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December 6, 2001

As standards here go up, the list of Pitt's competitors is changing

The list of universities with which the Pittsburgh campus competes for undergraduates has grown more exclusive since the mid-1990s, as Pitt has raised its admissions standards and broadened its recruiting.

Pitt no longer sees West Virginia University and Pennsylvania's state-owned schools as competitors, and it now considers Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne to be its only local competitors.

New to Pitt's competitors list are Boston, George Washington, New York and Virginia Tech universities.

The University's primary out-of-state recruiting markets are Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and the District of Columbia — where Pitt benefits from strong alumni support and past recruiting successes, and where many students see Pittsburgh's urban campus as a plus, according to Oakland Admissions and Financial Aid director Betsy Porter.

For many bright (but not quite top-notch) high school graduates in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, state-owned universities are a better buy than Pitt because those schools offer lower in-state tuition and better financial aid packages, Porter recently told the University Senate's budget policies committee.

"Slippery Rock or IUP [Indiana University of Pennsylvania] will offer full rides — full tuition scholarships plus room and board — to students to whom we will only offer partial scholarships," she said. "We're going to let those students go because they don't meet our standards for a full ride."

Pitt still makes recruiting visits to high schools in nearby Weirton and Wheeling, W. Va. But this is the first year in a decade that Pitt hasn't had a recruiting program in Charleston, West Virginia's main source of graduating seniors.

"We just can't draw out of West Virginia," Porter said. "Tuition at WVU and all of the state schools in West Virginia is much lower than ours. Also, we're interested in high-quality students, and in West Virginia they're siphoned off by WVU with offers of full packages" of tuition plus room and board.

Pitt has begun recruiting in Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts, where strong Pitt Clubs of alumni have been "enormously helpful," Porter said. "We're getting good students from those states. Not a lot of students, but the kind of high-quality students we want."

Suburban Detroit is another market Pitt is trying to tap, hoping to attract students who prefer a big-city campus.

"Ohio has always been a very difficult market for us," Porter noted. "As close as it is, it's difficult because the Ohio State system is so strong. Even trying to get a student from Steubenville or Youngstown is difficult, but we keep trying."

High-achieving local students who want to attend a university close to home often apply to some combination of Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne, and then choose the school that offers the best financial aid package, according to Porter.

Pittsburgh area stay-at-home students who want to study computer science or engineering tend to apply to both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, while Pitt competes with Duquesne University mainly for high-achieving local Catholic students, she said.

Out-of-state students who come to Pittsburgh to visit Carnegie Mellon often visit Pitt as well, just as Pitt's out-of-state recruits often visit CMU while they're in town, said Porter. "Bringing more out-of-state students to Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, is good for all of us," she said.

For that reason, Pitt recently proposed launching joint Pitt-CMU recruiting programs in other states. So far, Carnegie Mellon hasn't taken Pitt up on the suggestion, Porter said.

Despite its recent recruiting success, Pitt still loses good students to competing universities, she acknowledged. But Admissions and Financial Aid staff don't worry as long as students reject Pitt for the right reasons — because they prefer a rural university, for example, or a small, private one.

"It doesn't bother me when they decide they're going to go to Penn State instead of Pitt," Porter said, "because, on average, we win more than we lose when we go head-to-head with Penn State," where tuition is several hundred dollars higher than at Pitt, and little Happy Valley, Pa., contrasts sleepily with Pittsburgh.

But Porter added: "It does bother me when a student says, 'I'm not coming to Pitt but I'm going to Ohio State instead."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 8

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