Julia Pasztor has had her pick of schools.

The Everett teen, born in a refugee camp to Hungarian parents, graduated third in her class at Mariner High School with a GPA of 3.91. She speaks German. She was a class officer. And she is an accomplished equestrienne—English style.

An admissions counselor with Washington State University noticed the brown-haired Julia her sophomore year, when she stopped at his table during a college fair. “Her interests were right in line with WSU,” says Kris Baier ’98. And she was enthusiastic about finding the right college.

Julia attended her first college fair as a freshman. The recruiters just looked at her and asked, “Are you lost?”

By the time she was a sophomore, they regarded her more seriously. And in her junior year, it became a series of courtships. She caught the eye of Randolph-Macon College, a private school in Virginia. The school wooed her and even flew her across the country to visit. Other schools sent her applications, regular e-mails, and occasional phone calls.

Julia is a Washington Achievers Scholar. The honor means that on top of her other scholarships, she gets money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a program developed to help children from low-income families pay for college.

She’s got her future all figured out. She wants an affordable college experience away—but not too far—from home. She’d like to study animal science and eventually become a large-animal veterinarian.

Kris Baier saw her as a good candidate for WSU. He explained what she would get in Pullman and answered her questions about essays and references. After Julia considered dozens of schools, she made WSU her first choice.

Colleges and universities are spending thousands to recruit students like Julia. According to one recent survey, public schools spend about $75 per student recruited. Private schools pay in the range of $2,000 per student.

They send out reams of material, personalized letters, and weekly e-mails. They call the student at home, they work with the counselors at school, they even throw get-togethers at the homes of wealthy alumni.

It’s a fierce new world of college recruiting, one with enrollment managers, target marketing campaigns, and admissions counselors who spend hours guiding individual students to apply. The schools are all seeking the same things: students with high grades and high test scores, who will enrich the cultural mix of the student body, and who will graduate in a reasonable amount of time. In short, students like Julia.

Six years ago at WSU, student recruitment was all about making the numbers. The admissions office focused on getting enough enrollees to fill the freshman and transfer openings and enough to get the full state allotment for educating them.

Back then only one student recruiter worked on the west side of the state. Admission was based solely on an index that factored together GPA and SAT scores.

At that time, WSU was underenrolled. The school had received money from the state for students who didn’t end up attending, money that had to go back to the state coffers. Though Washington’s second largest school, WSU was second or third choice for most applicants.

It was time to rethink how WSU was attracting students.

A new admissions director was hired, counselors like Kris Baier were recruited, and representatives of WSU visited every high school and community college in the state, as well as some in Oregon and Idaho. At the same time, WSU’s marketing department was recasting the University’s image from a party school to one that was strong on research and high on academic standards. Under the tag line, “World Class. Face to Face,” glossy images of educators and ethnically diverse students as well as information about WSU’s academic programs and campus life went to every high school student and every counseling office in Washington. Along with a series of television commercials, a strong team of admissions recruiters, and a few good football seasons, the fresh campaign helped the University change its reputation.

Now WSU targets its recruitment efforts at 250 Washington high schools with the goal of bringing in an ethnically and economically diverse, high-ability student body. The schools have high SAT scores, first-generation college students, and good ethnic mixes. Among them are Julia’s Mariner High, Burlington-Edison, Snohomish, Seattle’s Ballard, Garfield, and Franklin, and Tacoma’s Curtis.

These efforts have paid off with a surge in applications, helped in part by an increase in the population of graduating high school seniors. By 2005, the average GPA for incoming freshmen had risen to 3.45—and the University was turning away qualified students to avoid overcrowding.

The “World Class, Face to Face” campaign has changed what people think about WSU, imparting a reputation that it’s no longer an easy school to get into. Today the school is targeting students with GPAs of 3.60 or higher, SAT scores of at least 1,200 and ACT scores of 26. It does this with special programs and marketing materials directed specifically at the top student and his or her field of interest. It also uses carrots like the Regents Scholars program, for which students with high GPAs have to be nominated by their high school principal.

While 2005 was a banner year, the fall of 2006 was another story. By mid-summer it looked as if WSU’s enrollment would be lower than the previous year’s. A look around the state reveals that WSU’s biggest competitor for Washington students, the University of Washington, tacked on several hundred new slots for freshmen. The move may have affected not only WSU, but several other state schools.

While there is a greater pool of students looking for colleges, the competition for the good ones has grown more heated, especially in this new era of enrollment management. The practice of recruiting and enrolling students who meet a school’s goals and standards started with exclusive, private colleges and universities decades ago. Seeking to expand their student population beyond the well-heeled East Coast, the Ivy Leagues sought bright students like Julia from the far corners of the country. In the past 10 years nearly every college and university has adopted some kind of enrollment management program. The reasons are many, including the fact that higher GPAs and test scores of incoming students mean higher rankings.

