Some education experts see darker motives. Rejecting more fall students, they note, can raise colleges' rankings for selectivity even if they quietly backfill spring enrollment. The grades and SAT scores of midyear students -- often a bit lower -- usually are not included in public reports, critics say.
Peter Van Buskirk, former admissions dean at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and author of the 2007 book "Winning the College Admission Game," said the practice can be a "win-win" for schools and applicants. But he warned of potential problems if midyear students have weaker high school resumes and colleges don't adequately orient them.
"Some of the students may be at more risk academically, and they might be more at risk socially since they are entering school at a time friendships and relationships already have been established," he said.
USC began offering spring admission about a decade ago as its national reputation and selectivity started rising. "There's always a group of students every year we couldn't admit for space reasons in the fall but just couldn't turn away. They are too much of a good fit to turn away," said Timothy Brunold, USC's undergraduate admissions director.