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Food science recruiters follow coaches' lead

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University's Department of Food Science is signing up "blue chip" freshmen thanks to some recruiting tips from the athletic department.

By identifying "prospects" during their junior year of high school, maintaining regular contact with them until they enroll in college, and then providing administrative counseling and tutoring services once they arrive on campus, the department has grown 137 percent over the last five years.

"In 1992 we had 59 students majoring in food science. This fall the freshman class numbered 37 out of a total of 140 students," says Philip E. Nelson, a professor and head of the department. "Of those 140 students, 33 have some form of a scholarship, and we hope to eventually be able to offer all food science majors some financial support."

Enrollment numbers aren't the only ones going up.

"We've really raised the bar in terms of quality students," Nelson says. "Our freshmen are coming in with better test scores and higher class rankings."

And placement statistics indicate that there is no shortage of jobs for those who complete degrees. "We placed 100 percent of our May 1997 graduates with an average starting salary of $32,000," Nelson says. "Some students had offers as high as $42,000, which is competitive with salaries in some of the more traditional scientific fields."

Now Nelson is fielding inquiries from food science departments around the country hoping to duplicate Purdue's success. He says one of the biggest challenges in recruiting is getting students to consider food science as a major.

"It's no secret that there is a recruiting problem nationally," Nelson says. "Food processing is the largest industry in the United States, but high school students have no idea how broad and varied the field actually is. When asked about what kinds of jobs are available, they immediately think of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores."

The reality is that food science graduates are qualified for careers in product development, research, quality assurance, sales, purchasing and production management.

The department looked at a variety of recruitment models, including those used by business schools and Purdue's own Schools of Engineering. But Nelson, who is chairman of the university's athletic affairs committee, discovered that the model that seemed to have the most relevance was the one used by the Purdue Boilermaker football program.

Using information on high school juniors compiled annually by the Purdue Office of Admissions, the food science department sends career literature to about 9,000 teen-agers who have expressed an interest in both science and attending Purdue. Between 400 and 500 students respond by returning a postcard, and they receive mailings from the department every six weeks.

Nelson estimates that about 10 percent of those students actually end up applying to Purdue.

"This is where our recruiting effort is really stepped up," Nelson says. "The students who apply to Purdue are sent a T-shirt and an 800 number to call for more information. We also encourage a campus visit with a parent and provide them with faculty contacts."

Once the freshman students begin their studies, they are scheduled for mandatory meetings with the department's administrative adviser who sets up tutoring sessions where necessary and can assist with virtually any concern -- personal or academic -- a student may have.

"The students meet with this adviser every two weeks during their first semester on campus," Nelson explains. "We want to do everything possible to get them started on the right foot, because if they're successful, then we're successful."

CONTACT: Nelson, (765) 494-8256; e-mail,

Compiled by Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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