TAMPA — Yashobha Ranaweera is the kind of student the University of South Florida is seeing more of these days.
The 17-year-old salutatorian at Freedom High School has top grades (a weighted GPA of 6.74) and strong test scores (a 1290 SAT).
And she has options. She got into the University of Florida. But she chose USF partly because she thinks it will help her pursue a career in biomedical science.
"UF is older, but I don't think it's necessarily a better university," said Ranaweera, who has an internship lined up this summer at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. "I think USF is going to be up there when it comes to medicine."
Once everyone's safety school, USF is getting tougher to get into. It's attracting not only more students but smarter ones. It also appears to be outgrowing its regional niche and evolving into an institution with a statewide reach. All of it prompting a rise in admissions standards.
Just four years ago, USF admitted more than 60 percent of the high school seniors who applied. Last year it was 45 percent.
This year, it's 42.6 percent.
Generally, those getting in have higher GPAs, took harder courses in high school and scored better on the SAT than last fall's incoming freshmen.
High school guidance counselors say they've seen admissions standards rise at a lot of universities. But USF is getting people's attention, said Vivian Fiallo, a college and career counselor at Freedom High School in Tampa.
As a result, she said, UF and USF are among the hardest places to get in.
"Some people are shocked by that, but I think USF's reputation is that it's becoming a place where students want to go," Fiallo said.
Those beyond Tampa Bay are realizing the same thing.
Consider this: Until 2008, Pinellas was always No. 2 after Hillsborough in the number of applications any one county sent to USF's Tampa campus.
Now Broward is second.
Thanks to a USF alum who provides free office space, USF has a two-person recruitment office in Broward for southeast Florida. The number of applications also is on the rise from other counties, including Dade, Palm Beach, Brevard, Seminole and Duval.
Overall, applications to USF rose 9 percent this year, to 29,100.
That increase was more dramatic — 45 percent — at USF St. Petersburg, which is separately accredited from USF Tampa. That's partly because admissions counselors are steering kids there whose high school curriculum maybe wasn't as rigorous and who could use a more nurturing campus environment.
As the number of applications to USF has increased, the competition has gotten stiffer.
Last year, the middle 50 percent of USF's admitted freshmen had a GPA of 3.44 to 4.0 and an SAT score of 1060 to 1230.
This year those numbers are running higher, though it's too early to say how much, said J. Robert Spatig, director of undergraduate admissions.
"USF is now in the game for more smart kids," he said. "We're doing a better job getting our message out there."
Administrators say a variety of factors appear to be at work, including the focus on research. Twenty years ago, the university had $20 million in research grants. Last year it had more than $360 million.
USF also is moving toward having more students live on campus. And, yes, maybe even the success of the football team has helped bring in students.
This all may be as evident in USF's Honors College as anywhere.
About 1,800 students who applied to USF this year met the criteria to be invited to the Honors College — 300 more than ever before. Their average SAT is 1350.
The Honors College strives to put underclassmen in research settings and help them do things they might not do until their junior or senior year elsewhere, said Stuart Silverman, dean of the Honors College.
And the university has changed its expectations for faculty, he said, emphasizing research as well as teaching.
Campus life also is expected to play an increasing role in helping USF shed its image strictly as a commuter school.
"We really want to encourage all freshmen to live on campus," said Jennifer Capeheart-Meningall, vice president for student affairs.
Currently, 4,400 of the 39,000 students at USF Tampa live on campus. With the completion of a $58 million dormitory, Juniper Poplar Hall, set to open in August, that will go to 5,400.
As it increases on-campus housing, Capeheart-Meningall said the university also plans to explore partnerships with apartment complexes near campus to provide more student housing.
While the evidence that a winning football team helps is anecdotal at best, it doesn't seem to hurt.
USF's "Beef Studs," the body-painting student fans at Bulls football games, started out as a group of students from the Honors College. Silverman, the honors dean, said he knows this because he paid for the first batch of body paint himself.
That tells him that things like football can be a draw, he said.
"Having a traditional college experience makes a difference for some kids," he said.
That said, hard data are tough to come by.
Researchers have studied what's known as the "Flutie factor" — whether athletic success (like Doug Flutie throwing his heroic Hail Mary touchdown to win for Boston College) translates into recruiting power. Study after study has found scant long-term evidence that winning teams turbocharge the academic profile of students applying to a university.
Still, Spatig notes that those studies looked at universities that were older and more established than USF. So he can't help but wonder.
"I have no doubt that a successful football program is a positive in the Southeast," he said. "It helps to build the brand, hopefully in a good way."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.