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by Vault Education Editors | May 06, 2009


At an editorial meeting a few weeks ago, Imentioned the 2009 application numbers for different colleges anduniversities. Stanford University was up 20 percent, Brown Universitywas up 21, and so on. When I announced that Middlebury College was down12 percent, a fellow editor (and Middlebury alum) shrugged hisshoulders. Though I didn't expect an outburst of "What? Middlebury isawesome!," I did expect the news to garner more than a shrug. After themeeting, another editor (a Harvard grad) articulated his ownambivalence: "Why should we care about application numbers toindividual schools, especially as they just seem to go up year afteryear? Why is that news?"

Well, to be honest, it is and it isn't. For topschools--where applications increased at normal rates this year (atPrinceton, they rose 2 percent; Harvard, 5 percent; and Yale, 8.5percent)--the numbers do just seem to go up, so yearly statisticsaren't particularly notable. Still, the fact that they are indeedrising indicates that these schools are maintaining top status. Eachyear, a top school receives thousands of applications, ranging from"strong" to "weak"--but the more applicants there are, the better thechance that more outstanding students are among them. Thus, largeapplicant pools enable schools to create a diverse and well-qualifiedclass. Also important is the fact that application statistics carryenormous weight with organizations and publications that rankschools--and regardless of any controversy that may surround suchrankings, their influence is undeniable.

The 2009 application numbers, however, aredefinitely newsworthy, because they illustrate the effect of thecurrent economic insecurity on high education. According to The New York Times,anxiety about paying for college tuition has reached an "unprecedentedhigh," and more students are choosing (theoretically) affordable stateschools, over smaller, more expensive colleges. This trend is evidencedby the decreased application numbers for small, liberal arts colleges(e.g., Middlebury's 12 percent drop), and by increased applications topublic universities. Even if their financial situation is unchanged,students and parents worry about affording the full four years of anundergraduate program. In March 2009, the NYTreported that more top high school students are expected to chooseState University of New York (SUNY) programs this year, due to SUNY'slower tuition and expenses. Though well regarded, SUNY schools are notconsidered top tier. That said, as more highly qualified studentschoose SUNY programs, the real value of SUNY degrees will go up.

On the flip side, highly ranked liberal artscolleges are struggling to populate their incoming class withtop-caliber students. Until a year ago, these schools had recordapplication numbers and top students vying for seats. This year, theyexperienced a drop in applications, and face an even larger problem:yield. Though these programs have no intention of lowering admissionstandards, they are concerned that students they accept will not, inthe end, attend. The drop in applications means that achieving theideal incoming class will be more difficult than it's been in recentmemory. If these schools want to bring their application numbers backup in 2010, they will have to make their schools appear moreaffordable.

Yes, I said "appear." Even though their relativelysmall endowments were hit hard in 2008 and early 2009, private collegesare cutting costs by halting or postponing construction, endingcontracts with adjunct professors, laying off employees and increasingtuition for non-financial aid students--but they are not cuttingfinancial assistance for students. In fact, these programs areincreasing their financial aid spending and need- and merit-basedscholarship packages. They are working hard to preserve thesocioeconomic diversity they achieved in the late 1990s and 2000s.Similarly, public universities are not immune to the recession. Statefunding and other budget cuts have forced many universities to take thesame penny-pinching steps as smaller colleges. Many schools are simplynot able to handle the 2009 application surge in applications--ArizonaState University, for example, is capping enrollment for the class of2013. So as students look for the most affordable, high-quality collegeexperience, they may be looking in the wrong place. Prospectivestudents would be wise to keep all their options open, breaking downall costs and aid options, before ruling any school out. If you thinkyour dream school is out of your price range, call the financial aidoffice and ask; they may be able to work with you to create a packagethat you'll be able to afford for all four years.


Filed Under: Education
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