SALISBURY -- When poultry magnate Frank R. Perdue was approached by Salisbury State University some years back and offered an honorary degree, he said he would have to think about it because he didn't lend his name to just anything.
Today his name is about to be emblazoned in big letters on the business school he endowed. And anyone who says that money can't buy happiness has not been to Salisbury lately.
Here in the land of pleasant living, as Eastern Shore residents like to call their part of the world, local residents have poured millions of dollars into the public university, and smiles abound as the once-endangered school's endowment and reputation soar.
After moving ahead steadily for a decade with little notice from outsiders, the campus found two weeks ago that its freshman class had the third-highest college entrance test scores of any Maryland public university. The average combined math and verbal scholastic aptitude test score was 1,019 of a possible 1,600, up from 848 a decade ago and well above the national average of about 900. Only the University of Maryland at College Park and St. Mary's College did better.
And thanks in no small part to Mr. Perdue, who set the yardstick for other alumni, beginning with a $2.5 million gift in 1986, the university is about to be listed in an exclusive group of 300 schools with the largest endowments for their size. Three of the university's five schools have been endowed with multimillion-dollar gifts in recent years, and university officials are courting potential donors for the other two.
"It would be old hat if it were going to [private] Western Maryland, Hood or Goucher," said Thomas L. Erskine, professor of English.
How Salisbury managed to edge out the larger and more visible campuses of Towson State (average SAT of 1,001) and the University of Maryland in Baltimore County (1,016) in the numbers game is a tale of money, hard work and geography.
Some people here credit what they call a community tradition of giving back something -- a spirit that is largely responsible for what is now a $10 million endowment. (By comparison, Towson's is $855,112 and UMBC's, $449,244.) The endowment is providing an edge that officials say the university needs by enabling it to offer scholarships, a key part of its strategy to enroll better students. It also has been used to renovate buildings, buy equipment and fund faculty research projects.
Another reason the university is attracting better students is an aggressive recruiting campaign, particularly in New Jersey, an "exporter" of college students that accounts for 10 percent of Salisbury's freshman class this year.
Rainy August days, when parents and children who are vacationing in nearby Ocean City swamp the campus, also could have something to do with it. "Once we get people on campus, we have a pretty good chance of getting them," says Admissions Director M. P. Minton.
Others say the university's new standing is partly a recognition of growth on the Eastern Shore and partly the work of President Thomas E. Bellavance, who helped bring Salisbury's qualities to public attention.
"We were just as good 10 years ago as we are now," said Tom Jones, chairman of the biology department who, like other faculty here, credits the president with improving Salisbury's image.
No longer do people think of Salisbury as a backward rural college, he says. Among other things, the last three years have brought along a university-based classical-music public radio station featuring National Public Radio, a series of nationally known speakers and an $11.5 million student center.
Add to academic programs the climate, the nearby beach, a clean campus, freshman orientation organized around bicycle and canoe trips, and a low crime rate, and you have ingredients that appeal to parents and children alike, officials say.
The students themselves said in recent interviews that they were attracted by money, ambience and personal attention.
"A whole bunch of deans called me," said Kate Previti, who graduated 10th in a class of 300 at her Absecon, N.J., high school and scored 1,170 on her college entrance tests. Ms. Previti also was attracted by a full, four-year scholarship in the Franklin R. Perdue School of Business. She is part of what may be a trend nurtured by schools like Salisbury: a good student who doesn't want the pressures of a Harvard or Penn State and who appreciates the ambience of a small school.
David Hooper of Bel Air, whose SAT score of 1,320 made him a Maryland distinguished scholarship winner, said he was impressed when he got to meet the head of the biology and business departments when he showed up for a campus visit. He noted, "They offered me a lot of scholarships."