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Battle to Win Top Colleges' Nod Escalating
Future Applicants Face Array of Competitors

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

Beka Badila, a senior at the Oakcrest School in McLean, did everything she was supposed to do to get into a good college. She worked hard to get a 3.56 grade-point average and raised her SAT score from 1500 to 1800. She played on the tennis team all four years, wrote good college-application essays and devoted herself to her first love -- drama productions.

The results are in: rejected by the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Carnegie Mellon, Occidental and Pepperdine, waitlisted at Fordham. The 18-year-old's only acceptances were two small Virginia schools -- Bridgewater and Longwood.

"How does she hold her head up high?" asked mother Marti Badila. Her daughter's analysis was more direct: "It is all kind of a crapshoot."

Such stories of youthful hopes thwarted have become a staple of springtime. Parents of younger children tell each other it will get better when the current bulge of baby-boomer children gets out of high school at the end of this decade, but they are wrong. The latest data show that if anything, the frantic competition to get into the most selective colleges is only going to get worse.

The U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics says the number of graduating high school seniors will peak at 3.3 million in 2011 and decline only slightly to 3.2 million by 2016. Most educators predict that the percentage of those students going to college -- now about 67 percent -- will increase and make the application process even more stressful. Undergraduate enrollment, for instance, is projected conservatively to increase from 15.2 million this year to 16.6 million in 2015, the center says.

The number of high school graduates has increased every year since 1996 as the children of the huge, post-World War II baby-boom generation passed through. During the same time, college applications soared as the economy increasingly rewarded higher education. Federal data in 2004 showed male college graduates earning 67 percent more and female graduates 68 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.

"The economic demand for a college education will only rise," said David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "I do not think anyone should count on an admission environment that is any less crowded than the one that we are experiencing now."

The competition for spaces has knocked the application process so askew that many students apply to as many as a dozen schools, often the ones least likely to accept them. The 15 percent of colleges that reject more than half their applicants get 28 percent of the total applications, according to Hawkins's group. Experts also predict a new surge of low-income and minority students seeking to transfer from two-year to four-year colleges, creating further competition.

Florida-based financial aid expert Reecy Aresty said that parents and students should also forget about the most sought-after colleges building more dorms to admit more students, which would just cut into their budgets. "All colleges realize that the applicant pool is getting better, and they have no need to expand to admit more students and take on additional costs," he said.

Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, even predicts that the retired boomers, seeing education as a jolly pastime, will be shoving aside some of their children and grandchildren to take up university spaces. "We can already see the rapidly increasing market for university-based retirement communities," he said.

The one bit of good news, often overlooked by worried families, is that there are still many more spots available nationwide than there are college students. Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities are accepting only about 10 percent of their applicants, but the average U.S. college accepts 70 percent. The college drop-out rate -- only about 60 percent of students graduate in six years -- creates more space, and many schools advertise for applicants as late as June.

Studies have shown that students with similar personal characteristics, such as persistence and charm, do just as well financially 20 years after college no matter whether they went to a well-known or little-known college.

"To find the best learning, students must look for the best teaching," said Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, "and that's not necessarily found at the most popular, most prestigious universities."

Despite her disappointment, Beka Badila noted that most college students attend more than one school, so she will continue to seek the best campus for her. Being rejected by five colleges "won't make a significant difference in my life," she said. "I will be able to recover."

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