Flying off to college, defying terrorism

You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from big-city university admissions directors who are grateful that the World Trade Center tragedy did not turn into a rout for the spring admissions season.

After Sept. 11, reports of thousands of unexpected applications to state and regional schools had some admissions officials wondering: Were students, goaded by parents, shifting en masse toward colleges closer to home, away from cities terrorists might target?

As it turns out, many high school seniors, though initially shaken, were determined to pursue their top-choice schools, even if they were far flung or in large cities.

Matthew Nelson of Denver is heading to the University of San Diego, his first choice, even though the presence of a naval base nearby worries his mother.

Sharon Lefkowitz of Dartmouth, Mass., will be studying this fall at Philadelphia University in Pennsylvania, not concerned that it's a big population center and the birthplace of American independence.

And Kristen Moffitt is headed for East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. – several hours by plane from her home in Andover, Mass.

All three students had the attacks in mind last fall as they filled out applications for nearby universities. Yet their decisions to go away to school indicate a tough-minded "terrorists aren't going to derail my life" attitude.

"Obviously it's a huge tragedy," says Ms. Moffitt. "But I try not to let it affect decisions I make. I wouldn't have changed, and didn't think about changing."

Her determination seems to run in the family. Her sister Susie, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is inside the Washington beltway not far from the Pentagon, has bounced back since being initially disturbed by the attacks, and has no thoughts now of transferring to another school. "I'm staying put," she says.

"We just weren't going to give in to terrorism," agrees their mother, Patricia.

Such attitudes may have played a part in buoying this coming fall's freshmen classes at key universities in Washington and New York. Numbers of applications tipped slightly down in a few cases in these cities, but the all-important "yield" – the percentage of students deciding to attend the school once admitted – remained steady.

At George Washington University in the nation's capital, for instance, the yield was similar to last year's, with about 34 percent of admitted students deciding it was their final pick. Applications hit 17,000 – an all-time high, but admissions officers say the yield is more indicative of student and parent attitudes.

At New York University, the yield rose to 40.7 percent from 38.4 percent a year ago, despite applications dipping 3 percent.

"It really would be a surprise if there were not some people who chose not to apply here ... because of 9/11," says NYU spokesman John Beckman. He sees the slight decline in applications as more linked to the economy, though, and is relieved to see the school holding its own.

In fact, several observers who thought the terrorist attacks would sweep students toward in-state and regional schools now say the softer economy has had a much bigger impact.

David Hawsey, vice president of enrollment management at Albion College, a private school in Albion, Mich., thought more top local students might enroll there, instead of heading to the coasts.

Albion's yield rose slightly, but he's found a "softer market" generally among competitive schools in the Midwest region.

"When I talked to parents alone, they were very concerned. But they also wanted to honor what their son or daughter wanted to do," Mr. Hawsey says.

A survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that among 80 four-year colleges and universities that responded, there was a drop in applications by international students. Many of the schools saw more in-state applications this year, which suggested that some students wanted to stay close to home – but perhaps for economic as much or more than for safety reasons.

But it's not just the economy that accounts for the fact that "people are thinking more regionally – tending not to travel cross-country," says Michael London, president of College Coach, a Newton, Mass., company that helps high school students get into college.

He says applications to a number of New York City's colleges and universities – those with a less powerful draw than prestigious schools such as NYU – dipped as much as 10 percent. In Boston and Washington, some application pools shrank about 5 percent.

Some parents are clearly still on edge. Mrs. Lefkowitz, for one, has made it clear to daughter Sharon that Philadelphia is far as she is going – even though Sharon at one time argued for a California school. "We told her, 'If you want to do graduate school in California, be my guest,' " she says. " 'But for undergraduate we want you on this side of the Continental Divide.' "

• E-mail claytonm@csps.com

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