“I don’t even know if I’d be able to get in, this day and age,” says Lindsay Fiker, a career counselor at Burlington-Edison High School. Fiker earned her bachelor’s from WSU in 1975 and a master’s degree in education in 1977. She says her grades would have met WSU’s rising standards, but she thinks her math SAT scores would not.

She had her great awakening to the business of target recruiting a few years ago at a conference for high school counselors. There she and one other counselor from a public high school found themselves swamped by private and boarding school advisors hungry for tips on how to groom students for elite colleges and universities like Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. “It was big business for those selective schools,” she says.

Fiker is one of the lucky counselors. Because of budget constraints, many of our state’s public high schools don’t have full-time college and career counselors. And for many advisors and counselors, issues of health, pregnancy, and poverty take priority over finding a college.

As high school counselors are becoming less involved in college choices, recruiters have stepped forward, taking on the tasks of advising and essay reading. “Now it’s almost a completely different job,” says Kris Baier.

Besides having six coworkers west of the Cascades, Baier is crossing paths with recruiters fr
om around the country who, like him, are haunting the halls of the local high schools. They’re all hunting for the same thing—students who are ready for college and who have the grades, abilities, and scores, but who might not be thinking of their schools.

To stay ahead, WSU’s counselors go beyond the high school halls. Kris reviews senior projects for the Everett School District. He volunteers as a chaperone at events for top high school students. And he and his colleagues live in the communities they cover. One of Kris’s colleagues, Melissa Uyesugi, who manages the Asian American and Pacific Islander outreach, serves on the board of the SafeFutures Youth Center in south Seattle. They’re always looking for ways to work into their communities and make connections with high school students and their families, she says.

One sure hit has been sending current WSU students to their home high schools to talk about WSU. Another is putting WSU recruiters in classrooms to offer advice on how to write a college essay. “It’s much more than saying ‘Here’s the school,'” says Baier. “Pullman is about relationship building.”

Sometimes the relationships are already there. Steve Cotterill, director for career and technical education at Snohomish High School, has an office nearly dedicated to WSU. Three of the four walls are covered with t-shirts, team posters, flags, signs, and pompoms. “I’m always collecting,” says the 1977 WSU graduate. When students wander in to look at the booty, “we have peanuts and we talk about college,” says Cotterill.

The advisor tells them it’s a completely different world from when he finished high school. “I probably would have stopped at graduation if it wasn’t for a teacher enrolling me into college,” he says. “He saved my life for sure.” Now he sees students who get regular come-to-college e-mails and application packets, whose parents are coaching them through their paperwork and flying them around the country to see campuses, who are applying not to just four or five schools, but may be running up applications to 10 or more. In the past, students would work for weeks on applications; now they can apply online in an evening.

Those are the students who are expected to apply. Another segment of Washington’s high school students, though, don’t have parents who attended college and may not have imagined themselves at a university. WSU is now struggling to reach those students and help them understand what it takes to be prepared for college.

Two years ago, at a WSU African American Alumni Alliance meeting, a retired Seattle high school principal named Robert Gary offered to round up local African American high school students and bring them across the Cascades. The University wasted no time taking him up on his offer. Last April, Gary brought 38 students via a chartered motor coach to the University’s Spring Preview. The new program allows potential WSU students to attend classes, live on campus, and rub shoulders with future classmates. Abi Bamidele, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, was seatmates on the bus with Hanna Halwas from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Once they got to Pullman, they were dazzled by the hundreds of students and chaperones packed into the large CUB ballroom. They listened intently as a student speaker extolled the beauty of the 600-acre campus, the success of the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education, the fancy new student recreation center, and life in Pullman with academics attached.

Then came the tours. Hanna and Abi headed to classrooms, while others adventured through laboratories and the veterinary hospital. One group had to stop for a Dalmatian in slippers in the hospital hallway. Justin John, a senior at Burlington-Edison, was agog. His father, Greg, was too. “The school is well rated, well ranked,” he says, adding that it seems like a good fit for John.

“Well-ranked.” That’s something University administrators love to hear. Rankings play an important part in recruitment efforts. WSU, like most of its peers, is tethered to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, an annual report established in 1983. A higher score in the rankings means an increase in applications for the coming year. “How can you not pay attention to that?” says Mary Gresch, WSU’s associate vice president for strategic communication and marketing.

Critics say that list and many of the other published ranking systems are homogenizing higher education. Hundreds of major colleges and universities are scrambling to meet often brief and superficial criteria in hopes of moving up closer to Harvard on the list. In doing so, they’re all focusing on the same things: reputation, graduation rates, and alumni giving, which are important to the U.S. News and World Report’s ideals, but don’t fully reflect the quality of the education a student might receive.

