Join Date: Aug 2005
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April 26, 2006
At Decision Time, Colleges Lay On Charm
By ALAN FINDER
SWARTHMORE, Pa., April 21 — Let others offer simple campus tours or paid transportation.
At Swarthmore College here, high school seniors deciding whether to accept the college's offer of admission can play indoor soccer with the dean. Or a round of stairball, a sport invented on campus. They can go to a French film festival, a feminist dance party ("all genders welcome") or an "Earthlust Sleepout" all night under the stars. Or else try henna tattooing. And, yes, there are also sessions on financial aid and meetings with faculty members.
It is all designed for people like Andy Brody, who is on a frantic grand tour of some of the colleges that admitted him. In a single week, Mr. Brody, a high school senior from Newton, Mass., visited Amherst College, Brown University and Swarthmore, to be followed by a weekend at Harvard.
"I just have no idea how I'm going to decide," he said Friday morning, as he and two young women were debating on Swarthmore's broad main lawn the relative merits of the many elite colleges to which each had been accepted.
For a few weeks in April, the ordinary dynamics of college admissions are stood on their head. High school seniors who spent a year or more trying to attract the attention of college admissions officers — and who by early April have been offered admission to a fi****l of prestigious institutions — suddenly find themselves being recruited aggressively. The pursuers become the pursued.
Admissions deans say the competition has become more intense because many of the most competitive students are applying to more universities than ever before — and thus are admitted to more of them. Mr. Brody, for example, applied to seven colleges, was accepted by six and has narrowed his list to four.
Another senior visiting here, Benjamin Cohen of Valley Stream, N.Y., applied to 18 colleges and was admitted to 14, including Williams, Dartmouth, Columbia, Amherst and, of course, Swarthmore.
"The tables really are turned," Jim Bock, Swarthmore's dean of admissions and financial aid, said of the race to persuade admitted students to commit before the nationally accepted deadline of May 1.
Admissions officers have developed their own language, calling admitted students "specs" or "prospies," for prospective students. And while colleges have elaborate mathematical models, based on past experience, to tell them how many seniors they need to admit to assemble the size of the incoming class they desire, this year many admissions deans are concerned that the surge in applications by the most competitive seniors may throw off their projections.
Not long ago, an academically talented student might apply to six or eight colleges; these days, many apply to a dozen or more. The surge in applications "has wreaked havoc with our ability to predict what our yield is going to be," said Robert G. Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury College.
"That's why we're all scrambling this month to try to keep our yields where they have been," Mr. Clagett added.
Even under ordinary circumstances, many elite universities must admit two to three times the number of students they expect to enroll as freshman in the fall, because so many decline offers of admission. Colgate, for example, sent acceptance letters to 2,200 students (out of 7,800 applicants) to yield a freshman class of 740. Swarthmore accepted 897 students (of 4,850 applicants) and expects 372 to enroll.
"It puts greater pressure on us to try to attract the students, because they do have more options these days," said Eric J. Kaplan, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lehigh University.
The discomfort is widespread among admissions officials.
"My livelihood depends on the decision-making process that goes on in the mind of a 17- or 18-year-old," said Gary L. Ross, dean of admission at Colgate. "April's an exhausting month, but it's often a very rewarding one."
Many universities woo seniors with personal e-mail messages from undergraduates and alumni, phone calls and e-mail from professors, even postcards from potential future teammates. Brown reserves three or four cars on an Amtrak train to take students from Washington, Baltimore and other cities to visit Brown in Providence, R.I.
Denison University in Granville, Ohio, starts up what it calls "Air Denison" in April, paying up to half the airfare for any admitted student from outside Ohio who wants to visit the campus. Many universities pay airfare for low-income students who cannot afford to visit on their own.
Colgate and many others hold a dozen or more receptions in cities around the country, featuring alumni, admissions officers and at least one current undergraduate, for accepted students who cannot go to the campus.
When a student opens the fat acceptance letter from Reed College in Portland, Ore., confetti comes flying out. Reed also sends out acceptance notices to applicants by e-mail, with a flash attachment that announces their admission in seven languages with video, music and sound effects, including fireworks. Oberlin College sends admitted students a T-shirt, folded compactly to nearly the size of a postcard.
Middlebury and countless others send out "likely letters," personal notes that are sent a week or two before official letters of acceptance arrive. These are meant to let an applicant know how much the college admires him or her and to suggest that good news will soon be arriving in the mail.
The message behind the likely letters is neither subtle nor complex, said Mr. Clagett of Middlebury. "The one who kisses you first is the one who loves you the most," he said.
Adding to the uncertainty for admissions officials is financial aid. Students who need scholarships and loans to attend private universities that cost $40,000 to $45,000 a year may have no choice but to select the college that offers the most aid.
Even students who do not qualify for need-based aid may be swayed by offers of merit scholarships, which are often employed by universities ranked just below the most elite to lure promising students. The most prestigious institutions generally grant aid only based on students' financial need.
At Swarthmore, despite its reputation for serious academics and a heavy workload, the two days for admitted students emphasized socializing and light-hearted fun.
"Ride the Tide," the event-laden program at which 300 prospective students tried to decide whether to commit to the college (whose teams are known as the Garnet Tide), even included some self-mockery. Among its top 10 reasons for attending Swarthmore is "you've been an insomniac since childhood and sleep is no longer important to you."
Seniors swapped tales of offers of financial aid and agonized over how to choose between Swarthmore and Amherst or Swarthmore and Cornell.
Julia Wrobel of Lawrence, N.J., decided late Thursday to enroll at Swarthmore. Early the next morning, she and Angelica Saada of Middletown, N.J., who said she was leaning toward Swarthmore, were trying to persuade Mr. Brody to join them next fall.
"This place has the right feel for me," Ms. Wrobel said. "The people seemed really down to earth and open-minded."
Mr. Brody was not yet convinced. Amherst did not move him, and he said he was put off by the drinking at Brown. A weekend at Harvard might prove enticing, but there was already a hint of a decision.
"On the van ride here," he said, "I kind of had the feeling that I was coming home."