Early Applications Unexpectedly Surge at Some Private Schools

Baffled officials expect a “roller coaster” of an admissions cycle this year.

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As early application deadlines pass, a look at the numbers has admissions officials scratching their heads and bracing for another volatile admissions cycle this academic year. At a number of schools, early decision and early action applications are up by double-digit percentages, growth that has "pleasantly surprised" officials like Northwestern University's associate provost, Michael Mills, who assumed that early commitments to pricey private colleges would be less palatable this admissions cycle. Instead, Northwestern got a 14 percent bump for early decision applications over the previous year.

"We've all been worried about the prospect of the economy hurting early applications of all stripes," Mills said. "We're really happy that we got what we got."

The early decision story is similar elsewhere. Dartmouth received its largest number of early applicants ever, a 10 percent jump over last year. Haverford College, the University of Richmond, George Washington University, and a number of other schools saw double-digit percent increases (as high as 30 percent) over last year's numbers, while some colleges even pushed back their early decision deadlines to accommodate the rush of interest, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Colleges with nonbinding early action programs also are seeing jumps. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology expects a 25 percent boost, Yale expects a 12.5 percent rise, and Stanford's restrictive early action program saw an 18 percent increase.

Theories abound as to why the numbers defy expectations. The main one is that the expectations—like an exodus to public schools and families holding out to negotiate financial aid—were wrong, or at least mostly off. "There were questions about our affordability versus public institutions," said Maria Laskaris, Dartmouth's dean of admissions. "We were all anticipating a very different outcome."

Laskaris speculates that instead of waiting, antsy applicants preferred the stability of knowing early in uncertain times. Other officials have suggested that a surge in positive press about aid packages alleviated financial worries. As an overall admissions trend in recent years, students are also sending applications to more and more schools and submitting them earlier.

But most of that is just conjecture, and the numbers at some similar schools run counter to the surprising upward trend. At Brown, for example, early decision applications decreased 4.5 percent. Admissions officials say there have been just as many private schools that have seen double-digit decreases as those that have seen increases; those colleges are just far less forthcoming with their stats. "People are either up a lot or down a lot," Mills said.

And what about that mass exodus to state schools? It sort of happened. Penn State, which has rolling admissions, has seen a 1 percent increase in applications over last year. Meanwhile, SUNY-Binghamton had a 38 percent increase in its early action applications.

The only thing schools know for sure is that this year's admissions cycle will be as unpredictable as ever. Now that it's fairly common for students to apply to 10 to 15 colleges, applicant behavior is becoming even more difficult to calculate. Last year, wait lists ballooned in anticipation of rejections from students, while unexpectedly heavy enrollments caused such a severe housing crunch at some schools that students were shipped to hotels for much of the fall semester. "It's going to a difficult year to predict," said Binghamton admissions director Cheryl Brown. "This is going to be just as much as a roller coaster as ever."