As a star high school student and athlete, Karly Jacobsen's friends thought she would head off to Harvard or Yale.
But on graduation day she told them she wasn't traveling far. She would start at the University of Florida.
"Really?" they asked.
For Jacobsen, a prestigious national merit scholar from Ponte Vedra Beach, it was easy to pass up an Ivy League education. UF was close to home _ and would practically pay her to attend.
"They give you lots of money," she said.
UF has wooed so many students like Jacobsen that it attracted more national merit scholars to its freshman class this year than any public university in the nation.
Among 375 universities, UF ranked No. 2, just below Harvard. That means more national merit scholars went to Florida than to colleges like Yale, Stanford or the University of Michigan.
"Things truly have changed a lot," UF spokesman Steve Orlando said.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. UF has the second-most merit scholars in its freshman class, but on a percentage basis it falls behind other schools. UF also works harder to attract students by awarding more national merit scholarships than any other university in the nation.
After UF issued a news release Tuesday announcing its ranking, the National Merit Scholarship Corp., which administers the scholarship program, took exception to the list.
Judging a school by the number of national merit scholars is "inappropriate" and can lead to "invalid conclusions," National Merit Scholarship Corp. spokeswoman Gloria Davis said in a statement.
"I am trying not to be negative about the University of Florida," Davis said. "It is a wonderful institution."
But looking at the number of merit scholars who enroll at UF is "not a valid basis to compare colleges and universities," Davis said. The number of scholars is too small to reflect on a university's overall performance.
Orlando, the UF spokesman, agreed that the ranking is just one piece of information students should weigh.
After all, UF has more merit scholars than Yale, which ranks No. 4, but it's also a much bigger school. UF's merit scholars make up about 4 percent of its freshman class. About one-fifth of Yale's freshman class were national merit scholars.
UF also does a lot more to lure these scholars. More than 80 percent of the national merit scholars in this year's freshman class got a $24,000 scholarship. Harvard did not give its merit scholars a penny.
At UF, a merit scholarship can help pay for tuition, housing and books. It also can provide up to $2,000 to spend on extras such as a laptop. And that's on top of state scholarships, such as Bright Futures, that cover tuition.
If a family has signed up for Florida's prepaid college tuition program, "a student is making money going to college," said Mike Kennedy, president of the Kennedy Consulting Group, who advises students applying to college.
"It is very attractive."
UF administrators say the high number of scholars reflects its superb faculty and programs.
Its 2003 freshman class had a 3.95 grade point average and average SAT scores of 1,267 out of 1,600. That class had 224 merit scholars, fourth-highest in the nation. UF regularly touts such figures.
To become scholars, high school students must score highly on a test that measures reading, writing and math skills. The program also judges grades over four years, difficulty of courses, and scores on the SAT, a standardized college admissions test.
Years ago, UF also decided to target national merit scholars to keep more of Florida's best students home.
UF recruits the merit finalists early _ and then wooes them like stars. Merit scholars can preregister for classes and live in a special honors dormitory.
Personal contact counts a lot, said Caro Massari, the guidance counselor at Plant High School in Tampa who used to recruit national merit scholars at UF.
Massari used to hand address every letter mailed to a potential merit scholar, she said. She wanted to show students that they weren't just a number.
At Plant High in South Tampa, five of the seven national merit scholars went to UF last year, Massari said.
"You are talking to kids that know they want to be a heart surgeon," she said. "So their undergraduate studies are just their first step in that direction. And they are trying to get the best bang for their buck."
David Karp can be reached at (727) 893-8430 or karpsptimes.com.
WHERE MERIT SCHOLARS GO
School Scholars from school
Harvard 312 0
UF 259 215
Texas 242 190
Yale 224 0
Stanford 217 0
Florida St. 15 15
USF 18 16
UCF 29 21
Numbers reflect scholars who started college in fall 2004.
Source: National Merit Scholarship Corp.