages typically require students to do more teaching in return for their stipends.

          We sometimes lose students to universities with lower academic ranking but bigger fellowship packages. If we meet fellowship package offers from other institutions, we can be confronted with "extras" - signing bonuses, laptop computers, or guarantees of summer support. It's a tough business - costly and time-intensive. According to McGerr, success makes the process even more time-consuming and expensive. When a department begins to attract applications from the top groups of candidates nationwide, the competition becomes much harder to win. "The higher the fruit, the harder it is to pick, and you fall off the ladder a lot while reaching." The fruit, however, is worth it.  

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