Students Submitting Record Numbers of College Applications
Colleges are reporting record numbers of applications for admission this year, primarily because students are applying to more institutions than ever before, admissions officers and high-school counselors say.
The growth in multiple applications, they suggest, reflects a desire by students to maximize their options at a time when the college-age population is decreasing, and tuition rates and competition for places at the top schools are increasing.
"In the old days, a kid picked out a school, then waited until he heard from that school before applying to another,'' said Frank Burtnett, executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors.
"Now,'' he continued, "a student wants to be in a buyer's market. He wants to have two or three acceptances in his desk drawer that he can choose from.''
Another factor fueling the trend, he said, is the stepped-up marketing efforts by colleges, which are inviting applications from a broader range of students, such as those outside the colleges' traditional recruiting territories.
Though few national statistics exist, there is one strong indication that applications are up nationwide this year: Seniors taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1986-87 requested that the College Board send 11 percent more score reports to colleges than seniors did last year, according to the board.
This year's increase in applications continues a trend that began in 1980, board officials noted. From 1980 to 1985, applications to four-year colleges rose by 3.5 percent, they said.
The trend toward multiple applications is positive, because it has provided students with more flexibility, argued Thomas Johnson, a counselor at Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
"It's nice that they can look at schools more as an individual, and ask, 'Where will I be most comfortable? Where will I be most happy?'' Mr. Johnson said.
In the past, he continued, many students simply followed their friends to the local state university. "We send 60 or 70 kids every year to the University of Michigan, and we've known for years that it wasn't always the school for every youngster,'' he said.
But Gary Williams, a counselor at the Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio, questioned the wisdom of applying to a large number of colleges.
The growth in applications, he contended, reflects poor planning by college-bound seniors. Students applying to more colleges are simply postponing until the spring decisions they should have made in the fall, he said.
"Planning is the critical part, not the number of applications they put out there,'' Mr. Williams said. "If planning is not done, then decisions get made in a two-week period in the spring of the senior year. There is a lot of potential for bad decisions.''
In addition, he and others said, the application boom will force colleges to compete against each other to enroll students who have been accepted.
"We're going to see a real battlefield [this summer] for students,'' predicted Steven R. Antonoff, an independent, Denver-based college counselor. "There is going to be a real war getting those classes filled in the next few months.''
The practice of applying to more than one college appears to have grown steadily in the past two decades, according to the annual survey of college freshmen conducted by the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles.
In 1967, half of the freshmen surveyed had applied only to the college they were attending, whereas in 1986, 35 percent applied to only one college.
Over the same period, the survey showed, the proportion of students applying to four or more colleges increased sharply. In 1986, 17.1 percent of the freshmen surveyed had applied to four or more colleges, compared with 7.5 percent of those surveyed in 1967.
Overall, private liberal-arts colleges have reported the largest increases in applications, according to data from the College Board. Between 1980 and 1985, applications to such colleges rose by nearly 10 percent, the board found.
But applications to public colleges have also increased, according to the board.
This year, for example, Illinois State University, faced with a huge increase in the number of applicants, stopped accepting applications in February--its earliest cut-off date in 15 years, university officials said.
'Pot Shot' Applications
Students who in the past would have applied only to private colleges are now applying to at least one public college as well, in order to have a less expensive backup, according to Mr. Williams, the Hawken School counselor.
Such students, he said, are also making "pot shot'' applications to an increasingly large number of private colleges as a way of keeping their options open.
At the same time, added Mr. Johnson, counselor at Andover High School, since the economy has improved in the past few years, many parents are more willing than they once were to send their children to more costly out-of-state colleges.
"Our students are now applying [to colleges] in Ohio, Colorado, Arizona,'' he said. "You wouldn't have seen that years ago.''
The University of Vermont reported a 20 percent increase in out-of-state applications this year, and officials there expect to place 2,000 students on a waiting list.
Most high-school counselors and college admissions officers interviewed agreed that colleges, worried about the shrinking pool of college-age students, have become more aggressive in getting their names out to prospective applicants.
"More and more, institutions have done an effective job of selling their institution to a broader number of students,'' said Mr. Burtnett of the admission counselors' association.
For example, he noted, hundreds of colleges are sending representatives to college fairs sponsored by the association. Next year, he said, the fairs could reach 250,000 students and parents, who might not otherwise have known about the participating colleges.
In addition, some little-known schools have benefited from being "discovered'' by the news media. St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., for example, reported a record 2,298 applications this year after receiving some unexpected publicity: It was named as one of the country's best higher-education bargains in a December article in People magazine.
A study conducted by the the admissions counselors' association and several other groups last fall concluded that marketing efforts by colleges have enabled colleges to maintain or increase enrollments despite unfavorable demographic trends. (See Education Week, Oct. 15, 1986.)
Although the study found that marketing efforts had failed to stem the decline in the college-going rate among blacks, some well-known colleges are reporting encouraging results from recent minority-recruitment efforts.
For example, after Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania this year added a second, part-time minority-recruitment officer, the number of black applicants rose by 40 percent, according to Robert Barr, the director of admissions.
Overall, Swarthmore received a record 3,400 applications this year, compared with 2,547 last year, Mr. Barr said. Moreover, the academic quality of applicants increased, he added. The average S.A.T. score among applicants was up 10 points from last year's average, and the proportion of applicants graduating in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes also increased, he noted.
'Hedge Their Bets'
"We were unable to exclude as many as before for obvious academic reasons,'' he said.
Swarthmore's increase in applications comes at a time when college officials want to reduce the size of the freshman class, he added.
Mr. Barr was reluctant to attribute the increase to a rise in multiple applications. He said that other private liberal-arts colleges to which Swarthmore applicants also tend to apply experienced less of an increase than Swarthmore's.
But Herbert F. Dalton Jr., enrollment planner for Middlebury College in Vermont, said students applying to that college this year had applied, on average, to a total of 5.4 colleges, a slight increase over last year.
"They, I think, want to hedge their bets,'' he said. "They don't want to be left out in the cold.''
Reports of stiffer competition in selective colleges have contributed to this fear, Mr. Dalton said.
Such reports may become a "self-fulfilling prophecy,'' according to Mr. Williams of the Hawken School. "If colleges are difficult to get into this year, what will happen next year?'' he asked. "Students may apply to more.''