You’re Accepted, But With a Catch

Some freshmen are offered only January starts

Chicago Tribune
By Bonnie Miller Rubin

November 29, 2004 — As Zach Rudin tore open the fat envelope from Washington University, his pulse quickened with nervousness until he locked on the word “Congratulations!”

But that euphoria was short-lived as he realized he had been admitted to the highly selective St. Louis school with one caveat: He must wait until January to begin class.

“It’s no fun seeing all your friends go off to college and being stuck here,” admitted Rudin, of Wilmette, who has been spending more time lately with Mom and Dad. “But if starting a few months later means being able to get my first choice, well … it seemed like a pretty good deal to me.”

As the college application season shifts into high gear, anxiety is in the air. But for some students on the bubble, there’s a little-known window of opportunity: acceptance, with strings attached.

With more students applying to a finite number of prestigious colleges, competition for slots has never been so heated–or unpredictable. At the same time, administrators–especially those at top-tier liberal arts schools–are feeling increasing pressure to battle soaring expenses by making sure every desk and dorm room is utilized to the fullest.

By agreeing to delay enrollment for a semester, seniors can end up with their dream schools while admissions directors have a ready pool of students to plug into the inevitable vacancies that occur each spring when kids drop out, flunk out or study abroad.

The non-traditional bid has been embraced by at least a dozen schools–including such coveted car-window decals as University of California at Berkeley, Skidmore College and Cornell University.

“This isn’t the letter they were expecting to get … and they can be shocked and disappointed,” said Mark Hatch, director of admissions for Colorado College, which saw an 18 percent spike in applications over the previous year. “They might try to negotiate for fall, but we … tell them: `This is the offer that is on the table.'”

Such offers usually go to kids who meet the admission criteria, but got caught in a demographic squeeze. Some 20 percent more students are applying at prestigious schools than a decade earlier, turning colleges that were once a sure thing into a giant question mark, experts say.

Supply and demand
To hedge their bets, students are jockeying for position at a longer list of institutions, and admissions directors have figured out a way to take advantage of the burgeoning supply of applicants.

“You’re always looking for a way to solve a problem, and empty beds are a problem in the spring,” said Steve Thomas of Colby College, where the population shrinks by about 2 percent at mid-year.

The solution: Some 95 incoming freshmen get the green light, providing they are willing to attend programs in Spain and France–paid for by parents, of course–before setting foot on the Waterville, Maine, campus. “We even hand them the plane ticket,” Thomas said.

At Colby, tuition and fees cost $42,000 a year. With an enrollment of only 1,800, every empty slot is a blow to the bottom line. But the fall European detour means they’ll be back on campus to fill the beds of upperclassmen, who typically study abroad in the spring.

“These incoming freshmen get an acceptance,” Thomas said. “We contain costs and get the revenue. … It works very well for everybody.”

Today’s hefty price tags haven’t deterred the college-bound baby boomlet, which will surge until 2009. At Colby, not only has the number of applications increased steadily, but so has the caliber of candidates, with SAT average scores rising by 40 points since 1999.

It’s a similar story elsewhere. Some deferred students may take their chances on a waiting list, but that is an increasingly risky strategy. For the first time in 30 years, Georgetown in 2004 plucked no students from its waiting list.

At this level, it is difficult to tell one high-achiever from another, said Judy Hingle, of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. “There are so many qualified kids that would thrive and yet schools just don’t have the capacity for all of them to come in as fall freshmen.”

But not every admissions director embraces such solutions.

Dan Saracino at the University of Notre Dame said that he could probably count the number of second-semester admissions on one finger.

“By January, the class has already been through a lot together, like football games and exams. They’ve already jelled,” he said.

New pressures
Under the new realities, it’s all become more of a crapshoot, experts say. “Universities are facing the same pressures as the airline industry,” said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C.-based college consultant. “So admissions officers need to eke out every last dollar from recruitment efforts … and they can get quite creative.”

Although most institutions are candid about alternative routes, others are more enigmatic. You’ll find no mention of the “January Scholars” program in any of Washington University’s literature or in any college guides. A school spokesman also declined to comment.

But after the initial jolt, Zach Rudin has decided that the five-month delay carries no stigma.

“At first, I was a little weirded out that I got in on this secret, but now I’m fine,” said the New Trier High School graduate.

Last fall, he applied to 10 other schools, ranging from Oberlin College to University of Illinois. Through it all, though, his first choice was Washington U. “It just seemed right,” Rudin said.

Those sentiments were seconded by Jocelyn Miller of Libertyville, who chose Washington University over Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio.

“I might have felt a little rejected at first, but I’m really happy with the way things worked out,” Miller said.

Other requirements
Until it’s time to pack up the U-Haul, both Rudin and Miller are taking classes at local community colleges. They are also required to participate in the “January Scholars” program, which means making four weekend trips to St. Louis this semester–at an additional cost of $3,300 over the yearly price of $41,000 for tuition and room and board.

To help them get acclimated to the campus, they take an anthropology class with the other 35 January scholars and are treated to special outings, such as St. Louis Cardinals games. Said Miller: “We are treated like gods.”

Perhaps. But no amount of wining and dining will convince some applicants that their stars are not tarnished.

“You’re always going to get people who will feel like second-class citizens,” Colorado College’s Hatch said. “To them we say, `Be happy. You made the cut.'”

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