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Several Colleges, Army See Signals of 'Baby Bust'

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Some of the nation's most selective postsecondary institutions, beginning to feel the long-awaited effects of the so-called "baby bust," are reporting that applications have plummeted this year.

The news marks one sign of change in the surprising decade-long pattern of growth in applications and enrollments in higher education, despite the national decline in the youth population.

Another demographic signal was sent last week by U.S. Army officials, who reported their first failure to meet quarterly quotas for voluntary enlistments since 1980.

This year's college-application declines--some as large as 18 percent--are not expected to affect admissions policies at the elite institutions, their officials said, because they already are receiving far more applications from qualified candidates than they have spaces to fill.

Observers said the decline in the pool of potential college freshmen is more likely to take a toll on public institutions, which will increasingly have to scramble for tuition revenue in the face of recent substantial cuts in federal aid.

Nationally, the pool of 18-year-old high-school graduates, which numbered 2.7 million in 1987, was expected to increase slightly this year, then decline to 2.4 million in 1990, according to figures supplied by Stanford University.

The overall 18-year-old population peaked at 8.7 million in 1980, has dropped by more than a million since then, and will continue declining into the mid-1990's, U.S. Census Bureau data indicate.

The reduction in applications among prestigious institutions reflects, in part, the slowing of the birthrate in the late 1960's and early 1970's, their officials said.

"I think we've all been waiting for the demographic drop," said Alfred T. Quirk, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College.

Declines Predominate

Dartmouth, along with other Ivy League institutions such as Harvard University and top private schools such as Stanford University, has experienced a sizable drop in applications from high-school seniors.

Stanford received 14,869 applications this year, a decline of 6 percent over the 15,828 it received in 1988. It was the second decline in two years.

Similarly, officials at Harvard reported a decline in applications of 10 percent this year.

At Dartmouth, applications for the school's approximately 1,000 freshman slots dropped this year by 18 percent, after increasing by 9 percent in 1988.

But because the freshman class at the New Hampshire liberal-arts college is so small, "the difference between 8,000 and 10,000 [applications] is insignificant," said Mr. Quirk.

Likewise, at Stanford only 1,600 of the more than 15,000 who applied for admission to the 1988 freshman class were enrolled.

Mr. Quirk said that among his counterparts, "people don't feel that this is a bad thing [because] the selective colleges are dealing with a relatively thin slice" of the total 18-year-old population.

Projections of student populations and potential enrollments indicate, he said, that "for five years this will have zero effect on academic quality."

At Princeton University, in fact, admissions officials say applications are holding steady this year.

Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon said the number of applications was within "50 or so" of the number received last year. Between 10,000 and 12,000 applied for one of the approximately 1,300 freshman slots available this year.

Multiple Applications Down

Frank Burtnett, executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, said that, in addition to population declines, other factors also affect application rates.

The cost of an Ivy League education, generally many times that of a state university, even for out-of-state students, may deter many students today, he said.

In addition, students may be getting "improved counseling" that steers them toward schools to which they are more suited, Mr. Burtnett speculated.

He also theorized that students may be less likely now to apply to schools where they have little chance of being accepted. "I think they've been watching their peers from a couple of classes ahead of them," he said.

This year's lower application rates also may signal, Mr. Quirk said, the end of a recent trend among students to apply to a number of schools--in extreme cases to as many as 20--in hopes of gaining admission to a selective school by luck.

He speculated that the decline in the 18-year-old population will more likely affect less prestigious public institutions, which have recently experienced enrollment gains.

"The interesting thing would be to find out who is in jeopardy of not filling their freshman class," said Mr. Hargadon, indicating that such a situation is unlikely anywhere.

Although four-year public institutions experienced an increase of 2 percent in enrollments last year, they are expected to undergo enrollment declines in the early 1990's, said Meredith Ludwig, director of research for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Over all, said Mr. Burtnett, "there are some shifts afoot out there that the whole admission community is going to watch this year."--pw

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