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Students continue trend of applying to more colleges

The result is somewhat tougher competition and more uncertainty. And it has intensified the national debate about the ethics of colleges recruiting ever more applicants.

March 19, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Katie Frake, a senior at Wilson High School in Long Beach, applied to 11 colleges. I wanted to be sure I would get into someplace I like, she said.
Katie Frake, a senior at Wilson High School in Long Beach, applied to 11 colleges.… (Christina House, For The…)

Given what appears to be a tightly competitive year in college admissions, Katie Frake of Long Beach hedged her bets by applying to 11 schools.

"I figured it would be the safest thing, the best thing. So I applied to a bunch because I wanted to be sure I would get into someplace I like," said the 17- year-old Wilson High School senior, whose application list includes UCLA, Stanford, Santa Clara University and the University of Chicago.

Frake is far from alone with those concerns as she and other students hover around their mailboxes and computers this month to await admission decisions.

The number of high school seniors in the U.S. was stable or fell in 2010 in many states. But students continued a trend of applying to more schools on average, and many prestigious colleges saw applications rise 7% or more for incoming freshman classes.

The result is somewhat tougher competition and more uncertainty. And it has intensified the national debate about the ethics of colleges recruiting ever more applicants.

A recent study by the National Assn. for College Admission Counseling found that median acceptance rates had dropped 10% at private, nonprofit four-year colleges and 7% at public schools from 2001 to 2008. Many experts expect that trend to continue this year, creating more stress for students and parents, the report said.

Continuing a decade-long trend, many competitive schools reported increases in applications this admission season. For example, USC says its applications are up 3%; Stanford University, 7%; the University of Washington, 7%; Boston College, 10%; Loyola Marymount University, 12%; and the University of Pennsylvania, 18%. In its first year of using the online Common Application, which makes it easier for students to apply to multiple schools, the University of Michigan's applications jumped 20%.

More than 106,000 applied for freshman admission to at least one University of California campus, a 5.7% rise over last year.

In California, uncertainty over possible enrollment cuts in the UC and California State University systems is pushing students who might not have considered private colleges to apply to some, as well as to out-of-state public campuses, counselors say. And with high unemployment, many families are broadening their search for a good financial aid package.

"It definitely is tougher," Brandi Bakewell, a college counselor at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a public magnet school, said of the admissions situation. She encouraged her current seniors to apply to at least four Cal States, four UCs and several private campuses "just to be on the safe side," she said.

Students using the increasingly popular Common Application sought admission on average to 4.53 campuses for the coming fall term, up from 4.32 for current college freshmen. That increase may seem small but could be significant at some schools, according to Rob Killion, the Common Application's executive director. About 525,000 students used the service and 414 colleges participated this year.

In a national survey, UCLA researchers found that 17.8 % of current college freshmen had applied to eight or more colleges, up from 15.9% the previous year and 7.8% a decade ago.

Some counselors say the Common Application's ease encourages some frivolous applications, making it harder for colleges to figure out how many offers of enrollment will result in students showing up to fill classes and dorms. Critics also blame the jump in numbers on colleges' aggressive recruiting tactics, including waived fees and "no sweat" applications with much of the information filled in at some schools.

By boosting applications and turning away more, colleges try to raise their national rankings, which are partly based on selectivity, according to Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, a think tank that has criticized admissions practices. "The commercialization of college admissions has created a crisis in distorting educational values," he said.

In addition, families are increasingly focused on the small number of the most prestigious colleges, said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "The kind of students who aspire to the Ivy League or to schools like UC is increasing," he said.

(Schools such as Stanford and many Ivy League campuses accept fewer than 10% of applicants. But about 80% of four-year colleges accept more than half of their applicants, and counselors urge students to consider the less selective campuses, saying a good education can also be found there.)

At Boston College, undergraduate admissions director John Mahoney said his school did not use any of the criticized recruiting techniques, such as sending applicants forms that are all but completed. Instead, he said his numbers were up because of the Common Application and because the college had tried to attract a wider geographic pool, including from overseas.

But he and other experts said they didn't see the upward trend ending soon. "We are in this vicious circle. The process is fueling itself," Mahoney said.

Fears about UC and Cal State cutbacks may be pushing more California applicants to turn to private institutions such as Loyola Marymount, suggested Matthew Fissinger, the Westchester university's undergraduate admissions director. Still, he said, he wishes colleges could persuade high school seniors "to calm down and realize they don't have to apply to 15 colleges."

As the decision time nears, Long Beach student Frake says she has been accepted by UCLA, the University of San Francisco and the University of Rochester; was put on the waiting list at Washington University in St. Louis; and is awaiting word from seven others. Despite all the essays she had to write, she has no regrets.

"I'm an indecisive person," she said, "and I need a lot of choices."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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