College admissions dance gets longer, more complicated
It could be well into the summer before some graduating high school seniors know where they'll be studying in the fall.
When you think of a teenage rite of spring fraught with doubts, the quest for a prom date might come to mind. But for many seniors this year, it's even trickier to pair up with a top-choice college.Skip to next paragraph
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The uncertainty, both for students and schools, is on the rise as each group turns to complicated selection strategies that make the SAT look like a walk in the park. So it could be a long wait – well into the summer for some – before it's clear where the largest graduating high school class in three decades will be studying in the fall.
"It's almost like a courtship ritual," says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in Alexandria, Va. Colleges and students "are doing quite an elaborate dance around each other to figure out not only what their preferences are, but what the likelihood of matching up is."
The class of 2008 has been dubbed the "echo boom." At 3.3 million, it's the largest class since 3.15 million baby boomers graduated in 1977, the National Center for Education Statistics reports.
A host of factors are fueling the growing selectivity and longer waiting lists at top-tier colleges. Students send in more applications to maximize their chances. Colleges, wary of having too many offers turned down, are hesitant to admit students who may just think of them as a "safety."
Shifting admissions and financial-aid policies have also added to the unpredictability. A number of top schools have dropped early-application options, contributing to the springtime swell. Others have dipped into endowments to ensure that lower- and middle-income students can attend debt-free, prompting less well-endowed schools to wonder how well they can compete. And recent anxiety about the student-loan market makes it difficult for pricey colleges to predict how many students will commit.
The lines have blurred between traditional categories like "safety schools" and "stretches," says Jim Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. "No college wants to be thought of as a safety school," he says. Just like a potential prom date, "they want to know that they're wanted."
That means "demonstrated interest" is a much bigger factor these days. Students can show their sincerity with everything from college visits to a letter laying out specific reasons the school would be a top choice. In 2007, 21 percent of colleges said this was of considerable importance, up from 7 percent in 2003, NACAC reports.
When it comes to colleges prioritizing who's on their waiting lists, demonstrated interest "is a huge piece of what we look at," says Mike Steidel, director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Carnegie Mellon gives students an option to be on a priority waiting list or the regular one. If priority people get an offer in early May, they have just 24 hours to make their deposit or they're out. The school does show them a financial-aid package in advance so they can make a quick decision.
Aiming for about 1,400 students in its class, Carnegie Mellon enrolls 1,500, expecting that some who send in deposits will nonetheless jump to another school. Out of about 22,000 who applied this year, 3,000 were offered spots on a waiting list. By May 1, usually only 10 percent want to stay on the list, which would have meant 300. But Mr. Steidel says he was "a little overwhelmed" to find that by mid-April, it was 450 and counting.