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Freshman applications to selective area colleges surge

Applications to colleges, including those at George Washington University, are up.
Applications to colleges, including those at George Washington University, are up. (Linda Davidson - Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

High school seniors are applying to selective colleges in the Washington area in record numbers this year, particularly to schools with reputations for meeting the full financial needs of admitted freshmen. The trend suggests that the weak economy has driven applicants to schools that offer a bigger bang for the tuition buck.

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The surge in applications is not what admission deans expected this year, after a fiscal downturn and a flattening population of college-age students.

But applications to Johns Hopkins University are up 13 percent over last year, with a projected pool of 18,150 students competing for 1,235 seats in the freshman class. The University of Richmond received 8,500 applications for 805 slots, a 9 percent increase. Applications are up 6 percent at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and 3 percent at George Washington University in the District. The University of Virginia fielded 22,396 applications, an all-time high. The College of William and Mary, too, expects a record number of applicants.

"It shouldn't be happening, should it?" said Bill Hartog, dean of admissions at Washington and Lee. "My take on it is, financial aid, financial aid, financial aid."

Washington and Lee, which costs about $50,000 in tuition, fees, room and board, is known for a particularly aggressive stance in recruiting and funding students from low-income families, thanks to a $100 million gift from an alumnus a few years ago. The school's average grant tops $30,000, and two-fifths of students receive them.

Selective colleges had become accustomed to record numbers of applicants over the past several years, with a stable economy and a growing population of college-bound seniors. But even first-tier colleges did not know quite what to expect this year, with the unstable economy and demographic downturn working against them. The first glimmer of hope came last month, when several local universities announced unexpectedly large numbers of early decision applications.

The number of high school seniors in Virginia public schools is essentially flat this year at 87,839, compared with 87,177 last year. Maryland has no figures for the current school year, but the number of juniors in 2008 was smaller than the comparable group two years earlier. The population of high school juniors in D.C. public schools, including charters, fell in 2007 and 2008.

U-Va. officials proclaimed their application numbers a "triumph of economics over demographics" in a news release, noting that their school has been rated the "best value" among public colleges and universities for two straight years by the Princeton Review.

A handful of top universities across the nation have recorded banner years in freshman applications, including a 42 percent increase at the University of Chicago, a 19 percent rise at Princeton and a 17 percent increase at the University of Pennsylvania. The number of applications to Chicago has doubled since 2006, and the number to Harvard topped 30,000 for the first time.

"It's a migration of high school seniors to strong institutions, strong brands," said John Latting, dean of undergraduate admissions at Hopkins. "Either they are prepared to pay or they are confident that the aid is out there for them."

Some admissions experts say the increase simply means each senior is applying to more schools. Each new group of seniors applies to a larger number of schools, "with the hope of hitting the merit-money jackpot," said Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser at the Web site College Confidential. "Acceptance rates plummet, which, in turn, terrifies the next crop of seniors, who then apply to an even longer list of schools."

Jamie Leigh Szewczyk, a 17-year-old senior at Ryken High School in Leonardtown, labored over applications to 10 schools, including the University of Maryland and Rutgers. She finished the last of them on Thanksgiving.

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