Georgetown and other colleges woo admitted students, hoping to seal the deal


Taylor Harding, of Portland, Ore., left, along with her parents David and Paige Bell and other prospective Georgetown University students and their parents, make their way to Gaston Hall during the Admissions Ambassador Program on Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

For 11 months of the year, selective colleges wield most of the power in an intense national admissions frenzy. In April, though, the tables are turned as high school seniors mull over offers from colleges eager to enroll top talent.

With a Thursday deadline looming for decisions, Amelia Lucas, of the Loudoun County community of Ashburn, has been taking every available day to ponder her choice between Georgetown University and the College of William and Mary.

Like others with enviable options, Lucas sifted variables Monday as she toured Georgetown: Did she prefer a public or private university? A big city or a small one? Which would help her find internships and a career? What about the cost?

Lucas was a Northern Virginia student at a campus in Washington, but similar scenes unfolded in the past four weeks at hundreds of schools from coast to coast, all of them wooing admitted students in an effort to compete in a turbulent higher education market.

“I’m leaning toward Georgetown right now,” Lucas said as she sat on a bench in the school’s Red Square. “But a main consideration is the cost.” At William and Mary, a public Virginia college, there would be a big in-state discount. At Georgetown, a private Catholic university, there wouldn’t be.

Tuition and fees for Georgetown in the coming school year, about $47,000, will exceed the in-state price at William and Mary by about $29,000. That doesn’t count room and board and other expenses.

“You want the parent’s point of view?” asked her mother, Leila Lucas. “She’s the sixth out of six kids. And I’ve learned a little bit along the way. Schools in Virginia are really, really good.” Other Lucas children have gone to James Madison, George Mason, Virginia Tech and William and Mary. But the mother said her own parents went to Georgetown.

Either way, Leila Lucas said, she and her husband will support their daughter “100 percent.”

For its incoming class, Georgetown offered admission to 3,232 out of 19,501 applicants. The admission rate, 17 percent, ranks it among the most selective universities in the country. But the rate that matters now is what admissions officials call “the yield.” That is, how many who received letters of congratulation from Charles A. Deacon, Georgetown’s longtime dean of undergraduate admissions, will join the Class of 2018?

Deacon wants a class of 1,580. If he hits the target exactly, the yield will be 49 percent. He probably will fall slightly below the target as Thursday’s deadline passes, and then he’ll dip into the waiting list. That is his custom, because Georgetown’s campus population is capped by the District of Columbia.

At ultra-selective Harvard University, federal data show that the yield tops 80 percent. The University of Virginia’s yield is more than 40 percent. At William and Mary and the University of Maryland at College Park, it’s about 33 percent.

Some schools, worried about filling seats at a time when the number of annual high school graduates is shrinking, push frantically to lock in students after making offers. Georgetown’s approach in April is relatively low-key. Its welcome events for admitted students offer tours of dormitories, meals at the dining hall known as Leo’s, and meet-and-greet sessions with students, faculty and administrators on such topics as academics, study abroad and financial aid.

“We don’t put out the white tablecloth and candles for dinner or anything,” Deacon said. “It’s a straightforward event. We’re here to welcome you. The assumption is that you’re going to come. We’re not going to try to twist your arm. If you happen to feel that it’s not the right fit, it’s good that you found that out.”

About 1,200 admitted students attend Georgetown’s April events. About three-fourths who come end up enrolling, Deacon said.

Taylor Harding of Portland, Ore., came with her mother and stepfather. She was weighing offers from Georgetown and the University of California at Berkeley. Harding, the oldest of seven children, said the financial aid process had been “pretty stressful.”

At first, Harding said, Georgetown offered no financial help. She appealed, providing more information on her family’s financial situation. (Her mother and stepfather own a small business.) The university then offered her a grant. “That ended up changing the package dramatically,” Harding said. For her, the bottom line at Georgetown was a price slightly lower than Berkeley’s.

Georgetown officials say they offer assistance only for students in financial need and do not provide what is known as “merit aid.” Many schools dangle merit aid to lure students whose families are able to afford high tuition.

Adam Thorp of St. Louis was choosing between Georgetown and the University of Chicago. He also had a tempting offer of a full-ride scholarship from Truman State University in Missouri. Thorp said he had been able to stay overnight in a dorm while visiting Chicago. In Washington, he was staying with his dad in a hotel and was still unsure whether he saw the full picture of Georgetown. “I don’t feel I’ve gotten a chance to see all the warts here,” Thorp said.

His father, Andy Thorp, who runs a nonprofit organization, said: “For me, the question as a parent, frankly, is do you send them to a really good state school for free? Or do you go for a name? What’s the pros and cons of that?”

Lizzy Hibbard of New York City huddled with her parents on a staircase outside Healy Hall. For her, it came down to Georgetown and Williams College, two very different schools. Georgetown has eight times as many students as does Williams. And Williamstown, Mass., is a world apart from the nation’s capital. Hibbard got financial aid offers from both schools. “Georgetown is so different in every way,” Hibbard said. “I really am on the fence. I have no idea. And I have three days to decide.”

Not anymore.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hibbard said in a text message that she had settled on Williams — “almost definitely.” Amelia Lucas said she was headed to William and Mary. Andy Thorp said his son was bound for Chicago. But Georgetown snagged Taylor Harding, who declared herself “very excited.”

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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