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N.Y. College Gives Seniors a Chance To Learn if They Make the Cut in One Day

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ALEXANDRIA, VA.--Nervous laughter and subdued, preoccupied banter about college, the Super Bowl that would take place later in the day, and hometowns fill Bryan Library on the campus of the Episcopal Academy, a private high school here.

It is late January, and nearly two dozen students--some from as far away as Virginia Beach, Va.; Waiteville, W.Va.; and Philadelphia--are passing the time with idle chatter as they await interviews with admissions counselors from Bard College.

The scene is similar to one many college-bound high-school seniors face, but with one important difference: After the one-on-one interviews, these students will be told whether the college will admit them.

And, like anxious students huddled around mailboxes come notification time, the students here are quick to question those who have the good fortune to be among the first to learn of Bard's decision.

"How'd you do?'' one young man asks another after returning from the admissions interview.

"I'm in.''

"Cool, man.''

"Yeah. It's a great burden lifted.''

For 14 years, Bard, a private, liberal-arts college of nearly 1,000 students located in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has offered prospective enrollees the opportunity to participate in an innovative and unusual application program that allows students to take part in a typical Bard seminar-style class and receive a decision from the college on the student's admissibility--all in one day.

The Immediate Decision Plan, as Bard officials call it, is open to any applicant. And for those who cannot make the trip to Annandale-on-Hudson, located 30 miles north of New York City, top Bard officials take their plan on the road, to places like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston.

About half of all entering freshmen each year come to Bard through the plan, officials say. Some 280 freshmen enrolled this year.

'More Students and Better Students'

On this particular Sunday, the Bard cadre found themselves in this commuter city just outside of Washington, D.C., with 21 energetic, confident, and motivated high-school seniors.

The high caliber of the group is typical of those who take advantage of the system, Bard officials say.

In contrast to traditional applicants, of whom 65 percent are typically offered admission, 17 of the 21 here were eventually accepted to Bard. Moreover, college officials estimate, at least half of the 17 are likely to notify Bard by May 1 that they intend to enroll, a yield 10 percent higher than that from students who apply and are notified of acceptance through the traditional process.

Because it takes more confidence for a student to receive an admissions decision in a face-to-face interview, Bard officials say I.D.P. students tend to be more academically successful than other applicants.

"You get a good conversion of applicants to students since there's more investment in the application process,'' says Stuart Levine, the dean of the college. "Economically and socially, this is a good thing for the college to do. We get more students and better students.''

Explaining 'Your Strong Points'

Mr. Levine and other Bard administrators developed the I.D.P. 14 years ago in an attempt to compress the admissions process for students who wanted that, and to convey to the applicants a feeling about that process and about the school.

The college has achieved those goals, they say, pointing to consistently higher yields and continued interest in all market areas.

"The contact made on that day is significantly different than what is made during a regular application,'' said Mary Backlund, the dean of admissions.

The students second that sentiment. Although most remained nervous about their interviews, they almost universally say they enjoyed the process.

"It makes it more interesting, more personal,'' says Alexandra Hoge, who attends the Maret School in Washington, D.C.

"I think this is a great way because I don't think I would've gotten in as easily the other way,'' adds Arsen Katunac, a Yugoslavian exchange student attending Bayside High School in Virginia Beach. "It's the only way to explain your strong points and to get beyond the numbers, the grade-point average, the [Scholastic Aptitude Test] and really explain what you're all about.''

The students say they also enjoyed the initial segment of the program, a seminar course led by Mr. Levine and styled after a typical session at Bard.

After initially asking the students to evaluate the role of schools and colleges in teaching students morals and values, Mr. Levine led Mr. Katunac, Ms. Hoge, and the others through a two-hour discussion of civil disobedience.

Among other topics, the group discussed an article by the Harvard University professor Richard Hunt on his students' views of Germans who chose not to act against the Nazis in the 1930's and 1940's, as well as Stanley Milgram's well-known experiment on obedience to authority.

Ultimately, Mr. Levine told the students, the crucial questions that need to be answered are the following: Where do you learn that it is all right to obey authority even when it comes to the detriment of others? When is it all right to disobey authority?

The session, Mr. Levine says later, is typical of those at Bard and gives prospective students an idea of what they will experience there.

"I believe that colleges are responsible for social values,'' he says. "I don't think we're just responsible for teaching algebra.''

Not Following the Leader

Despite the success of Bard's recruiting tool, only one college--Hood College in Frederick, Md.--has followed Bard's lead and adopted a similar program.

Four times a year, officials at the all-women's college invite potential enrollees to campus and have them sit in on classes, tour the campus, meet a financial-aid counselor, and receive an admissions decision in the same day. The program has been in operation for 12 years.

Like those from Bard, Hood officials offer similar evidence that the program works. Some 46 percent of the applicants matriculate, and the system attracts the strongest students academically, they say.

The program, known as the One Day Admissions Seminar, "does give us a boost as far as where we are and where we're going,'' says Dana Humphreys, Hood's associate director of admissions.

Frank Burtnett, the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, says that, although colleges have not gone as far as Bard and Hood, more and more have moved toward providing "specific and hard'' information about their schools.

Among the newer recruiting methods, he says, are encouraging students to sit in on classes, using alumni and professors to discuss the institution with prospective enrollees, taking recruiters on the road, and holding special post-admissions receptions for incoming students.

In addition, he notes, more than 90 percent of the association's member colleges have an 800 number to handle admissions questions, and 73 percent have developed a documentary video of their institution.

"Colleges are trying to show that they're interested in personal involvement,'' Mr. Burtnett says. "Those that do these kind of things believe that the student is influenced by the amount of personal attention he or she receives from a place.''

Still, no school has approached the level of Bard and Hood. Mr. Levine speculates that, for many schools, the approach is impossible--a logistical nightmare.

Others, though, he says, are afraid of being seen as copycats. "Colleges and universities like to think of themselves as original, innovative,'' Mr. Levine adds.

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