Nice college, but is it close to home?

Like most high school seniors, Emily Novik has been busy this fall applying to colleges. But some of her top picks - as well as those of her parents - have changed. The reason is simple: distance.

Since Sept. 11, her parents now want her closer to home. And they don't want her to have to fly to get to school.

"I applied to 10 schools," says Ms. Novik, who hails from Fairfield, Conn. "I just canceled one visit to a university where we had to take a flight. It's definitely still on the list, though."

Her mother, Linda, is less sure. "I would really like Emily to be going to a school where she didn't have to fly," Mrs. Novik says. "It just doesn't seem as important to me anymore whether she attends a highly ranked school. I'd rather see her at a slightly lesser-ranked school closer to home."

Along with many families engaged in this annual fall rite of college selection, Emily and her mother are recalibrating their college-selection criteria - thinking twice about how far away from home they want their college picks to be.

Colleges in big cities - potential terrorist targets - are now a question mark for some. The weak economy, too, is weighing on many.

Decisions have yet to be made. But one thing is clear: Students and parents are beefing up their lists with more regional and in-state schools than in years past. Flexibility is a key issue. And while such concerns may not translate into denying a student a top but faraway choice, some think schools in big cities could see softening demand. Meanwhile, rural institutions and those in the heartland could get a boost from the uncertainty and tight economy.

"What we've seen in the last few weeks is more desire to have local colleges and universities firmly in place on their application list, just to keep options open," says Steven Antonoff, a Denver-based educational consultant, who notes that, so far, parents seem more concerned than students. "I'm seeing more discussions in my office, saying, 'Do you really want to be that far away? Do you want to fly?' "

More duck the big city

Michael London, a Newton, Mass.-based educational consultant with College Coach, which has 5,000 clients nationwide, also sees a shift. Family criteria are changing. More families are ducking schools in big cities like New York, Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia, he says.

"There has been a shift in families' thinking," Mr. London says. "In the past, the parent was usually more focused on keeping [the] child closer to home, and the child was willing to venture out farther. What we're seeing right now is both parent and student, also, wouldn't mind being closer to home."

Jackie Nelsen wants to let her son make his own choice. But she is now weighing anew both cost and proximity with her husband and son, Matt. Colorado College, for instance, is now under consideration, which it wasn't before Sept. 11.

"It's true we've been thinking more about our options in Colorado," says the Littleton, Colo., mother, who admits to concern when Matt mentions schools thousands of miles away. Still, she is reluctant to limit Matt's options at this point.

"We're all in a wait-and-see over the next few months," she says. "It's a hard call. I would like it if he were closer to home. But I don't want it enough to change anything yet, or to be unfair to him. I also don't want [terrorists] putting fear into us."

Some institutions in Washington D.C., Boston, and New York report modest declines in campus visits, but say application levels are running at normal levels or a bit higher than last year.

At New York University, tours are down only slightly from last year. Admission events in cities nationwide are packed. The number of applicants won't be unveiled until after the January deadline.

"It would be surprising if there weren't some people who chose to go elsewhere," says John Beckman, an NYU spokesman. "But the impact of that, I can't tell you. Our tours are still full every day."

In Washington D.C., Georgetown University officials say that even though campus visits have dropped sharply, they are expecting a 10-percent increase in early-action applicants. Still, the school isn't taking the attacks lying down. It has added a dozen "Georgetown Nights" recruiting meetings since Sept. 11 in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities.

"We're not losing any sleep over this - not yet, anyway," says Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admission. "At this stage of the process, people aren't pulling back yet. But whether we get the whole 15,000 [expected applicants], I don't know. If the world is a more worrisome place in a few months, then I guess it might be less."

The crisis may actually work in favor of his school, given the nation's patriotic mood, he says. If patriotism outweighs fears of terrorist attacks, then "you might see lot of people who feel more dedicated or patriotic who find Georgetown a great place to be," he says.

Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, in Washington says applications are 50 percent higher than last year's level at this time and says plans are afoot to tighten, rather than loosen, admission criteria. Not all students realize this, he says.

"I was talking to one kiddo, he had this scheme to apply to better schools than he conventionally would have, on the assumption that their applications were down and he just might slide in," Dr. Trachtenberg says. "We may end up with a rash of applicants [with poorer credentials] that we might not have had."

The school is sending out extra mailings and sending recruiters a second time to some schools. Faculty and students are calling top applicants. Even though he has been making the rounds of Islamic nations' embassies, meeting with diplomats to assure them his school is sensitive to Islamic students' concerns, he - like many - expects foreign-student applications to drop significantly. "We're being proactive, not complacent," he says. "I think we'll land on our feet."

More mailings

At Emerson College in Boston, however, there is strong concern. Visits to the campus are down significantly. The number visiting from the West Coast and other far-away spots has dropped. Several recruiting trips had to be canceled. And the number of applications is lower now than at the same time last year.

Still, officials say prospective applicants are getting information from the school's website. The school is also pumping out more mailings - into a postal system that's operating more slowly. Application deadlines have been extended or flexed at most schools.

