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The 10 U.S. Colleges With the Biggest Application Drops

Many small, private liberal colleges are seeing fewer high school seniors apply

More than 20 million students are expected to return to college quads this fall, a 24 percent increase from 2000. Still, the enrollment surge doesn't mean that all colleges have gotten more popular. Some expensive private colleges have experienced significant drops in the number of high school seniors applying, according to a recent report. Elite Boston College has suffered the biggest plunge. 

Applications to the school in the 2013-2014 academic year (the most recent for which there's data) fell 28 percent from the year before, the biggest drop of any school ranked by education research website SmartClass in a recent report. SmartClass used Department of Education data to rank application levels at the top 200 "Smart Rated" colleges—a measure that combines financial affordability, career readiness, admissions selectivity, and expert opinion and academic excellence at colleges. 

Most of the schools with the greatest applications decreases are small, private liberal arts colleges. These elite schools have experienced low applicant pools since 2008, in part because of rising student debt, lower job prospects, and competition from online programs. Spooked by high tuition, many students have been been opting to learn skills seen as more practical than literature or art history, such as coding.

Boston College says its dwindling application numbers don't mean it's less desirable. Instead, they say, they've made it harder for students to apply on a whim. At the school, which is ranked in the top 35 schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report, application numbers declined when the admissions committee added an essay to its required application materials, dissuading seniors who aren't serious about the school, says Jack Dunn, a spokesperson for the school.

"After 20 straight years of increased applications to BC, we made a strategic decision to add a supplemental essay requirement ... with the expectation that it would result in a more targeted applicant pool." He added that applicant numbers are less important than who applies. "The issue is fit."

Indeed, as applications fell, the school's yield—the number of admitted students who enroll—rose 3 percent, suggesting that the school is getting better at accepting prospective students who view it as their top choice. 

The 10 colleges and universities with the largest drops in applications are below. Find the full list of 21 colleges in the SmartClass report here:

1. Boston College, Mass.

Applications down by: 27.96 percent

2. United States Air Force Academy, Colo.

-21.51 percent

3. Millsaps College, Miss.

-15.7 percent

4. Wofford College, S.C.

-14.98 percent

5. Rhodes College, Tenn.

-14.09 percent

6. University of San Diego, Calif.

-11.37 percent

7. Messiah College, Pa.

-10.05 percent

8. Whitman College, Wash.

-9.39 percent

9. Brigham Young University-Provo, Utah

-9.03 percent

10. Columbia University, New York

-8.5%. 

Correction: The original version of this story misstated that Grinnell College had a 12.63 percent decrease in applications. Grinnell College had a 1.1 percent decrease and should not be on the list. 

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