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.