SMU Ups Ante On Admission Standards

SMU wants to steal prospective students from schools like Vanderbilt, New York University, and the University of Southern California, and they’re doing it by upping testing standards, recruiting out of state, and investing in research and infrastructure.

Due to an increasing number of applicants, SMU accepted 49 percent in 2015, down from 58 in 2005. Vanderbilt accepted 12 percent of applicants in 2015, while the University of Southern California accepted 18 percent, according to College Board.

While SMU doesn’t have an official GPA or test score requirement, combined math and reading SAT scores have increased nearly 100 points over the last decade. The average SAT score for the freshman class of 2015 was 1309, up from 1217 in 2005.

“We hear this comment a lot from our alumni: ‘I’d never get into SMU now,’” said Wes Waggoner, associate VP for enrollment. “There is no doubt that some students who attended SMU 10 to 12 years ago might not be offered admission today. In fact, some who were admitted last year might not be admitted this year.”

As for ACT scores, the increase is even more dramatic. In 2015, the average ACT score for a first-year student was 29.5 compared to 25.8 in 2005. That’s roughly equivalent to a 130-point increase on the SAT.

“I think students are looking at the school differently now,” said Carol Wasden, director of college counseling at The Hockaday School. “A few years ago, I heard them say that they knew how great the academics were, but they didn’t want to stay in Dallas.”

Student body president Carlton Adams was a legacy recruit. His parents met at SMU, and two of his sisters are also grads. The Highland Park High School grad said that many people’s perceptions of the school are far from reality.

“It wasn’t until I attended all four years that I understood the type of students SMU creates,” he said. “The students that leave the Hilltop are intellectually curious, professionally driven, with an innate ability to succeed. Because when on campus, your peers hold you to a high standard in academics, socialization, and involvement.”

To draw in high-achieving students, the school intentionally sent more mail, traveled to more states, and visited more schools and college fairs, according to Waggoner.

A decade ago, Texas universities were SMU’s main source of competition. According to Waggoner, today, Boston University and NYU are among the top schools to which students also applied. On the West Coast, SMU has students who were also admitted to UC Berkeley and similar schools, and chose to come to Texas.

“We have a strong Texas base, but just like people moving to Dallas right now, our undergraduates come from all over,” Waggoner said.
Freshman Alyssa Wentzel wasn’t sure what to expect from SMU when she moved here from Los Angeles. She envisioned the university to be more “country,” but found it to be quite the opposite. The school’s namesake religious affiliation also gave her some misleading expectations.

“Coming from a private, Christian high school, I thought SMU would be more religiously focused than it is simply because of the word ‘Methodist’ in its name,” Wentzel said. “But I also perceived SMU as being a school where students are motivated to improve and dedicated to their studies, which has turned out to be true.”

While around 43 percent of students are from Texas, 49 percent from other states, and about 8 percent are international. According to Waggoner, about 27 percent of SMU’s undergraduate students represent racial and ethnic diversity; 10 years ago that number was less than 20.

Through federal loans and grants and more scholarship offers, the school is slowly shedding the “Southern Millionaires University” moniker.

A common way to measure the socio-economic diversity of a school is the percent of students who qualify for federal Pell Grants. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, 17 percent of SMU students have a family income less than $40,000 and receive a federal Pell Grant.

To further incentivize students to select SMU, the school has nearly tripled the amount of scholarship monies it offers since 2005. For the freshman class in 2015 (meaning, class of 2019), SMU awarded more than $18 million in merit scholarships, Waggoner said.

The Hunt Leadership Scholars, for instance, have most of their tuition and fees covered by the school, plus tuition and transportation to one of the study abroad programs. Adams’ decision to attend wasn’t made until he received a call telling him that he was a Hunt Scholar.

Hunt scholars must rank in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, have leadership experience, and have made at least a 1290 on the SAT.

According to Waggoner, about three in every four students receive some kind of financial assistance to attend SMU, most of which are academic scholarships. Many also receive need-based financial aid.

How much need-based aid a student receives depends on the individual student’s financial circumstances, he said. The average size of a scholarship and need-based financial package for 2014-15 was $26,887, according to SMU’s website.

As part of increasing its academic prestige, the school has also sought more research funding and invested in new tech. In 2014, the university acquired a new super computer, the ManeFrame, which is valued at $6.5 million, but was purchased for $50,000 (the shipping cost) from the U.S. Navy. It can make 120 million billion calculations per second. In Texas, only University of Texas at Austin and Rice University have more powerful computing capabilities.

In 2011, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching raised SMU’s classification to a research university with “high research activity,” a step up from a 2005 assessment. During 2014-15, SMU received $26 million for research and sponsored projects, compared with $4.1 million in 1994-95.

“We are building a community of scholars asking and answering important research questions and making an impact on societal issues with their findings,” SMU President R. Gerald Turner said in a statement after the Carnegie bump.

In the recently dedicated Harold Clark Simmons Hall, an extension of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, students and faculty will be able to conduct their research in high-tech labs and classrooms.

The Simmonses gave $25 million in February 2013 for the hall’s construction, an example of the size of gifts the school has been receiving in the past 10 years. The couple had gifted $20 million in 2007 for the construction of a new building for the Simmons School and to endow several academic positions.

According to Brad Cheves, VP of development and external affairs, the Simmons School offers a new type of school of education with a specific mission in mind.

“Being involved in education that has evidence-based research that improves learning and the purveying of education through more effective teaching is the goal,” Cheves said. “Its purpose is to look at problems and issues, opportunities, and challenges and then based on data and evidence, address these in ways that can make improvements in learning.”

In honor of SMU’s centennial celebration, the school announced on Feb. 26 that it raised gifts totaling $1.5 billion, the largest amount ever raised by a private university in Texas.

This campaign has added SMU to the list of 34 private universities nationwide to have undertaken campaigns of $1 billion or more, which includes Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame, Emory, and Vanderbilt universities.

That money is enabling the university to further its mission for worldwide recognition as a place where ideas are cultivated to become good business.

“The campaign has shown the investment SMU makes in its faculty, and that continues to attract the best and brightest to teach and research at SMU,” Waggoner said.

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