Photographer: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

Harvard Lures a Record 37,000 Applicants By Milking Social Media

Harvard University said applications for this fall’s freshman class jumped 9 percent, to a record 37,305, after the school heightened recruiting on social media and publicized a $150 million gift mostly for financial aid.

Harvard joins six of eight Ivy League schools announcing more hopefuls this year, suggesting their admit rates may decline when decisions are announced next month. Columbia, Princeton, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania also reported records.

Colleges say they are increasing marketing efforts to reach top students, especially those from underrepresented groups. Some high school advisers wonder whether the institutions are trying to buff up their images of selectivity.

“When you can only admit 5 to 10 percent, do you really need more?” said Sue Biemeret, a college counselor at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire. “How many kids do we have to reject to talk about how competitive schools are? I think social media is certainly a big deal for a lot of these schools.”

This year, at least a dozen colleges -- not including Harvard -- extended admission deadlines even though they reject most of their applicants, Bloomberg News reported last week.

Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said more high school seniors applied because of a revamped website and heightened use of social media, including a new blog. To get a sense of Harvard life, students are invited to follow the school on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter.

Electronic Outreach

“While it will be several years before we have definitive information about the effect of this new electronic outreach, we are encouraged by what we have seen so far,” Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions, said in a statement.

Publicity about scholarships also helped boost applications, Harvard said. Last February, it received a $150 million donation, primarily for financial aid, from Kenneth Griffin, founder and chief executive officer of hedge fund Citadel Advisors LLC. Harvard, the wealthiest college in higher education, gives a full ride to students from families making less than $65,000.

Columbia University also set a record with 36,223 applications to its undergraduate Columbia College and engineering schools, a 10 percent gain from last year. Jessica Marinaccio, dean of admissions and financial aid for the New York school, said the increase resulted from outreach to community-based organizations and events catering to students interested in science and engineering.

Brown, Princeton

Brown University in Providence, Rhode, and Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, both had 2 percent gains. The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia reported a 4 percent increase.

Dartmouth College is rebounding from the largest drop in more than two decades. Its 14 percent decline last year came amid complaints about drinking and hazing on campus. The Hanover, New Hampshire, school received 6 percent more this year. Dartmouth announced last week it was banning hard liquor and revamping campus housing to combat misbehavior, capping a lengthy review of its culture.

Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, will report its total next month.

Yale University said it took a different approach, cutting back on marketing to target the most suitable applicants. The New Haven, Connecticut, college sent fewer paper “viewbook” mailings to students, sending its application figures down 2 percent.

“Yale restrains its marketing efforts in an effort to focus attention on the most competitive potential applicants,” Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, said. “We focused our efforts on expanding our successful targeted mailing campaign to high-achieving low-income students.”

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