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Top college applicants now seek ‘academic rigor’

Colleges increasingly promote rigor over flashy amenities

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

BU is emphasizing academic rigor to prospective students focused on job prospects.

Boston University has some of the swankiest student amenities around: There’s a dorm with walk-in closets and plasma TVs and a gym with a 35-foot rock climbing wall and a “lazy river’’ fitness pool that would not be out of place at a water park.

But in the school’s new recruiting brochure, those perks don’t show up until page 29. Instead, BU’s pitch to prospective students starts on page 3 with a paean to “a notoriously hard grader,’’ “one of the toughest professors you’ll ever meet.’’

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That’s because, a recent survey of BU applicants suggests, the best students are no longer impressed with the fancy facilities many schools have built to court them over the past decade.

Instead, one of the biggest factors apparently driving the top students’ choice of college is “academic rigor’’ - defined as small classes, accomplished professors, national rankings, and the like. Those students said it accounted for a quarter of their decision on where to attend, surpassed in importance only by financial aid. When aid was excluded as a factor, the students’ emphasis on academic rigor doubled.

Meanwhile, the survey found that “campus life’’ - the category that includes housing, dining, and that resort-style gym - accounted for just 7 percent of the choice.

The survey is small, with 1,000 respondents, and it focuses on high-achieving applicants, not American students at large. Extrapolating from it is tricky.

But its findings may point to a broad trend in higher education that has popped up in larger studies, too, said outside observers. With tuition high and jobs scarce, many students seem less concerned with the creature comforts they will enjoy during their four years and more concerned with being well-equipped for life afterward.

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“For me, it was mostly about finding a college with a good biomedical engineering department, and they’re in the top 10,’’ said Carrie Cramer, a high school senior from Florida who will enroll at BU next year.“The new dorms and the lazy river and the gym certainly help, but academics are the most important thing.’’

A national survey of incoming freshmen in 2010 found 56.5 percent of students said their chance of getting a good job was a “very important’’ influence on their choice of college - the highest percentage of students to say so since 1983.

“Students and families today are much more focused on value than they were even a few years ago,’’ said Andrew Rosen, chief executive of the for-profit education provider Kaplan Inc. and author of “change.edu,’’ a new book on the state of higher education. “If they’re going to invest tens of thousands of dollars, they want proof that it’s going to be a good investment. It’s not just about how fun college is going to be.’’

The apparent change of heart may not last beyond the economic downturn, Rosen said. In the meantime, it could lead some universities to shift away from lifestyle frills and back toward academics.

A few have even begun to offer amenity-free options, such as Southern New Hampshire University, where students can choose to attend classes in a plain office park off a highway - a $10,000 tuition bargain, less than half the cost of attending the lush main campus.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the country-club campus is going away. No one’s talking about turning Boston University’s gym into a library.

“Sure, the climbing walls, the new dorms, the fancy food in the dining hall, and the sports teams will continue to be a sales tool employed by many colleges to reel in students,’’ wrote Jeffrey Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, earlier this week.

But, Selingo added, “academic rigor will play a greater role in the value proposition.’’

That’s especially true at schools like BU that fare well in the US News & World Report rankings - the school places 53rd among national universities - but would like to rise further by nabbing more top students.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, BU invested enormous amounts of money in dorms and lifestyle amenities, and its marketing followed.

“That was the drumbeat the university was focusing on - trying to make the point that this wasn’t the BU your parents knew, which was a commuter school,’’ said the school’s president, Robert Brown.

These days, though, sleek new buildings are something students take for granted, said Stephen Burgay, BU’s vice president for marketing and communications. “They’ve gone from being something special to something that’s expected.’’

So instead of bragging about its facilities, BU is touting its academics - and trying mightily to break away from its image as a safety school for students rejected by the Ivies. (Think Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,’’ dismissing his girlfriend’s need to study with a short, sharp retort: “You go to BU.’’)

Since Brown became president in 2005, almost all the school’s key statistics have improved. It attracted a record number of applicants this year, more than 43,000 for 3,900 slots. Last year’s incoming class was the most academically impressive in the school’s history. Sixty percent of the class has a high school grade point average above 3.5.

To pull in more of that kind of student, BU is overhauling its marketing strategy.

Kelly Walter, the school’s executive director of admissions, said she once began stump speeches by talking about facilities. She doesn’t do that anymore. “The fact that we have Nobel laureates on our faculty used to be fourth on my list,’’ she said. “I look at that now in the context of our survey and think, ‘That was completely upside down.’ ’’

When about 30 sophomores from a top Chinese high school visited campus recently, Walter spent most of her time talking about how hard the students could expect to work.

“Academics are our number-one priority,’’ she told them, after casually mentioning that she knew some students who had triple-majored. “Our students want to see how much they can stretch themselves.’’

Only after 20 minutes did she concede that “we do want you to have some fun.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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