Many schools, including WSU, are turning to paid consultants, like Noel-Levitz, for help improving student enrollments and increasing application numbers, as well as the GPAs, of applicants. That too may have a homogenizing effect, at least in the ways the schools are reaching out to future students, admits Vicki McCracken, who heads WSU’s enrollment management program. The trick is to use the University’s niche assets, like its research programs, to attract the best students for whom WSU is the best fit, she says.

What most rankings don’t measure and the consultants don’t coach is the student experience. That’s where the National Survey of Student Engagement (Nessie) comes in. WSU, along with seven other Washington schools, participates. Unlike the U.S. News rankings, this survey focuses on the students. It asks about course work, advising, and faculty contact, to provide a picture of what the student is getting out of the school. Unfortunately, most schools that participate in the Nessie don’t make their results public.

The Nessie results for WSU can be easily found in an independent consultant’s report on the University’s Website. In WSU’s most recent Nessie survey, seniors described a favorable experience on par with their peers around the country, but first-year students aren’t reporting the same amount of faculty contact and supportive campus environment described at other schools. There is also a high level of attrition at the end of the sophomore year, the report notes.

The University is taking steps to change the early undergraduate experience, says Gresch. New tools like Freshman Focus, a residence-hall-based program that places students with similar interests in the same housing and classes, will create a supportive environment that will help the students adapt to the rigors of college and living away from home, she says. The University also has a reputation for involving undergraduates in research, something many students say they’re looking for when they choose WSU.

Raising academic criteria for incoming WSU students has met with some criticism, especially from alumni families who hope to send their children to their alma mater, but fear they can’t, because their grades aren’t up to the new standards.

Lindsay Fiker recently had a student whose brother was admitted to WSU a few years ago with a 2.70 GPA. He thought he could do the same and didn’t heed her advice to work on his GPA. “He didn’t get in,” she says. “At my last meeting with him, he was still working with the appeals process. The world has changed.”

But it’s not just about grades and test scores anymore, say the admissions counselors. WSU is more selective, but not as hard to get into as many people think, says Vicki McCracken. About 75 percent of the students who apply to WSU get accepted, she says. And the remaining 25 percent aren’t necessarily denied. Many start an application, but never complete it, often because they have been accepted somewhere else.

Last year, WSU started using a comprehensive application, which included room for teacher references and a personal essay. Sometimes when the grades are the problem, those references vouching for the student’s ability to thrive in a university environment will tip the scales. Before a student is turned away, her file is very carefully reviewed. The Office of Admissions looks for patterns, for example if the grades started out low and improved during the junior and senior years, says McCracken. Admissions officers also look at whether the student took challenging classes in high school.

Next year the application will offer even more variables, with a six-question resume instead of a single essay. The idea is to get a more complete picture of the student, including any personal or economic difficulties and whether he has the skills to seek help and find a solution. In short, the answers will tell whether a student has the skills to succeed at WSU, says Wendy Peterson, director of WSU admissions.

Knowing how important an essay can be, Julia Pasztor started early and wrote several versions. Last September, when many high school seniors were just starting to think about college, Pasztor had already started applications to her top three. “Once school starts, it’s really hard to do your homework and apply for college,” she says.

Randolph-Macon really tempted her, being so different and so far away, but after her visit, she realized it didn’t suit her. The University of Washington was a good option, but maybe was too large and too close to home.

And Washington State University, the school with which she had the most contact thanks to Kris Baier, intrigued her, especially with the courses she could take to prepare for vet school.

Julia took their recruitment posters and those from other colleges, and tacked them to her bedroom ceiling. Her top choices lived in a file above the computer she shares with her brothers in the all-purpose room that once was the family garage. There she would take breaks from the paperwork to play with her three younger brothers or to organize her riding gear. Sometimes she would call Baier with questions about her application to WSU’s Honors College, about whom to ask for letters of recommendation.

The whole effort of planning and applying for college was driven by Julia herself. Her parents, who own a landscaping business, just watched and encouraged.

She has always been an independent child with a penchant for animals and the outdoors, says her mother Szofia Pasztor. She remembers a day when toddler Julia vanished from their apartment. After tearing through the complex calling her name and then summoning the police, the Pasztors found their first-born back home and hungry after several hours of watching fish in a nearby pond.

It’s no wonder she wants to go away for college and be on her own, says Szofia; she’s been doing that all her life.

In making her choice, Julia didn’t look much at college rankings. And she didn’t look to her peers. In fact, her friends discouraged her from applying to WSU, saying that any student would choose the UW over WSU. Julia said she applied to both schools to prove her friends wrong.

Instead, she looked at graduation rates and at where students who attended WSU went for postgraduate studies. And she spent a lot of time asking questions of Kris. She was interested in the student experience, one of living on a campus away from home, one of independence in a college town. In August, she packed her bags and headed to Pullman, eager to find her new home in Stephenson East, wondering what the next four years will bring.

“I want to really get on my feet,” she says. “I want to get away. Be with friends. And really experience college.”