About a year ago, Marcy Brown was like many of the other 50-some Nevada National Merit finalists. Navigating her senior year of high school, she sifted through the materials from "prestige" universities and stressed over making the right choice. With a 3.943 GPA at West Career Technical Academy, Brown had her pick of options and visions of a career in biology. Her hometown university, she figured, didn't offer the research opportunities and campus life she sought.
That assumption was overturned when UNLV recruiters invited Brown to campus. She spent time in labs, talked with professors and current students about their projects, and learned about the Honors College and residence halls.
"Once I toured the campus and I saw how they really started to work with me personally, I changed my mind right there," said Brown, who also visited Cornell, Washington State, Hawaii, and a few other universities.
Now a freshman studying evolutionary biology, Brown is planning to go to Ireland or Scotland through the university's study abroad program and is keeping her mind open about whatever opportunities will likely reveal themselves for graduate school. "I know some of the Merit semi-finalists at my high school. I really want to talk to them about UNLV now," she added.
UNLV's emphasis on the research opportunities for undergraduates won her over. It's something more students can tap into as UNLV breaks into the Carnegie Foundation's listing of top research universities. As part of achieving the Tier 1 goal, UNLV President Neal Smatresk has set a target for the student body to grow over the next five years to 30,000, an increase of 3,000.
But growing the overall pie comes with both opportunities and challenges. "You want to grow, but it always brings the question of how to grow," said Carrie Trentham, interim director of enrollment and student services.
The university's recruitment strategy has shifted to answer that question. This year's freshman class is the largest in history, topping 3,700 students and showing 14.6 percent growth over last year's figures. Transfer student figures grew 7 percent as well. And with more than 50 percent of the student body coming from a minority population, UNLV has one of the most diverse campuses in the country.
Efforts to keep Nevada's higher-achieving students like Brown in state are starting to pay off. At the same time, UNLV is intent on keeping college accessible for Nevadans, especially veterans and first-generation college students, and redeveloping programs to boost retention and graduation rates.
Ask and They'll Come
Marta Meana, a psychology professor and the interim dean of UNLV's Honors College, is making it very clear that she has her eyes out for the Marcy Browns of the world.
"To some extent, I think UNLV lacked confidence in the past or just failed to go after (high achieving students) in the belief that they weren't going to come here anyway," Meana said. "We've found that's not true. If you show them the experience they'll have here, they will come."
Meana and her team have worked to make the Honors College opportunities a selling point for high-achieving students. Some of the benefits: a private lounge and study area in Lied Library, early class registration, and small general education courses with hand-picked professors.
Honors advising sessions go far beyond picking out classes, Meana explained. Students are prepped for life-altering awards -- the Truman, Goldwater, or Marshall awards, and the Rhodes Scholar honor -- as well as their future careers.
The college more than doubled its freshman enrollment this fall and the average GPA climbed as well, from 3.7 to 3.89. Total college enrollment is about 500 students. Top-tier universities aim for a figure of 8 percent of the undergraduate population. With undergraduates numbering about 23,000, UNLV's program has plenty of room to grow.
Chris Heavey, director of general education, coordinates the college's STEM Academy to attract students to the science and math majors. The program, first run last spring, exposes high-level high school students to the UNLV campus and its engineering and science labs. The focus is on raising awareness of the research happening to make their hometown a better place -- research that they can be part of as undergraduates. "Most people never break the boundaries of the campus," he said. "They don't realize there is a major university with millions (of dollars) in research grants here."
The Value Proposition
With family budgets tightening during the Great Recession, students are mindful of college costs now more than ever, and UNLV has always well outscored its peers in value.
For Gil Revolorio, a dual major in public administration and criminal justice, UNLV's lower tuition, coupled with scholarships designed specifically to help Nevadans attain a
college education, were key selling points. Revolorio graduated high school with a 3.8 and credits a UNLV academic counselor with helping him find the scholarships from the Latin Chamber of Commerce, NV Energy, and Harrah's Foundation. The first-generation college student is proud that he'll graduate debt-free.
"I didn't want to put the burden on myself or my parents for the future," he said. "I'm very blessed."
Getting the most bang for your scholarship buck is on the mind of honors students too. More and more, Meana is finding that these students are wiser about managing their academic careers.
