Nestled in the Fenway, Wentworth Institute of Technology is hardly a household name in the heart of Texas. But for two weeks this fall, Wentworth recruiters hunted for students in San Antonio and angled for prospects in Dallas.
The science-oriented school, like many other small- and medium-sized institutions in the college-rich Boston area, is stepping up efforts along relatively untapped frontiers to expand its pool of applicants beyond New England.
With Massachusetts experiencing minimal population growth, and demographic studies predicting that the ranks of high school graduates in the region are poised to sharply decline, many private schools in New England with limited national profiles are increasingly courting students in the fast-growing Sun Belt.
"We're going where the students are," said Maureen Dischino, Wentworth's director of admissions. "They haven't always heard of us, but it's worth it in terms of getting Wentworth's name beyond the New England area."
Colleges have long sought to assemble a geographically diverse student body, often giving students from less-represented states a bump in the admission process. But now many smaller private schools in New England are taking those efforts a step further. Schools such as Bentley College, Holy Cross, and Suffolk University are reaching out to more students in other time zones, willing to accept some blank stares and costly travel bills in hopes of boosting their name recognition and market share.
For Wentworth, the far-flung forays are paying off. So far this fall, the 3,400-student college, which draws about 60 percent of its students from Massachusetts, has seen applications from Texas increase fivefold from a year ago, from 11 to 56, and applications from California students nearly tripled from 27 to 73. While the total number of students is modest, such success helps New England colleges compensate for intensifying competition for students in the region.
"Schools are basically positioning themselves so when there is a downturn in the local market they can rely on visibility nationally to balance it out," said John Hamel, director of undergraduate admissions at Suffolk University, which has built dormitories in part to attract out-of-state students and has seen strong recent growth in applications from California, Florida, and Texas.
Bentley College toured Texas high schools for two weeks this fall, while the College of the Holy Cross has been canvassing the South, even posting a blog from a freshman from Atlanta on its website chronicling her first semester at college.
"Knowing our primary market is diminishing is certainly driving us to find new markets," said Ann Bowe McDermott, director of admissions at Holy Cross. "The reality for us, and for a lot of other colleges, is that we need to think more broadly about where we recruit students."
Prominent private schools with established national bases, such as Harvard, Boston College, Amherst and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as public flagships with predominately in-state enrollment, have only slightly adjusted their focus, if at all.
But for smaller schools, the demographic trends are worrisome. Massachusetts' population has grown only marginally this decade, and since 1990, New England's population has increased much more slowly than the nation's.
Starting next year, the number of public high school graduates in New England is projected to decline by as much as 15,000, or 10 percent, over the next seven years, according to a study this year by the New England Board of Higher Education.
In addition, nearly one-third of high school graduates in Massachusetts now leave the state for college, although most stay in New England. And while an influx of immigrants has prevented Massachusetts from losing population in recent years, students in those families are less likely to attend college.
"Things don't look so good in the Northeast," said Becky Brodigan, the director of institutional research for Middlebury College who has studied the trend. "Most colleges are primarily regional, so we're really stealing students from each other. The whole mix together is not a pretty picture."
Despite its status as America's college town, Boston and New England colleges can be a tough sell in the Sun Belt. The higher cost, climate, and distance from home are all hurdles, admissions officers say. Only about 10 percent of students in Texas and California, states with strong and affordable public college systems, cross state lines to attend college anywhere else in the country.
"You can get them to apply, but getting them to come is a tough sell," said McDermott of Holy Cross, which has recently seen an increase in applications from Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. "And the further away you get, the more time, energy, and money it takes to recruit these students."
Admissions officers say targeting students is key to coaxing Sun Belt students to small colleges with limited national name recognition. Many tap alumni networks, visit high schools of current or previous students, and track patterns of applications to pinpoint potential areas of interest.
"You try not to go into a place blank," McDermott said.
Eliot Cady, 19, a Wentworth sophomore from San Jose, Calif., said he had never heard of Wentworth before he received a postcard from the college in the mail. He mentioned it to his college counselor, who said Wentworth's size and specialties, especially its engineering program, were a good match. The idea of living in Boston fascinated him, and he was able to win over his initially skeptical friends and parents.
"They were a little unsure about it at first, because they didn't have a good idea of what the school was like," he said. "But once I told them about it, they thought it was a good fit."
Most admissions officers are confident colleges will weather the demographic crunch.
Tom Parker, dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College, said the pending dip in college-age population paled in comparison to the so-called "baby-bust" from 1979 to 1993.
That decline, about 40 percent in New England, forced elite colleges such as Amherst and Williams to establish a national base they can now rely on.
In terms of the recurring demographic, he said, "This is deja vu."
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com