Joy Pansini went shopping for colleges this year and found the colleges shopping for her.
The 18-year-old senior at the Institute of Notre Dame applied to 11 schools, visited 10, gained admission to nine. All nine offered her scholarships and other inducements if she'd sign up:
From Virginia Tech, a laptop computer if she'd choose the Blacksburg, Va., school. An offer of free instrumental music lessons came from the University of Delaware. From the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the prospect of overseas study trips with like-minded honors students.
Pansini, who graduated from IND on Sunday, chose UMBC because the Catonsville university offered her the ultimate inducement: a full scholarship for four years, small honors classes taught by senior faculty and the opportunity to do serious research as an undergraduate.
She learned, Pansini said, that colleges can be like banks seeking depositors. If a set of dishes or an all-weather cooler might tip the balance in favor of opening an account, the prospect of a subsidized study trip to Ireland might tip the balance in favor of Anywhere University.
Higher education experts say more and more colleges and universities are courting bright students not only with merit scholarships that amount to sticker-price discounts, but with inducements such as those offered Pansini. And unlike the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association governing the recruitment of student athletes, practically anything is fair game in recruiting brains.
A lot to offer
There are other come-ons: Some schools waive application fees, pay campus meal costs and offer still-undecided high school seniors free tickets to athletic and cultural events and even free parking on campus.
Numerous schools, including the University of Maryland College Park, reward National Merit Finalists, the top 1 percent of high school graduates, with scholarships ranging from $750 to $2,000 (depending on need) in return for being the finalists' first choice. (The University of Alabama sweetened the pot this year with the offer of a laptop computer to Merit Finalists.)
One reason the bidding war is so fierce is that the ranks of high school graduates have decreased from 3 million in 1980 to 2.5 million this spring, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. And students are applying to more colleges -- as many as 15 or 20 -- in part because they are aware they can shop for the best deal.
But the biggest factor may be the serious entry of low-cost public schools in the bidding sweepstakes. "The competition for high-achieving students has always been intense, but with the public universities seriously pursuing the same students, it's incredibly intense," said Kevin Coveney, vice president for admissions and enrollment management at Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
"What you're seeing is a lot more competition for a pool of students that hasn't expanded," said David Merkowitz, director of public affairs for the American Council on Education, higher education's umbrella trade group.
"Higher education is interested in quality, and that goes for public and private colleges, across the board. The publics are in there fighting now for the same students who used to go to the prestigious high-priced privates."
Washington College has countered the competition from public universities in Maryland and Delaware, among others, by offering $10,000-a-year scholarships to high school members of the National Honor Society. Half of the freshman class has won such "Presidential Scholars" discounts, said Coveney. "The program is intended to help us compete to the broadest possible extent."
Winners of John Marshall Scholarships at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., get a generous merit scholarship, a grant toward the purchase of a computer -- and are eligible for up to $3,000 for "travel and/or talent development."
"They can study classical ballet in Russia if they want," said an F&Mspokeswoman.
Laptop computers were a "fairly common offer" in his search for a college, said Aaron Bodoh-Creed, 17, one of the top graduates this spring from Howard County's Oakland Mills High School. Bodoh-Creed, a National Merit Finalist, turned down Cal Tech and Stanford, among others, to enter the honors program at the University of Maryland College Park.
Despite scholarship and loan offers from several private schools with yearly costs of nearly $30,000, Bodoh-Creed said, he grabbed at College Park's offer of "a free ride plus a little." His middle-income family, he said, is in that "unfortunate niche where we don't get a whole lot of scholarship aid, but we can't pay the whole bill, either."
California State University, Long Beach, using private funds, offers full scholarships to any California high school valedictorian.