Jordan J. Hayles, valedictorian of her senior class this year at Murphy High School in Mobile, Ala., had her pick of some of the nation's esteemed colleges: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, MIT and Stanford.
So why did Hayles recently decide on Emory University in Atlanta, a respected institution but more often a place students choose when they cannot get into the Ivy League?
Partly, she said, because the school offered her a tantalizing financial deal. The package covered tuition, room and board, foreign study funds, a $1,000 stipend for a research project and provided money for cultural events or restaurant meals with fellow Emory scholars.
"I thought that was just splendid," Hayles said. "You get to go out, meet different people, and you don't have to pay anything. You can't beat that."
Many private colleges and public universities, eager to boost reputations by recruiting students with stellar grades and lofty College Board scores, are dangling lucrative scholarships, special programs and other come-ons.
"Every school that can seems to be playing this game," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif. "This is how you get your prestige up."
The students spurning the Ivies -- many still fresh from the stressful May 1 decision deadlines -- are bucking the much-chronicled trend of affluent families going extra lengths to get their children into the most prestigious colleges. The Ivy League obsession has fostered a boom in SAT prep classes, and even college counseling summer camps, to boost students' prospects.
Ivy League schools, which provide substantial amounts of financial aid, but only to students deemed financially needy, say they have not been measurably hurt by the widening competition for academic standouts.
There are no authoritative figures on how many students bypass the Ivy Leagues. But the scale of such recruiting is reflected in the skyrocketing sums that the nation's four-year colleges have devoted to scholarships based on academic performance. A higher education researcher, Donald E. Heller of Pennsylvania State University, has found that the schools raised their spending on merit scholarships by 152 percent, to $3 billion, between the 1992-93 and 1999-2000 school years. By comparison, they boosted grants based on financial need by 59 percent.
Hector Martinez, head of college counseling at the Webb Schools, a pair of private high schools in Claremont, Calif., said that in the last two years he has noticed "real action in kids and families deciding to turn down an Ivy for a school that offers a generous merit award."
"Nowadays," he added, "when private schools are reaching the $45,000-a-year price tag, a lot of families are starting to think about that and say, 'It's a huge investment, and maybe a merit award is more of a necessity.' "
Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, who has written about the concentration of top students at elite colleges, agreed. "We're definitely seeing that the schools that have been most aggressive in offering merit-based aid have been taking some students away from the schools who ordinarily would get them," he said.
All the same, saying "no" to the Ivy League or to Stanford or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology still can be hard for a student to explain to friends and acquaintances.
"A lot of people walk up to me at school and say, 'Wow, I can't believe you turned down Yale. That's just crazy,' " said A.J. Singletary, a high school senior from Mountain Home, Ark., who accepted an offer to attend Washington University in St. Louis.
Around the country, prestigious colleges such as Washington University and Emory are among the leaders in vying for top high school graduates.
At one point, Singletary told the Washington University admissions office that he was undecided between that school and Yale, and was called back within a couple of days and given an additional $6,000 in aid. In all, he will receive $38,700 a year from Washington University. After outside grants, he would be left with about $3,000 to cover.
He said his offer from Yale would have left him with about $14,000 a year in costs.
Richard H. Shaw, Yale University's dean for undergraduate admissions and financial aid, said his institution rarely loses the students it wants. He said that more than 65 percent of accepted applicants enroll. But he said the toughest ones to reel in are from middle-class families that cannot easily afford the Ivy League, but have too much money to qualify for big financial aid packages.
For extraordinary students such as the Emory-bound Hayles, the college options can be dazzling.
Her credentials include an A average, 1520 on her SATs and qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship, achieved by far less than 1 percent of the nation's students. She is an accomplished dancer and pianist and is nearly fluent in Spanish.
Linda Evans, Hayles' counselor at Murphy High, estimated that Hayles has drawn scholarship offers cumulatively worth $1.3 million, more than any other of her students.
Although her parents' income is slightly more than $100,000 and she is an only child, Hayles said: "My parents have to plan for retirement. Personally, I don't think it's fair to them to have to spend all this money on me."