For high-school seniors and their families, April 1 couldn’t have come soon enough. It’s the date by which thousands of colleges and universities have promised to let the Class of 2013 know their fate: accepted, rejected or waitlisted. Still, the economy and a record number of applicants—more than 3 million—for the second year in a row, has made for more dramatic twists and turns than ever this week. Here’s a look at some of the headlines in college admissions right now:
Ivies’ Admissions Rates Reach Record Lows Students found it harder than ever to break into the Ivy League this year. Harvard, for instance, admitted just 2,046, or 7 percent, of a record 29,112 applicant—the lowest admission rate in the school’s 373-year history. Yale saw a 14 percent increase in applications, selecting just 7.5 percent from 26,000 applicants. Brown, MIT, Columbia, and Princeton have all reported dramatic increases in applications and each accepted barely one in ten. Dartmouth, for its part, estimated 55 percent of its freshman class—the largest portion ever—will receive need-based financial aid for a total of about $21.8 million. But with the economy unlikely to improve any time soon and because it is likely some students were accepted at several of these schools, questions remain on how many admitted students will ultimately enroll. That’s where long waitlists this year will come in.
Many Private Colleges Accept More Students Mindful of family finances, many private colleges accepted a greater number of applicants this admissions season. Concerned that many students will either choose public options or decide college is too expensive after all, many admissions officers have hedged their bets by admitting more students in April as well as lengthening waitlists so that they have potential freshmen to fill their freshman class through early summer. While schools’ admissions rates may have decreased or remained the same, the actual number of bodies has gone up. That’s because tuition dollars are crucial to many institutions at a time of budget cuts and shrinking endowments. And such moves appear prudent: At Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, the number of early-decision applicants who were admitted but pulled out for financial reasons has already doubled this year.
Affluent Students Find Advantage This Admissions Cycle The bad economic times are producing an edge for at least one group of students this year: those who can pay full price. The vast majority of schools haven’t cut their financial-aid budgets; in fact, most have done the opposite. But with more students applying for financial aid and endowments down, colleges and universities report being much more alert this spring to the number of scholarship students they accept. Even those institutions that call themselves “need-blind” are bolstering full-paying student bodies by taking more applicants off transfer or waitlists or accepting more foreigners who pay full tuition. “We’re only human,” said Steven Syverson, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “They shine a little brighter.”
UC San Diego Sends Out 28,000 Bogus Acceptance Letters In a cruel twist of fate, some 28,000 applicants to the University of California, San Diego had their hopes dashed this week after finding out their acceptance letters to the school were actually supposed to be rejections. UCSD revealed that it had accidentally sent emails Monday evening inviting all 47,000 students who had applied this year to an upcoming admitted students' day on campus. The emails began, “We're thrilled that you've been admitted to UC San Diego, and we're showcasing our beautiful campus on Admit Day." Many students who received the message, however, had already been notified they’d been rejected. And on Tuesday, admissions director Mae Brown apologized for the goof, calling it an “administrative error.” Only 18,000 were, in fact, admitted.
Community Colleges Prepare for Flood of Students Whether it’s due to the credit crunch or soaring tuitions, more and more high-school seniors have added another option to their college list this fall—the local community college. Already, the U.S.’s 1,200-plus two-year institutions educate nearly half of all undergraduates nationwide for little more than $4,000 per semester. Yet while enrollment has been rising steadily at many schools since 2000, this fall appears likely to set records. More surprising? Much of this growth is coming from the middle class. But, because community colleges rely on waning state dollars for some 70 percent their budgets, some schools will no doubt have to overcome significant obstacles just to keep their doors open— even if the cars filling the parking lot are nicer these days.
U.S. Degree Still Worth the Money Few corners of the globe haven’t been touched by the souring economy, and yet the number of foreign students on American campuses is likely to go up this fall. Because they are not eligible for federal aid, international students almost always pay full price for their degrees and must jump through many hoops to prove their ability to do so. Still, some 600,000 foreigners are enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities as the value of an American degree holds steady. This year that means an extra bonus for struggling schools: more tuition in their coffers.
Selective Schools Only Hurt Themselves? Rejected from your first-choice college this week? Who cares? That’s the opinion of one Swarthmore psychology professor. Barry Schwartz argues that families and admissions departments are trapped in a college “arms race” that is, more or less, futile. His research shows the mental and financial anguish of getting into college rarely pays off down the road. So Schwartz’s suggestion is admissions officers ought to pick their top 5,000 candidates and draw the incoming freshmen from a hat. That, he says, would yield a just as successful class as the status quo and would be significantly more objective. If undertaken, this system could even make the U.S. the meritocracy it has always bragged it already is.
Freshmen Can Expect Extra Roommates This Fall Dorm rooms have never been spacious, but this year some students can expect even less personal space in their living quarters. Suffering endowments have forced several colleges to announce that they will be increasing enrollments to make up the difference in revenue. That means schools like Connecticut’s Wesleyan University and Massachusetts’ Williams College will have to bunk two or three students in dorm rooms once considered singles. “What a lot of places seem to be doing in response to the current economic situation is easing up on the supply of places by letting in a few more kids,” says Michael McPherson, president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. “If there is a little bit less luxury in the way things are provided, I think that’s a good tradeoff.”
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Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.