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Hot or not?

What turns US students' heads? An urban vibe, celebrity alumni, top sports teams, high-profile leaders. Oh, and academic reputation. Jon Marcus runs through the student checklist

Honor, Scholarship, Kindness." That's the motto of the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School. It might just as well be "Smart, Articulate, Trendy".

This prestigious private secondary school near Boston has for 130 years enrolled the progeny of statesmen, socialites and CEOs. They course self-confidently through the halls, fashionable backpacks slung across their shoulders, affecting that thrown-together look that takes practice to perfect.

There is still more than a year to go before the juniors here are scheduled to graduate and go on to university - and all of them will - but they have already started choosing their candidates from among the more than 7,000 higher education institutions across the US.

"There have always been those couple of schools that have the big names," says Zach Singer, a BB&N junior. "You visit them just for the name. But another thing that opens the door is sports on TV. I hate to admit it, but that's name recognition right there."

Nationally televised athletics. Celebrity alumni. Rock-star presidents. Marquee faculty. These are among the things that make US universities hot to a generation of brand-focused young consumers in the 21st century.

Given the expense of a university education, students do, of course, show due diligence in checking a school's academic quality before applying to it. But like supermarket shoppers, they have to be compelled to pick up the box and read the label. And, like product sales, the popularity of universities can shift with social changes, world events and the economy.

"It's part of the art and science of enrolment management, trying to predict and understand why an institution might be popular," says Randall Deike, vice-president for enrolment management at New York University.

Deike has the benefit of contemplating this from the top of the pile. A mediocre commuter college in a crime-plagued neighbourhood as recently as the 1970s, NYU has shot up to become America's hottest university, with more applicants than any other. That's because of something else that's hot with students in America now: cities.

"These kids, who are wired and plugged in, do not want to sit out in the middle of a cornfield and contemplate life," says Rodney Ferguson, senior partner in the higher education marketing consulting firm Lipman Hearne. "They want the same level of energy as they have in their virtual lives. That's why they're attracted to places like New York."

In a country where many campuses are in remote, rural places, nine of the 10 most applied-to universities this year are in cities: NYU in New York; the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; Northwestern University in Chicago; Harvard, Boston University and Boston College in Boston; Stanford in Palo Alto; the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; and Washington University in St Louis.

The shift to cities is even more noteworthy given that, not long ago, urban crime kept prospective students away from places such as New York in droves, says John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, which represents university communications, development, marketing and alumni relations managers.

But in the past two decades or so, crime has dropped dramatically, and standards of living in cities have risen. NYU's de facto campus of Greenwich Village is particularly hot. "What's happening now would not have happened 20 years ago," Lippincott says.

Another advantage of cities is that they provide opportunities for internships that can give graduates a leg-up in a weak job market. This appetite is driving another trend, so-called co-op programmes, which place students in roles at collaborating businesses.

Once looked down on as vocational training unworthy of a university, co-op programmes are now big, as evidenced by the fact that, following time-honoured academic tradition, they have been euphemistically renamed "experiential learning". And the schools that offer the biggest co-ops are also among the most popular. One such is Boston's Northeastern University, which was once a middling commuter college that almost went under in the 1990s. This year, it saw applications rise by 12 per cent, giving it 10 applicants for every seat in the entering class.

"Co-op is very hot," says Ferguson. "People want to know that the education they're going to pay a lot of money for will get them where they want to go."

Other things are catching students' eyes, too. If an especially popular student - "we call them trendsetters", says Amy Selinger, co-director of university counselling at BB&N - chooses a particular school, other students often follow. Then there's simple word of mouth, helped along by busy national online discussion sites such as collegeconfidential.com. No one knows where or why it starts, but high school students begin to talk about a university, which generates more interest and enthusiasm in the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that has driven the appeal of places such as Washington University in St Louis.

Barack Obama attended Occidental College near Los Angeles for two years before transferring to Columbia University. When he campaigned for the presidency, Occidental received a record number of applications, and this year it recorded its second-highest total. "Whether or not it's directly responsible for an increase in applications, it's quite clear that it has made Occidental more visible," says Jim Tranquada, director of communications for the school, whose website features the president's picture on its home page. (Obama's election is also credited with fuelling the popularity of universities in Washington DC.)

Thanks to its picturesque campus and its location near Hollywood, Occidental has been the backdrop for films including Clueless and the television show Beverly Hills 90210. That does it no harm when it comes to making its pitch. "Certainly when the crew was on campus filming while the tour (for prospective students and their parents) walked by, I'm sure that made an impression," Tranquada says.

Unlikely as it may seem, some university leaders boost the popularity of their institutions, experts say. E. Gordon Gee, the 66-year-old president of Ohio State University, is wildly popular among the students. Every day he wears a different one of his trademark bow ties (he owns 900) and he inspires trivia contests about, for instance, what the "E" stands for (it's "Elwood").