In the past year, Honors College graduates have been accepted into graduate programs at Georgetown, Boston, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and plenty of other prestigious universities.
"Come here, do well, then go to Harvard," Meana explained. "You really don't want to finish your undergraduate degree and immediately face a loan payment the size of a mortgage."
Attracting the best, brightest, and the most diverse population requires a cross-disciplinary effort. Never before have UNLV's Honors College, veterans services, financial aid, and admissions offices been so interlinked, officials in these departments say.
Norm Bedford, director of financial aid, says 70 percent of UNLV students receive some sort of financial aid through scholarships, loans, grants, and tuition reimbursement programs, among many others. His office sees about 45,000 student visits, fields 60,000 calls each year, and disperses $240 million annually in financial aid.
Bedford's team also tags along at recruitment outings. Knowing that the financial package makes such a difference in college selection, financial aid counselors can sometimes offer scholarships literally on the spot during targeted recruiting events.
"We recognize that high-ability students have a variety of choices. So we want to put the best offers out early," he said. That scores points with both the students and their parents by relieving the worry over how to pay for school.
University leaders have also increased the number and types of scholarships available to grow the student population strategically. The new Valedictorian Scholarship immediately boosted the number of those high achievers in this year's freshman class. The Rebel Achievement and Rebel Challenge scholarships, which take test scores and GPA into account, have succeeded in getting potential students to make an early, first-choice decision to be a Rebel.
Another scholarship aimed at Clark County students promotes on-campus housing as an alternative to living at home. Resident students generally do better academically, which ultimately will improve the university's graduation rate, a key goal of the Tier 1 initiative. It also gives students, like Marcy Brown, that fully immersive college experience.
Betting on Vets
Ross Bryant remembers the many financial and emotional hurdles he faced when he returned to college. Now he assists UNLV's more than 1,200 student veterans transition from the military into their academic careers. He likens the military experience to once being on a Super Bowl team, where excelling was about answering to the team and the mission. Leaving that structure can be difficult.
"You're no longer with your buddies you went to war with. It's just you, on campus," the 24-year Army veteran explained. "You've spent three or four years in war while your counterpart (in class) has been going to school and hanging out in Las Vegas. Many times, veterans have challenges feeling connected to the campus community."
His office offers a network to turn to. It fields questions from veterans on admissions, GI Bill enrollment certification, financial aid, campus and community support services, local veteran-discounted housing, and employment programs. Once they overcome their concerns, he said, then they can address what he calls "academic rustiness" and perform well in the university setting.
The leadership skills and a strong sense of discipline engendered by military service make veterans a welcome addition to campus. The office markets UNLV to the 80,000 troops based throughout Southern California.
UNLV is proud to be one of only 90 schools in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs-funded program, which provides a benefits counselor on campus. GI Jobs Magazine also has recognized UNLV as a top veteran-friendly school for the last four years.
First-Gen and Transfers
First-generation college students, like Revolorio, account for the core of UNLV's student population. Often, this group simply isn't aware that college is for them and it's within their reach.
It's a group Nicole Cummings, an admissions counselor, enjoys working with. If anything, the experience has helped her realize how much she took for granted when she was in school. Her parents, who had both gone to college, knew how to navigate financial aid forms and deadlines, an experience that can be overwhelming for some first-generation families.
"That's what I really love about my job. I hope to be that contact person, so you don't have to call this and that person. That kind of calms them down and they don't feel so overwhelmed," she said.
While first generation students are on the rise, so are transfer students in general. For 2013, 43 percent of students were transfers, up from 40 percent last year. UNLV also recruits using the Western Undergraduate Exchange Scholarship, a program involving high school students from 14 regional states. With the scholarship, students can save several thousand dollars a year on the out-of-state tuition rate.
Cummings also keeps an eye on pockets of the country where UNLV's reputation is growing. Lately, she's seen a boost in students coming from Illinois, Philadelphia, and parts of Texas. They trickle in from a certain high school at first, then a couple years later the number multiplies.
"Students are talking about UNLV back in their hometowns. That's a good sign," she added.
It means recent alumni and current students are helping build UNLV's reputation.