Media scrutiny suggested as cause for application decline

Zac Hardwick

February 12, 2014

College consultants and students suggested that recent media attention and the cost of tuition could have caused this year’s decline in applications to the College. Dartmouth received 19,235 applications to the Class of 2018, a 14 percent decline from applications to the Class of 2017, and the second year in a row that the number has dropped. Last year, 3 percent fewer students applied to the Class of 2017 than had to the Class of 2016.

The press release announcing the decline in application numbers, posted over Winter Carnival weekend, about a month after the application deadline, pointed to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education about demographics shifts as a possible rationale for the decline. The document indicated that the U.S. is seeing the first overall decline in its number of high school graduates in more than a decade.

Dartmouth’s peer institutions, however, do not appear to have been as heavily impacted.

The University of Pennsylvania received a record 35,788 applicants, a 14 percent increase from last year. Brown University received approximately 30,320, while Yale University received 30,922 applicants. Harvard University received 34,295 applicants, a 2 percent decrease from last year, and Princeton University received a total of 26,607 applications for the Class of 2018, marking an approximately 0.4 percent increase in total applicants.

Experts and current and potential students interviewed suggested a number of factors that may have contributed to the drop in applications. Again and again this year, the College found itself engulfed in media scrutiny regarding harassment and sexual assault, which many consider a factor in the decline of applications.

Although the rising cost of tuition and rural location are factors in the declining number of applications, students said, some have pointed to recent events, media attention and the campus culture as motivating the drop.

Sadia Hassan ’13 said recent protests have made it harder for the College to maintain its public image. Students protesting an admissions event last spring received threats following their demonstrations. It is not an accident, she said, that prospective students apply to other institutions.

David Burke ’89, director of college counseling at The Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Miss., said the 2012 Rolling Stone article detailing allegations of fraternity hazing “ripped the scab off” the image of the College’s Greek system. While “Animal House” (1978) may have faded from public conception, the Rolling Stone article refocused attention on the College’s social life, he said.

One applicant to the Class of 2018, who wished to remain anonymous due to the pending status of his application, said he applied to Dartmouth after being deferred by Yale’s early decision program.

“I think the one thing that worries me is that it has a reputation of being conservative and isolated,” he said.

John Boshoven, a counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., said students do not consider Dartmouth because most families assume they cannot afford a Dartmouth education, Boshoven said.

With tuition and fees, Dartmouth is the second-most expensive college in the Ivy League behind Columbia University.

Burke identified the rural location, among other factors, as possible reasons for the decline.

“You have to be willing to go to a rural place, a cold place and you have to be able to get in,” Burke said. “The increasing competitiveness in some ways discourages the marginal applicant.”

Boshoven also said state schools in places like Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin have increased their efforts to attract top students with in-state scholarships, possibly contributing to Dartmouth’s lower application numbers.

Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm, said she noticed that many students she coaches do not have Dartmouth on their radar.

“They know Ivy League universities, but they never heard of Dartmouth,” Taylor said. “Or they never thought Dartmouth was an Ivy League school.”

Boshoven and Taylor said that even though the College downplays the effect, the number of applicants matters, as the U.S. News and World Report takes student selectivity into account when ranking academic excellence.

“It’s going to affect Dartmouth,” Taylor said. “Do I believe in those rankings? Absolutely not. But the rest of the population does believe in those rankings. Talented students believe in those rankings.”

The College has hired communications agency Brodeur Partners to conduct a survey of non-applicants and talk to alumni interviewers and high school guidance counselors to determine possible causes of the shift.