Computer hacking, 'gay'-days and kosher kitchens are all part of the mix as America's universities strive to recruit the nation's most promising students. Stephen Phillips reports.
University entrance is a cut-throat business these days. Last month, it emerged that at the height of this year's admissions season Princeton University's director of admissions hacked into a Yale University's website to snoop on candidates also applying to the rival Ivy League campus.
Princeton conceded a "serious lapse of judgement" and the official in question, Stephen Le Menager, has been suspended pending the outcome of a probe into the incident. Le Menager told the Yale Daily News that he used the dates of birth and social security numbers of 11 Princeton applicants to gain entry to the Yale site 18 times - out of curiosity about its security.
Others suspect the intrusion was less innocent. "It appears to be an example of the incredible level of competition among the elite colleges - both by students playing offers off against one another and colleges trying to attract the best and brightest," says Robert Schaeffer, public education officer at US college entrance think-tank, FairTest.
The same clamour to land high-flying students and increase diversity is driving efforts in some American universities to court more Jewish students. These efforts appear to be concentrated among Bible-belt institutions with names such as Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University.
Jews appear to have a lot to offer universities keen to boost their academic standing and steal precious competitive advantage. Among 35 religions, Jewish students averaged 1,162 out of 1,600 on last year's university entrance exam (SAT), according to College Board figures quoted by the Wall Street Journal , pipped only by Unitarians with 1,209.
Some ,120 students said they were Jewish on the exam's religious affiliation box, versus 2,354 who identified themselves as Unitarian. Meanwhile, Jews make up 23 per cent of students attending Ivy League universities, despite only comprising 2 per cent of the general US population, according to Jewish campus organisation Hillel International. At the University of Pennsylvania, a third of the students are Jewish.
Schaeffer is unsurprised that such students should be in demand. "To the extent that you can identify ethnic groups that have done well academically, you can boost your ranking by concentrating recruitment on them," he says.
Jay Rubin, executive vice-president of Hillel, notes that many of the universities now wooing Jewish students have not traditionally enrolled high numers of Jews. But he acknowledges that, "some of the data support the view that Jewish students do reasonably well academically and many come from affluent backgrounds, so they require less scholarship assistance.
"Later on, they tend to be more involved in philanthropy with their alma mater," he adds.
Perhaps the most aggressive efforts to tap this section of society have come from Nashville Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, a Christian hotbed. "It's no big deal," says Greg Perfetto, Vanderbilt's assistant vice-chancellor for planning. He says that when they compared Vanderbilt with its closest competitors, admissions staff were struck that "we had one of the lowest percentages of Jewish students".
"We want Jewish students for the same reason that any school would want a group of very high-quality students," he explains.
Accordingly, administrators set about turning the campus into a desirable place for Jews to study. A state-of-the-art Jewish cultural centre, replete with kosher kitchen, will open next term and a rabbi has been hired.
Alongside his campus duties, Rabbi David Davis is Vanderbilt's chief emissary in its Jewish outreach efforts, proselytising about the university to communities across the US.
The university also cultivates ties with Jewish high schools, Perfetto says.
Such endeavours are beginning to bear fruit. While Vanderbilt remains overwhelmingly Christian (77 per cent), 5 per cent of last year's incoming students identified themselves as Jewish, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000.
Perfetto says there is no ultimate quota and denies Vanderbilt is practising positive discrimination, beyond encouraging Jewish students to apply. "We're looking for the best students, period. The admission office does not have the religious information available when they admit students."
Belying its name, Southern Methodist University is also intent on bolstering its Jewish presence. Provost Ross Murfin says the "M" in its name forces SMU to "work harder" to woo Jewish students.
The Dallas, Texas, institution opened its first Jewish cultural centre for students in January and this autumn will welcome its first Judaic studies professor.
Diversity is the goal, but "just as engineering students tend to be good students, generally speaking, Jewish students are well prepared and tend to have done well in tests," Murfin says.
"They tend to be very committed to the life of the mind, from families that tend to be committed to education and they bring a level of academic seriousness to any university," he says.
Nearby Texas Christian University in Fort Worth is also seeking to attract more Jewish students. Like SMU, its name counts against it, admits dean of admissions Ray Brown.
"That big old 'C' is a bit off-putting for non-Christian students, but the reality of our institution is that it is left-of-centre theologically."
Brown says of TCU's effort to boost Jewish applications: "It is probably the most important thing started out of our office."
TCU recently inaugurated scholarships for Jewish students and, last year, endowed its first professorship in Judaic studies.
"Jewish students bring a different set of life experiences," he adds. "We are an institution willing to do whatever it takes to achieve diversity."
Of course, boosting TCU's academic standing would be a nice bonus, and Brown notes that the Jewish scholarships are proving "successful in attracting good applicants".
Such reticence is not surprising given that overt efforts to tap a cultural group for the particular benefits they might be expected to bring, though based on a positive stereotype, may smack of ethnic profiling. And the downside is that it may mean other groups are stereotyped as being low-achieving.
But Judaic studies scholar Jacob Neusner, a professor at Bard College, New York, is mildly amused. "It's a fine ethnic compliment, but I know plenty of dumb Jews."
Neusner puts the initiatives down to "consumerism in US higher education - deciding what is this year's prestigious item and going for it. In America ethnicity and race are the equivalent of class in Britain," Neusner says.
All the US universities that focus on recruiting Jewish students also run initiatives aimed at increasing the number of black and Hispanic students. They see both as attempts to build up the ethnic diversity of their student body.
Besides ethnicity, though, sexuality is now creeping up the admissions agenda. What was thought to be the world's first college fair for gay school children was held in Boston in May.
It was meant to be a quiet affair attended by three or four local institutions, recalls organiser Mark Taggart of the Massachusetts governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.
But when news of the event wound up on an email distributed to universities across the US, interest outstripped all expectations.
Some 45 universities showed up, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Brown and Dartmouth. Amid heady interest, 3,200 invitations have already gone out for next year's event.
"Gay students who come out in high school have a certain resilience, life experience, and strength and leadership quality - in addition to academic ability - that is attractive," Taggart says.
Moreover, universities are eager to "flaunt" gay-friendly services such as non-discrimination policies and campus support groups, he adds.
Clearly, no stone is being left unturned as US universities strive to stitch together the diversity, academic excellence and campus vibrancy, consumer-minded students are weigh up when they make their choice of institution.