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Recruiting Top Scholars

Luring the most desirable high school achievers boosts the schools’ images and curricular environments. But the goal is to retain the students in Alabama long after they leave campus.

Auburn University’s Allison Doty, seen here talking with students, tries to provide high-ability students with a unique Auburn experience.

Auburn University’s Allison Doty, seen here talking with students, tries to provide high-ability students with a unique Auburn experience.

Photo by Robert Fouts

A few years ago, only two high school seniors in Alabama scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. With scholarship offers abounding, those students had lots of choices. One of them knew he wanted to play a sport and be in a supportive environment. When he came to visit Spring Hill College in Mobile, recruiters connected him with the coach of his chosen sport and facilitated a one-on-one meeting with a professor in his chosen field. With that glimpse of a campus future, the student committed to Spring Hill, despite being hotly recruited by far-flung schools.

“Every college wants to raise its profile and bring in as many of the best and brightest as we can,” says Robert Stewart, vice president of admissions and financial aid at Spring Hill College. “It’s a matter of finding the students who are a good fit for your campus and giving them experiences that will show what your school has to offer. One of the benefits of a small liberal arts school is the opportunity to build strong relationships with professors, so we emphasize that.”

Alabama colleges and universities are all vying to attract top performing students, and successfully recruiting top scholars often requires a tailored process that is unique from general recruiting practices. But institutions say the efforts are worth the rewards.

“Recruiting these students increases our national presence as an institution of choice in the state of Alabama, as well as across the country,” says Mary Spiegel, executive director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Alabama. “It brings an energy to campus and the classroom, as well as attracts top faculty who are interested in teaching bright and motivated students.”

Mary Spiegel, executive director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Alabama

What Is a Top Scholar?

Every university has its own way of referring to leading academic students — they may be called top scholars or honors students — and every university has its own system for determining which students fit into that category. But regardless of how these students are referred to or measured, every college wants more of them on campus.

At the University of Alabama, recruiters consider standardized test scores, grade point average and students’ status as National Merit semifinalists/finalists and National Achievement semifinalists/finalists, Spiegel says.

At Auburn University, top university recruits are measured similarly, by the number of scholarship-eligible students, number of National Merit Scholars, number of students enrolled in the Honors College, and the academic averages of the freshman class, says Allison Doty, assistant director of university recruitment at Auburn.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham simply defines top scholars as “high-ability students that will be successful in the programs we offer,” says Brent Gage, UAB’s associate provost for enrollment management. In preparation for fall 2014, nearly 1,300 students have been invited to be part of the UAB Honors College; these students’ average ACT score is 30.69 with an average GPA over 4.00.

Recruiting Strategies

Colleges and universities use a variety of tactics to attract top students. At Auburn, the Very Impressive Tiger (VIT) program, which has grown exponentially during the past year, “provides high-ability students with a unique Auburn experience,” Doty says. This program offers high-ability students customized campus visits that include meeting with the Honors College, academic units specific to the student’s interests and extra-curricular activities, lunch with a current student and the campus tour. Auburn University also hosts on- and off-campus events and receptions by invitation, and campus partners from various colleges and schools and the Honors College attend these events to meet with prospective students.

At UAB, recruiters tout the university’s many opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research, “which is very attractive to high-ability students,” Gage says. “Students who experience research in their discipline have a better understanding of their subject matter through application and are much more successful in seeking admission to graduate or professional schools and entry into the job market.”

UAB also promotes its location in the state’s largest city, which offers a variety of opportunities for internships in healthcare, business, engineering and science.

Some institutions focus on promoting their special programs for honors students. For instance, the University of Alabama’s Honors College “is a huge draw for top students,” offering opportunities for selective undergraduate research, as well as a strong co-curricular environment, Spiegel says.

Others focus on offering hefty scholarship awards to the top scholars they want to recruit. Last year, Abraham Mitchell, a Mobile businessman and philanthropist, donated $25 million to endow enhanced and new academic scholarships at the University of South Alabama (USA). (Mitchell also donated an additional $25 million, which will support the University’s Mitchell College of Business.) As a matching gift, the donation will create a scholarship endowment of $50 million to help in recruiting more top students.

“USA already has one of the most generous academic scholarship programs in the state, currently awarding approximately 3,600 scholarships each year,” says Christopher Lynch, interim director of enrollment services at USA. “When fully mature, the new scholarship fund established by Mitchell is expected to create up to 2,000 additional scholarships, bringing the university’s total number of scholarships awarded annually to some 5,600.”

Christopher Lynch, interim director of enrollment services at the University of South Alabama

Measuring Results

As a group, Alabama colleges and universities are successful at recruiting top students. At the University of Alabama, for instance, 20 percent of the 2014 incoming class is enrolled in the university’s Honors College, and the university is ranked in the top three schools in the enrollment of National Merit finalists.

At Auburn, the average GPA is 3.75 and the average ACT score is higher than 27.  “We bring in a strong freshman class each year and maintain a high number of National Merit scholars,” Doty says. “Our Honors College has grown over the past several years and our students are applying for and being awarded prestigious scholarships” — Fulbrights, Goldwaters and more.

UAB has been especially successful in recruiting top students who want to pursue a career in health
care, Gage says. “UAB has been very successful in positioning ourselves as an institution of first choice in the state,” he adds. “Many high ability students considering UAB are choosing from institutions such as Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. Especially for students serious about a future in health care, the path to a career begins at UAB.”

And at USA, nearly 49 percent of the most recent freshman class entered with a presidential scholarship. Students earned those scholarships by excelling in high school, as well as on the SAT or ACT. Last fall, 125 of USA’s presidential scholarship award winners earned a 30 or higher on the ACT. “The number of high ability students attending USA grows each year,” Lynch says. “These students are looking for universities that offer competitive programs in a ‘high touch’ environment with world class facilities.

Students also want to be surrounded by faculty who are leaders and innovators in their respective professions. We feel strongly that USA offers these advantages that distinguish us from our competition.”

Impacting Campuses

When Alabama colleges and universities successfully recruit top students, those students make a powerful impact on their campuses, spurring the state’s academic institutions to continuous improvement. “Highly motivated students impact the learning culture of a campus,” says UAB’s Gage. “Our faculty has high expectations of our students, and students must be engaged and work very hard in their academic program to be successful. We are proud to consider our student body a community of scholars.”

“High ability students aren’t just shining in the classroom; these students are also making an impact on all parts of campus culture,” says Auburn’s Doty.

Finally, successful college recruiting of top scholars translates into stronger economic prospects for the state. “Enrollment and retention of our state’s high ability students is critical to providing the human capital needs of our state and region,” says USA’s Lynch. “Migration of these students out of Alabama occurs at a disproportionate rate, and retaining these students during their college years leads to more of an opportunity to keep them in the state as graduates and productive citizens.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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