The University of South Florida wasn't even on Ashley McCorry's radar.
McCorry, this year's valedictorian at Anclote High School in Pasco County, preferred the University of Florida, Boston University or the University of Denver.
But USF won her over, enticing the 17-year-old with the perks of the school's honors college, generous scholarships and impressive research programs. McCorry joined 26 other valedictorians and salutatorians from the Tampa Bay area who picked USF this year over more prestigious and more distant schools, according to the Tampa Bay Times' annual list of honors graduates.
Fifteen years ago, the number was just 16.
That was a distant second to the University of Florida, which had 37.
"We were losing far too many bright minds to universities in Florida and outside," said USF academic provost Ralph Wilcox. "We had honors students applying to USF but not coming here."
In response, the university created a game plan to entice Tampa Bay's best students. By this year USF had almost closed the gap with UF, the state's top academic school, trailing only 33 to 27.
"Any great university,'' Wilcox said, ''is built on the strength of its intellectual capital."
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Seven years ago, Wilcox said, USF created student-run focus groups to find out why elite students were overlooking the university. One of the major reasons: USF's mediocre academic reputation.
In response, USF intensified its efforts to identify and recruit top students, beefed up its honors college and offered an expedited path to one of its major strengths, the medical school.
This year, about 700 students will enter USF's honors college — the most ever. And not because it's easy to get in. The program requires students to have a 3.8 cumulative high school grade-point average with a minimum SAT score of 1880 or ACT composite score of 29.
USF targeted many of these honors students their sophomore year of high school, according to David Lee Henry, the director of USF's undergraduate admissions. The university purchased their names from the testing companies for about 30 cents each, he said. The practice isn't new. What changed is how the university compiles and markets its data.
"We place them (gifted students) into a communication stream," Henry said. "We've been building toward where we are today, based upon many years of progressive work."
The university uses its list of Tampa Bay's finest to reach out to their high schools and guidance counselors during their senior year.
Brianna Leone, 18, this year's salutatorian from Pasco's River Ridge High, said USF invited her to a meeting at her high school. They gave out brochures and encouraged her to schedule tours, she said.
USF has honors college students send handwritten notes to high-performing graduates.
"That is the most impactful form of recruitment, when it's peer to peer," Henry said.
USF students also connect with the prospective enrollees through interviews, phone calls and emails.
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For those selected, the honors college has many perks.
One of the most alluring is the seven-year medical school fast track, created in 2007.
The fast track allows students who meet strict academic requirements to easily transition into USF's medical school after three undergraduate years.
"Medical schooling usually requires eight years," said McCorry, who wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. "Knowing that I could do a fast track was kind of cool."
USF's medical school recruiters generate interest in local students as early as eighth grade, according to Edwing Daniel, director of USF's medical school admissions.
"We talk to young students to see if they want to be a physician," Daniel said. "We tell them what they have to do."
The school also partners with local hospitals, including Moffitt Cancer Center, James A. Haley VA Medical Center and Tampa General, among others. The partnership creates convenient opportunities for Tampa-based medical school students who need to complete internships or residencies.
Wilcox said USF lets many of its prospective honors college students "test drive" its offerings during its summer precollege program. They spend time with faculty, participate in labs and get a taste of USF.
First-year honors college students may also conduct undergraduate research if they have a minimum SAT score of 1350 (critical reading and math only) or an ACT score of 32, in addition to a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or higher. At many other schools, research programs are reserved for juniors and seniors.
Students entering the honors college with 18 advanced placement credits may participate in the Provost Scholar's Program, which lets them graduate in three years.
For local honors students, these potential perks, combined with scholarships that stack with Florida Bright Futures, add to USF's allure. Its Presidential Scholarship is one of the most common given to honors college students, and it's worth up to $5,000 each year. Honors college enrollees also get $500 per year.
Eliminating all or most of the tuition burden is an important part of USF's strategy.
Said Wilcox: "Truly for these students, once they've received these scholarships everything else becomes moot."
Times news researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.