Like a presidential candidate wooing swing voters, Loyola University Maryland has delved aggressively into Virginia, Florida and Ohio selling its focus on the well-rounded student.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has ridden a crest of interest created when U.S. News & World Report deemed it the nation's best up-and-coming university.
The Johns Hopkins University has relied on its image as a bedrock academic brand that can give students a leg up in an ever-fiercer job market.
The reasons might be different, but the three Baltimore-area institutions have all seen unusual growth in applications through the early part of their 2009-2010 admissions cycles. Admissions officers began the 2008-2009 school year with serious concerns about the recession but learned by spring that families remained willing to send their children to expensive colleges. Now, with the nation still on unsteady economic footing, business is good at many Maryland colleges and universities.
"People really do invest in their kids," said John Latting, director of undergraduate admissions at Hopkins. "They really do care about education. It's refreshing."
Some institutions report stable application levels or modest increases, but the gains are greater at Loyola, UMBC and Hopkins.
At Hopkins, binding early applications were up 10 percent to a record 1,155 and regular applications are tracking 13 percent ahead of last year. After an unusual number of students accepted admission last year, Hopkins will aim for a slightly smaller class in 2010. With fewer spots for many more applicants, the university's acceptance rate is likely to decline from about 27 percent to 17 percent or 18 percent, Latting said.
It's mostly a good problem to have.
"Certainly, more is better in the sense that having more talent to choose from is always better," Latting said. "But there's a funny kind of downside when the acceptance rate falls past a certain point. I'm not certain we're there yet. But it can become frustrating when we run across a great kid and we simply can't offer admission."
UMBC will also have to be more selective, with applications up 27 percent and applicants' average SAT scores up 17 points.
"It's looking good," said Yvette Mozie-Ross, the university's assistant provost for enrollment management. "I don't know that you could ever get too many applications."
UMBC has received a public relations hand from several national magazines in recent months. First, U.S. News named it the nation's top up-and-comer and listed it beside Stanford and other heavyweights among universities that care deeply about teaching undergraduates. Then Time named Freeman A. Hrabowski III one of the nation's top 10 college presidents.
"We certainly try to leverage the attention," Mozie-Ross said. "Parents and students are aware of these honors. They mention it on campus visits all the time. It feels like folks are starting to recognize what we already knew, that this is a special place."
UMBC's Web site proudly says "We're Number One" next to a picture of the U.S. News college issue. It's hard to quantify the impact of such attention, Mozie-Ross said, but one possible sign is the 17 percent rise in applications from out-of-state students.
Loyola has experienced an even greater rise in applications: 30 percent more than for 2008-2009 through Jan. 13.
"It's kind of by design," said Elena Hicks, Loyola's director for undergraduate admissions. "We've been working to increase applications outside of our traditional core area. It gives us a chance to put our best foot forward in terms of the class we pick."
Greater geographical diversity fits the Jesuit goal of a well-rounded student body, Hicks said. That's part of the reason Loyola counselors have spent the past four years deepening ties to high schools in Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Texas and Ohio, states with high numbers of college-going students. Loyola has traditionally drawn most of its students from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Hicks said it's hard to quantify the impact of Loyola's recent change from college to university but said that, anecdotally, students and high school counselors seem to have picked up on the new name.
Sharon Higgins, the university's assistant vice president for marketing and communications, said the change is part of a yearlong rebranding in which Loyola has focused on the meaning of its Jesuit roots.
"We really weren't telling our story," Higgins said. "Our advertising talked about specific programs but not the whole value of a Jesuit education, which produces students who are engaged morally and intellectually. Coming to Loyola is about developing the whole person, and we believe that's a powerful message for families."
Latting doesn't have an answer for why Hopkins, with its $55,000-a-year price tag, has become more popular during a deep recession. Counselors are able to reach more families through e-mail, interactive Web sites and social media. Beyond that, he said, tough times have highlighted the importance of a rigorous education.
"It's a tough labor market in which you have to compete hard, and that makes us and places like us more attractive," Latting said. "You compete based on what you know and what you can do, so the places that are known for delivering those tools are in good shape."