Is a dream college worth waiting for?

When she applied to 13 colleges last year, Carly Chase thought she was wise to all the possible responses she would get: deferment, early acceptance, regular acceptance, or rejection.

But when she opened up the envelope from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., - her top choice - she thought, "Oh, that's a new one."

Ms. Chase had applied for regular fall admission. But the letter stated that her enrollment at Skidmore's campus would be delayed until January. In the meantime, the school suggested, Chase might like to study in London in the fall.

At first, that didn't seem like good news. "Just the concept of being so far away for four months took me out of every aspect of my comfort zone," says Chase.

But she was not alone in her dilemma. A growing number of incoming freshman are being offered second-semester admission as universities aim to stabilize enrollment. At most schools, registration typically takes a dip in the spring when many students graduate mid-year, transfer, or study abroad. Delayed admission is a way for universities to keep every dorm bed full.

But it's a tough sell with students. Most high school seniors are ready to fly from the nest in September. The prospect of staying home as their friends leave is unappetizing for recent grads.

So some schools are finding creative ways to entice incoming freshmen to accept delayed admission.

"Colleges are jockeying the margins to get more students," says David Hawkins, director of public policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "It's all about creating an edge in students' minds and an awareness that the university presents an alternative to regular admission."

There are no official figures on how many US colleges offer spring admission. But it's becoming more common among smaller liberal arts colleges, like Middlebury College in Vermont, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

But some larger schools - like the University of Southern California in Los Angeles - also make use of second-semester admissions.

Skidmore College is trying to make the London program, which is in its fifth year, more visible to compete with other universities, says Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions and financial aid.

About 40 percent of students end up studying abroad during their time at Skidmore. And the London program for freshman buffers the drop in second-semester registration, she says.

Course credits earned in London are accepted by Skidmore. This year, the 36 spring admits completed their freshman seminar classes abroad.

But not all schools consider it necessary to sweeten spring admission with a study abroad option. At the University of Southern California there are 12 applications for every available spot, says J. Michael Thomson, vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admission and financial aide.

"We use [spring admission] as a way to help as many students realize their dream of coming to USC," he says. To fill 200 empty slots in the spring, USC accepts 700 incoming freshman to enroll in January. Though they are accepted a semester behind, they must still confirm their acceptance in May along with everyone else.

It's not an option all students are comfortable with, Mr. Thompson admits. Some fear the stigma of delayed enrollment and need reassurance. "We tell them they don't come in with a big 'S' on their foreheads," he says.

Seniors are usually anxious when they receive mid-semester acceptance letters, says Jim Montague, director of guidance and support services at Boston Latin High School.

"This option delays where they want to be," says Mr. Montague. "And the time gap sounds intimidating."

For Chase, the shock of Skidmore's delayed enrollment plan seemed to involve a bit of risk.

Universities typically encourage students to wait to study abroad until their junior years, when they are more mature. Chase knew she wouldn't have the option of flying home when she missed her family. A Thanksgiving break was out of the question. And the student from Massachusetts did not like the prospect of missing out on the most exciting half of the Red Sox baseball season.

"I could have gone to another school," she says. She had also considered New York University and Boston University, where her father attended. But she wanted to avoid the 300-person lectures common at larger schools.

In the end, she opted for the cozy liberal arts college and the delayed enrollment plan.

Skidmore never gave Chase a clear reason why she was accepted as one of the handful of students to study in London. "They told me my application suggested I could handle it," she says. "I don't know if that's true."

But the dean of admissions said the profiles of spring "admits" are identical to those of their counterparts in the fall.

"We look for kids - based on their recommendation letters - who seemed mature and eager to try new things," says Ms. Bates.

Now - having just finished her first semester on the Skidmore campus - Chase says she's glad she took a chance on spring admission.

"The process for going to London [first] was not too different," she said. "I just couldn't pack my minifridge."

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