COLLEGE PARK -- Acceptance letters went out this month to high school seniors who will make up a college freshman class with average test scores in the top 5 percent and enough advanced courses that their grade point average exceeds 4.0.
The 700 students will not be attending an Ivy League school. They will be enrolled in the highly competitive Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.
With the high cost of private schools driving more top-flight students to state universities, virtually all major public schools are responding with programs to challenge the best and the brightest. UMCP's Honors Program, in particular, is receiving national recognition for delivering a top-rated education at a bargain price.
The program is a key element in the campus' much larger ambitions to move into the upper echelons of public universities nationally, in part by trying to create small-college-type intellectual communities within a big university campus.
The College Park program was featured in last year's U.S. News and World Report guide to colleges and given a top ranking in the 1994 book "Ivy League Programs at State School Prices."
It has had a dramatic impact on the campus, raising the quality of UMCP's freshman classes.
"It's a very highly regarded program," says Robert Spurrier, an Oklahoma State professor who heads the National College Honors Council. "College Park is one of the growing number of state schools to realize you can offer a very high quality of education to top students with the selling point that they will pay state tuition."
Katie Venanzi, a senior biology major from Towson, went to UMCP particularly because of the Honors Program. Recruited at many schools to play soccer, she had applications out to Yale, Duke and George Washington -- among others -- when she was accepted to the Honors Program.
"Once I came down here and visited and saw what this program was about, I wanted to come here," she says. "I didn't even pay attention to those other applications."
With top students like Venanzi, that's happening more and more -- in large part, says Maynard Mack, the Honors Program director, because of the "sticker shock" from the four-year tab at elite schools, which can total more than $120,000, vs. $45,000 for a Marylander at UMCP.
The average SAT score of freshman Honors students at College Park has risen from 1,340 in 1996 to 1,410 last fall. "This is about as strong an entering class as you'll find anywhere in the country," Mack says.
Douglas Lewis, curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Arts and an adjunct faculty member in the program, adds: "I have taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Berkeley, Bryn Mawr and Georgetown. Apart from a couple of graduate students at Berkeley and maybe one at Hopkins, these are consistently the best students I have ever taught."
That's having a big impact on the campus as a whole.
Add the 700 freshmen in the Honors Program to the 900 entering a second program for slightly less highly ranked students -- called College Park Scholars -- and they make up more than 40 percent of the campus' freshman class of 3,850 students.
The effect on UMCP's overall freshman class has been dramatic. Linda M. Clement, director of undergraduate admissions, reports that in 1988, 193 freshman had scored higher than 1,300 on the SATs. By 1998, such freshmen numbered 1,061.
Average high school GPAs for the entire UMCP freshman class show a similar trend -- 2.98 in 1988, 3.45 in 1996 and 3.54 in 1998.
`Very best students'
"These programs set the pace for the entire undergraduate education experience here," says University Provost Gregory Geoffrey. "They attract to the campus the very best students and their presence enriches all the students."
Mark Tervakoski, a junior from Silver Spring, is the type of elite student drawn by the Honors Program. He had his heart set on Duke or the University of Virginia, but then was accepted to the Honors Program and awarded a Banneker/Key scholarship that pays all his college costs for four years.
"My parents said I was coming here," Tervakoski says, because of the savings. "I was upset. But it's been a wonderful experience."
On paper, that experience looks like a modest addition to students' transcripts.
Its only requirements are five semester-long Honors courses -- three of them seminars open only to Honors students -- during the first two years of school and a special one-credit course taught by upper-level Honors students. Students who maintain a 3.2 GPA receive an honors citation at graduation.
But beyond these requirements, the Honors Program functions as an intellectual community within the larger university. "The Honors Program is sort of like our Greek organization," says Chad Milan, a sophomore from Annapolis, likening it to an academic fraternity.