Want top students? Take a cue from sports recruiters.

Bob Nasson, an outstanding baseball player and a B-plus student, estimates some 60 of his classmates at Lexington (Mass.) High School were contacted their senior year at least once by a college coach. Mr. Nasson himself, now a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., heard from 10 college coaches. His brother Chris had a 4.0 grade-point average and scored 1440 on his SATs. He was recruited by Amherst College in Massachusetts - for baseball. Neither brother ever heard from a professor.

It's a fact that would barely raise an eyebrow in many circles - even academic ones. Athletic recruiting has a long tradition, after all. But some observers are arguing that professors interested in future academic stars should take a cue from the athletic-department model and recruit academic standouts the way coaches go after all-state quarterbacks.

"As a society, we send the message to high school athletes that they are desirable, and to high school scholars that nobody cares particularly," says William Fitzhugh, editor of the Concord Review, in Sudbury, Mass., which publishes outstanding history essays by high school students. "Imagine how many coaches took Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's mother out to dinner when he was a high school senior. That same year, the top 10 high school history students in the country didn't hear from anybody. It's been that way every year since."

The issue has become more prominent in recent years with a Title IX-induced explosion in women's collegiate sports that has further broadened the scope of athletic recruiting. Mr. Fitzhugh estimates that more than 50,000 secondary-school athletes each year may hear from a college coach, while no more than 50 academic achievers are contacted by professors.

Research over recruiting

To Fitzhugh, the reason is simple. "They are more worried about getting published or getting tenure," he says.

Others are even more blunt. "A music professor can feel edified recruiting a prodigy, but when it comes to a physics professor at a large research institution, it would be a tough sell interesting him in even teaching Physics 101 on his own campus, much less going to a high school campus to recruit," says one admissions official. "These guys don't really want to see [students] until they have their master's degrees and constitute a near peer."

Professors say the criticism is unfair. Recruiting isn't in their job description - as it is for coaches - and besides, they don't have an off-season when they can hit the road.

For other professors, it's a mind-set issue. "A lot of faculty don't see education as a business, so they see marketing as outside their realm of responsibility, something that's a little distasteful, even cheapening - they should be about ideas and knowledge and learning," says Frank Sachs, director of college counseling at the Blake School in Hopkins, Minn.

Some pressure seems to be growing to involve faculty more. Even with applications to colleges at record levels, competition for the best and brightest students has become fierce, especially at elite institutions. A call or an e-mail from the faculty can often help sway a prospect.

Enrollment strategies are also shifting, promoting an institution's scholarship rather than promoting its gleaming workout facilities or fully-stocked salad bars. In turn, a spotlight is cast on accomplished professors.

The elimination or de-emphasis of affirmative action has also led in many cases to extensive wooing of academically qualified minority students, by both admissions personnel and faculty.

Moreover, an increasingly strong sense of professionalism in college students is filtering down to the high school level. Large numbers of seniors are more sophisticated in their college research techniques, and already have ideas about their major. They seek out individual departments and professors, and are thus prime candidates for personal recruiting.

Indeed, focus groups with potential students last winter at the University of California, Davis, found a "major interest" in faculty contact, including e-mail exchanges on research topics and majors.

To be sure, use of professors as pitch men is hardly unique. Although they may not initiate much contact, their presence at on-campus, admissions-sponsored receptions for visiting prospects is routine, and individual professors journeying off campus to host events in key cities is only slightly less so. Variations on the theme abound. An English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Twin Cities for a recent conference but with a free morning, dropped by a suburban private high school and taught a couple of advanced- placement English courses.

Mount Holyoke has taken the roadshow concept a step further. The Massachusetts college's "master class series" had nine faculty traveling to Washington, New York, and Boston, where they conducted two-hour college-level courses for prospective students. The program allowed students to experience a college classroom and a bit of school culture. The program has proved successful, though it was put on hiatus this year following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Faculty recruiting is generally more intense in areas where a parallel can be drawn to athletics. A star high school musician or artist can achieve visibility rivaling that of a renowned athlete, whereas students highly accomplished in fields like English have fewer opportunities for recognition. Likewise, winners of noted national science contests tend to hear from admissions officers and professors.

"We're doing more and more individual recruiting, and our College of Arts and Communication is taking the lead," says Wisconsin's Mr. Prior. "Just like in football circles, you know where that star tailback is, the music circle up here is pretty tight. We know where that clarinetist is, and we're going to go after him."

Finding a professor's comfort zone

The key to faculty recruiting, say enrollment pros, is finding an individual professors' comfort zone with the practice.

"Because schmoozing with students is not part of what their training called for, they're not always as comfortable as admission professionals in recruitment settings," says Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Mount Holyoke. "We try to use them in ways that maximize their talents."

College admissions professionals, however, caution against drawing parallels between academic and athletic recruiting. "The basketball coach is probably recruiting about five players a year, the football coach maybe 25," Prior says. "I'm trying to recruit a freshman class of 2,000."

Others second the notion that it's apples and oranges when it comes to recruiting athletes versus brainiacs. "I don't think faculty look at potential intellects the same as a college coach looks at a recruit," says Mr. Sachs. "The typical professor is not thinking: If I can only get this kid in and get him on my research team, I can win the Nobel prize. It just doesn't work like that."

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