Playing a numbers game: Stanford steps up its efforts to attract top math students

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Almost 400 high school seniors got an unusual piece of mail this year -- a letter suggesting they apply to Stanford University. It isn't that Stanford needs to drum up business. In fact, competition has never been stiffer for a place in the school's freshman class.

But Stanford does need more of the country's top mathematics students, according to the man behind those letters, Brad Efron, a statistics professor who is head of the school's Mathematics and Computational Sciences program.

The university simply isn't getting enough of the top math talent on the undergraduate level, said Efron.

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``What we have is the best faculty, according to all the polls, and the best graduate students,'' he said. ``What we don't have is the best undergraduate students.''

Stanford's undergrads are no slouches when it comes to math, he added quickly. According to his own calculations, which are based on national tests and awards, they rank about tenth in the United States.

What Stanford wants are ``the math fanatics,'' Efron said. ``We want people who are really interested in math, in statistics, and in computers, not just in getting into business school.''

Of the top 100 math students each year, Stanford gets only one or two, Efron said. ``And we should get 10 or 15.''

Those top students are going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology, he said.

With $10,000 from the university, Efron has launched a recruiting campaign this year that may well be the beginning of tougher competition among universities for the country's math whiz kids.

``There is a shortage of math talent in the US,'' said Efron, adding that increased competition may well benefit everyone by encouraging more interest in math and related fields.

Efron sent letters to 380 students who scored higher than 750 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test in math and who expressed an interest in careers in math-related fields. Those letters have been followed up with telephone calls and campus visits. The admissions department is allowing him to add his comments to the students' files.

``We're just running a little experiment,'' Efron said. So far, the results have been good, he said. Many students have responded who said they had not been considering Stanford before getting the mailing.

Because of Stanford's admissions policy, the math department cannot offer special scholarships to attract students, Efron said. Once he gets their attention, he has to use the university's academic offerings to win them over.

Neither MIT nor UC Berkeley has a similar recruitment program.

``I personally think there is tremendous potential for doing much more,'' said John W. Addison, a professor at UC Berkeley, when told of Stanford's program. ``And it looks like we might have to work a little harder.''

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