Getting In: Students Hedge Bets on Colleges

The News and Observer
March 2, 2008

By Eric Ferreri, Staff Writer

As high schools graduate more students than ever and universities become increasingly competitive, college candidates have hatched a new strategy for gaining admission: apply to more schools, even those they are not likely to attend.

This strategy may backfire. Universities flooded with applications can be choosier. Now, entering the stressful “fat-or-thin-letter-in-the-mailbox” season, high school seniors and colleges alike are bracing for a higher level of rejection.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty,” said Kathy Cleaver, co-director of college counseling at Durham Academy. “I feel it this year more than ever.”

With decision deadlines approaching, high school guidance counselors and college admissions directors say there’s unease on both ends of the process: Students gauging their standing in the collegiate marketplace have filed a huge number of applications. Meanwhile, colleges are sweating over the number of applicants they should accept, knowing that some applied on a lark with no intention of attending.

At Durham Academy, students who at one time might have applied to four or five schools are now sending up to a dozen applications, Cleaver said.

3.3 million seniors
In part, the surge is a demographic phenomenon. Nationally, more students than ever before — 3.3 million — will graduate from high school this year, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. This upward trend is expected to plateau next year, then decline slightly.

The last graduation boom of this kind came in the mid-1970s when about 3 million students graduated in one year. Forty-nine percent of those graduates went on to some sort of two- or four-year college. This year, Hawkins said, two-thirds of high school graduates are expected to seek some form of higher education.

Other factors contribute to the rise in applications. Most universities now ease the process by offering online applications, so students can fill out one application and send it to multiple universities.

Another reason: growth. In Wake County, the never-ending population surge has created a huge demand for higher education, particularly at the still-affordable UNC-system campuses, said Eric Chancy, an Apex High School guidance counselor.

“Think about our growth here and how many college-educated folks have moved here,” Chancy said. “They expect their kids to attend college at a four-year institution in North Carolina.”

Grant Fitzgerald, a Trinity Academy senior from Raleigh, has applied to seven universities. That’s more than some of his friends, but far fewer than others, including one who sent out 14 applications. Fitzgerald thinks many students get caught up in a competitive frenzy.

“I think it’s kind of become a fad,” said Fitzgerald, who has been admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest and Elon, but is waiting to hear from several schools. “People see their friends apply to these places, and so they do it, too. It has to do with pride and keeping up with your fellow students.”

In-state competition
UNC-Chapel Hill received more than 21,400 applications this year. That’s a 7.5 percent jump over last year and notable because the university typically records annual increases of 1 percent to 2 percent. Admissions Director Stephen Farmer credits the university’s recognizable brand and rising academic reputation for sparking interest by applicants who may not have considered UNC-CH previously.

Five years ago, 31 percent of North Carolina high schoolers who scored 1400 or better on the SAT went to UNC-CH, Farmer said. Last year, 46 percent of those students enrolled at Chapel Hill.

Other North Carolina universities are drawing greater interest as well. Three hours west of the Triangle, officials at Appalachian State University are buried in applications. About 14,500 applications came in this year for 2,775 seats. Applications are up 19 percent from last year and a staggering 53 percent from five years ago.

Although demographics can tell part of the tale, ASU has also benefited from all sorts of good publicity. In 2001, it was Time magazine’s College of the Year. It routinely does well in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of Southern regional universities. And its football team has won three straight national championships and beat the University of Michigan last year in a monumental upset.

“I don’t know that a lot of students would choose the university solely because of the football program,” said Paul Hiatt, ASU’s admissions director. “But it helps to bring focus to all the things going on here.”

Duke University received a record 20,250 applications this year, a 5 percent jump from last year. N.C. State also received an unprecedented number of applications — 17,224, up 7 percent.

Fewer early decisions
Another factor driving the application frenzy: Princeton, Harvard and the University of Virginia made national news when they eliminated an admissions option called “early decision” –students could apply early but had to attend if accepted. In doing so, those three elite institutions prompted students who might have embraced an early decision option to consider other schools as well.

This has dragged out the process for some high school seniors and universities, said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based consultant who advises students on the admissions process.

“It’s a really tough year,” he said. “The uncertainty … encourages people to apply to more schools.”

For Fitzgerald, the Trinity Academy senior, the stress of putting together seven college applications was as time-consuming as school itself was last fall.

“It’s like a class,” he recalled. “The first semester, I did more work on my college applications than I did in any single class.”

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