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.
USC made about 700 midyear offers -- with financial aid for those who qualified -- for this school year and expects more than a third to enroll and live on campus. The university does not compile a waiting list.
Some students offered midyear entrance express disappointment that they didn't move onto campus Wednesday with most other freshmen, Brunold said. But he said USC counselors emphasize that 78% of all applicants are rejected outright and that midyear students "graduate at comparable rates and really become a part of the student body with little challenge."
Mathias, who plans to major in journalism, expects to spend the fall taking transferable general education classes, such as English and psychology, at a community college in Florida. Then she plans to jump wholeheartedly into USC campus life.
"It's kind of bittersweet," she said. "I really want to go to USC. I don't want to wait. But if this is what it takes, that's what I'll do."