For Top Colleges, Economy Has Not Reduced Interest (or Made Getting in Easier)

The recession appears to have had little impact on the number of applications received by many of the nation’s most competitive colleges, or on an applicant’s overall chances of being admitted to them.

Representatives of Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Yale, and Brown, among other highly selective institutions, said in telephone and e-mail exchanges in recent days that applications for the Class of 2013 had jumped sharply when compared to the previous year’s class. As a result, the percentage of applicants who will receive good news from the eight colleges of the Ivy League (and a few other top schools that send out decision letters this week) is expected to hover at – or near – record lows.

Bill Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard since 1986, said that the 29,112 applications Harvard received this year represented an all-time high, and a 6-percentage point increase from last year. He said the percentage of applicants admitted would be 7 percent, down from 8 percent a year ago. Dartmouth said that the 18,130 applications it received was the most in its history, too, and that the 12 percent admitted would be its lowest.

Stanford said that the 30,350 applications it received represented a 20 percent increase, and that while it estimated a 7.5-percent admission rate, which would be its lowest, it declined to specify a final figure until later in the week.

Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Princeton declined to release their final admission rates in advance of sending out most of their decision letters via e-mail at 5 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday. But Brown said it had received 21 percent more applications, overall, compared to a year ago; Yale was up 14 percent; Columbia was up 13 percent and Cornell was up 3 percent. Princeton said that, as of January, it had tallied a 2 percent increase in applications, but anticipated the pool had gotten even larger since then. At the University of Pennsylvania, the number of applications increased by 4 — to 22,939, from 22,935.

However, applications to highly selective colleges were not up universally. Many of the best-known liberal arts colleges had fewer applications this year.

Williams College in western Massachusetts said that applications were down 20 percent this year, with 6,024 having applied to the Class of 2013, as compared to 7,552 a year ago. Williams’s acceptance rate, in turn, is expected to be about 20 percent, which is higher than in recent years. The reason for the change was not immediately clear, though applicants outside New England who are concerned about their finances would have to take into account that Williams is not close to a major city or airport – and thus could be expensive to get in and out of.

Similarly, Middlebury College in Vermont, which is also relatively remote, had a nearly 12 percent drop in applications. Amherst, another Massachusetts college and Williams rival, said that applications were down about 1 percent - and that its admissions rate would increase slightly, to 16 percent, in part because Amherst is aiming to increase its first-year class by about 25 students. (Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which sometimes competes for students with Amherst and Williams, has drawn substantially more interest this year: its applicant pool was 22 percent larger than last year’s; its admission rate fell to 22 percent, from 27 percent.)

Amherst had a nearly 10-percent increase in early-decision applications. It enrolls about 30 percent of its first-year class through that program, and – like most schools surveyed – it said it had not lost a single one to due any change in family finances since the fall, when such applications are made.

“Given the economy, it’s very surprising to me,’’ said Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid, “and when I told the board, they found it hard to believe, too.’’

In a sign of how hard it is to draw broad conclusions about an admissions season that has been set against a stark economic backdrop, just over half of the nearly 350 institutions that accept the Common Application, a shared online admission form, received more applications this year than last; just under half received fewer. Bryn Mawr and Wellesley were among those that were up slightly, while overall applications to Grinnell and Pomona were down (as compared to their early applications, which were up quite a bit.)

Among the best-known public universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville all recorded gains in applications – a sign, surely, of some applicants’ desire to stay closer to home, and pay less than they might at an elite private college. Applications to the University of Wisconsin in Madison fell nearly 3 percent.

Of course, applying to college is one thing; being able to afford to go is another.

Harvard, which like many colleges raised its financial aid budget this year, said that between this week and May 1, when applicants’ decisions are due, it was bracing for many to make impassioned appeals of their financial aid offers, whether by phone or e-mail or in person. In response, Mr. Fitzsimmons said that the Harvard financial aid office would be open every day in April, with expanded hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“We’re going to listen,’’ he said. “We don’t have a policy of matching other schools’ awards. But we’re going to listen to what a family thinks its unusual circumstances might be. We learn a lot about our families in April.’’

 

 


Lewin, Tamar and Steinberg, Jacques.  "For Top Colleges, Economy Has Not Reduced Interest (or Made Getting in Easier)". 29 March 2009.  The New York Times. March 2009. <http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/for-top-colleges-economy-has-not-reduced-interest-or-made-getting-in-easier/?ref=education>

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