In late January, University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren crossed the Red River to steal some of the best and brightest students in Dallas from under the noses of college recruiters at the University of Texas and Texas A&M.
The method was impressive--and expensive. OU recruiters filled a banquet room at the Omni Hotel in Las Colinas with red balloons and other Sooner paraphernalia. Then they served 630 students and parents a three-course dinner. At a reception prior to the event, students could meet the deans of each college and get information about housing and other student services. Members of The Pride band played, and Boren gave an impassioned talk about the wonders of OU.
Rabid Aggie and Longhorn parents who arrived skeptical left thinking, "Well, maybe Oklahoma isn't so bad."
Boren, former Oklahoma governor and senator, is targeting top students at competitive Dallas-area high schools who may not qualify for automatic admission to Texas schools because of their class ranking.
"There are a number of reasons we've done very well [in Dallas]," says Boren. "One thing that has made a significant impact was when the state of Texas went to the top 10 percent rule. There are a number of outstanding students, particularly in the Dallas area, that don't fit in the top 10 percent."
The Texas Legislature in 1997 passed the so-called "10 percent rule," offering automatic admission at any state-funded university to all entering freshmen who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school class.
The law has benefited Oklahoma. From 1994 to 2000, the percentage of non-resident freshmen at OU increased 107 percent, from 549 to 1,140. Most of those students are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In the same period, the number of resident freshmen increased 29 percent, from 1,915 to 2,474.
Samantha Suchala is the Dallas-based recruiter for OU. She says the university has been doing receptions for school counselors and students for several years, but this was the first year they did a banquet.
"President Boren decided to do that," Suchala says. "I think we will do it every other year. He's seeking the best and the brightest from the region." Though OU maintains recruiting offices in Houston and San Antonio, they have no plans to woo students there with a banquet. Most of OU's Texas students come from the North Texas region.
"I see it frequently," says Suchala. "The top 10 percent rule forces a lot of students to look past the flagship universities of UT and Texas A&M. If we can get them to look at OU, the rest is easy."
She points out that OU is about half the size of UT and A&M. Last year's freshman class totaled 3,245.
"We're the perfect combination," Suchala says, "a Big 12 atmosphere in a private-school setting." To sweeten the pot, OU guarantees that all freshmen will have a dorm room on campus.
And there is that big football game in the Dallas Cotton Bowl every October.
Suchala does see resistance from loyal Texas Exes and Aggies. Parents will call and say something like, "I can't believe I'm making this call, but I think my son is interested in OU."
"Yes, it hurts them," Suchala says. "They ask whether their kids can come back [to Texas] and compete with the networks created by Aggies and the University of Texas."
To counter that, Suchala points out that Dallas is one of the three largest centers of OU alumni. With about 1,000 families, the OU Club of Dallas is the biggest OU alumni group in the country.
Fifteen years ago, when Mike Tuttle, OU Class of '67, took over the OU Club of Dallas' scholarship program, he got about 10 applications per year. This year, he received 150. He says OU is particularly appealing to students in Richardson, Irving, Dallas and Plano, even though it costs about $4,000 more per year than UT and A&M for non-residents.
"It's cheaper than UT or A&M because of the housing situation," Tuttle says. "Freshmen are guaranteed a dorm room. They don't have to have a car."
Tuttle admits that if he were applying to OU now, he probably wouldn't get in. In general, non-residents have to have higher grades and higher SAT or ACT scores.
"I can't tell you the number of almost-perfect SAT scores I've seen," Tuttle says. "The quality of the kids has improved so much in the last 18 years I've been doing this."
Another appeal for smart local seniors: OU gives National Merit Scholars a virtual "full ride," except for some miscellaneous fees and expenses. That means tuition, fees, books, plus room and board, giving students accepted at expensive Ivy League schools a hard choice.
Universities vie for National Merit Scholars like piranhas on a dead cow. But in 1990, the Oklahoma Legislature created a scholarship program to keep the state's best students from leaving and to attract bright non-resident freshmen.
"Now for 15 straight years, OU has always been in the top 20 in the enrollment of National Merit Scholars," says Craig Hayes, executive director of recruitment services. "Among public institutions on a per capita basis, we're number one." With 700 such students currently enrolled, OU ranks in the top 10 of all public or private universities in the number of National Merit Scholars.
Hayes credits President Boren's energy and vision for a major transformation of the campus and the faculty since he arrived 11 years ago.
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Boren's no stranger to Dallas; his daughter attended Hockaday. One of the most powerful politicians in Oklahoma history, Boren graduated from Yale, was a Rhodes Scholar and came back to OU. He and his wife, Molly, both hold law degrees from OU law school. When he became the 13th president of OU, Boren and his wife began a dramatic hands-on transfiguration of the campus, starting with a $17 million renovation of the student center.
Molly Boren took on the beautification of the campus, renovating the president's residence and adding flower beds, trees, fountains, sculptures and benches. Some Okies complained. Why were they wasting money on scenery? But the result: OU's Norman campus is definitely prettier than the sprawling Texas A&M.
The bottom line is academics, and OU touts a dramatic increase in the quality of its faculty. Since Boren arrived, the number of endowed chairs has tripled from 100 to 370. (Boren teaches one class a semester.) In addition, the university has 150 study-abroad programs in 50 countries, which students can attend while paying OU tuition. The university's foundation recently set a goal of increasing the school's endowment from $850 million to more than $1 billion by the end of the decade.
Boren must have figured it out: Dallas is where the big money is.