Harvard Applications Soar With High School Anxiety

Janet Frankston Lorin

January 22, 2009

Bloomberg.com

Getting admitted to Harvard College or another selective university in the U.S. is likely to grow more difficult this year because of a record number of applicants, many attracted by financial aid.

More than 29,000 students applied to Harvard, a 5.6 percent increase, breaking last year’s record of 27,462, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school said yesterday. Almost 78 percent of the applicants are seeking financial aid, compared with 73 percent a year ago, school officials said.

Duke University in Durham, North Carolina; Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island; and Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, reported growth of 10 percent or more in undergraduate applications. Anxiety about winning a place in college is prompting students to apply to more schools than before, said Bev Taylor, a college counselor in New York.

“They say, ‘I’m just going to apply to one more school,” Taylor said yesterday in a telephone interview. ‘What it comes down to is, they’re so worried they won’t get in anywhere. It’s a realistic fear of many 17-year-olds, and they’re trying to improve their chances.”

The ease of submitting online applications and the willingness of more colleges to accept a common form are helping to push the increase in applicants, said Taylor, who works with about 30 students a year.

At Mamaroneck High School in New York State’s Westchester County, the number of schools to which students are applying has increased during the last five years, said Bob Sweeney, one of eight guidance counselors. Students are now applying to seven to 10 schools each, up from about five to seven, he said.

‘Hedging Bets’

“Part of the reason is kids are hedging their bets,” Sweeney said yesterday in a telephone interview. “They’re not sure.”

MIT’s applications rose 17 percent, said Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions.

“I think that there is a higher consciousness about the financial-aid opportunities at places like MIT, and so more students recognize that we are a viable option for them,” he said. “I also think that with the economy as it is, students may be applying to more places to be able to compare costs.”

Even before the latest surge in student interest, Harvard rejected 93 percent of its undergraduate applicants for the class that entered last year, the highest rate in its 372-year history.

Eyes on Aid

Princeton University’s applications rose 2.3 percent, to 21,869, the New Jersey school said today in a statement. Seventy-five percent of students seeking entry applied for financial aid, up from 70 percent a year ago, Princeton said. The scholarship budget is projected to grow 13 percent, to $104 million.

Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions for Harvard College, the undergraduate arm of Harvard University, said one reason for this year’s rise in applicants is that students want a chance to get financial-aid packages.

Harvard’s aid program requires no contribution from families with annual incomes below $60,000, and about 10 percent of income from families earning as much as $180,000.

“For many families, applying to Harvard is attractive because it represents a very good value for their money,” McGrath said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Today, that may be more important than ever.”

Stanford received 30,348 regular applications, up 20 percent from last year, said Shawn Abbott, director of admissions.

Brown, Duke

Brown attracted 24,900 applicants, 21 percent more than last year, said James Miller, the dean of admission, in a telephone interview yesterday.

Duke received 23,780 applications for this year, including 1,535 early-decision applications, said Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s dean of undergraduate admissions. Overall, the school saw a 17 percent increase from last year, the largest rise in at least five decades, he said.

Given the state of the economy and the cost of private colleges, which can run $50,000 annually, the increase is applications is surprising, Guttentag said.

“If anybody had said in August that they were going to experience of the most significant downturns in 100 years and at the same time see double-digit increases in applications, nobody would have believed it,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.

“I don’t think anybody expected a change or increase of this magnitude.”