Because of Recession, Many Private Colleges Admitting More Students Than Usual

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Many private colleges have admitted more students than usual this year, hedging their bets as they wait to find out whether families find higher tuitions difficult to manage in the recession.

After years of increasing selectivity driven by bumper crops of strong applicants, many private college officials are concerned that more students will turn to public universities, which are less expensive. As of today's deadline to notify most applicants, many schools have sent out more acceptance letters and e-mails, built bigger waiting lists and pumped more money into financial aid to lure students to their campuses.

The bottom line: It will be slightly easier to gain admission to some private colleges this year, officials said.

The private schools' concerns are part of a confusing overall admissions picture for the high school Class of 2009, the largest ever at 3 million students. Many public universities have experienced increases in applications, but it is unclear whether that has made admission more difficult across the board. And some elite universities such as Harvard and Dartmouth are even more competitive than usual this year, in part because they have assured low-income students that they won't have to borrow money to pay their costs.

At Johns Hopkins University, officials were on edge in the fall when applications were down by as much as 35 percent, then taken aback by a surge that left them with a 1 percent increase over last year's record number. Still, they offered admission to 250 more students than usual and increased the size of their wait list by about 10 percent.

"The world is changing pretty fast," said John Latting, dean of undergraduate admissions at Hopkins. "I just don't know what's going to happen."

Bill Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Hopkins, said: "We think more kids will be looking at lower-cost flagship publics. We think some kids will perhaps get better financial aid packages elsewhere."

At Dickinson College, a small liberal arts school in Carlisle, Pa., the number of applications dropped about 5 percent from last year's total. The number of early-decision applicants who were admitted but pulled out for financial reasons doubled. Officials are expecting more students to reject the school this summer as they consider their finances and its $50,200 price tag.

"That makes it very, very difficult for us to project our classes," said Robert Massa, Dickinson's vice president for enrollment.

Dickinson increased financial aid and accepted 48 percent of its applicants, up from 42 percent last year. American University took steps early on to reassure families about financial aid and experienced only a small decline in applicants.

At public colleges, demand is high -- in some cases, it outpaces state school budgets. But officials are anticipating that fewer students they accept from out of state will choose to attend.

For the institutions, enrollment is crucial at a time of budget cuts and shrinking endowments. If calculations yield too few students, a school could fall short on tuition revenue; if too many decide to attend, costs could rise and housing shortages could result. School officials also are worried about "melt," the number of students who drift away over the summer as family finances change or they are taken off wait lists elsewhere.

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