The Alamo Bowl brings in recruits for UO enrollment office

Airfare to San Antonio for University of Oregon enrollment personnel and administrators? Check. Green and yellow balloons? Check. Droves of prospective students clamoring for the opportunity to walk the same halls as athletes such as Joey Harrington, LaMichael James and De’Anthony Thomas? Not so much.

Handfuls of high school students clad in new green Oregon T-shirts from Nike were ushered through the lobby of the Mariott Riverwalk Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 30. They walked under Win The Day banners sweeping across the hotel overhangs. The Duck, a bit east of his usual winter migration routes, pretended to throw a few of kids in the San Antonio River and the occasional joke: “Does this free T-shirt come with free tuition?” was met with laughs.

This was a chance for UO officials to show off for high school kids who might not consider Eugene. Though it wasn’t the usual Saturday game day for the football team, it was one of the biggest events the enrollment office would throw all year. And even though the banquet hall wasn’t quite as populated as, say, the pep rally before the Alamo Bowl game later that day, even one successful recruit would recoup the event’s expenses.

“They get to meet the university president. They’ll get to meet the leadership,” says Roger Thompson, the vice president of enrollment management. “That doesn’t happen for high school kids very often. There’s no question in my mind it’s a great event.”

The office of Enrollment Management has set up recruiting events for high school students for the last four bowl games. The events have been a staple for reeling in potential students ever since Roger Thompson came to UO in July 2010. The native Oregonian hosted events like this at his previous posts at Indiana University and the University of Alabama — two athletic powerhouses in basketball and football, respectively. And he has arrived at a time when it has become increasingly important to attract non-Oregon students as the state slowly withdraws its funding of public universities.

“We’ll probably spend five grand on this event,” Thompson said in the days leading up to the recruitment event. “Even if we spend 15 grand, one student at non-resident tuition is $28,000. It’ll have paid for the event and then some.”

For years, out-of-state students, who pay triple the tuition of Oregon residents, have grown in importance. The state only covers around 5 percent of the total budget of the university today, and as Oregon football climbed to new heights in the past decade, so has the opportunity to entice high school juniors and seniors with the promise of a prominent football program and raucous game days. Out-of-state students make up 35 percent of the total student body — up 7 percent from 2009 and 15 percent from 2005.

There’s a Rube Goldberg-style chain of events that universities have claimed when it comes to this tactic of enrollment. A strong, visible football or basketball team gets noticed by kids across the country who wouldn’t normally pay any attention. Their interest leads to rising applications at the school, which in turn brings higher enrollment and more money, in addition to allowing the school to be pickier with who it selects to come to the school. For instance, according to the enrollment department, the fall 2013 freshman class had the highest cumulative GPA and SAT scores in school history.

An example of this is Boise State. According to the book Saturday Millionaires, which inspects the relationship between America’s universities and their athletic programs, Boise State saw a 9.1 percent boost in applications after the football team’s upset of the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Similarly, after Oregon made appeared in the 2011 BCS national championship against the Auburn Tigers, applications to UO shot up 30 percent.

“There’s no other part of the university that’s in the news every single day,” says Holly Simons, director of strategic communications in the office of enrollment management. “In the past we almost didn’t promote it a lot because we felt it didn’t need to be promoted. It promotes itself very well. But there’s benefit to us to remind students that you get to have this incredible fan experience while you’re here.”

More money also means means paying professors more, or affording better credentialed professors altogether, and therefore raising the reputation of the school. The UO, however, is near the bottom of the rankings from the American Association of Universities, and its spot in U.S. News and World Report’s best national universities is at 109, where it’s hovered for the last 10 years.

This has led some to ask why the university even bothers making the trips in the first place. Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor at UO and former president of the faculty senate, says the university is simply squandering dollars by sending administrators to meet students across the country. In 2011, the UO spent $1,599,307 of a $1,942,000 budget to send 515 people from the athletic department and 56 administrators to the Rose Bowl. This year’s San Antonio expenses to have not been calculated yet.

“I think the issue here is one of spending money at the university appropriately to enhance the academic side of the university,” Tublitz said. “Sending athletic department families to a bowl game does not enhance our academic standing. Why does the entire athletic department staff have to go? I think that’s more athletic staff than even football players.”

However, university officials insist that these are appropriate steps to capitalize on an opportunity that many schools don’t get. Jamie Moffitt, vice president of finance and administration, hopes that the athletic success in bowl games draws people to other parts of the school.

“For me, this goes beyond bowl games, this goes beyond athletics,” she said. “This institution has some places where we have experienced tremendous success and I think we need to think about how we best celebrate that success, make sure that people understand the strengths we have as an institution. And then think about where we have success and how do we leverage that and make use of that so that it benefits other areas as well.”

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