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Akst: Quality, and marketing, at Geneseo

Photo Credit: Nancy Ohanian/Nancy Ohanian

Elite liberal arts colleges tend to have a few things in common.

Ivy-covered buildings? Check.

Quaint historic village in the middle of nowhere? Check.

Average math and reading SATs north of 1300? Check.

Focus on teaching? Check.

Dirt cheap tuition? As we say on Long Island, fuhgeddaboudit.

Except, as many Long Island families have discovered, for a strange and marvelous place cursed with the name State University of New York at Geneseo. Last fall, one in 10 freshmen were from Nassau County, a staggering increase of 75 percent in just four years. Suffolk provided one in 8. Another 1 in 14 were from Westchester and Rockland counties, where the increase was 82 percent.

Why should this obscure upstate college, six hours by car from Jericho High School, suddenly become so appealing?

The biggest factor is probably the tough economy. Geneseo draws some of the same applicants as such top schools as Amherst, Colgate and Hamilton. But while Amherst costs $60,000 a year, Geneseo will give you Aristotle and astrophysics, bucolic vistas and college high jinks, all for $20,000 if you're from New York State -- or just $29,000 if you're from elsewhere -- all inclusive. And admission is need-blind, meaning they don't care if you have no money. Geneseo isn't yet a household name, but it's a great alternative to graduating with a mountain of debt and hoping for on-the-job training as a barista.

Other trends are at work, too. Parents of strong students know their kids will probably go on to graduate school, so why splurge on a brand-name BA when you can save instead for a Wharton MBA? Besides, getting into an Ivy League-caliber school has become a hideous rat race. Geneseo isn't just cheaper, it's easier.

Of course, if getting in were too easy, top students wouldn't apply. Geneseo rejects two out of three applicants, the average math-reading SAT is 1340, and the school boasts of being the most selective in the SUNY system. It manages this without the lure of merit scholarships

How did all this happen? Back in the 1980s, Geneseo officials noticed that America's vast and diverse higher education system is notably short on one thing: small, selective, public liberal arts institutions, particularly in the Northeast. So Geneseo set out to distinguish itself by becoming just that.

Shrewd marketing was key. The school started selling itself on the theme of an Ivy experience at a SUNY price. The words "state university" were rarely mentioned in brochures. Campus buildings, once allowed to fester in decrepitude, were spruced up. When prospects visit, after all, a school only has one shot at making a great impression.

Six or seven years ago, Geneseo hired a retired schoolteacher on Long Island to attend college fairs and visit high schools. Better students starting coming, which made it easier to recruit better faculty. A virtuous cycle was launched. From 2000 to 2009, Geneseo ranked 10th among mainly undergraduate institutions in alumni PhDs in science, technology, engineering or math.

Geneseo labors under some big handicaps. It's far from the affluent coastal suburbs that breed many of the students who aspire to such places. SUNY tuition is absurdly low, which means funding is scant. It has little brand value for the status-conscious, especially out of state. There's a lot of snow and virtually no endowment.

That makes the school's success all the more remarkable -- and proves that, with discipline and focus, colleges can achieve excellence without charging a fortune. Long Islanders, apparently, know a bargain when they see one.


Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.