As a 17-year-old high schooler, Alissa Johnson was flattered by her instant fame.
Letters poured into her home at Lapine, Ore. Important people called. Money was promised.
The attention was intense, and it all came from one source - Whitworth College in north Spokane.
“I was just some high school kid from a small town, so it shocked me that they’d take the time,” the Whitworth freshman said during a recent break from her French and international studies. “But everything is so personal here.”
In an era of virtual universities, where bragging rights are awarded to schools with 1,000 students per Internet course, Whitworth’s personal touch is bucking the trend.
Although one of the smallest and most expensive schools in the Inland Northwest, Whitworth this fall showed the highest percentage growth in enrollment.
A total of 1,835 full-time students enrolled at the Presbyterian-owned school, a 4 percent hike from 1996.
Whitworth officials downplay their success, saying they’ve had larger enrollments. But rarely has it happened at a time when so many other schools were struggling.
Nearly all of the colleges and universities in Eastern Washington lost students this fall. Washington State University posted a tiny gain, but well below its projected target.
Private, four-year colleges throughout Washington suffer from a lack of students. The state’s 10 private schools together reported enough space to accommodate 2,100 more students this fall, according to the Seattle-based Independent Colleges of Washington.
But at Whitworth’s 200-acre, pine-covered campus, only five dormitory beds are empty.
“The place is in the best condition it’s been for years,” said Jon Flora, president of the ICW and a 1978 Whitworth graduate.
The popularity of Whitworth, where students are annually billed $14,750 for tuition, is not by happenstance. Administrators began refining a strategy years ago to target the brightest freshmen looking for a quieter, Christian environment.
That worked well until last year when an unusually high percentage of freshmen expected to come to Whitworth didn’t show up for fall classes. Something had happened to their commitment during the summer, and Whitworth vowed to not repeat the outcome in 1997.
“We review every application to see if there is anything we can do to get them,” college president Bill Robinson said.
Robinson dropped that task on Fred Pfursich, dean of enrollment services. In return, Pfursich insisted that Robinson send a personal letter to every applicant for the 1997-98 academic year.
Robinson wrote 1,200 letters, knowing that two-thirds of the prospective students would never come, or never be admitted.
“I’d find a good game to watch and pen some notes,” Robinson said.
Pfursich also enlists faculty, students and staff into his recruitment pitch. Letters and phone calls arrive weekly right up to fall classes, students said. Course offerings, majors and scholarships are laid out in easy-to-follow catalogs and brochures.
Amy Austin, a freshman from Superior, Mont., said she grew up dreaming of attending the University of Montana. But after visiting the Whitworth campus and checking out the tennis team, she signed up.
“I feel like I know the faculty here better than my high school teachers,” said Austin, who came from a school of 160 students.
Spreading the financial aid around to the best students also has helped.
Wendy Olson, director of financial aid, said 93 percent of all full-time Whitworth undergraduates receive some form of scholarship or grant that doesn’t have to be paid back. That works out to 1,365 students this semester.
Rather than shrouding the award process in mystery, Whitworth lists its merit scholarships for everyone to see.
For instance, high school seniors know that if they maintained a 3.6 grade point average and scored 1,200 or higher on their Scholastic Aptitude Test, they’ll receive a $5,000 scholarship at Whitworth. That’s guaranteed, with no strings attached.
“The aid helped in my decision,” said Johnson, the Oregon student. “It was a step of faith to apply because I hadn’t received any scholarships up until that time.”
Persuading the freshmen class to return for their sophomore year has been another important step for Whitworth’s stability. When students return for that second year, Pfursich said, they are far more likely to finish their degree at Whitworth.
“Some experts say the crucial time is the first six weeks in college,” he said. “If your experience is positive and you feel you’re not just a number and you’re plugged in, you have a good roommate match and the classes you’re looking for, then chances are good that you’ll come back.”
In 1989, about 65 percent of all Whitworth freshmen returned. This year, Pfursich said, it was 83 percent.
Whitworth has not lowered its standards to boost enrollment. Rather, it has paid closer attention to ensuring that its freshmen survive in an intense academic environment, with weekly advising meetings and other support, Pfursich said.
“If they have concerns about something, there’s a place they can go,” he said.
This fall, the average high school grade point average of the freshmen class was 3.56, compared with 3.23 in 1990, Pfursich said. The Scholastic Aptitude Tests score average rose from 1,040 to 1,140 during the same time.
Such statistics are meaningful for administrators and faculty, but students say they’re more interested in how they will be treated at school, the friends they make, whether their diploma will translate into a career and whether the cafeteria food is edible.
After all, Johnson said: “They’ve got us now.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: College enrollment