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.
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."