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Brett Carroll leveraged a passion for skiing to get into college. His application essays framed this love, developed from a childhood spent ski racing in New England, as a metaphor for his dedication to being the best at whatever he chooses in life.
After weighing admission offers from schools big and small, public and private, East and West, he decided on a little liberal arts college in Salt Lake City. When he arrives at Westminster College in August, Carroll will join the first freshman class in the school's 136-year history in which out-of-staters outnumber Utahns.
While more than 80 percent of this year's graduates call Utah home, the college has become a national destination, according to President Michael Bassis.
"It means Westminster's reputation is spreading. We are becoming better known as a quality institution in more and more places," Bassis said. Of the 540 freshman expected to arrive at Westminster in August, 56 percent are from outside Utah, up from 43 percent last fall. Four percent are from abroad, 18 percent are students of color and about a fourth are eligible for federal need-based aid known as Pell grants, according to the college.
"Students learn best in an environment with diverse perspectives and experiences. Simply having students from Utah doesn't give the kind of diversity that makes for a really powerful learning experience," Bassis said. "That's why we are recruiting international students as well."
The University of Utah is also trolling for students beyond the state's borders, devoting a new position to the effort with a particular emphasis on California and Texas. The state flagship's step up to a high-profile athletic conference will help, but officials are making a conscious effort to cultivate a student body comparable to those of its new peers in the Pac-12. According to a recent report to U. trustees, the administration aims to increase out-of-state enrollment to 20 to 25 percent and up to 10 percent from abroad.
Westminster's drive to attract students from outside of Utah got a boost in 2008, the year it joined the Common Application, according to Joel Bauman, vice president for enrollment. Westminster is the only Utah school that participates in the program, launched in the 1970s by a handful of the nation's most elite schools but now including 450 institutions.
"There is a strong affinity among schools in the Common App that Westminster needed to align itself with. It makes us more accessible to students who are more educated about the admissions processes," Bauman said.
Common Application allows students to apply to several member institutions at once. Westminster's application numbers soared after it joined, and much of the growth came from outside Utah, according to Bauman. And, as the portion of admissions coming from other states increased, so has the caliber of incoming students.
While the average GPA of Westminster admits has slipped, their rankings in their graduating classes have climbed. This is an indication that the college is drawing from more competitive high schools, according to Bauman.
For the class entering in 2009, the average GPA was 3.49 and average ACT score was 24.7. Of the students from high schools that report class rank, 60 percent were in the top quartile.
While Westminster draws mostly from Western states, it has gained a toehold in New England thanks to its winter sports program. Indeed, it was that program that caught Carroll's attention in the form of a brochure he received from Westminster. He applied through the Common Application.
From Farmington, Conn., Carroll initially considered going to a brand-name, liberal-arts school closer to home, like Colgate or Middlebury, or state schools such as the University of Vermont and University of Connecticut.
While steep by Utah standards, Westminster's cost is a screaming deal among the nation's elite private schools. If Carroll's parents were uneasy about him heading West for college, they will find the $27,000 Westminster charges easier to handle than the $43,000 at Colgate. Like many Westminster students, Carroll is eligible for aid that will cover most of his tuition. The school handed out $18.6 million in institutional scholarships last year, a threefold increase from a decade earlier. Last year, the average aid package, including federal loans and Pell grants, was worth more than $21,000, according to administrators.
"It will be nice graduating without $100,000 in debt," Carroll said. Sweetening the deal was Salt Lake's great skiing and joining a class with a variety of backgrounds.
"Greater diversity among the students they enroll will make the experience even better," Carroll said. "I'm really looking forward to coming out to a completely new part of the country."
Carroll has yet to decide on a major but is inclined toward Westminster's business programs, although he wants to get grounded in history, English and physics.
"The first year I'm going to be taking classes from different areas and deciding what I want to do with the rest of my life," he said.