What's it take to become a Hokie today? by Sherry Bithell

graduation Virginia Tech used to be called "Virginia's best-kept secret" because of its one-two punch of quality and value. Then word leaked out, and today, academically gifted high school students across the commonwealth and the country vie for admission. At the same time, Tech's rise in popularity has prompted concern that the university has become too selective or too expensive. But never fear: This is the same Virginia Tech remembered fondly by its hundreds of thousands of alumni--it's simply that the university has moved into the 21st century.

Making a match

Virginia Tech today still holds true to its basic principles, says Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Mark McNamee. "Our mission has always been tied to the land-grant philosophy of public universities. It's central to what we do as a university: to make sure we have programs and opportunities for undergraduate students throughout Virginia in a wide range of interest areas: agricultural and natural resources, architectural, educational, engineering, liberal arts, science, and more."

Nonetheless, as the university's reputation and the quality of its programs have increased, so has the competition for admission. Norrine Bailey Spencer, associate provost and director of undergraduate admissions, notes, "Credentials as measured by things such as the SAT and grade-point average have increased. But we've not raised the bar, the market has raised the bar--the pool has gotten so much stronger. It's a situation where we have 5,000 freshman class seats available, so we take the best students who match the programs we have."

During the past 10 years, average SAT scores for Virginia's high school students rose from 996 total to 1024. In comparison, average scores of those offered admission to Virginia Tech rose from 1150 total in 1996 to 1242 for the current freshman class. But regardless of their qualifications, all students are held to the same high degree of accountability after being accepted--which is why making a good match between student and university is vital.

Data points such as SAT scores and grade-point average aside, the overarching criteria for admission to Virginia Tech remains whether a student will be able to succeed. Therefore, the admissions process is a well-considered--and very human--one.

"Admissions doesn't have any machines making rules, and we don't have policies that if you're in the Xth percentile, you're in," Spencer says. "We look at the whole picture."

One focus area is strength of schedule, given what a student's high school offered and what his or her aptitudes are. Because of this focus, Spencer recommends that students take the most rigorous academic schedule they can through their senior year. "We take a look at students' skills and what they've shown they can achieve in the classroom."

Hand-in-hand with this piece of advice goes another: "When students have the option of making a personal statement on their applications, I want them to speak to us, to tell us what happened the first semester of their sophomore year when they got those Cs," Spencer notes. "It's important that they tell us what went wrong and what they learned from that."

Areas other than academic criteria are also considered, including whether a student was a leader in a club, pursued extracurricular activities, or wants to join the corps of cadets. Competitive SAT scores and grades are necessary, but these goals can play a role in determining whether a student is admitted if he or she is in the competitive pool. Again, the personal statements--each of which is read by at least one admissions staff member--can make a difference. "It's important that students tell us if they have a special goal or have achieved some special things," Spencer says. "They need to show us that they can be leaders, that they’re good citizens."

Finally, in the admissions process, it is important not only to make sure that the student is right for Tech, but also to make sure the university is right for the student. Because Virginia Tech is a large, comprehensive university offering nearly 200 degrees, there truly is something for almost everyone. Yet if a student wants to be in an urban setting, Blacksburg isn't the right choice--and a bad match can translate into a bad experience. In short, Spencer belives that it's vital for students to sit down and determine which schools have the opportunities that provide the best fit before filling out the first application.

Is the price right?

On paper, another marked difference at today's Tech is tuition. A scant 10 years ago, during the 1994-95 school year, undergraduate tuition was $3,399 for in-state students and $9,852 for out-of-state students--compare those to the 2004-05 rates of $4,513 and $15,206.

These numbers belie, however, what has really happened to the cost of higher education in Virginia over the past decade. "The inflation-adjusted cost has not gone up," McNamee says, "just who's paying for the education. The state pays part of it for the in-state students and tuition pays the rest of it. The decrease in state support has necessitated that we increase tuition to help offset those losses and to maintain the quality of our programs."

To determine how much the state and its universities pay to educate students, the Commonwealth of Virginia computes a per-student instructional cost for its colleges and universities. The resulting average cost--called "cost to educate"--is then used to guide how much tuition the individual institutions need to charge after the state budget is parceled out. Today, that cost is approximately $11,400.

Over the past 15 years, the burden of the cost to educate that is borne by the state versus by the students has changed dramatically. In 1989-90, students paid, on average, about 37 percent of the instructional cost. Two years later, the General Assembly modified the state's tuition policy to require colleges and universities to recover the full cost from out-of-state students. As a result, the portion of the instructional budget covered by tuition saw a significant increase.

Today, the theory is that the state will fund 67 percent of the cost to educate an in-state student, with the student paying the remaining 33 percent. In reality, during the 2004-05 academic year, undergraduate in-state students are paying 41 percent of that cost. In the overall budget scheme, tuition and fees account for 54.3 percent of the university's educational budget, and General Fund monies--taxpayer dollars--account for 39.2 percent. An additional 6.5 percent comes from a category labeled "Other," which includes such self-supporting areas as continuing education activities and veterinary medicine hospital and Equine Medical Center sales, as well as miscellaneous sales and service-fee income.

