Number of college applications on the rise

  • Increases in applications means more rigid acceptance rates at colleges
  • More high school students applying to schools added to the increase
  • The number of high school graduates is expected to dwindle after 2010
  • An end to early decision deadlines at UVA, Princeton and Harvard may have contributed to the increase
  • The end of January brings more cold weather, Valentine's Day decorations and college application deadlines.

    As the last applications roll in, college officials report record numbers, particularly at Northwestern, Harvard, Princeton, University of Virginia and University of Chicago.

    Princeton set a new record with 20,118 applications—a 6 percent increase. Boston College received almost 30,000 applications, up from last year's 29,000, said Reid Oslin, associate director of public affairs at Boston College.

    Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. experienced a 7 percent increase, with 25,000 applications versus last year's 21,941, said Mike Mills, associate provost at Northwestern. Online applications and increased outreach contributed to the numbers. To whittle down that number to 5,800 incoming freshman students, Northwestern hired a new director of admissions from Princeton to make the cutthroat decisions, Mills said.

    Jodi Hester, director of college counseling at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., said an upswing in the number of high school graduates and students sending out applications are primary reasons for the increase.

    "If the world is uncertain, so is the world of college admissions," Hester said. "It's sort of a scattered gun approach."

    Kathryn Sturm, a senior at Academy of the Holy Cross, a high school in Kensington, Md., said she applied to 11 colleges and knows students who filled out 22 applications. She said she feels a little tense about the acceptance process.

    "It worries me because this is the biggest year yet," Sturm said. "In reality it's kind of hard thinking, 'Where am I going to go next year?' (and) not knowing what's going to happen."

    Hester said Gonzaga charges students $10 if they exceed the six-application limit. This year, the average number of applications was 6.1, Hester said.

    Nationwide, the average number of applications is up to 10, when it used to be six or seven, said Kathy Dawley, president of Maguire Associates, a college consulting firm in Concord, Mass.

    She attributes the increase to students' nervousness about colleges' selectivity. An end to early decision policies at Harvard, UVA and Princeton also may have added to the application surge, she said.

    UVA saw around a 4 percent increase in applications this year after a 12 percent increase last year. The university decided to end its early decision program after seeing that few low-income students applied early decision, said John Blackburn, dean of admissions at UVA.

    "We're trying to attract and get the word out for low-income students," Blackburn said. "You'd think people would jump at it, but they don't."

    The end of these programs may make the playing field more equal, Dawley said. Yet the correlation between more applicants and the end of such programs is still unknown, she said.

    "The real cause and effect between the increase in volume and the end of these programs is yet to be proven," Dawley said.

    It can be difficult for college admissions advisers to determine how many students to admit, as students apply to 10 schools but only choose one. This can encourage colleges to change their acceptance rate, Oslin said. He said Boston College is currently sorting through around 30,000 applications to enroll a freshman class of 2,250 students.

    Admitting students is partly studying patterns over the years, he said.

    "It's an art more than a science," Oslin said. "They watch it so carefully, you pretty much know how many are going to come."

    While it may be tough to get into college now, Dawley said it won't always be that way because after 2010, the number of high school graduates will decrease.

    The Northeast and Midwest have already experienced significant downturns in the number of high school graduates. Border states like Texas, Florida and California, however, are experiencing growth in the number of graduates as the number of immigrants moving to those areas increases, Dawley said.

    "Virtually everywhere else fewer students (will) graduate from high school in the years ahead (and) that suggests a decline over time," Dawley said.