"The fact that Boston played a significant role in the tragedy isn't a factor we'll truly understand until after we see the total number of applications," says Todd Orwig, Emerson's senior assistant director of admission. "We don't see that interest has diminished significantly yet. We are concerned, though, about potentially fewer applicants."

On the plus side, he says, if proximity to home does become a bigger factor, Emerson might actually reap a more local crop of students whose parents don't want them far away.

"We may benefit from this ultimately if students who didn't want to stay close to home end up here anyway," he says.

Less well-known institutions that have long taken a back seat as "safeties" may benefit, however, getting the nod for a different kind of safety factor.

That's David Hawsey's hope. The vice president of enrollment management at Albion College, a liberal-arts school in tiny Albion, Mich., admits being encouraged by a flurry of interest in his highly ranked school. Applications are up 20 percent, and visits are nearly double.

"Students are saying cautiously that they would like to move ahead with their lives," he says. "But mom and dad have broken out the map, made a circle about 500 miles around, and are saying: 'Anywhere in this area is fine with us, honey."

It isn't just proximity, though, he says.

"There does seem to be a shift away from schools $30,000 and over," he says. "People may be falling back to schools that are not only cheaper, but in the right place that feels better for the family. That's what's going on. People are searching for their comfort zone."

Julie Browning, dean for undergraduate enrollment at William Marsh Rice University in Houston, agrees that it's "not just safety" that parents are shopping for. Sometimes called "the Harvard of the South," Rice is a bargain at about $23,000 for tuition, room, and board, she says. Indiana University also reports it is intensifying recruiting in the expectation that more students will stay closer to home.

Dartmouth College is one Ivy League school that could benefit from both trends. It is both more rural and has generous financial aid. Despite a dip in campus visits, a program that brings talented prospects to campus has seen no declines.

"I do think the rural institutions might see some added interest because of location, recognizing that over the last four to five years, urban institutions have seen increases," says Karl Furstenberg, Dartmouth's dean of admission. "The pendulum could be swinging back."

Yield - the percentage of students admitted by a school who enroll - is going to be the trickiest part of the equation, Dean Furstenberg says. If students apply to a broader range of schools for location and economic reasons, then outside events - whatever happens between now and May 1 - could drastically affect decisions.

"Yield will play out in very different ways than it has in last several years," he says. "There will be that point in the process where parents will exert more of their influence. You will hear more from parents."

Joan Lefkowitz agrees with that.

She, her husband, Larry, and daughter Sharon are selecting colleges carefully this year - weighing distance especially. The residents of Dartmouth, Mass., don't want recent events to "govern our lives," she says. But caution is winning.

"Sharon's first choice was a California school," Mrs. Lefkowitz says. "We said absolutely not. We would prefer her to be less than three hours away by plane, seven hours by car. If it were up to my husband, it would be 15 minutes away."

For one family, the only issue is the right fit

If terrorists expected the American public to fold after the Sept. 11 attacks, it's probably true that they never spoke to the likes of Rob and Patty Moffitt - and their daughters Susie and Kristen.

The day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Mr. and Mrs. Moffitt, who live in Andover, Mass., got a tearful phone call from their shaken daughter Susie at the University of Maryland - eight miles from the Pentagon.

"She asked us to send her Bible, and said she wished she were home," Rob Moffitt says. "But that has dissipated. She's having a ball, now."

Well, not exactly. Susie admits her sophomore year at the University of Maryland at College Park, just inside the Washington beltway, is a bit closer to the center of recent events than she wished. Still, she has new interests now, working with volunteer groups. She's also found deeper friendships.

"It was just really scary," she says. "At first, it made me not want to be in the D.C. area - which was why I picked this university. My friends supported me, though. I went to a huge campus vigil that also made me feel a lot better."

In addition to campus activities, she also soon got involved with a volunteer program, making thousands of sandwiches to send to rescue workers. "It brought everything back into perspective," Susie says. "I became more grounded. I had forgotten to bring my Bible with me this semester, so mom mailed it to me. That helped."

Mrs. Moffitt says she and her husband gave Susie the choice to come home or transfer to another school - but encouraged her to get on top of things first right where she was.

"We are of a mind-set that we aren't going to let these people do this to us," she says. "We are going to be prudent, but not let ourselves be manipulated by this evil behavior."

Her husband agrees. "We've been kicked off of airplanes, delayed, and everything else," Rob says. "It's just one of those things we have to weather. We are a very strong Christian family, and we know we're in good hands. We would never let that stop us. Our No. 1 consideration is the right fit of the school - and that's all there is to that."

Kristen, a high school senior this fall, found that right fit.

Her search extended to schools in three states. It was tempting to cut the college search process short, she admits - but she didn't. And she's glad: Last Saturday, she was accepted to her first choice, a university in North Carolina.

"Obviously the purpose [of the attacks] was to startle people," Kristen says. "I don't want it to completely take over the way I think, because I like the way I think. So I'm not going to conform. I've made a huge decision about college that's going to affect rest of my life. That's why I didn't want to let it affect me - and it didn't."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.