Surge of Applicants Seeks Admission toTop-Tier Universities

Applications to selective colleges and universities are reaching new heights this year, promising another season of high rejection rates and dashed hopes for many more students.

Harvard said Wednesday, Jan. 16 that it had received a record number of applicants — 27,278 — for its next freshman class, a 19 percent increase over last year. Other campuses reporting double-digit increases included the University of Chicago (18 percent), Amherst College (17 percent), Northwestern University (14 percent), and Dartmouth (10 percent).

Officials said the trend was a result of demographics, aggressive recruiting, the ease of online applications, and more students applying to ever more colleges as a safety net. The swelling population of 18-year-olds is not supposed to peak until 2009, when the largest group of high school seniors in the nation’s history, 3.2 million, are to graduate. The rise in applications at three universities — Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia — came about as they ended early admissions policies, which had allowed students to receive decisions by mid-December, months ahead of others. The universities said early admissions benefited more affluent and sophisticated students and required students to commit without being able to compare financial aid offerings from various colleges.

The application figures suggested that the end of early admissions did not hurt. Princeton received a record 20,118 applicants, up 6 percent. The University of Virginia received 18,776 applications, a 4 percent increase. Like other campuses, Virginia said its final count was likely to increase slightly, because applications were still trickling in.

Scott White, the director of guidance at Montclair High School in New Jersey, said the school’s college counselors found students tenser than ever.

“There is a pure level of panic and frenzy like they’ve never seen before,” Mr. White said last Wednesday. “There are some people who say that with some schools having ended early admissions, the frenzy must be subsiding. I don’t think that’s so.”

Even at colleges, there was surprise over the surges, in part because they followed strong gains in previous years.

“These are amazing numbers,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, speaking of his university’s flood of applications.

He said Harvard’s announcement in December that it was sharply increasing financial aid even for families earning up to $180,000 probably spurred applications, but, he said, the rise was visible even before that.

He said that the elimination of early admissions encouraged more interest, too, and that joint information sessions by Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia drew “astonishing crowds.”

The reasons for the swelling numbers — not all colleges have reported yet — go beyond the growth in the college age population and the preoccupation with name-brand schools. Recruiting by elite colleges among low- and middle-income students and in new regions are bringing in more applications.

California, for example, has become a bigger source of applicants for Cornell since the upstate New York university created a West Coast regional office in Los Angeles several years ago.

“Ten years ago, California was not among our top eight feeder states,” said Doris Davis, an associate provost at Cornell. “Now it is among our top five.” Cornell applications rose 8 percent.

At the University of Chicago, international applicants grew 23 percent, to 1,826, and early admissions applicants rose 46 percent, to 4,430, Theodore A. O’Neill, dean of admissions, said.

Janet Rapelye, dean of admission at Princeton, attributed some growth to outreach “to more students from many backgrounds, including lower socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Some of the application increases undoubtedly come, too, from students applying to ever more colleges, in hopes of increasing their chances.

“There was a time when kids applied to three or four schools, then to six or seven schools, and now, 10 or more is not uncommon,” said John Maguire, a higher education consultant.

Mary Beth Fry, director of college counseling at the Savannah Country Day School, a private school in Savannah, Ga., said she had held the average number of college applications at her school to five last year, but expected the number to climb this year because students were so nervous.

Michael E. Mills, associate provost at Northwestern University in Illinois, said the 14 percent growth this year had sent the number of applications to more than 25,000. To help it winnow the field, he said, it hired a new admissions dean, Christopher Watson, from Princeton, who was accustomed to rejecting many good applicants.

“We anticipated having to go down the path of having to make more difficult choices,” Mr. Mills said, adding that Mr. Watson helped with “making very fine distinctions among very similar applicants.”