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STANFORD -- Welcoming freshmen Sept. 23 in Memorial Auditorium, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions James Montoya described Stanford's Class of '98 as, by numerical measures, "the most academically talented in the university's history."
Seventy-eight percent of the new freshmen had high school grade point averages of 3.8 to 4.0 - up 5 percent over last year and 21 percent over 1980, when adjusted for grade inflation. Twenty-six percent of the new freshmen had verbal SAT scores of 700 or higher (up 4 percent over last year), and 62 percent had math SAT scores of 700 or higher (up 3 percent over last year).
"Continuing with the theme of President Casper's remarks to you yesterday, I pose to you the question once again: Why are you here?," Montoya said. "Well, one obvious reason is that you impressed the admissions staff with your intelligence, your extraordinary level of academic and extracurricular achievement, and your resourcefulness."
Responding to questions raised in a letter last week to the Campus Report by former News Service Director Robert Beyers, the dean urged caution in trying to draw comparisons between Stanford's yield rate - the percentage of admitted students who decide to enroll - and Harvard's.
Stanford's freshman yield rate was 54 percent this year - down about 10 points from its peak in the mid-1980s - while the Harvard admissions office reports that its yield rate held steady at about 75 percent during the same time.
While Montoya said he found Beyers' points "thought- provoking," he added that he is "pleased with the university's success in attracting such a talented class," and pointed out that overall applications to Stanford have jumped almost 13 percent since 1990.
Montoya noted that Stanford's current yield rate is about the same as Princeton's and Yale's. In comparing yield rates since 1980 with four other top universities, Harvard and Princeton have held steady, while Yale has fallen. Stanford's and MIT's have fallen by more than 10 percent apiece.
"Clearly, as we have developed a national and international pool of applicants, it is true that we have a greater overlap with Harvard," Montoya said. "In 1981 there were 257 applicants to Stanford who had overlapping applications with Harvard; this year that number was 423. In much the same way, our overlap with Yale has increased in those years, from 148 in 1981 to 262 in 1994."
Many of the students who apply to both Stanford and Harvard or Yale are from the eastern United States, and are therefore much more likely to remain in the East, Montoya said. Recent earthquakes also have put Stanford's yield rates on shakier ground. In the year following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, Stanford's yield rate fell by 6 percentage points, and even last January's quake in Northridge may have scared some prospective freshmen away.
"I was surprised at the number of phone calls from parents of prospective students after this year's earthquake in L.A.," Montoya said. "It is rare when questions related to quakes are not raised by prospective students and their parents in our information sessions, both on campus and across the country."
Like most universities nationally, Stanford has faced significantly more competition for the nation's top freshmen in recent years, as the pool of qualified 17- to 18-year-olds has diminished. High school seniors are considering more options now, applying to an average of six or seven colleges, compared to three or four a decade ago.
Financial considerations also are playing a role: More top students are choosing to attend public institutions, and they're also staying closer to home - 45 percent of Stanford's students are from California this year, up from 39 percent in 1990.
Stanford has responded to the challenge by introducing several significant changes in its recruitment strategies over the past few years, Montoya said.
The office is using more alumni, and parents of currently enrolled students, in its recruitment efforts. This week, for example, Montoya hosted an information session about Stanford in New York; the welcoming remarks were given by Martha Bernstein, the parent of a recent Stanford graduate from New York City.
"Parents of prospective freshmen need the assurance of Stanford parents, particularly when Stanford is 3,000 miles away from home," Montoya said.
The admissions office also is depending more heavily on regional information sessions that feature recent graduates of the university. "These evening programs provide an opportunity for parents to learn about the university - as well as the pre-applicants themselves," Montoya said.
Most significantly, Stanford this year reinvented the old Jordan Scholars Program into a new "President's Scholar Program" that gave special attention to 203 admitted students of extraordinary academic quality and potential.
Each President's Scholar received a special letter of congratulations from President Casper, a Courses and Degrees catalog, a phone list of faculty available to answer questions about academic offerings, and phone calls from current undergraduates urging them to attend Prospective Freshman Week.
Travel grants were offered to President's Scholars with financial need, and those receiving financial aid were offered reductions in the self-help component of their aid packages - more aid in the form of grants, less in the form of loans and work-study jobs.
The yield for this effort - 29 percent - was viewed with some frustration, according to Associate Dean John Bunnell, a member of Stanford's Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aids. That committee will be reviewing the effectiveness of the President's Scholars Program later in the fall, he said.
In the end, though, Montoya firmly believes that the key to improving Stanford's recruiting yields lies not so much in the admissions office budget but in Stanford's classrooms, laboratories and residences.
"Admissions in 1994 is different from the world of admissions of 1990 or 1987," Montoya said. "Prospective students are asking more sophisticated questions, they're looking beyond admissions publications in making decisions as to where they are going to enroll.
"Pumping more money into the admissions program by itself is not going to change the way students perceive this university, nor should it. The best way to recruit and enroll the nation's top students is to have the nation's best faculty and the nation's best academic programs, and that is what Stanford is trying to do."
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