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

David Hamilton, director of college advising at St. Mary's Ryken High School in Southern Maryland, said: "I tell students, 'You think you're stressed out, figuring out where you're going to go? Admissions officers, presidents, provosts are looking at the numbers hour by hour because 17-year-olds are making decisions.' This won't be put to bed till the end of summer."

Families will be weighing their options, comparing financial aid packages and trying to predict their economic futures. More than 90 percent of the students surveyed by Royall & Co., a higher education marketing and research firm, said they were changing their college plans because of the economy.

The national survey of college-bound high school seniors found that many plan to keep their options open: Twenty-eight percent said they would send deposits to more than one college, a 160 percent increase over last year.

"Students are shopping around -- no doubt about it," said Phil Day, president of a financial aid administrators association.

When asked how the economy was affecting their decisions, more than half the students surveyed late last year said they were more likely to go to home-state schools. In a February follow-up, that number had risen 10 percent.

In the fall, Bill and Mary Becker of Bethesda told twin daughters Emily and Lauren they no longer had the luxury of choosing any school regardless of price. Emily Becker was interested in private schools such as Tulane and Syracuse.

When his son chose a school previously, money did not come up, Bill Becker said. "Now it's become a much more important criterion than we ever thought. I'm sure there are tens of thousands of families concluding that very same thing."

This year's admissions season follows a turbulent one a year ago, when some elite schools ended early admission and dramatically increased financial aid for many students, making it difficult for some schools to predict how many students to accept.

Some public schools, such as the University of Florida, are worried about over-enrollment; Florida admitted about 400 fewer students this year. At the University of Maryland, the number of applications was up 1 percent.

Some private liberal arts colleges are experiencing increased interest. At Trinity Washington University, a small private women's school in the District, applications are up more than 20 percent. At Georgetown University, which could have had a downturn because of its $51,500 total cost, the number of applications has remained steady.

Georgetown's Charles Deacon, like several other admissions officials in the District, believes financial worries were balanced this year by an "Obama factor" -- young people excited about the new administration and drawn to area schools because they want to be nearby.

The most elite private universities have been holding their own, with some experiencing big jumps in applications this year. Harvard had another record year for applications and admitted just 7 percent of its applicants.

Like Harvard, many of the most selective schools introduced generous new financial aid packages in recent years, assuring low-income families that they would not have to take out loans.

Some wonder whether the recession will make parents more willing to invest in higher education rather than less. "Just like we saw in the financial markets -- the flight to quality, people not wanting risk," Hopkins's Latting said.

The Becker twins were accepted at almost every school to which they applied, said Mary Becker. Lauren will probably choose one of two public universities. Emily was accepted at Syracuse, a school she thought was a reach for her.

"It's a private school, and it's very expensive," her mother said. "But the nice thing about Syracuse is she was offered some scholarship money, which helped, and she was also given some work-study money. . . . If we had not gotten that money, I don't think it would have been possible."

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