Harvard, Columbia Applications Rise to All-Time Highs

Harvard Seats Sought by Record Number of Students
A pedestrian walks past the Harvard University Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

Applications for undergraduate admissions to Harvard University and Columbia University rose to all-time highs, making it harder than ever before to get into the colleges.

Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, received almost 35,000 applications for the next academic year, a 15 percent increase from 30,489 for the current year, William Fitzsimmons, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, said today in a statement. Applications to Columbia, in New York, rose 32 percent to a 34,587, from 26,179 a year earlier, according to a statement today.

Harvard admitted 6.9 percent of applicants last year, and Columbia 9 percent. The most-selective colleges are setting application records because students are seeking a chance at “the luxury brands of higher education,” said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Virginia.

“If you want to be seen in a Mercedes, you have to go buy one,” Hawkins said in an interview. “If you want to be seen as a Harvard student, you pay the application fee and take your chance. As more students are performing better academically in high school, they are taking their shots.”

Harvard is the richest university in the U.S., with an endowment of $27.4 billion last June 30. It is a member of the Ivy League, a group of eight universities in the northeast U.S.

‘Global Awareness’

Behind the surge at Columbia, also an Ivy League member, were outreach efforts, “global awareness of Columbia’s reputation,” and New York’s drawing power, Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions at Columbia, said in the statement. She said the university for the first time used the Common Application, a form accepted by more than 400 institutions and helps high school students apply to multiple colleges.

Columbia rose to fourth place from eighth in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of top U.S. academic research institutions. Harvard took the top spot in the rankings, which were released in August.

Columbia, founded in 1754, counts among its undergraduate alumni U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Applications at Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, climbed 6.8 percent to 34,200 from 32,022 a year ago, Bob Patterson, director of admission, said yesterday in an interview.

Penn, Northwestern

The University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League member in Philadelphia, received a record 30,800 applications for undergraduate admission, according to a statement on Jan. 6. Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said in a statement on Jan. 10 that 30,605 students, the most ever, sought undergraduate admission.

Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; the University of Chicago; Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, also received record numbers of undergraduate applications, according to statements this month.

The percentage of students applying to 7 or more colleges almost doubled to 23 percent in 2009 from 12 percent a decade earlier, according the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s Freshman Survey. Each year, about 500,000 students participate in the survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hedging Bets

As colleges receive more applications, the admit rates go down, and students are hedging their bets by applying to more schools, said Linda DeAngelo, assistant director for research at the Institute. The ease of applying online has also increased the number of applications, she said.

Harvard’s record total may be attributed to the university’s new school of engineering and applied science, the ease of applying online and financial-aid policies, Fitzsimmons said in the statement.

In 2007, Harvard said that most families making $180,000 a year or less would pay no more than 10 percent of their income toward college costs. The college is free to students whose families earn $60,000 or less in annual income.

The cost to attend Harvard for the 2010-2011 academic year is $50,724, according to the university. Harvard was established in 1636. About 6,650 undergraduates are among the total of about 21,000 students, said Jeff Neal, a spokesman.

Harvard counts among its alumni Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, both graduates of the university’s law school.

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