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COLUMN ONE : Facing the Hard Sell in High School : Colleges use glossy marketing campaigns, consultants and cookies to lure top prospects. Some are even courting eighth-graders.


He's no starting quarterback or flashy point guard. But 17-year-old Daniel Craddock has put up numbers that would catch any college recruiter's eye.

A 3.8 grade-point average. A respectable SAT score. A transcript adorned with advanced college credits . . . and he is African American.

Small wonder that MIT, Cornell and Stanford began sending Craddock letters of interest early in his junior year at Lakewood High School, way before he had to commit. Yet it was a UCLA recruiter that beat them to the punch, persuading Craddock to skip his senior year and go directly to the Westwood campus.

"Being approached by UCLA, I thought about it and I said, 'Why not?' " said Craddock, who hopes to become a doctor. "They kept pushing me and pushing and they showed an interest in (my) attending UCLA."

Craddock's story illustrates what many say has been an evolving--and sometimes disturbing--trend in higher education: Locked in an escalating competition for the nation's top high school achievers, especially those of color, colleges are wooing younger students.

Colleges traditionally concentrate their recruiting energy on students in the last half of their junior year or those starting their senior year who have taken the ACT assessment or the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In recent years, however, competition has led some colleges to begin indirectly cultivating those in the eighth grade or earlier. And in what some experts say is a still rare but problematic twist, more schools are signing up the most exceptional academic stars as "early admissions," plucking them from the talent pool before competitors fall into hot pursuit.

"It is something we recognize that is beginning to happen and people are beginning to talk about it," said Jeffery Tanner, associate dean of admissions at Brigham Young University and president of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, which represents academic recruiting divisions of 2,500 institutions.

"To bring a student in at a much earlier age, two years younger than their peers, I'm not sure we're doing them a favor," Tanner said.

Rocking--if not robbing--the scholastic cradle underscores a war for survival that has transformed college admissions offices over the last decade into powerful marketing enterprises that use extensive mailing lists, consultants and sophisticated computer programs to track potential applicants.

Gone are the days when low-paid admissions officers paddled quietly in administrative backwaters, pushing papers and relying largely on institutional reputations or connections with high school guidance counselors to steer a choice student their way.

Today, admissions offices employ full-time, higher-paid talent scouts and they cater to special market "segments." USC's School of Architecture seeks out minority high school students with B+ averages and an interest in the subject.

Schools convene focus groups, put up billboards, create posters worthy of the movies and mount phone campaigns. At Cal State Hayward, 150 professors have taken a "telemarketing" seminar and are responsible for encouraging about 25 applicants each.

For students, the recruiting blizzard can be so daunting that Hope College of Michigan has a gimmick to make its mail stand out--literally. It uses oversized literature calculated to stick out of mailboxes. Ohio's Ashland University sends six-inch cookies from its school kitchens to 20,000 prospects.

The reason for such razzmatazz is simple: After feasting on World War II GIs and their baby boom progeny, colleges saw their primary market of 18-year-old high school graduates shrink from 3.2 million in 1979 to 2.4 million in 1992.

The implications were more foreboding for private schools, which statistics show depend on tuition for nearly 60% of their income compared to 21% for public institutions. But with legislatures cutting back on subsidies, all schools have found themselves competing for customers, not unlike companies peddling rival brands of shampoo, experts say.

"Colleges live and die by their admissions offices," said Jennifer Britz, editor of the Lawlor Review, a new publication that caters to university marketeers.

And those admissions offices have turned to what the Review dubs "techno-recruiting," the use of turbocharged computer programs and technology to track potential clients. Using categories such as race, family income, religious preference and the proclivity to move away from home, schools can order customized mailing lists from the millions of students who take tests administered by the College Board in New York and American College Testing in Iowa City, Iowa.

About 250 colleges also buy the College Board's "enrollment planning" computer program, which is capable of breaking down students who take the SAT into 304 "geomarkets," classifying them by 23 academic interests and identifying a school's most likely institutional competitors for a student.

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