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Why attend the Y.?

Learning beats church affiliation in recent surveys

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PROVO — Why the Y.?

It's not wine, women and song — unless the women are for marrying and the songs are hymns.

For more than a century, and including the school year that begins today, students have attended Brigham Young University because of its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but that's no longer the chief reason students choose BYU.

Recent large surveys of alumni who graduated in 1998 and students who enrolled in 2002 show the No. 1 reason they come to BYU is for a good education. Religion is second, followed by reasonable cost and preparation for a career.

Of the 1998 grads, 83 percent said they came to develop intellectual skills. Seventy-seven percent said they wanted to obtain a spiritual, religious-based education.

"One of the major reasons they come is because of the religious atmosphere," said Ford Stevenson, dean of Student Academics and Advisement Services. "I don't think that reason has ever changed. What you've seen is a tremendous upgrade in the educational quality of the university. The faculty has improved and the number of LDS students drove up the academic qualifications."

Between 85,000 and 90,000 LDS high school seniors graduate from North American high schools each spring. BYU has 5,600 slots available for freshmen each year.

In fact, for a few years, there were more than 100,000 LDS graduates each year. Those accepted at BYU, where 92 percent of students are LDS, have an average ACT score of 27. The national average is about 21.

BYU's top 1,500 freshmen — that's about the size of a freshman class at Stanford and Harvard — have an average GPA of 3.95 and average ACT score of 33.

"They can compete with any entering freshman class," Stevenson said. "That's a major shift over three decades. BYU is now widely recognized as an excellent academic institution."

That's what the students say they want and what they get from BYU, a big shift from 30 years ago, when Stevenson started at the university and the school had trouble attracting the best male students.

BYU senior Ari Uhlin came to Provo from Nordhausen, Germany, because of the school's reputation for serious students. In Germany, she said, a college education is free and taken for granted by most.

"I was looking for a school where people were concerned about school and not partying," said the photography major. "I figured, if I'm going to pay for it, I'm going to get my money's worth."

Uhlin, who is not LDS, heard about BYU from the church's missionaries.

Delys Jenson is LDS, but she resisted BYU because she thought it was a church cliche.

"I didn't originally want to come here," said Jenson, a junior from Dallas. "But I graduated early from high school and came for winter semester and liked it. What I really like is there are a lot of great spiritual opportunities here and there is a great education."

Few students said they feel family pressure to pick BYU — just 11 percent in the alumni survey. There is clear anecdotal evidence that it is a factor, for a number of reasons.

"I can tell you from meeting with parents that parents help their students come to BYU because of the safety factor, meaning they perceive BYU is a safe campus," said Vern Heperi, dean of Student Life. "We conduct a parent panel during student orientation, and that's a common theme."

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said the surveys punch a hole in at least one myth. LDS kids don't primarily attend BYU to shop for spouses. Only 27 percent of graduates said finding a husband or wife was a reason for choosing BYU.

That doesn't mean they don't think about it. Or don't do it. Half of every graduating class is married.

Daniel Hartsock gave up a chance to play junior college basketball near his home in Bartlesville, Okla., to be around other LDS students. Is the senior in physics satisfied with his decision to attend BYU?

"Yeah," he said. "Well, mostly. I'm not married yet."

E-MAIL: twalch@desnews.com