Small colleges find strength against numbers

Recruiting: Dozens nationwide, including three in Md., unite to woo students and be heard above the rankings.

September 28, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Like pirates boldly attacking a well-defended coastline, 33 college recruiters armed with brochures descended on Boston recently to deliver a brazen message right in Harvard's back yard: Choose us instead.

The pitch came from a group of small colleges -- Western Maryland, Goucher and St. John's in Maryland among them -- on a mission to distinguish themselves in the free-for-all of college recruiting and acquire some nationwide visibility.

At specially marketed fairs around the country, representatives from these colleges try to convince students and parents that the brand of education their close-knit communities offer is worth considering.

It is too early for a verdict, but the schools, which were traditionally appreciated by mostly people in their regions, are gaining interest from students who may not have considered them in the past.

"I would never have seen Goucher," said Edward S. Shmookler of Foster City, Calif., a freshman at Goucher who spoke to the college's representatives at a fair in San Francisco last year. "Everyone at home had never heard of it. They couldn't even spell it."

Adam Motenko, a senior at Brookline High School near Boston, was planning to choose from Boston-area colleges.

He visited the Goucher and Western Maryland tables at the fair here several weeks ago.

"I got a totally different perspective," he said, adding that he is turned off by the mystique of places such as Harvard. "I don't want to go to a place just because of its name."

A college guidebook, "Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools You Should Know About Even if You're Not a Straight-A Student," published in 1996, led to the fairs.

In the book, former New York Times education editor Loren Pope singles out several dozen schools.

They are distinct, he says, because they are small, friendly places where students develop close relationships with faculty, enjoy enormous flexibility in shaping their courses of study, and grow as individuals as much outside the classroom as in.

Life-changing experiences

Pope argues that neither renowned research institutions such as Harvard nor top-rated liberal arts schools such as Swarthmore can offer such life-changing undergraduate experiences because either they are too large or their atmosphere is too competitive.

"This is a message of assurance for the 98 percent of the college population who do not get into the 20 or 30 most selective schools," Pope said.

"These students may not have the SATs or grades to go to the Ivies, but by the time they're seniors, they will do just as well or better."

Pope acknowledges his is a dissenting voice.

After all, few of his schools rank near the top of the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings. But the author complains that those rankings judge institutions based on selectivity rather than on the abilities of their graduates. He compares it to judging hospitals based solely on how sick patients are when they arrive.

A scholarly looking man with snowy white hair and thick-rimmed glasses who speaks on a panel at each fair, Pope runs the Washington-based College Placement Bureau, where he advises college applicants.

To research "Colleges That Change Lives", his third book, he spent months canvassing college campuses, knocking on the doors of students and faculty to chat.

Robert J. Morse, deputy director of data research at U.S. News & World Report, who attended a fair in Chevy Chase and spoke informally with college representatives, defended his magazine's rankings.

He stressed that readers are urged to look beyond the numbers in deciding on a college that fits.

"The evidence is people aren't using the ranking as the only factor," he said. "Parents are not drawing a line at No. 7 and telling their children to apply to one through six."

Most students at the fairs said they hadn't heard of the schools included in Pope's book, and were happy to find alternatives to either more prestigious or better-known state schools they were considering.

"There were a bunch of schools in there that I didn't ever see in the every-college-in-the-world guidebooks," said Brendan Butler, a high school senior from Bethesda at the Chevy Chase fair. "It should have been titled `The Book of Schools Brendan Wants to Go to.' "

A boon

Schools mentioned by Pope saw the book as a boon, and their representatives began traveling on recruiting trips as a group last year. They recently offered "Colleges That Change Lives" fairs in a swing through Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and Atlanta.

At the fair in Boston, which has 65 colleges within or near its borders, they were especially tickled to draw students such as Nia Murrell, a 15-year-old junior at Boston Latin School, often referred to as one of the country's best public schools. Murrell said she was at first hesitant to explore schools too far from home because they might be too rural for a city girl.

"I live in the middle of Boston," she said.

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