Applications at Top Universities Retreat Amid `Impossible' Odds

Elite U.S. colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University are experiencing a slowdown or drop in applications for freshman admission after years of record increases.

Columbia reported an 8.9 percent decrease in applicants to 31,818 for the 2011-2012 year after surging 33 percent last year when the school joined the Common Application. MIT had 1 percent growth, the smallest increase in seven years, while the number of students applying to the University of Pennsylvania fell 1.7 percent after jumping 40 percent in the past three years combined.

Athletics programs, early-admission policies, competition for seats and other school-specific issues may be having a greater effect on student applications rates, counselors and admissions deans said. High school seniors are getting the message that it can be next to “impossible” to win a seat at these schools, said Jon Reider, head of college counseling at San Francisco’s University High School.

“There is a finite number of teenagers who have the credentials to make themselves competitive for schools like this and, at a certain point, that level is hit,” said Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford University. “The supply of kids flattens out.”

Early Admissions

Penn admitted 12 percent of applicants last year and Columbia 6.9 percent. One reason for the decline in Penn’s applications to 31,127 is that more colleges have early admission programs, Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions, said in an e-mail. Penn, based in Philadelphia, also required an additional essay this year, which might have had a small impact, Furda said.

Fellow Ivy League schools Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey, reinstated early applications after a break of several years.

Early admissions at Harvard and Princeton probably affected Columbia’s application volume, Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions, said in a statement.

Dartmouth College also reported a slowdown in applications growth, and early admissions programs at other schools may have played a role, Maria Laskaris, dean of admissions, said today in an interview.

Laskaris estimated applications climbed by at least 3.5 percent from a total of 22,385 last year, when Dartmouth had growth of 19 percent.

MIT Marketing

MIT, based in Cambridge, cut its direct marketing to potential applicants by about 40 percent to eliminate students who weren’t likely to be admitted based on their PSAT score, said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions. MIT sought a smaller “but highly appropriate pool,” he said. The school, which doesn’t accept the Common Application, received 18,084 applications for this year. Last year it admitted less than 10 percent of applicants.

“We’re not trying to encourage increased numbers just for the sake of it,” Schmill said in an interview. “We’re happy given that applicant pool is as diverse and talented as ever. For us that is a terrific outcome.”

The cost to attend MIT this year including tuition, fees, room and board is $55,270, according to the school’s website. At Columbia, the cost is $59,208 for students who live on campus, according to the school.

‘We Are The 6%’

Applications for freshman admission are often taken as a proxy for a school’s popularity. Many colleges, including those in the Ivy League, buy names of prospective students who score high on standardized tests and send them marketing brochures and e-mails. The boost in applications makes the colleges appear more selective. A Harvard student group sells T-shirts sporting the slogan “We are the 6%,” in reference to the undergraduate college’s admission rate last year.

The Common Application, which Columbia joined last year, is used by more than 400 colleges. It’s an online form students can use to apply to multiple schools.

“Given the increased accessibility associated with the Common Application, schools initially accepting it have typically seen a two-year increase in application volume of 10 to 25 percent,” Marinaccio said in the statement. “Our application numbers this year appear to be normalizing to a size consistent with this trend and at a level that continues to indicate strong student interest.”

All-Time Highs

Last year, freshman applications climbed to all-time highs at the eight Ivy League institutions in the northeastern U.S. The other schools in the league plan to release their applications numbers in the coming weeks.

Freshman applications to Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, rose 7 percent to a record of almost 37,000, the school reported last week. Stanford may be benefiting from its location in Silicon Valley, connection to the technology world, orientation toward Asia and because it attracts top students who are interested in national-level intercollegiate sports, Reider said. Stanford admitted 7.1 percent of applicants last year.

Stanford senior Andrew Luck, the Cardinal quarterback and a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up, has garnered national attention and is considered a top National Football League prospect. The women’s soccer team won its first a national championship in December.

Duke, Northwestern

Duke University, which last year offered seats to 13 percent of applicants, may be the beneficiary of some competitors having admission rates in the single digits. Freshman applications to the school in Durham, North Carolina, increased by 6.2 percent to more than 31,000, according to Christoph Guttentag, dean of admissions.

“While sports may have a nominal impact on applications at Duke, it says something about selective college admissions when a 13 percent admit rate looks more possible,” Guttentag said in an interview.

Applications increased by 3.5 percent at Northwestern University to almost 32,000, according to a statement from the Evanston, Illinois-based school. Northwestern admitted 18 percent of applicants last year.

Georgetown University’s applications increased by an estimated 4.2 percent to about 20,500 for the coming school year, said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions. The school in Washington didn’t do anything differently this year, said Deacon, adding that he could “easily” increase applications and move Georgetown into the 30,000 range by buying more names, joining the Common Application and significantly increasing international travel and recruitment to China and Korea.

“We are not doing any of these things because they don’t mesh with our philosophical position about the appropriate way for the appropriate students to apply to us,” Deacon said in an interview. “It allows us to fill our class appropriately and still give adequate time and attention to each candidate.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Janet Lorin in New York jlorin@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.