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Why are college applications up?

The economy is sagging; the college-age population is flattening. And yet, word is trickling in that several selective colleges around Washington have reaped record numbers of applications for the Class of 2014-- including the University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University and American and George Washington universities.

How did this happen? Is each senior applying to more schools? Are students gravitating to more selective schools, or to schools with stronger reputations for aid, and away from lesser-known brands?

We posed the question to some college admission experts. Here are some of the best responses.

"The happenings of the last 18 months have not materially changed the college-going expectations of top DC area students. My students are still focused on colleges that they perceive will position them for the future. Perhaps a nuclear war would change this, but short of that, my students will likely continue to eye the top colleges and universities."
-- Steven Roy Goodman, MS, JD, Educational Consultant and Co-Author, College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family

"My view is that students are sending out more applications than ever before, so the total at each school is deceptively high, but the yield will be low. There are two reasons for the multiple-application trend: First, it's not really that expensive to apply to multiple colleges; applications are often free if created online, or waived for students with need. It's not a lot of work because students can send multiple applications using the Common Application. And, in order to compare financial aid packages, a student has to submit applications. The more packages, the more options the student has for an affordable choice. This trend for increased applications is enough to drive admissions professionals crazy - lots more work for lots less return."
-- Sandra Bartholomew, Ph.D., Dean of Enrollment Management, Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

"One reason for the record level of applications being reported by many schools is that students are submitting more on average with each passing high school graduating class. Based on our conversations with parents, guidance counselors, etc, this reflects several forces, including:
- news stories about increasing "competition" for college slots and ever rising test score averages of enrollees encourage students to hedge their bets by applying to a larger number of schools (which further fuels the college admissions arms race by pushing down acceptance rates even further)
- the increasing ease of filing multiple applications online, often at no cost, through schools' own websites or services such as the Common Application.
- an ever-growing number of test-optional colleges and universities (now 841, about one-third of all accredited, bachelor-degree granting schools including many in the DC area such as Loyola University in Baltimore, Salisbury State in Maryland, Southeastern in the District, and George Mason in Northern VA."
-- Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director, FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

"Answer: This is easy . . . The public institutions are becoming more expensive (certainly true in California!), it's tougher to graduate in four years because students can't get the classes they want when they want them, and state schools tend to have limited financial aid. Contrast that with the private colleges: although the sticker price can be daunting, the privates have much more flexibility to adjust their price for individual families based on need and merit (I had many students last year choose "expensive private schools" because the ultimate cost was less than their in-state public school choices AND they knew they would graduate in four years). I suspect that students apply to the privates hoping that the cost will, in fact, be the same or less than their publics. Obviously, each year is different, but with the economy as it is, it's smart for students to spend an additional $50 or $100 on application fees and see what the results are . . ."
- Geoffrey R. Smith, Dean of College and Gap Year Advising, Dean of the Class of 2010, JCHS - Jewish Community High School of the Bay, San Francisco

"The reality at this point is that while high school populations are in fact leveling off, the struggling economy and continued competitive nature of college admissions have forced many students to submit more applications. Whether it be to give themselves more chances for the elusive "Admit Letter" or to have the opportunity to analyze multiple financial aid offers, students are increasing the number of schools to which they apply.
In addition, with most applications now being online, as well as the continued growth of the Common Application, students have a far easier time submitting more applications than ever before."
-- Michael T. Pezzi, National Director of College Counseling, Chyten Educational Services

"In my own personal business, I am talking to all of my clients about applying to elite private schools who are wealthy from the perspective that they have a high cost of attendance but offer generous financial aid. I have seen more clients walk in my office with stories that are extremely compelling and warrant review by financial aid offices as enrollment management decisions are often made from the perspective of trying to find the most diverse class possible. . . I know I have recommended to my clients schools that are not only a good fit but also offer a great amount of financial aid. My philosophy is such that if you are applying to five schools then why not 7 or 10. If money is the issue then expanding your search will ensure that someone offers you a package you can live with and you can finance."
-- Kevin Collins, President/Founder, Ivy League College Consultants, LLC

By Daniel de Vise  |  January 22, 2010; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions , Aid , Finance  | Tags: College admissions, applications, financial aid  
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