Jordan Hayles, valedictorian of her senior class this year at Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala., had her pick of some of the nation's most esteemed colleges. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Stanford all accepted her.
So why did Hayles recently decide on Emory University in Atlanta, a highly regarded institution but more often a place students choose when they can't get into an Ivy League school?
Partly, she said, because the school offered her a tantalizing financial deal, a package covering full tuition, room and board, foreign study funds, a $1,000 stipend for a research project and even money to pay for cultural events or restaurant meals with fellow Emory scholars.
"I thought that was just splendid," Hayles said. "You get to go out, meet different people, and you don't have to pay anything. You can't beat that."
For some high school seniors who are academic stars, it has become more tempting in recent years to pass up an Ivy League education. Many private colleges and public universities, eager to boost their reputations by recruiting students with stellar grades and lofty College Board scores, are dangling lucrative scholarships, special programs and other come-ons.
Ivy League schools, which provide substantial amounts of financial aid, but only to students deemed financially needy, say they haven't been measurably hurt by the widening competition for academic standouts.
Still, non-Ivies that recruit aggressively say that they are snagging more top young scholars.
There are no authoritative figures on how many students bypass the Ivy Leagues. But the scale of such recruiting is reflected in the skyrocketing sums that the nation's four-year colleges have devoted to scholarships based on academic performance. A higher-education researcher, Donald Heller of Penn State, has found that the schools raised their spending on merit scholarships by 152 percent, to $3 billion, between the 1992-93 and 1999-2000 school years. By comparison, they boosted grants based on financial need by 59 percent.
Cornell economist Robert Frank said: "We're definitely seeing that the schools that have been most aggressive in offering merit-based aid have been taking some students away from the schools who ordinarily would get them," he said.