In the past, yo-yoing tuition rates were induced by fluctuating state appropriations. Accordingly, one advantage of the state's new restructured higher education act is that it gives Virginia Tech the autonomy to create predictable and stable rate projections. "It will be a lot easier for a parent to know what the tuition is going to be for the next few years," notes McNamee.

Further complicating tuition rates is the inflation factor. "I think if you look at the actual number of dollars students pay for in-state tuition today versus 10 or 15 years ago, corrected for inflation, the rate has really not increased," McNamee says. "It's gone up, down, flat, and then steeper, but when you even all that out, tuition is about the same today as it was a decade ago."

Still, Virginia Tech remains an excellent value. In a comparison of total cost to attend, including room and board, the university ranks among the lowest, coming in 22nd out of its 23 peer universities, including schools such as Penn State, the University of California at Berkeley, and N.C. State, and 15th among the commonwealth's 15 colleges and universities.

An alternate route

There is another path to Tech that provides a four-year university learning experience for less money than the traditional route--attending community college for two years with the intention of transferring to a four-year university. The concept behind the 20th-century community college was to partially fill the role of providing a low-cost education to state students. And at an average annual cost of $2,006 for Virginia's community colleges, the four-year total tuition rings in at less than four years at Tech.

Another advantage of this route is that Virginia Tech works closely with the community colleges to ensure that students take the right courses and are attuned to the transferability of their credits, which is vital to making the move to a four-year institution. Just last year, for instance, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences said that it would guarantee admission to students who follow a certain course of study at a community college.

How can alumni help?

Although today's pool of prospective students is good, Tech can't afford to rest on its laurels. Spencer notes that the university's admission into the ACC affects more than just athletics. "Part of our out-of-state admissions tend to follow the conference. When we were in the Big East, we were competing for students in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Now we're looking at North Carolina and South Carolina. And to be honest, other schools in the ACC have started to offer financial aid packages and tuition rates that challenge ours."

Due to the increased competition for students, alumni participation is important--in this case, by sending good students to Virginia Tech. Cherie Coiner, assistant director of undergraduate admissions, works closely with alumni chapters for student recruitment and scholarships.

Spencer notes that "alumni have credibility--that we don't--to say, 'I went to Virginia Tech and here's what it did in terms of opening doors for me.' So when you're around teenagers and their parents, don't talk about the weather—talk about Virginia Tech."

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs David Ford agrees wholeheartedly. "That's something the younger alumni can do. They say, 'I'm still paying off college loans and I can't give you a lot of money." But if they send us good students, that is a big gift."

Freshman Snapshot: Class of 2008

By the numbers
Number of freshman applicants: 17,780
Number offered admission: 12,500
Percentage enrolled under early decision plan: 22%
Number of valedictorians/salutatorians: 141
Number of freshmen in University Honors; 866
Number of freshmen in the corps of cadets: 291
Number of freshmen who are legacies*: 1,209
Number of high schools represented: 1,268

By the books
Average high school GPA: 3.7
Scored 500 or higher on the SAT I verbal: 90%
Scored 500 or higher on the SAT I math: 94%

Top home states of out-of-state freshmen:
1) Maryland, 448 students
2) Pennsylvania, 238 students
3) New Jersey, 185 students
4) North Carolina, 126 students
5) New York, 85 students
Number of states represented: 36
Countries represented: 28
Number of international students: 116

Most popular majors for freshmen in fall 2004:
1) University studies
2) General engineering
3) Biology
4) Business (undecided)
5) Computer science
6) Communication
7) Animal and poultry science
8) Architecture
9) Psychology
10) Political science

Gender: 57% male, 43% female
Race: Asian: 7.5%; Black: 3.8%; Hispanic: 2.0%; Native American: 0.3%; Unknown/Other: 13.3%; White: 73.0%
Most common male names: Michael, Matthew
Most common female names: Jessica, Jennifer
Most common last name: Smith

* A "legacy" is a student whose mother, father, grandparent, or sibling also attended Virginia Tech.

Why do choosy students choose Tech?

Why did you apply to Virginia Tech? Was it the variety of strong academic programs, the beauty of Blacksburg and the surrounding areas, or the chance to find yourself in a large university with numerous opportunities? As the years go by, students change and the university changes, meaning applicants value different elements when they apply to the university.

The College Board conducts an Admitted Student Survey to find common perceptions about the programs, recruitment offerings,
and other characteristics of the colleges and universities
that students applied to. Here's how the perceptions of Tech among admitted students* changed during the last decade.

In 1994:
1. Large
2. Inexpensive
3. Friendly
4. Isolated
5. Fun

In 2003:
1. Athletics (previously #15)
2. Fun
3. Highly Respected (previously #10)
4. Friendly
5. Challenging (previously #7)

What's changed?

Students have stopped using "large" and "diverse" as important images associated with Tech, and have started using "inexpensive" and "supportive" more frequently. Other predominant Virginia Tech images high on the list included career-oriented, prestigious, selective, and inexpensive.

What’s important to today's admitted students?

1. Availability of majors
2. Quality of majors
3. Preparation for career
4. Academic reputation
5. Value for the price

* Admitted students are those who have been offered admission
to Virginia Tech but have not necessarily accepted.