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Bad News U: Colleges Reject Record Numbers

Policies at Harvard, Princeton Create Uncertainty at Elites; Financial-Aid Picture Improves

By Anjali Athavaley

Apr 3, 2008 (WALL STREET JOURNAL) -- The college-admissions season set records this year -- both in the number of students who applied, as well as the number of students who were rejected.

Harvard University has a record applicant pool of 27,462 and an admissions rate of 7.1%, meaning that 1,948 students were accepted -- the lowest number in the school's history and a drop from last year's 8.9%. Yale University received 22,813 applications and accepted only 8.2%, down from 9.6% last year. And at Princeton University, of the 21,369 applications, 9.3% were accepted, down from 9.5% last year.

State schools, too, are reporting a tough admissions season, with acceptance rates down at the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina, among others.

On the positive side for some students this season, schools are having a hard time predicting their all-important "yields" -- the percentage of students admitted who will actually attend. And high-school counselors are hoping that ambiguity will result in more acceptances for students who are on waiting lists -- a strategy schools use to reach enrollment targets.

"On the counseling side, this is our most promising and realistic hope for wait-list activity," says Bari Norman, director of Expert Admissions LLC in Miami. For the past couple of years, many elite schools have anticipated drawing from their waiting lists but ended up taking few or no applicants because of higher-than-expected yields.

Two factors are driving the unpredictability in this year's college-admissions process. First, both Harvard and Princeton universities eliminated their early-applicant programs this year. That means students who otherwise would have secured a spot at one of these schools in the fall also applied to other schools. Second, moves by highly selective schools to increase financial aid for middle- to upper-income students put the high tuition bills within reach of more families.

"With the change at Harvard and Princeton and all the moves made on the financial aid side, we just feel completely unable to predict what the yield will be," says Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University. "We're guessing the yield will fall some because more top students have applied to top schools." For the past couple of years, Yale's overall yield has ranged from 70% to 71%.

Yields are important to colleges because they are closely monitored by competing schools, potential donors and applicants as an indication of the college's appeal. In recent years, they have become tougher to forecast because of the growing population of high-school students and a rise in applications per student. College counselors say many students today apply at 10 to 12 schools, with some applying to as many as 20.

Some colleges changed their strategies as a result of the Harvard and Princeton decisions on early admissions. For instance, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admitted 522 students early this year compared with last year's 390 because it saw a stronger early-applicant pool. Students who normally would have applied early to Harvard and Princeton applied to MIT's early-admissions program, which is nonbinding, meaning that even if they're accepted, students aren't obliged to attend, says Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at MIT.

Swarthmore College accepted more students this year -- 929 compared with 890 at this time last year. Yet its admissions rate of 15% was lower than last year's 16% because of a rise in applications. "We took a few more because I think our yield might go down a bit," says Jim Bock, dean of admissions and financial aid at the Pennsylvania school.

17 Applications

Michael Zucker, 18, a senior at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Ill., illustrates how the applicant pools at elite schools can overlap. Mr. Zucker, who ranks within the top five students in his class, applied to Yale's single-choice early-action program -- which is nonbinding but doesn't permit him to apply to any other schools early. He also applied to 16 other schools with the goal of getting into six. "I refused to exclude schools before applying," he says. "I've heard enough horror stories to know that something can go wrong."

The results turned out in his favor. Mr. Zucker was accepted at 13 schools, including Yale. He was wait-listed at Columbia, Princeton and Stanford, and rejected by Harvard.

Mr. Zucker says he is likely to choose Yale but hasn't decided. The University of Chicago has offered him a $40,000 scholarship. Students have to let colleges know yes or no by May 1. For many, the decision may hinge on financial assistance. At a time when schools face congressional pressure to spend more of their endowments to help students, many schools have said they are capping or eliminating the amount of need-based loans in financial-aid packages and replacing them with grants. Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities have revamped their financial-aid policies to include more middle- to upper-class students.

Financial aid will determine where Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons decides to go. Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons, 18, a senior at Bellaire High School in Houston, applied to eight schools. He was accepted to five: Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.; Tufts University near Boston; American University in Washington, D.C.; Willamette University in Salem, Ore.; and the University of Texas at Austin.

Claremont McKenna and Tufts are his top choices. But he is waiting to see what kind of financial-aid packages he receives. Last month, Claremont McKenna -- with estimated tuition and fees for next year of $18,530 per semester -- announced it would eliminate student loans from financial-aid packages and give grants instead. Tufts has a similar policy for students at households with incomes below $40,000, but Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons doesn't fall into that category.

Classmates 'Freaking Out'

"My top priority is to weigh whether the college is right for me, but also what my debt might be," says Mr. Graves-Fitzsimmons, who has a 4.6 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale. His parents have encouraged him not to rule out the University of Texas -- where in-state tuition and fees are about $4,266 per semester -- because of its affordability.

He says that he is happy with his options, but that his fellow classmates are "generally freaking out." "A lot of people are not getting in where they want to get in," he says.

Indeed, the year is shaping up to be a brutal admissions season, with state schools also reporting declining admission rates. The University of Texas received 29,288 applications, up 9%. It admitted 44%, down from 51% last year. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, applications rose 6.6% to 21,496. It accepted 32%, compared with 34.1% last year.

"This was really the ugliest year I've seen," says Marybeth Kravets, a college counselor at Deerfield High School in Illinois. More students were rejected or wait-listed this year. "Some of these larger universities just did not take very many kids."

For those who didn't make it in the fall, there's hope next spring. As colleges become more adept at enrollment management, they use spring admissions to fill the slots left by students who study abroad or graduated in the fall semester.

Schools like Middlebury College in Vermont, Colby College in Maine, and Wheaton College in Massachusetts offer spring admission to a handful of students.

Some students have found the idea appealing. Last week, Angelica Rubin, 17, a senior at Hillel Community Day School in Miami, Fla., was excited to receive a large envelope from Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

It turned out that the package contained an acceptance letter for the spring semester. "It was kind of a reach school, so I was really honored, I guess," she says.

Correction & Amplification:

Claremont McKenna College in California last month announced its policy to eliminate student loans from financial-aid packages and give grants instead. A previous version of this Personal Journal article about college admissions incorrectly said the policy change was made last fall.

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