City life sizzles for aspiring students

August 7, 1998

CITY schools are hot and it is not just the summer temperatures. United States urban universities and colleges that once considered their surroundings a liability are suddenly finding they are assets, thanks to a falling crime rate and the economic resurgence of New York, Los Angeles and other cities.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the University of Southern California downplayed its city centre location. Now it touts the neighbourhood as a veritable urban academic laboratory.

In the promotional materials for prospective students, Columbia University in the heart of New York once showed pictures only of its grassy, gated campus, not the busy metropolis outside. Now it uses the city as a recruiting tool.

Joseph P. Allen, USC admissions dean, said: "Six or seven years ago, if you read the literature, most of it either ignored our urban setting or meekly said, 'It's not as bad as you think'."

Today its location has become a selling point, "our single greatest advantage", as Mr Allen puts it.

"This isn't just Madison Avenue hype," he said. "It is taking what I think is a true strength of the university and moving it up on the list of things we use to promote the school."

Whatever it is, it is working. The number of applicants to USC has doubled from 11,700 after the 1992 riots to about 23,000 this year.

"When we survey students they tell us, without a doubt, that they come because of our location," Mr Allen said.

Eric J. Furda, undergraduate admissions director at Columbia, where undergraduate applications are up 82 per cent in five years, said: "In the past a student would go home and say, 'I just heard about Columbia,' and the parents would cut off the conversation and say, 'that's it. You're not going to school in New York.' Now the parents are willing to say, 'Let's take a look'."

The University of Pennsylvania advertises not only its location in Philadelphia, but its proximity to New York and Washington. Quite a departure from the days when Penn was forced to fend off complaints about its tough city neighbourhood. Applications have risen 75 per cent since 1991.

Admissions dean Lee Steston said: "It was a challenge then because security was an issue. Now most urban campuses have improved their facilities and made themselves more attractive."

One big asset for city universities is the professional opportunities for internships and jobs students have near at hand.

This mirrors the trend among undergraduates to steer away from liberal arts towards more professional courses.

"It's a matter of much more than crime," said Michael Behnke, vice-president for enrolment at the University of Chicago, where applications have been rising steadily - by 23 per cent in one year alone, and 14 per cent over the past five years.

Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where applications climbed 22 per cent in five years and 55 per cent since 1991, said: "There have been schools that have really gained from the decrease in crime."

But he added that students have also taken a more pragmatic view to "take advantage of career opportunities near the campus, and the accessibility of internships or practical experiences".

USC now boasts to prospective students that Los Angeles is the most multi-ethnic city on the planet. It stands on the edge of the Pacific Rim and is the capital of the worldwide entertainment industry.

The university has created the Southern California Studies Center to turn its neighbourhood into a laboratory, drawing researchers along with students.

"It was a very deliberate policy on our part to focus in on Southern California," said Michael Dear, a transplanted Welshman who runs the centre.

"It can be seen as taking a threatening situation and turning it into an opportunity."

He said the resurgence of the city colleges and universities "also relates to the general anti-city climate that we had in this country for some time.

"Cities fell off the political agenda during the 1980s, and I think they're coming back on to the agenda, and it's long overdue."

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