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Private colleges face a decline in early applicants

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Despite an upward trend in applications to Boston College in the past few years and the highest number of graduating high school students ever in 2008-2009, early action applications to BC in 2008 declined 19 percent. Last year, 6,700 students applied to BC early action, compared to 5,400 this year. Of the 5,400 students who applied, 2,400 were accepted.

Many other private colleges have seen or are concerned about a decline in applications. In a survey of 371 private institutions by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, two-thirds said they were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment, according to a Dec. 21 New York Times article.

"I think everyone is going to be even or down overall. This is what I would have expected," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at BC.

Mahoney remains optimistic about regular decision application numbers, predicting only a 5-6 percent decline in applications overall and an approximate total of 29,000 applicants. Last year, 30,850 students applied to BC.

He attributed BC's decline in early action applications primarily to the actions of three competitor schools last year, BC's restrictive early action policy, and perhaps the struggling economy.

"Early action may have been inflated a bit last year as a result of competitor schools Harvard, Princeton, and UVA eliminating early admission last year," Mahoney said.

BC's relatively new restrictive early action policy may potentially deter some prospective students from applying. The policy, also adopted by Georgetown University, states that an applicant may not apply to BC Early Action if they are applying to another school Early Decision. BC's policy is not as restrictive as the Single-Choice Early Action policy of Stanford and Yale, which asks Early Action applicants to authenticate that they are not applying to any other school early action.

The economy, though, is perhaps the most talked about factor effecting early applications to private colleges. When every dollar counts, families may think twice before spending up to $70 for each application, so some college lists are getting smaller.

"I'm hearing from guidance counselors that families are being more cautious, more conservative," Mahoney said.

Families hearing news stories about cuts and job freezes at elite private schools may also perceive that all private instititutions are in financial trouble. "It's become almost viral that there are no loans, that schools are having problems," said Gail Sweezey, director of admissions at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, which had experienced a 15 percent decline in regular applicants at the time of the New York Times article was published.

Mahoney noted that schools relying heavily on endowment often are experiencing more difficulty, while BC's financial health is relatively unaffected by the ailing stock market.

"Payout from endowment represents a very small percentage of BC's overall operating budget, which is funded mostly by tuition and fees, Mahoney said. "I'd hate to see families rule out BC, which is need blind and meets full need, just because of the sticker price."

Still, many concerned families are turning to public colleges, which offer quality education at a lower cost, as a financial fallback. Consequently, applications to public colleges across the country have increased dramatically.

In Massachusetts, early applications to UMass-Amherst are up 27 percent, Framingham and Westfield State are up 40 percent, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts are up 60 percent and applications to Massachusetts College of Art and Design are up 75 percent, according to a Dec. 23rd Boston Globe article. But the budgets of public colleges are equally tight if not tighter, meaning they still cannot exceed capacity and will need to be more selective than ever before with a large and talented applicant pool.

"A lot of Ivy League kids are applying as a backup and that complicates admissions for the average student," said Catherine Leger, the head of the guidance department at Brockton High School in Massachusetts, in the Globe article.

For BC, it is too soon to tell whether the decline in early action applications will continue into regular decision and ultimately influence applicant yield. Admissions estimates about 30 percent of its enrollment to be early action students.

"Yield is the biggest question mark in admissions," Mahoney said. "What are things going to look like in April? What will the confidence factor be among families?"

In the meantime, Undergraduate Admissions has collaborated with faculty, students and alumni to welcome admitted students to BC and make a case for commitment to the University.

Over winter break, alumni held 46 receptions for admitted students all across the country, some in living rooms, and others in hotel function rooms. Student Admission Program volunteers will call every accepted student to congratulate them and answer any questions they may have. BC will also hold an accepted students day for all admitted early action students on Jan. 25 and for students admitted to the honors program on Feb. 7.

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