Decrease in High School Graduates Will Increase College Admission Rates

High school seniors nationwide are anxiously awaiting the verdicts from the colleges of their choice later this month. But though it may not be of much solace to them, in just a few years the admissions frenzy is likely to ease. It’s simply a matter of demographics.

Projections show that by next year or the year after, the annual number of high school graduates in the United States will peak at about 2.9 million after a 15-year climb. The number is then expected to decline until about 2015. Most universities expect this to translate into fewer applications and less selectivity, with most students probably finding it easier to get into college.

“For the high school graduate, this becomes a buyers’ market,” said Daniel M. Fogel, president of the University of Vermont.

That won’t help Charlie Cotton, a senior at Madison High School in New Jersey. He has the grades and scores to aim for the nation’s elite universities, yet in the hyper-competitive world of college admissions, his chances of winning a spot at his top picks — like Middlebury, Dartmouth and Oberlin — are highly uncertain. When his sister, Emma, who is in eighth grade, applies to college, she is expected to face a less frantic landscape with fewer rivals.

The demographic changes include sharp geographic, social and economic variations. Experts anticipate, for example, a decline in affluent high school graduates, and an increase in poor and working-class ones. In response, colleges and universities are already increasing their recruitment of students in high-growth states and expanding their financial-aid offerings to low-income students with academic potential.

Still, some admissions deans and independent consultants say the struggle to win entry to the most prestigious universities is likely to continue.

“The ones that have the strongest brand identification are still going to be awash in applications, but 99 percent of us are going to see declines,” said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College.

But other admissions officials have a different view. Lee A. Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, thinks top students might well find less competition. “We could see something resembling the admissions environment of the early 1990s, in which the most talented students might have an easier time,” he said.

While many admissions deans expect to look nostalgically on what has become, for them at least, a golden era in college admissions, some say that a letup in the admissions craze might not be so bad.

“I actually think it’s kind of good,” said Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College. “We need a shakeup. I think the anxiety families are feeling right now is not the way we planned it.”

The extent to which admissions become less selective may depend, many admissions deans say, on whether they can successfully alter their recruiting — by reaching out to a broader range of students, with a more national and even international approach.

“I think that those institutions that decide to run the model as it’s been so successfully run over the last decade and a half will see their admission rates go up,” said Kurt M. Thiede, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell.

Nationally, the population decline is projected to be relatively gentle, with the number of high school graduates expected to fall in the Northeast and Midwest, while continuing to increase in the South and Southwest.

The number of white high school graduates will go down nationally, and the number of African-American graduates will remain relatively steady. But the number of Hispanic and Asian-American graduates will increase sharply, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, whose demographic estimates are highly regarded by admissions officials.

And so admissions officials are scrambling to attract Hispanic and low-income students, who have been underrepresented at the most prestigious private and public universities. Colleges in the Northeast and Midwest have particularly intensified their efforts to strengthen alumni networks and make themselves better known at high schools in fast-growing states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Colorado. Cornell sent an admissions officer to live full-time in Los Angeles.

“It’s kind of a demographic perfect storm in some ways,” said Robert S. Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury College. “Because where the increases are going to come are in states where the college-going rate is lower and where those who do go to college primarily stay in the state.”

Colby College and a number of others in the North have also begun to offer airplane tickets for low-income high school students and their parents from Sun Belt states to visit their campuses. Last summer, Middlebury and Williams flew in 27 college counselors from states where the colleges are not well known.

“It was nice for me to see the campuses and say to our kids, This is what they are like,” said Sharmon Goodman, director of college counseling at One Voice, a nonprofit group in the Los Angeles area that identifies and prepares low-income students with the academic potential for elite colleges.

Many colleges anticipate having to dig deeper to attract more low-income students. This is among the prime reasons why many of the most selective institutions have been in a race to significantly expand their financial aid to poor and working-class students.

When Harvard recently increased financial aid packages, it wanted “to send a really clear message out there to people who would not ordinarily apply to college, much less apply to a school like this,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College.

“Our theory is if we’re really going to succeed, and not just Harvard, at increasing the college-going rates of people in the bottom quarter and bottom half of the economic ladder, then you’re going to have to be really aggressive in your outreach,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said.

The new recruiting strategies take many forms. Bucknell, Cornell, Amherst and the University of Michigan are among eight colleges and universities to receive grants from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to create partnerships with community colleges; the goal is for some of the most promising graduates of two-year schools to transfer to the elite universities for their last two years of college.

Concern about the coming demographic shifts is also partly behind a surge in recruiting international students. At Colby College, for example, more than 20 percent of the 4,800 applicants this year were from outside the United States.

Back in New Jersey, Mr. Cotton, 17, checks the mailbox every day to see which colleges will offer him admission. “There’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “Even if you’re qualified, you’re not always going to get a chance to get into these schools, which is the scary part.”

Mr. Cotton, who has applied to 10 colleges, said he was pleased to learn that the competitive frenzy is expected to calm down. “It’s good for my sister,” he said. “Definitely I’m a little jealous.”