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At tiny colleges, a bit of the old rah-rah-rah

Try to raise their profile with mascots and cheerleaders

Kaithlynn Claflin and Alyssia King, students at Fisher College, participated in cheerleading tryouts recently. Kaithlynn Claflin and Alyssia King, students at Fisher College, participated in cheerleading tryouts recently. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 19, 2009

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Boston has long been known as the Athens of America, boasting the highest concentration of colleges and universities of any metropolitan area in the country.

But beyond the Harvards and the MITs, many locals would be hard-pressed to name a fraction of the 80-plus colleges dotting the city and its suburbs, even if they pass the campuses routinely. These tiny private institutions enroll fewer students than most high schools. They have trouble filling the stands at home basketball games. And their students, upon naming their college, are frequently met by blank stares, followed by a skeptical “Where?’’

Fed up with their anonymity, many of these colleges are stepping up efforts to put themselves on the map by boosting student pride - efforts some college presidents say could also help increase enrollment and alumni donations.

Cambridge College and the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, in the heart of the South End, are rolling out new logos and shields on everything from T-shirts to backpacks and bumper stickers. Lasell College recently erected three can’t-miss signs on the edges of its Newton campus and unveiled a new mascot named Boomer, a superhero who carries a torch to symbolize “the flame of knowledge.’’

Regis College in Weston is welcoming freshmen with an Athletics Pride 101 course in which they learn the school cheer, among other Regis traditions. And Fisher College in the Back Bay is recruiting its first squad of cheerleaders this week to raise the roof on school spirit.

Thomas McGovern, president of Fisher, which has 700 students, lamented a pep rally held in the school cafeteria last year; it lasted all of 10 minutes.

“It was a little lame. It didn’t generate a lot of pep. I need some help,’’ McGovern said with a sheepish smile earlier this week after stopping in on cheerleading tryouts to check on the turnout. “We would love to fill our stands.’’

Only a couple dozen students at the largely commuter school would show up for games despite its championship baseball and basketball teams, he said.

In previous years, lack of interest prompted Fisher to cancel a couple of “fan buses’’ chartered to shuttle students to the games.

Fisher hopes all that will change this year with the addition of cheerleaders as the school’s ambassadors to the student body and the Boston community, said McGovern, who had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he was trumpeting the virtues of the 106-year-old college to local congressmen.

In the student activities center in the basement of a Beacon Street brownstone, Fisher accounting professor and cheerleading coach Kathy Byrne tied white ribbon bows onto the ponytails of the dozen women vying for spots on the team.

“Each of you will really have a part in establishing traditions at Fisher,’’ Byrne said.

She led them through stretches, repeatedly reminded them to smile, and taught them to hold their arms high and straight in a “V’’ formation.

As the women practiced the basic “Blue and White’’ cheer from behind closed doors, the commotion caught the attention of students passing through the hallway, including several young men who asked if they could watch. (The answer was no.)

“We definitely need more school spirit, and this gives people a chance to get excited,’’ said Jane Roberg, a hospitality and tourism major from Maine who was trying out for the squad.

Small, tuition-dependent private colleges such as Fisher, which is known for its business management program, are clamoring to distinguish themselves amid a recession and as more students look to less-expensive public universities and community colleges.

Annual tuition and fees at Fisher, for example, run about $38,000.

Lasell College first started raising its profile through high school guidance counselors, touting its project-based teaching philosophy to get more students to apply.

“When I was recruited for the job, nobody knew who we were,’’ said Michael Alexander, who became president two years ago. “Most people would say, ‘Huh?’ including other college presidents. I drove by for 10 years and didn’t even know Lasell was here.’’

The college is now hard to miss. Over the summer, it installed 15-foot-long, 6-foot-tall steel and brick signs on stone foundations that say “Lasell College, founded 1851.’’ At night, the signs are back-lit.

Perhaps more significantly, the school last spring debuted the first mascot in its long history to help recruit and retain students.

Aside from game days, Boomer - with laser-like eyes and a blue, muscular physique - showed up during move-in day for freshmen, an alumni reunion in the spring, and this week’s student activities fair.

At Mount Ida College, which offers an animal science program, among other degrees, student spirit was once so dismal and turnout for activities so low that a dean hand-picked seven students last fall to create the new Campus Life Team. Tapping into their diverse social circles, the group was recently able to fill three buses to the season’s opening football game at Bridgewater State.

Regis, once an all-women’s college that began admitting men two years ago, has just redesigned its logo as part of rebranding itself as a co-ed institution.

This fall it introduced the Pride 101 class to teach new students about its mascot (a lion named Ruckus), major rivalries (Curry and Nichols colleges and Wentworth Institute) and how to cheer during basketball games (The new athletics website instructs students: “While jumping in unison, scream “OOOOOOHHHHH.’’)

Before each freshman left orientation this summer, he or she was outfitted with free gold-and-red Regis College T-shirts with the words “Pride is priceless’’ on the back.

Many sported the shirts on move-in day, said Laura Bertonazzi, the assistant dean of students.

“They are our walking billboards,’’ Bertonazzi said. “Students love free clothes, so we promote, we promote, we promote.’’

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