"Gordon Gee, he's like a rock star," says Tom Hayes, associate editor of the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education. The president of NYU, John Sexton, continues to teach a class there, takes meals with students, and has been known to stop and speak with tour groups of prospective applicants. The president of Xavier University in Cincinnati, where Hayes is on the faculty, is Michael Graham, a young bodybuilding priest who lives in a student dormitory.

When it comes to gaining attention, athletics, as Zach Singer attests, plays a huge role. When Butler University in Indianapolis marched to the finals of the nationally televised, wildly hyped national collegiate basketball tournament in March and April, along the way beating teams from institutions far bigger and better known, its admissions office website crashed twice under all the traffic. The New York Times called Butler: "One of those fine schools that many people outside the Midwest haven't heard of. Or hadn't, at least, until now."

During Butler's run, the number of prospective students who requested information about it jumped 67 per cent compared with the same period the year before, the university says. The number of applications from students wishing to transfer from another higher education institution climbed by 61 per cent. "That's publicity you can't really pay for," Deike says.

The same thing happened to North Carolina's Davidson College, which in 2008 reached the semi-finals of the same basketball tournament. "People who had never heard of Davidson learned of it in a very positive light," says Christopher Gruber, vice-president and dean of admissions and financial aid.

On its admission paperwork, Davidson asks applicants how they learned about the college, and many cited the national tournament. Two years later, Gruber says, "The talk of basketball continues, and I don't see it tapering off."

But Davidson has just taken another step to ensure its popularity. It has promised to make up the shortfall between its full tuition costs and what a student's family can pay, through a mix of grants and campus jobs for students. Such a practical move is helping smaller schools win new popularity as the economy sputters and the costs of higher education rise.

"A school is hot because of the financial aid it gives out," says Robert Franek, senior vice-president of The Princeton Review, which produces university guides. "That can't be separated out, especially in these times."

One of The Princeton Review's publications, America's Best Value Colleges, ranks Swarthmore College number one, because, like Davidson, it offers significant financial aid - an average of $33,500 per student toward the $53,000 price tag for tuition, room and board.

League tables help determine if a school is hot, too, although perhaps not as much as universities seem to think. A survey by Lipman Hearne found that, of the 14 most important variables in their decision, prospective students put the rankings 12th. Still, says Lippincott, "while rankings don't clinch the deal, they do play a role in identifying the options. They are, in a sense, the product placement."

Whether it comes to their attention through film, sports or celebrity alumni, a university that makes it on to a student's personal "hot" list almost always gets a visit. What a student and his or her family see on campus can sway opinion about how hot - or not - the place is.

"Parents sometimes pull into the parking lot of a college and their son and daughter will say, 'We don't even have to get out. This is not the place for me,'" says Deike.

"Once they set foot on campus, it's an emotional buy," Hayes says. "One thing that lends itself to the feeling of a hot school is when people see a lot of construction going on. They think, there's a lot of energy here."

Franek, who visits some 50 campuses a year, says, "There's that immediate appeal. Students like to see new buildings and things that are going to profit them when they're in school. But they're also asking, 'Is that building green?' They're very savvy."

Savvy like the BB&N students. Some have already visited as many as 10 campuses. They are experts on what makes a university hot.

"The first thing I look for is how people sit," says Singer. "Not their posture - but if there are a lot of people sitting by themselves, it seems like a more stressful atmosphere."

"I look to see how many of the people are laughing or smiling, as opposed to head down, rushing off to class," says John Mandile, another BB&N junior.

All of those are indications that a school is not hot, these students say. And even if Swarthmore does give generous financial aid, Mandile did not like it when he visited. The tour guide, he says, was "nerdy" and handed out a pie graph with a breakdown of the student body, with a total that inexplicably came out to be 112 per cent.

These students have picked up on something else, says Ellis: "On every campus tour we've been on, they mention some aspect of their school that looks like Hogwarts."

They have made it into a game: these students try to predict when the Harry Potter reference will come up in the sales pitch.

"There are these stereotypical phrases like that, that they all come up with," Singer says. "I prefer a school that's more unique."

He was impressed, for instance, with the library at Duke University. "I've never seen anything so state of the art. If they put that much time and money into their library, that's the kind of place I'd like to go."

At the last school on his circuit, the University of Pennsylvania, Singer says, the tour was interrupted by a loud crash.

"This guy was shoving a huge box full of empty beer bottles into a trash can. Then he and his friends light something and the whole group starts to smell it. We're watching these people smoke weed in the middle of UPenn."

Some prospective applicants might have found that appealing. But for Singer, "it was kind of a turnoff".

THE PIES OF AMERICAN EYES

The most applied-to private institutions

1. New York University

2. University of Southern California

3. Boston University

4. Cornell University

5. Boston College

6. Stanford University

7. Harvard University

8. University of Pennsylvania

9. Washington University

10. Northwestern University

Source: US News & World Report.

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